Continuous Threat Exposure Management (CTEM): Tutorial & Best Practices

December 7, 2023
8
‎‎‏‏‎‎min

The risk landscape isn’t stagnant: New weaknesses are constantly discovered, new exploits are created, and new systems and components are added to your environment. Traditional vulnerability management, with its ad hoc or scheduled vulnerability scans of the systems you know about, does not accurately reflect your exposure, nor does it provide continuous updated information. The landscape is larger than ever and growing continuously, and you need a way to respond with a sustainable model.

CTEM is not just another product or set of tools to manage your environment. It was first introduced by Gartner as a mindset shift from vulnerability remediation to a complete cycle of threat and exposure handling. Its principles support a start-to-finish management program that integrates into your existing workflows. This integration allows for real-time monitoring and assessment of vulnerabilities, enabling rapid action and mitigation. When following a CTEM process, you are always watching the environment, penetration-testing any points for potential entry, and determining where a threat can inflict the greatest damage within your environment.

Continuous threat exposure management (CTEM) is the evolution of vulnerability management, providing a framework to build and sustain a program to identify, validate and mobilize risk remediation.. This article is for cybersecurity professionals who want to:

  • Learn best practices and get practical recommendations for CTEM.
  • Operationalize CTEM within their organizational workflows.
  • Integrate asset management and shadow IT discovery to enrich the CTEM process.
  • Incorporate asset value and business context into CTEM to contextualize threat information and enhance prioritization for risk reduction.

Summary of key CTEM best practices

Best Practice for CTEM Success Description
Document the interactions between your vulnerability management and CTEM programs Clearly describe program and technical interactions that ensure that the new threat exposure information is integrated into the methods and tools for handling vulnerabilities.
Expand scanning beyond declared assets Use CTEM capabilities to discover and describe shadow IT and assets that may have fallen through the cracks for recorded systems and applications.
Align with your hosting providers on threat-detection activities Ensure that your expanded scanning and validation efforts are in line with the agreements of any third-party providers of SaaS or cloud infrastructure hosting.
Invest in improved security remediation capabilities Ensure that you have the resources to act on the improved reporting of vulnerabilities and exposure possibilities that a CTEM program provides. Define a process to identify individuals or teams responsible for remediation tasks.
Integrate remediation into operations workflows Update your operational procedures and tools to include security remediation in ticketing, tracking, and mobilization systems and processes.

Why implement another security program?

A robust continuous threat exposure management program incorporates continuously updated records and the analysis of vulnerabilities. CTEM provides real-time monitoring and assessment, enabling organizations to adapt swiftly to an ever-changing threat landscape. This dynamic approach is particularly appropriate in large-scale environments where manual monitoring is not feasible: Intelligent automation sifts through massive data sets to identify anomalies and potential threats, enabling immediate remediation.

CTEM uses an in-depth understanding of attack scenarios to predict which existing exploits are likely to succeed, enabling preemptive action. This understanding is critical for managing the attack surface and aligning it with business objectives.

The end result is a consistent, representative security posture that is both understandable to business executives and actionable for operational security teams. This not only enhances the organization’s security but also ensures that it is in sync with business goals.

Technology capabilities and the CTEM program areas they support

Stages of continuous threat exposure management

CTEM is expressed through five stages:

  1. Scoping
  2. Discovery
  3. Prioritization
  4. Validation
  5. Mobilization

During the initial scoping and discovery stages, CTEM provides continuously updated records and analyses of vulnerabilities. As you move to the validation stage, CTEM offers a picture of which attacks are likely to succeed based on published exploits and the ease of accessing the weakness. This equips you with invaluable knowledge for preemptive action and security infrastructure optimization. Finally, in the mobilization stage, CTEM supports a consistent, actionable security posture that is easily understandable to executives. This ensures that your risk management and resolution practices are aligned with business objectives.

Here are some more details on each of the five stages:

  • Scoping for cybersecurity exposure: Scoping your organization’s exposure to cybersecurity threats, particularly external and SaaS threats, allows for a more focused risk assessment. A targeted approach enhances the efficiency of subsequent steps in the CTEM process.
  • Developing a discovery process: Creating a robust discovery process for identifying assets and their associated risk profiles is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the landscape you need to protect. Knowing the asset landscape enables better allocation of security resources.
  • Prioritizing threats: After assets are identified, threats are prioritized based on their likelihood of exploitation, severity, and potential business impact. Effective prioritization ensures that the most critical vulnerabilities are addressed first, reducing the overall risk profile.
  • Validating attack scenarios: Simulating how potential attacks might work and how your systems would react provides valuable insights into your defensive capabilities. These simulations help fine-tune your security measures and response strategies.
  • Mobilizing people and processes: The final stage involves mobilizing human and procedural resources to implement the CTEM program effectively. Clear definitions of roles and responsibilities ensure that the program is not just technically sound but also organizationally feasible.

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Key considerations for using CTEM to augment vulnerability management

Threat management is always point-in-time, and in the rush of new threats, we rarely return to reevaluate vulnerabilities once we have assessed them. CTEM processes allow for the re-evaluation of older vulnerabilities that may be targeted by new attack vectors, ensuring that your security measures are consistently updated to counter evolving threats. CTEM includes review of the security impact of changes to critical systems, ensuring that any alterations are effective and secure. Following a defined process ensures better communication and interaction. As a result, the remediation process doesn't get bogged down with false positives, or duplicate remediation task assignments.

