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Definition

vulnerability

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Catch up on the Windows Server patches of 2017
Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A vulnerability, in information technology (IT), is a flaw in code or design that creates a potential point of security compromise for an endpoint or network.

Vulnerabilities create possible attack vectors, through which an intruder could run code or access a target system’s memory. The means by which vulnerabilities are exploited are varied and include code injection and buffer overruns; they may be conducted through hacking scripts, applications and free hand coding.

Vulnerabilities are constantly being researched and detected by the security industry, software companies, cybercriminals and other individuals. Some companies offer bug bounties for these discoveries. Nevertheless, when vulnerability disclosure is considered, the question of how much information to provide and when to make it public is a contentious issue.

Some people argue for full and immediate disclosure, including the specific information that could be used to exploit the vulnerability; others believe that vulnerability information should not be published at all because the information can be used by an intruder. A zero-day exploit, for example, takes place as soon as a vulnerability becomes generally known. To mitigate risk, many experts believe that limited information should be made available to a selected group after some specified amount of time has elapsed since detection.

Both black hats and white hats regularly search for vulnerabilities and test exploits, however, and if a cybercriminal finds a useful and unreported security hole, he is likely to take advantage of it. Proponents of disclosure maintain that it leads to more patching of vulnerabilities and more secure software.

See also: vulnerability scanner, vulnerability analysis, vulnerability management, vulnerability management planning

This was last updated in September 2014

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