If you’ve spent any time with a computer or mobile device in the last 10 years, you’ve almost certainly seen the device indicate the need to apply a security patch. Whether you’re using an Android or Apple smartphone, a desktop PC, a notebook, a tablet or even a gaming console like the PlayStation, the software will periodically ask you to approve an update — or it’ll just update itself.
It might seem like these updates always appear at the most frustrating times, but it’s crucial to let them do their work. They’re not there to delay you and keep you from your everyday tasks. Software updates can include a variety of things, like new features and content, but one essential thing they do is apply security patches.
Without the most recent security patches, your system is potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. Even the best-designed software can’t anticipate every future threat to cybersecurity. Security patches protect the security of your devices and the data on them by applying the latest updates that respond to the latest threats.
Table of Contents
- Security Patches: What You Need to Know
- What Is the Purpose of Patching and Patch Management?
- The Importance of Patch Management
- 5 Patch Management Risks Network Managers Should Know
Security Patches: What You Need to Know
To get a good security patch definition, we need to start with the word “patch.” When software engineers talk about a patch or a “fix,” they’re referring to a small adjustment to the code of the software you’re using. A patch updates one component of the software, perhaps to fix a bug or error discovered after product release. A “hotfix” is quite similar, though developers typically use the word hotfix to describe a fix users can apply without having to restart their software.
We tend to use different terminology for larger-scale updates, as well. A service pack typically bundles several already released patches and fixes for the convenience of users being able to install them all at once. A system update usually offers new features and functionality, in addition to a range of fixes. Smartphones and consoles commonly use the phrase “system update” to refer to their most significant yearly updates.
Like other patches and fixes, security patches are small adjustments to the software. A security patch doesn’t just fix an ordinary error or bug, though. Security patches address vulnerabilities in the software cybercriminals might use to gain unauthorized access to your device and your data. Security patches for the operating system (OS) of your device — Windows, iOS, Android — are crucial because an OS vulnerability can have far-reaching implications.
Some users wonder why security patches are necessary. Why didn’t the software designers make it secure to begin with? Why do people have to wait for an update to finish before using their device again?
The truth is that no development team can anticipate every future cyberattack, and they need a mechanism for responding to the latest vulnerabilities. Certainly, developers need to design software with cybersecurity as a top priority, and many do. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google invest considerable time and money into cybersecurity. Security patches allow them to respond quickly as they discover new vulnerabilities.
What Is the Purpose of Patching and Patch Management?
The widespread WannaCry cyberattack of 2017 clearly shows the purpose of security patching. This cyberattack began when the United States National Security Administration (NSA) discovered a vulnerability in Windows, specifically regarding the server message block protocol, which is instrumental in network communications.
Instead of immediately reporting the vulnerability to Microsoft so the company could fix it, however, the NSA used its knowledge of the weakness to create a tool that exploited it. Cybercriminals subsequently stole this tool from the NSA and used it to attack systems worldwide, including some belonging to Britain’s National Health Service.
Once the WannaCry ransomware worm infected a computer, it would encrypt files on the hard drive so the user could no longer access them. Then, the worm would hold those files ransom, demanding a bitcoin payment from the user.
What does the story of the WannaCry worm teach us about security patches? The sad truth is that all users needed to do to avoid this cyberattack was to stay up to date with their security patches. After realizing the hackers had stolen the tool, the NSA warned Microsoft about the vulnerability, and Microsoft’s engineers put together a fix for the problem. Two months before the WannaCry attack even started, Microsoft released a patch that fixed the problem.
In other words, the ransomware shouldn’t have even affected users, but many people and organizations didn’t apply the patch.
The WannaCry cyber attack also shows that while it’s crucial for developers to make security patches available, it’s also essential for organizations and users to implement patch management. What is patch management? For individuals and their devices, effective patch management can be as simple as turning on automatic updates. Google and Apple, for example, make it easy to have your smartphone manage the work of keeping the OS and all of your apps patched to the most recent version. To check your Android device’s security patch level, Google offers an easy online tool.
For organizations, patch management takes more work, but it’s ultimately worth the effort. What is patching in networking? First, organizations have to oversee a wide range of equipment, often in different locations. A patch that requires time to install may also interrupt the functioning of the device, so it’s vital to plan the timing of patches around the schedules of the people using the device. For systems that need to operate 24/7, patching is not an easy process.
Patch management considers all of these factors to construct a plan for effective and timely patching. Not all security patches are equally critical. A vulnerability may only affect a subset of devices, for example, or specific use scenarios. Properly trained IT staff can evaluate the urgency of a security patch and plan its implementation appropriately.
Ultimately, security patches are all about effective cybersecurity. They exist to make sure devices and user data have the most up-to-date protection against current cyberattacks. Security patches are only one element of a robust cybersecurity strategy, but they’re a crucial component of cybersecurity. Whether you’re securing your device or an array of computer systems for a large organization, you need to have a plan in place for patch management.