Note that CTEM does not so much replace vulnerability management as encompass it. An effective CTEM program requires a comprehensive vulnerability management program and asset management program. The former involves a blend of tools, processes, and organizational collaboration, ensuring that identified risks are communicated and adequately addressed. The latter is crucial for risk prioritization based on both severity and business impact, thereby ensuring optimal resource allocation.

AI plays a necessary role in the implementation of CTEM, especially in large environments. AI can enhance operational efficiency, for instance, by managing the influx of asset management data or quickly adjusting risk scores for vulnerabilities based on new information. AI identifies anomalies and potential threats faster than humans can by analyzing vast data sets, enabling preemptive action before risks escalate.

Best practices for success in your CTEM program rollout

The following recommendations will make your transition smoother within your program and with other tech teams and partners.

  • Document the interactions between your vulnerability management and CTEM programs: Integrate these programs so the teams that perform vulnerability management have up-to-date information about which vulnerabilities are present and most urgent. Report results in a single, centralized dashboard that allows for real-time data sharing and analytics for all users. Tech and process integration enables a unified, efficient approach to threat management.
  • Expand scanning beyond declared assets: Traditional scanning methods focus on known assets, leaving potential vulnerabilities in shadow IT unaddressed. Employ advanced scanning techniques that not only cover registered assets but also discover unauthorized devices and applications in all of your internal and externally exposed networks. Comprehensive scanning provides a 360° view of your security landscape, enabling more effective risk assessment.
  • Align with your hosting providers on threat detection activities: If you operate in a cloud-hosted environment or in any network not fully under your control, you must understand your threat exposure detection obligations. Establish clear communication channels and compliance protocols with your hosting providers to ensure that your scanning activities are both permitted and coordinated. This minimizes the risk of contract breaches or service disruptions that may occur if there’s an assumption that your actions are an attack.
  • Invest in improved threat and exposure remediation capabilities: There is no security gain when you identify vulnerabilities through CTEM activities if you do not allocate the proper resources for security remediation. Whether that’s patching software, strengthening firewalls, or enhancing data encryption, targeted investments significantly bolster your overall security posture.
  • Integrate remediation into operations workflows: To ensure that identified vulnerabilities are promptly addressed, integrate security remediation tasks into your existing operations workflows. Utilize automated task assignment and tracking systems to ensure that remediation tasks are identified and acted upon in a timely manner, thereby reducing the window of exposure.

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CTEM program and technology foundational tools

CTEM requires information about assets, organizational security posture, and real-world threats to determine the extent of exposure in an environment:

  • A configuration management database (CMDB) serves as a repository for hardware and software assets as well as their interrelationships. In the context of CTEM, a CMDB ideally provides an exhaustive inventory of the IT environment, aiding in contextualizing the findings from vulnerability management sources.
  • Threat intelligence (TI) provides real-time data on emerging threats and vulnerabilities. This data is integrated into CTEM processes to prioritize remediation efforts based on current threat landscapes.
  • Extended security posture management (xSPM) augments traditional security posture management to include non-traditional IT environments such as cloud and mobile platforms. This extension provides a more comprehensive view of an organization’s security posture, enhancing the effectiveness of CTEM.
  • Automated red teaming as a service (ARTaaS) conducts simulated cyber-attacks to evaluate organizational defenses. These simulations align with CTEM’s objectives of continuous monitoring and validation, offering insights for vulnerability prioritization.
  • IT service management (ITSM) integrates processes like incident management, change management, and problem management into CTEM. This integration ensures that identified vulnerabilities are managed and remediated in accordance with best practices and compliance requirements.
  • Integrated risk management (IRM) contributes to CTEM by offering a unified view of organizational risk. This alignment aids in the prioritization of vulnerabilities and facilitates effective remediation strategies.

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CTEM program and exposure management components

The tools here are not foundational to your in-house CTEM, but large enterprises should consider the significant efficiency and assurance they add to the program. These technologies may provide benefits such as reducing your exposure, improving your reconciliation of a vulnerability and risk, or identifying areas of weakness that you didn’t know existed:

  • Enterprise agile security management (EASM) aligns agile methodologies with security management practices. In the context of CTEM, EASM enables a rapid response to emerging threats and vulnerabilities, enhancing the program’s effectiveness at real-time risk mitigation.
  • Cyber asset attack surface manager (CAASM) enables organizations to view internal and external assets through API integrations with existing tools and consolidated data queries. CAASM allows more effective remediation and mitigation strategies by providing a wide,  continuous view of the attack surface.
  • Vulnerability assessment (VA) tools identify and classify vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT environment.
  • Vulnerability prioritization technology (VPT) automates the process of ranking vulnerabilities based on their potential impact and ease of exploitation. VPT feeds into CTEM by enabling a more efficient allocation of resources for vulnerability remediation.
  • Breach and attack simulation (BAS) tests an organization’s defenses by simulating cyber-attacks in a controlled environment. BAS aligns with CTEM by providing actionable insights into the effectiveness of current security controls and potential areas for improvement.
  • Penetration testing as a service (PTaaS) offers on-demand penetration testing capabilities. PTaaS complements CTEM by providing an external evaluation of an organization’s security posture, identifying vulnerabilities that may not be captured through internal assessments.

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Summary

A vulnerability management program is foundational for any cybersecurity program, but it is no longer enough. Continuous threat exposure management (CTEM) is the evolution you need to keep up with threat actors and modern computing models that expand the attack surface. This improved program extends operational functionality and incorporates technologies to suit an increasingly volatile threat environment. Implementing CTEM improves your security overall and aligns with business intelligence to protect the most important assets in your enterprise.

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