Blog  |  Sept. 16, 2021

Enhancing Cybersecurity Compliance with Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

What Is Cybersecurity Compliance?

Cybersecurity compliance is a key component of your institution’s cybersecurity posture. Regulators are placing more emphasis on cybersecurity compliance, expecting institutions to maintain a secure IT infrastructure, actively mitigate risks and meet the complex regulatory requirements of the financial industry.

A well-managed cybersecurity compliance program can lead to relatively quick and painless exams. Perhaps more importantly, it can prevent your organization from falling victim to a breach that ends up plastering the organization’s name in negative headlines.

There are various strategies your institution can embrace to strengthen your cybersecurity compliance, including penetration testing and vulnerability scanning.

Download our white paper, A Guide to Strengthening Your Institution’s Cybersecurity Posture, for a deeper dive into cybersecurity compliance.

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning: What’s the Difference?

A key strategy for enhancing your institution’s security infrastructure and compliance posture is understanding where weaknesses or vulnerabilities exist. A vulnerability scan uses a piece of software to check for many known vulnerabilities but in a non-contextual, automated fashion. Penetration testing, by contrast, is objective-focused and seeks a path of exploitation to achieve this goal. Both types of tests have tremendous value and offer complementing ways to test security measures that are critical for financial institutions. Let’s take a look at how these two tools work in conjunction to enhance compliance.

Why Vulnerability Scanning is Important

As the famed saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link—and that holds true for your institution’s security as well. If a cybercriminal uncovers a weakness in your institution’s network or systems before you do, that could lead to trouble.

Vulnerability assessments can identify areas that need attention in both internal systems and external perimeter devices. Regular internal and external (perimeter) assessments should be conducted to keep your institution both compliant and secure. But it’s not enough to simply perform these assessments; you must review the results and remediate the findings to maintain good cyber hygiene. Each vulnerability should be assessed and verified. Then, you must prioritize all legitimate risks for remediation.

What is the Primary Purpose of Penetration Testing?

Though vulnerability tests alert you to the existence of a wide array of weaknesses within your infrastructure, penetration testing allows you to explore how identified vulnerabilities could be used to compromise your IT environment. Penetration testing, a form of ethical hacking, focuses on select vulnerabilities and leverages actual attacks and tactics used by cybercriminals in efforts to bypass your network security and gain control of your systems and data.

Internal, external and wireless penetration testing empowers your institution with a holistic picture of your cybersecurity posture while fulfilling compliance requirements. These assessments first identify vulnerabilities or other exploitable security weaknesses. If exploitation is successful, the tester uses this new-found foothold to look for further access into your network and systems. This pattern is repeated as the tester pivots throughout the network and works to escalate their privileges, ultimately attempting to gain complete administrative control.

By routinely monitoring your network for vulnerabilities and frequently penetration testing your security infrastructure against real-world tactics used by cybercriminals, your institution can continue to strengthen cybersecurity preparedness and resiliency level as well as maintain compliance with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) and numerous other regulatory requirements.

Additional Strategies for Strengthening Cybersecurity Compliance

Once your institution has developed a plan for identifying and remediating vulnerabilities, consider the following strategies to further enhance your approach to cybersecurity compliance.

Adopt a Cybersecurity Compliance Framework

If your institution is seeking to enhance the direction of your cybersecurity compliance program or working to get a grasp on the evolving world of cyber threats, a cybersecurity framework is a useful tool that provides a roadmap and guidelines for mitigating risk. Adopting an existing framework eases the burden on an institution, as it contains trusted best practices for identifying and closing security gaps and does not require in-house development.

There are no shortage of options when it comes to existing frameworks, but the CIS Controls have a proven track record for holistic security and are budget- and user-friendly. The CIS Controls are an FFIEC-recommended framework with a prioritized list of actions, providing a map for handling compliance initiatives and planning for IT spending. In fact, adopting the Basic CIS Controls decreases risk by up to 85%.

An effective cybersecurity framework is your strategic guide to determine where risks exist and identify opportunities to strengthen your control structure. Implementing a cybersecurity framework also helps your institution decide where to focus budget and resources by looking holistically at the security of your organization.

Examiners are also beginning to place greater emphasis on frameworks and expect institutions to have one in place. Don’t view a framework as just another way to satisfy exam requirements—think of your framework as a valuable tool to improve your institution’s overall cybersecurity.

Prioritize Data Backup and Recovery

When it comes to cyber threats such as ransomware, your institution’s best ability to recover is through successful, complete and secure backups. Since ransomware attacks thrive on holding data captive, attacks become less threatening if data has been duplicated and stored elsewhere.

Ensure you have provisions for segregated backups when reviewing your institution’s backup strategy and controls. Segregated backups decrease the risk of a hacker seizing an entire backup. If your institution only has online network backups and hackers gain access to the network, it effectively renders them useless. Beyond performing regular backups, maintain good access controls, test backups and ensure successful restoration.

Monitor Your Entire Perimeter…even the Cloud

As more financial institutions turn to cloud-based technology to streamline and simplify operations, it is important to remember that protections must be extended beyond a traditional perimeter and include the cloud as well. Monitoring your entire perimeter—including the cloud—is critical to maximizing the benefits of the technology and building a strong cybersecurity posture.

Further, maintaining the proper security configurations will ensure the integrity of cloud-hosted systems and data. Cloud technology offers a variety of security advantages, but when a breach does occur, it is typically the result of a bad configuration. Your institution should also ensure you are quickly implementing security patches when available to avoid vulnerabilities being exploited.

Consider partnering with a cloud services provider or managed security services provider (MSSP) that understands the cybersecurity and regulatory requirements of financial institutions to help enhance the integrity of your IT systems. This partnership allows your institution to leverage their expertise and existing controls to mitigate risks during and after a cloud migration. In addition, properly vet your cloud service provider as part of vendor due diligence efforts.

A Holistic View of Your Cybersecurity Compliance

Managing these ongoing threats can be overwhelming for many IT leaders. The challenge lies in ensuring a holistic, layered approach to cybersecurity while keeping time, resources and cost burdens under control.

As cybersecurity compliance requirements continue to evolve, you can partner with a trusted cybersecurity compliance company familiar with the complex regulatory requirements of the financial industry. These partners can help keep your institution up to date with the latest regulations while mitigating risk. An MSSP will also work with your institution to prepare for examinations and audits, further strengthening preparedness for cyber threats while meeting regulator expectations.

Interested in learning more? Download our cybersecurity white paper, A Guide to Strengthening Your Institution’s Cybersecurity Posture.

Tyler Leet serves as director of Risk and Compliance Services for CSI’s Regulatory Compliance Group. With nearly 20 years of experience in the information security, risk and compliance industries, Tyler oversees and participates in the development and maintenance of the risk and compliance-related services conducted for a wide variety of financial institutions and organizations.

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