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Threat, Vulnerability, and Risk: Key Differences

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Risk vs threat vs vulnerability — aren’t they the same thing? The truth is that today, most people toss all those concepts into the same bag and think they more or less mean the same. That as a whole they are synonyms, not singular concepts with their set of rules and definitions.

It’s important to differentiate between threat, vulnerability, and risk. To have a strong handle on data security issues, linked to these concepts, that may potentially impact your business.

Why are the terms “threat”, “risk” and “vulnerability“ mixed up?

The terms threat, risk, and vulnerability are often mixed up. Why? Mainly because of folks who have zero grasp of the notions. For some time now different “industry leaders” have been grouping all those concepts under one umbrella definition — “something that may hurt a business.”

The three concepts have a dynamic relation but they aren’t the same. They simply drive and, in many cases, pressure one another.

For example, a company may be at RISK of a cyberattack due to an unprotected computer — a vulnerability. Risk is the likelihood that something bad will happen as a result of a vulnerability or weakness in your system or organization.

Another example is that due to a vulnerability within your system, your infrastructure may experience a threat in the future. Let’s say something within your code is secure – in the present – but, due to how the industry is progressing, your team predicts that it will flip and become a vulnerability. In other words, a threat is pressuring you to make changes, changes that won’t reap any rewards right now, but might be essential come tomorrow or next year.

​​ Why is it important to differentiate them?

For multiple reasons, you must understand the difference between risk, a threat, and vulnerability.

  • Your budget will depend on it. If you cauterize a vulnerability, during testing or through shift-left protocols, you safeguard your product/software from present risks. This gives you the ability to implement gradual changes, and manage your investment, to face threats – which by definition occur in the future. You can seek out different estimates, take your time to assess strategies, and manage your capital better. If, on the other hand, you have a vulnerability that presently exposes you to risk, all that is out of your control — you won’t have any advantage.
  • In order to properly assess issues and challenges, it’s important to understand what problems are of your making – vulnerabilities – and what challenges are a direct result of external forces.

The difference between a threat, risk, and vulnerability.

What is a Threat?

A threat is a potential danger to something or someone in the future. In your case, your product. It is different from a hazard, which is a situation that has the potential to cause damage. Threats are often divided into two categories: natural and man-made. Natural threats include things like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Man-made threats include terrorism and cyberattacks — these can be intentional or unintentional, for example, human error, like leaving a computer logged into a safe database.

Threats, in many cases, are predictable since today’s threats tend to forecast what will happen tomorrow.

What is a Risk?

A risk is the chance of something happening. It is calculated on a scale of low to high, with low being most likely and high being least likely. There are many types of risk, such as financial risk, health risk, environmental risk, etc. Risk can be assessed by looking at the probability of something taking place and its consequences. Risk can also be measured in terms of uncertainty.

Risks have the potential of occurring, right now, and in many cases, businesses have no other choice but to take them on — to take on risk. Risk assessment is the process by which most organizations identify risk, analyze the outcome and consequence of taking on risk, and determine if it’s worth the gamble if they should invest in the development of a project or not.

Risk assessment takes into account not only the physical aspects of creating a product, such as a material site but how business surrounding the product and how it is developed may create additional threats and vulnerabilities.

Knowing what your risks are can:

  • Helps ID which parts of your security are weak and what threats might wreak havoc on your organization.
  • Gives you the ability to address vulnerabilities during the design phase of your project.
  • Gives you a clear vision of how your infrastructure will act, or if it will struggle, against a certain threat.

What is vulnerability?

The concept of vulnerability is a difficult one to define. In the simplest terms, it can be defined as a weakness that is inherent to your product — but one which can be patched up. It is important to note that vulnerability does not always have to be negative. Vulnerability can be seen as an opportunity for growth or as a strength in some cases.

A vulnerability is something that in many cases your team has already identified — more so, it’s probably something they have factored in as far as security measures are concerned. Some vulnerabilities are avoidable, others are not.

For example, a gap in your server security is a vulnerability that can be fixed by your IT department. How your employees interact, how their conscious efforts at security – like password protection for example – is a vulnerability you can try to mitigate but can’t completely solve.

Vulnerability assessment is the systematic and continuous review of weakness in your system — this includes all your department, products, and software.

They take into account:

  • Current employee behavior.
  • Former employees — for example, those that left the company under litigious circumstances or those that are now working with competitors.
  • Technology infrastructure.
  • Partners and suppliers.
  • Security systems.
  • Consumer dynamics.
  • Product usability.

Understanding the difference between risk, vulnerability, and threat

It’s crucial to understand the relationship between threat, vulnerability, and risk. This will enable you to create effective policies and protocols to keep your organization and your products safe from all sorts of attacks.

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