In the context of cloud security, it's easy to treat the terms "vulnerability," "threat," and "risk" as more or less interchangeable. After all, all of these words signal a problem that cybersecurity teams need to respond to.
But in reality, there are important differences between the meaning of vulnerabilities, threats and risks. Each cybersecurity problem may require a different type of response, and the potential harm caused by each issue may also vary.
So, let's break down the differences between cloud security vulnerabilities, threats, and risks, and examine how cybersecurity teams should handle each.
What Is a Vulnerability in Cybersecurity?
A cybersecurity vulnerability is an issue that exposes IT resources to potential attack. In many cases, vulnerabilities result from configuration errors or lack of investment in security hardening processes when deploying resources.
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A classic example of a cloud security vulnerability is an object storage bucket that is configured to grant access to anonymous users from the internet. This is a vulnerability if the data inside the bucket is sensitive and should not be accessible to the world at large.
What Is a Cybersecurity Threat?
A cybersecurity threat is an entity that can exploit a vulnerability.
The most obvious example of a threat is a cyber-attacker who is actively searching for vulnerabilities to exploit in order to access sensitive data or disrupt a business's operations.
However, threats don't necessarily take the form of malicious parties. A well-meaning user could also be a threat if the user accidentally creates conditions that place IT resources at risk. For instance, if an employee uploads sensitive data to a cloud object storage bucket that is accessible to anyone, the employee inadvertently exploits the vulnerability in the bucket's configuration to create a threat.
What Is a Risk in Cloud Security?
Risks happen when vulnerabilities and threats collide.
In other words, a risk is the possibility that a threat could exploit a vulnerability in order to cause harm.
For instance, if the employee in the example above actually uploads sensitive data to the insecure object storage bucket, the employee creates a risk. But until sensitive data reaches the bucket, there is no risk; there's just a vulnerability and a threat.
Vulnerabilities vs. Threats vs. Risks
So, the main difference between vulnerabilities, threats, and risks is that vulnerabilities and threats happen naturally, but risks only occur when a threat can potentially exploit a vulnerability.
This is why, for example, a business that only uses Linux servers doesn't need to worry about vulnerabilities in Windows Server. Those vulnerabilities are a real issue, and there are certainly threat actors who would like to exploit them. But there is no risk to the business if there is no vulnerability that can be exploited due to the absence of Windows servers.
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It's less rare to have a vulnerability without a threat, but it can happen. An example is an internet of things (IoT) device that runs a non-standard OS that contains security vulnerabilities. If the OS is obscure enough, there may not be any threat actors who are seeking to attack it. In that case, you'd have vulnerabilities but no risk because there is no threat seeking to exploit the vulnerabilities.
It would still be good, of course, to mitigate the vulnerabilities, since there is a chance that threats that target them could emerge in the future. But you'd probably want to prioritize other security issues instead.
Why the Differences Matter for Cloud Security
Recognizing the differences between vulnerabilities, threats, and risks is important not just for ensuring that you don't mix up terms, but also because cybersecurity teams have limited resources. They can't respond to every vulnerability and threat. Instead, they should focus on detecting and responding to actual risks.
In a perfect world, of course, security teams would have the resources necessary to mitigate every vulnerability and threat of which they're aware. But that's just not feasible in modern contexts where you might have thousands of vulnerabilities spread across your cloud, as well as constantly evolving threats that seek to exploit those vulnerabilities.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.