The Importance of Patch Management
Every new cyberattack is a reminder of why patching is important, as well as the risk of not applying security patches. The Ryuk ransomware attack of 2018 and 2019 targeted businesses that would struggle more than others with system downtime. Several newspapers became victims, including the Los Angeles Times, which needed several days to recover. That downtime hurt their bottom line.
Why is it so vital to keep security patches up to date?
- Reduce exposure to cyberattacks: A cyberattack can seem like an impossibility until it becomes a reality. It can feel like a cyberattack comes out of the blue without warning, but quite often, security patches are available before hackers exploit a vulnerability and use it to infiltrate systems.
- Avoid lost productivity: One unexpected consequence of cyberattacks is the lost productivity that results from system downtime. In this way, a cyberattack can lead to two types of monetary losses — the cost of patching systems and the cost of delayed projects and unproductive employees.
- Protect your data: Don’t underestimate the value of the data stored on your devices. Hackers can use personal information from one system to gain access to another, especially if they gain login information from a person who uses the same credentials for multiple systems.
- Protect customer data: Businesses have a responsibility to safeguard the information users entrust to their systems. There can be severe consequences for companies that fail to live up this standard. Consider Equifax, which the Federal Trade Commission has ordered to provide $125 or 10 years of free credit monitoring to people affected by the 2017 breach of its consumer data.
- Protect others on your network: Once a worm infiltrates a computer network, it can spread quite rapidly to other devices connected to your network. In this way, one unpatched system or unvigilant user can cause disastrous consequences to an entire network of systems.
Security patching is crucial for protecting devices and data. Users and organizations need to implement patch management procedures that safeguard them from cyberattacks.
5 Patch Management Risks Network Managers Should Know
As essential as it is to keep your systems and devices up to date with the latest security patches, network managers need to keep some risks in mind as they implement a patch management plan.
1. Service Interruptions Can Be Costly
A hotfix can resolve some vulnerabilities that do not affect system uptime. However, most security patches require rebooting systems or disrupting their normal function long enough to install the patch. Depending on the user and the system, this time cost might be trivial, or it can have a significant effect on the organization and its core business. Planning patches for such systems is not an easy task.
2. Security Patches Can Get Released Frequently
One reason so many systems are behind on security patches is the sheer number of patches released each year. A report from Microsoft estimates software engineers uncover up to 6,000 new vulnerabilities each year. Keeping up with patches for frequently targeted systems is no mean feat. Automatic updates can mitigate this problem, but it isn’t always an option for organizations that need to test out patches before deploying them to users.
3. Security Patches Can Affect System Functionality
A company like Microsoft will test its security patches on a wide range of software before releasing it, but the urgency of releasing a patch precludes them from testing the patch with every possible configuration. Businesses that use software developed in-house know security patches can come with unexpected consequences. Sometimes, this leads developers to leave vulnerabilities in their code, as they know fixing the vulnerability would break too many systems that rely on the software.
The only way to mitigate this risk is to test all patches before releasing them to your organization’s systems. This process will take time and effort, however, and vigilant attention to available updates for your software systems.
4. Security Patches Can Affect System Performance
In some instances, a security patch can affect the performance of a piece of software or a device. The well-publicized Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities made many computer owners and system administrators nervous in 2018. Experts projected the security patches would drastically reduce the CPU performance, particularly for Intel’s processors.
As it turned out, these patches had less of an impact than initial reports had users believe. However, there’s no denying a security vulnerability in such a critical computer component as the CPU can have significant consequences even after applying the update.
5. You Can’t Patch Some Devices
It’s also worth mentioning you won’t always have control over patching devices. Smartphones, for example, can be frustrating from this standpoint because users often have to wait for device manufacturers to release security patches. If a device is more than a year or two old, users regularly wait quite a while for updates — if they get released at all. Other appliances can go unpatched for quite some time, as well, particularly when the manufacturer is the only party that can apply updates.
Network managers can mitigate these risks with an effective patch management plan. By keeping track of available patches from software vendors, testing the patches extensively and deploying the security patches promptly, network managers can make sure their systems are as secure as possible with a minimum of expensive downtime.
Unfortunately, though, it isn’t always possible to avoid or control these risks. Too many factors are outside the control of network managers. It’s up to software and hardware developers to provide effective and timely security patches. Network managers can only work with the tools they have.
BlackStratus Can Help
Security patches are one of the most critical tools users have for effective cybersecurity. A fully updated system is one of the best defenses against vulnerabilities. For most users of most devices, it’s always a smart choice to enable automatic updates for their operating system and applications.
Managers of larger networks, though, have more work to do to keep their systems patched with the latest updates. They must be attentive to the needs of the network, minimizing or eliminating downtime for critical systems. They need to test patches appropriately and carefully determine any potential impacts.
As a leading provider of security information event management products and services, BlackStratus can help organizations respond to the challenge of cybersecurity. With our SOC-as-a-service, your business will benefit from our security team as we manage and monitor your network, devices and other assets to help you combat cybersecurity threats.
If you have questions about how BlackStratus can help your organization meet your security and compliance challenges, please reach out to our team. Since 1999, we’ve been assisting business like yours safeguard assets and client data. Let us show you what we can do for you.
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