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The Difference Between a Security Risk, Vulnerability and Threat

        posted by , December 09, 2012

It's often the most basic definitions that are most easy to get wrong.

When it comes to information security there are no more important concepts than risk, threat and vulnerability.

Arnold Boecklin

The difference between these terms might seem obvious. Nevertheless, they are frequently misused.

Threat

When did the future switch from being a promise to a threat?
~ Chuck Palahniuk
A threat is something bad that might happen.

It's as simple as that. A more complex definition wouldn't be anymore helpful.

From a security perspective the first threat that pops to mind is a security attack. However, a threat can range from innocent mistakes made by employees to natural disasters.

Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
~ Brene Brown
It's common to define vulnerability as "weakness" or as an "inability to cope". Both of these definitions are completely wrong (from a security and risk management perspective).

A better definition of vulnerability is "exposure".

If you give a presentation at a conference it might open you to criticism or even ridicule. Plenty of people have a fear of public speaking for this very reason. However, the act of giving a speech isn't a weakness it's an exposure.

Connecting a system to the internet can represent a vulnerability. For example, it exposes a system to a DDoS attack. However, connecting a system to customers via the internet isn't likely to be considered a weakness from a business perspective.

Risk

No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause.
~ Theodore Roosevelt
Risk is a chance that something unexpected will happen. It's the combination of threats and vulnerabilities:


Risk = Threats x Vulnerabilities



IT security professionals tend to think of risk as bad. They might define it as the "chance that something bad will happen".

However, from a business perspective risk can be considered a good thing. Therefore, risk management professionals treat risks as potentially positive.


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