What’s a vulnerability?

Often, it’s the terms which seem familiar that are most confusing

I was discussing a document with some colleagues recently, and wanted to point them an article I’d written with some definitions of terms like “vulnerability”, “exploit” and “attack”, only to get somewhat annoyed when I discovered that I’d never written it. So this week’s post attempts to remedy that, though I’m going to address them in reverse order, and I’m going to add an extra one: “mitigation”.

The world of IT security is full of lots of terms, some familiar, some less so. Often, it’s the terms which seem familiar that are most confusing, because they may mean something other that what you think. The three that I think it’s important to define here are the ones I noted above (and mitigation, because it’s often used in the same contexts). Before we do that, let’s just define quickly what we’re talking about when we mean security.

CIA

We often talk about three characteristics of a system that we want to protect or maintain in order to safeguard its security: C, I and A.

  • “C” stands for confidentiality. Unauthorised entities should not be able to access information or processes.
  • “I” stands for integrity. Unauthorised entities should not be able to change information or processes.
  • “A” stands for availability. Unauthorised entities should not be able to impact the ability for authorised entities to access information or processes.

I’ve gone into more detail in my article The Other CIA: Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability, but that should keep us going for now. I should also say that there are various other definitions around relevant characteristics that we might want to protect, but CIA gives us a good start.

Mitigation

A mitigation[3] in this context is a technique to reduce the impact of an attack on whichever of C, I or A is (or are) affected.

Attack

An attack[1] is an action or set of actions which affects the C, the I or the A of a system. It’s the breaking of the protections applied to safeguard confidentiality, integrity or availability. An attack is possible through the use of an exploit.

Exploit

An exploit is a mechanism to affect the C, the I or the A of a system, allowing an attack. It is a technique, or set of techniques, employed in an an attack, and is possible through the exploiting[2] of a vulnerability.

Vulnerability

A vulnerability is a flaw in a system which allows the breaking of protections applied to the C, the I or the A of a system. It allows attacks, which take place via exploits.

One thing that we should note is that a vulnerability is not necessarily a flaw in software: it may be in hardware or firmware, or be exposed as an emergent characteristic of a system, in which case it’s a design problem. Equally, it may expose a protocol design issue, so even if the software (+ hardware, etc.) is a correct implementation of the protocol, a security vulnerability exists. This is, in fact, very common, particularly where cryptography is involved, but cryptography is hard to do.


1 – a successful one, anyway.

2 – hence the name.

3 – I’ve written more about mitigation in Mitigate or remediate?.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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