Evaluating the CISA KEV

CISA’s Known Exploited Vulnerabilities Catalog: A Performance Review

It’s been over half a year since the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) introduced the catalog of Known Exploited Vulnerabilities (KEV) to both Federal agencies and the general public. In this post, we’ll take a clinical look at KEV to see how it has been managed over the past 6+ months, what KEV looks like through a GreyNoise lens, and offer some suggestions for improvements that may help KEV continue to be a useful resource for organizations as they attempt to wade through the annual deluge of CVEs.

CISA KEV: A (Brief) History

In November 2021, the CISA launched KEV as part of their mission to support reducing the significant risk of known exploited vulnerabilities outlined in Binding Operational Directive (BOD) 22-01. As CISA puts it: “The KEV catalog sends a clear message to all organizations to prioritize remediation efforts on the subset of vulnerabilities that are causing immediate harm based on adversary activity. Organizations should use the KEV catalog as an input to their vulnerability management prioritization framework.”

CISA recently provided more details around the three points of decision criteria they use to add an item to the KEV catalog. Each entry requires that a vulnerability:

  • has been assigned a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) identifier
  • is under active attempted or successful exploitation(this does not include general scanning, security research, or the mere existence of a proof-of-concept (POC) exploit)
  • has clear remediation guidance that may include applying patches or following official mitigation or workaround guidance

Since the launch, there have been 38 releases (defined as an addition of one or more entries to the catalog in a single day as defined by the <span class="code-block" fs-test-element="rich-text">dateAdded</span> catalog field), for a total of 777 CVEs.

CISA KEV Performance Review

As of June 14, 2022, the National Vulnerability Database handlers have assessed 11,099 new CVEs in calendar year 2022 alone. Sure, many CVEs do not matter to most enterprises, but they still require some type of assessment, even if said assessment is automated away by vulnerability management solutions. Most security teams will gladly accept some help when it comes to prioritization, and a CVE with a sticky note from CISA attached to it saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT”, goes quite a long way, more so than when vendors or pundits all-caps declare that you should PATCH NOW on Twitter.

So, CISA gets a B for providing a small, curated list of what organizations should care about and make operational time for to help ensure the safety and resilience of their workforce, customers/users, and business processes. However, this list is going to keep growing, which reduces overall efficacy over time. I’ll posit some ways CISA can get this up to an A towards the end of this post.

One complaint I’ve had in the past is the KEV release cadence, but I reject my former self’s curmudgeonly assessment because, fundamentally, attackers do not conform to our desired schedules. The initial KEV release was massive (with nearly 300 CVEs), but that’s to be expected since that was the debut of the resource. Each release has happened for a reason. The large volume of ~100 CVEs in March was likely due to those vulnerabilities being exploited by bad actors associated with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Some releases with one or two CVEs in them are associated with publicly disclosed bad actors taking advantage of 0-days or recently disclosed flaws in Apple’s iOS or Microsoft’s widely deployed server products.

I’ll give CISA a B-/C+ on this aspect of KEV as it most certainly “needs improvement,” but they are doing the job adequately.

CISA has many seriously old vulnerabilities in the catalog, and they state they use disclosures from “trusted” vendors and other sources for knowledge of the “has been exploited” component of the KEV framework. I’m inclined to trust CISA’s judgment, but not all cyber-folk have such confidence, and — just like your 6th grade math teacher told you — it’d be great if they showed the work.

For not providing more metadata around each KEV entry, I’ll give CISA a C and provide some ways they can bring that score up as well.

Looking At CISA KEV Through A GreyNoise Lens

Before I get into the advisory section of the post, I thought readers and KEV enthusiasts might want to know if the “Known Exploited” part of KEV was true (i.e. are these CVEs being exploited in the wild?).

As of June 14, 2022, GreyNoise has tags for 161 (~20%) of CVEs in the KEV catalog. It is important to note that with the current sensor fleet’s configurations, GreyNoise won’t see much of the on-node attacker actions that relate to many of the CVEs in the KEV corpus. For the moment, GreyNoise is focused pretty heavily on initial access and other types of remote-oriented exploits. Still, 20% is a pretty solid number, so our data  should be able to tell you if these CVEs are under active exploitation to prove a bit of KEV’s efficacy.

GreyNoise has observed activity in the past seven days for 59 of those KEV CVE tags; in fact, quite a bit of activity: 

I’m not surprised to see the recent, trivial exploit for Atlassian Confluence to top the charts, given how quickly attackers moved on it soon after disclosure.

In the future, I’ll do a deeper dive into KEV and GreyNoise tag coverage, but there is most certainly evidence of exploitation for the KEV CVEs that lend themselves to remote exploitation.

Room For Improvement

I gave CISA a B for catalog curation. As noted, a list that grows forever will become yet-another giant list of vulnerabilities that organizations will ignore. Some additional metadata would help defenders filter the list into something manageable, such as:

  • Metrics around exploitation activity. CISA reads reports, watches Twitter, talks to vendors and internal stakeholders to know about whether a vulnerability is being exploited. Adding in some type of metrics such as <span class="code-block" fs-test-element="rich-text">first_seen, last_seen</span>, and <span class="code-block" fs-test-element="rich-text">number_of_attackers</span> (allowing for qualitative vs. quantitative values, if necessary) would help bolster defender arguments for getting patch/mitigation time now from operations teams.
  • Where possible (some vulnerabilities are ubiquitous), include a list of industries being targeted, to further help patch/mitigation defense.
  • Split out ICS/OT KEV from “Enterprise” KEV. Sure, folks can filter a JSON or CVE list, but making them separate has the added benefit of both growing at a slower rate.

I gave CISA a B-/C+ on release cadence. Some of the above fields would help justify any sporadic or overly frequent, as would links to “trusted” (that’s a loaded word) resources that provide context for the update. Said links list should be checked regularly for staleness, so they don’t have the same link rot problem that CVE reference URLs have.

Finally, I gave CISA a C on regularly releasing “old” vulnerabilities. Sure, an argument can be made that you really should have patched a 2012 vulnerability well before 2022. Context for the aged inclusions would be most welcome, especially for the ones that are remote/network vulnerabilities.

Overall, CISA’s Catalog of Known Exploited Vulnerabilities is a good resource that organizations can and should use to help prioritize patching and gain support for said activity within their organizations. Hopefully, we’ll see some improvements by the time KEV’s first anniversary rolls around. Meanwhile, keep your eyes out for more KEV content in the GreyNoise visualizer and in APIs/data feeds as our products work to provide critical vulnerability insight to security teams across the globe.