Difference Between Agent-Based and Network-Based Internal Vulnerability Scanning

Difference Between Agent-Based and Network-Based Internal Vulnerability Scanning

For years, the two most popular methods for internal scanning: agent-based and network-based were considered to be about equal in value, each bringing its own strengths to bear. However, with remote working now the norm in most if not all workplaces, it feels a lot more like agent-based scanning is a must, while network-based scanning is an optional extra.

This article will go in-depth on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, but let’s wind it back a second for those who aren’t sure why they should even do internal scanning in the first place.

Why should you perform internal vulnerability scanning?

While external vulnerability scanning can give a great overview of what you look like to a hacker, the information that can be gleaned without access to your systems can be limited. Some serious vulnerabilities can be discovered at this stage, so it’s a must for many organizations, but that’s not where hackers stop.

Techniques like phishing, targeted malware, and watering-hole attacks all contribute to the risk that even if your externally facing systems are secure, you may still be compromised by a cyber-criminal. Furthermore, an externally facing system that looks secure from a black-box perspective may have severe vulnerabilities that would be revealed by a deeper inspection of the system and software being run.

This is the gap that internal vulnerability scanning fills. Protecting the inside like you protect the outside provides a second layer of defence, making your organization significantly more resilient to a breach. For this reason, it’s also seen as a must for many organizations.

If you’re reading this article, though, you are probably already aware of the value internal scanning can bring but you’re not sure which type is right for your business. This guide will help you in your search.

The different types of internal scanner

Generally, when it comes to identifying and fixing vulnerabilities on your internal network, there are two competing (but not mutually exclusive) approaches: network-based internal vulnerability scanning and agent-based internal vulnerability scanning. Let’s go through each one.

Network-based scanning explained

Network-based internal vulnerability scanning is the more traditional approach, running internal network scans on a box known as a scanning ‘appliance’ that sits on your infrastructure (or, more recently, on a Virtual Machine in your internal cloud).

Agent-based scanning explained

Agent-based internal vulnerability scanning is considered the more modern approach, running ‘agents’ on your devices that report back to a central server.

While “authenticated scanning” allows network-based scans to gather similar levels of information to an agent-based scan, there are still benefits and drawbacks to each approach.

Implementing this badly can cause headaches for years to come. So for organizations looking to implement internal vulnerability scans for the first time, here’s some helpful insight.

Which internal scanner is better for your business?

Coverage

It almost goes without saying, but agents can’t be installed on everything.

Devices like printers; routers and switches; and any other specialized hardware you may have on your network, such as HP Integrated Lights-Out, which is common to many large organizations who manage their own servers, may not have an operating system that’s supported by an agent. However, they will have an IP address, which means you can scan them via a network-based scanner.

This is a double-edged sword in disguise, though. Yes, you are scanning everything, which immediately sounds better. But how much value do those extra results to your breach prevention efforts bring? Those printers and HP iLO devices may infrequently have vulnerabilities, and only some of these may be serious. They may assist an attacker who is already inside your network, but will they help one break into your network to begin with? Probably not.

Meanwhile, will the noise that gets added to your results in the way of additional SSL cipher warnings, self-signed certificates, and the extra management overheads of including them to the whole process be worthwhile?

Clearly, the desirable answer over time is yes, you would want to scan these assets; defence in depth is a core concept in cyber security. But security is equally never about the perfect scenario. Some organizations don’t have the same resources that others do, and have to make effective decisions based on their team size and budgets available. Trying to go from scanning nothing to scanning everything could easily overwhelm a security team trying to implement internal scanning for the first time, not to mention the engineering departments responsible for the remediation effort.

Overall, it makes sense to consider the benefits of scanning everything vs. the workload it might entail deciding whether it’s right for your organization or, more importantly, right for your organization at this point in time.

Looking at it from a different angle, yes, network-based scans can scan everything on your network, but what about what’s not on your network?

Some company laptops get handed out and then rarely make it back into the office, especially in organizations with heavy field sales or consultancy operations. Or what about companies for whom remote working is the norm rather than the exception? Network-based scans won’t see it if it’s not on the network, but with agent-based vulnerability scanning, you can include assets in monitoring even when they are offsite.

So if you’re not using agent-based scanning, you might well be gifting the attacker the one weak link they need to get inside your corporate network: an un-patched laptop that might browse a malicious website or open a malicious attachment. Certainly more useful to an attacker than a printer running a service with a weak SSL cipher.

The winner: Agent-based scanning, because it will allow you broader coverage and include assets not on your network – key while the world adjusts to a hybrid of office and remote working.

If you’re looking for an agent-based scanner to try, Intruder uses an industry-leading scanning engine that’s used by banks and governments all over the world. With over 67,000 local checks available for historic vulnerabilities, and new ones being added on a regular basis, you can be confident of its coverage. You can try Intruder’s internal vulnerability scanning for free by visiting their website.

Attribution

On fixed-IP networks such as an internal server or external-facing environments, identifying where to apply fixes for vulnerabilities on a particular IP address is relatively straightforward.

In environments where IP addresses are assigned dynamically, though (usually, end-user environments are configured like this to support laptops, desktops, and other devices), this can become a problem. This also leads to inconsistencies between monthly reports and makes it difficult to track metrics in the remediation process.

Reporting is a key component of most vulnerability management programs, and senior stakeholders will want you to demonstrate that vulnerabilities are being managed effectively.

Read more: https://bit.ly/3HxFRvN

You can also read this: High-Severity RCE Vulnerability Reported in Popular Fastjson Library

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