An effective patch management process is a critical component of cybersecurity strategy and is also essential to a successful SOC 2 audit. Patching is relevant to several of the Trust Services Criteria (TSC) in a SOC 2 report, but is considered most applicable to the change management requirements under CC8.1. When the AICPA updated the TSC in 2022, they added the following point of focus under CC8.1: Manages Patch Changes – A process is in place to identify, evaluate, test, approve and implement patches in a timely manner on infrastructure and software. One of the reasons that patching is considered so important is that a very high percentage of the breaches that have occurred the past few years can be attributed directly to a failure to patch systems.
What is Patch Management?
Unpatched software is a computer code containing known security weaknesses. Unpatched vulnerabilities refer to weaknesses that allow attackers to leverage a known security bug that has not been patched by running malicious code. Software vendors write additions to the codes, known as “patches,” when they become aware of these application vulnerabilities to secure these weaknesses.
Patch management is a process that involves detecting missing software updates and applying patches to correct errors (also known as “bugs” or “vulnerabilities”) found in systems. These errors are often weak points for malicious hackers, viruses, and other cyberthreats to attack. When a vulnerability is discovered, a patch is deployed and inserted into the code of an existing software program to update and fix it.
Why is Patch Management Important?
Patch management is important for the following key reasons:
- Security: Patch management fixes vulnerabilities in software and applications that are susceptible to cyberattacks, helping organizations reduce their security risk. Application vulnerabilities are the most common external attack method, making patch management critical to overall security. Many security breaches could have been prevented by installing an available patch.
- System uptime: Patch management ensures that software and applications are kept up-to-date and run smoothly, supporting system uptime.
- Compliance: With the continued rise in cyber-attacks, organizations are often required by regulatory bodies to maintain a certain level of compliance. Patch management is a necessary piece of adhering to compliance standards.
- Feature improvements: Patch management can go beyond software bug fixes to also include feature/functionality updates. Patches can be critical to ensuring that you have the latest and greatest that a product has to offer.
Patch Management vs. Vulnerability Management
Patch management is a vital part of every vulnerability management solution. However, having a consistent approach to patch management does not always mean patching every vulnerability. When a vulnerability is identified, there are essentially three options:
- Install a patch for the vulnerability, if available, to fix the issue.
- Implement compensating controls so the vulnerability is mitigated without being fully patched. This route is common when a proper fix or patch is not yet available, and can be used to buy time before eventual remediation.
- Accept the risk posed by that vulnerability and do nothing.
It’s up to organizations to decide which option is best for them in specific situations, though patching is generally the ideal solution.
The terms “patch management” and “vulnerability management” are sometimes used interchangeably, but it is important to understand the difference. Though both strategies aim to mitigate risk, patch management (the process of managing software updates) is limited in scope. To gain a deeper understanding of your environment and make informed, impactful decisions, you need to move to a more holistic approach through vulnerability management. Vulnerability management is a continuous process of identifying, prioritizing, remediating, and reporting on security vulnerabilities in systems and the software that runs on them.
The number of new vulnerabilities and software weaknesses that arise every day can be overwhelming, making patch management a time-consuming and sometimes overwhelming endeavor. However, maintaining an effective and consistent patch management process is critically important to your security posture…and to the success of your SOC 2 audit.
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