Security-Focused Patching Best Practices

As cyber threats become more sophisticated and prevalent, organizations of all sizes face an ever-increasing risk of becoming victims. That isn’t hyperbole. Check Point Research found that cyberattacks increased by 38% in 2022, compared to 2021, and weekly attacks increased by 7% in the first quarter of 2023 compared to the same quarter in 2022.

While businesses must utilize a variety of strategies to prevent attacks, such as requiring multi-factor authentication (MFA) and implementing a security awareness program, patching security vulnerabilities is a fundamental and essential practice for protecting against cyber threats. To understand the risks of poor patch management and failing to follow best practice guidelines when applying patches, we only have to look back to 2020.

The Solarwinds Update: A Surprise Attack Vector

In the now infamous SolarWinds supply chain attack, hackers targeted SolarWinds’ Orion Platform, a popular network management tool used by numerous organizations. Threat actors introduced malicious code into a legitimate software update by compromising the company’s software development process. As the patch was deployed by thousands of SolarWinds customers, including government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and other organizations, hackers gained access to all of their networks. Had a robust and well-executed patch management process been in place, the attack’s impact could have been mitigated, if not entirely prevented.

The attack was a harsh lesson, but it reminded many companies of the importance of having a proactive patch management program and that any security patch, even those from the most reputable vendors, needs to be rigorously tested before being applied.

Patching Best Practices

An effective patch management program needs to balance preparation and processes with speed and agility. It should serve as a guide for identifying vulnerabilities and outline the patching process teams should follow based on their risk level. Let’s look at some of the best practices every company should follow.

Documentation and Organization

Documentation plays a crucial role in establishing a well-organized patch management process. It ensures consistency, transparency, and accountability and is a priceless resource for future reference, audits, and knowledge sharing. However, documentation is only as valuable as the information it contains.

Inventory all technology: For patch management to be effective and to identify all potential vulnerabilities, organizations must maintain a comprehensive and up-to-date list of all systems, applications, devices, and dependencies. More tools and solutions introduce more risks, so inventorying everything is essential. With a holistic view, teams can accurately understand which software is susceptible to specific vulnerabilities and prioritize patching efforts efficiently.

Record all details: When documenting the patching process, make sure to identify the software version or system being patched, the affected modules, the source of the patch, the patch version, and the release date. Documentation should also encompass details about the patching process, including the steps involved, any dependencies or prerequisites, and the sequence of actions required for successful implementation.

Establish accountability: While the primary purpose of documentation is to streamline and improve the patching process, it also safeguards security integrity. When patching goes undocumented, knowing who performed the patch and when is nearly impossible. This can create a security loophole, allowing malicious actors to potentially exploit the situation by secretly applying patches containing backdoors or other malicious code.

Security-driven Patch Prioritization

Not all vulnerabilities are the same. For SMBs with limited teams, managing the patching process requires a thoughtful approach to resource allocation, so patches should be applied based on their severity and potential impact on the organization’s security posture.

In terms of severity, focus on vulnerabilities classified as high or critical since those have the highest potential for exploitation by threat actors and can result in the most severe consequences, such as unauthorized access, data breaches, or system compromises. However, the potential impact of a vulnerability is equally important to consider. Patching should prioritize vulnerabilities that pose a significant risk to the organization’s core systems, critical applications, or sensitive data.

Follow these three rules:

  1. Prioritize critical or high vulnerabilities over medium and low ones.
  2. Prioritize a vulnerability that could allow an attacker to take control of a system over one that could only be used to steal data.
  3. Prioritize a vulnerability that affects a large number of systems over those that impact fewer systems.

Test Patches Thoroughly

While the urgency to address vulnerabilities is high, exercising caution and thoroughly testing patches before deploying them into the production environment is essential. It will ensure patches don’t introduce new vulnerabilities, conflict with existing software, or disrupt other systems’ functionality.

Follow a structured testing approach:

  • Test patches in isolated environments that mirror the production environment as closely as possible to minimize potential negative impacts on live systems.
  • Patching should involve thorough regression testing to verify that existing functionality remains and doesn’t break previously working features.
  • Compatibility testing will help identify conflicts or compatibility issues with specific hardware, OS, and software configurations.
  • Conduct security testing to validate that the patch addresses the vulnerability without introducing new security risks.

Stay Informed

When it comes to security threats, access to quick, accurate information is paramount. Businesses should subscribe to trustworthy threat feeds to receive real-time updates on the latest vulnerabilities, exploits, and emerging threats and stay informed about new patches and the urgency of their deployment.

Additionally, companies should work with a SOC. A SOC equipped with advanced threat intelligence capabilities will continuously monitor the threat landscape, analyze indicators of compromise (IOCs), and provide critical information on vulnerabilities and associated patches. CYREBRO’s SOC’s constant stream of threat intelligence allows organizations to stay ahead of potential threats, anticipate emerging attack vectors, and prioritize patch applications based on real-time risk assessments.

Embrace Security Patching for a Path to Success

Unpatched systems are one of the most common entry points for threat actors but one that’s easy to mitigate. The SolarWinds breach was a stark reminder of the importance of robust patch management and that no organization, regardless of size or reputation, is impervious to determined threat actors.

While the attack vector used exploited the trust placed in updates and patches, it’s crucial to recognize that focusing on security patching remains an undeniable path to success by addressing vulnerabilities, reducing attack surfaces, and strengthening defenses.

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