There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all cybersecurity. Every organization faces a unique set of security risks, and needs to take its own unique approach to cybersecurity risk assessment.

Unfortunately, however, cybersecurity risk assessments aren’t easy to undertake, and getting started can be the most challenging part of your risk management strategy. To help, we’ll take you through the process step by step.

What Is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?

A cybersecurity risk assessment evaluates the threats to your organization’s IT systems and data, as well as your capacity to safeguard those assets from cyber attacks.

Organizations can (and should) use a cybersecurity risk assessment to identify and prioritize opportunities for improvement in existing information security programs. A risk assessment also helps companies to communicate risks to stakeholders and to make educated decisions about deploying resources to mitigate those security risks.

See also

2023 RiskOptics Cyber Risk Viewpoints Report

Cybersecurity Risk Assessments: Getting Started

To prepare, you must align the organization’s information security and cybersecurity goals with its business objectives. That means you will need to get input from across the enterprise about how each function uses data and IT systems, to assess and evaluate your cybersecurity risk exposure. Consider the following activities part of your initial preparation for your risk assessment.

Define cybersecurity threats

You should think about all the scenarios that threaten the safety of your customer and employee data and the function of your products and services. Hackers can bypass security measures to gain unauthorized access, bypass mechanisms and exploit vulnerabilities to steal or modify critical data assets, or run rogue programs inside your IT infrastructure.

Identify security vulnerabilities

Once you have a handle on your potential threats, you can better scrutinize each part of your IT infrastructure for vulnerabilities across software and hardware. Identifying these vulnerabilities requires diligence and thorough examination, always keeping in mind your contractual obligations and regulatory compliance obligations.

Determine threat likelihood and threat impact

Once you have identified the weaknesses in the organization, you should determine the likelihood and potential severity of each risk. This helps you understand which risks are most serious, and therefore should get first priority when remediating your security weaknesses.

How Do You Perform a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?

Begin by assembling a team with the right qualifications. A cross-departmental group is crucial to identify cyber threats ( from inside and outside your organization) and mitigate the risks to IT systems and data. The risk management team can also communicate the risk to employees and conduct incident response more effectively.

At a minimum, your team should include the following:

  • Senior management to provide oversight.
  • The chief information security officer to review network architecture.
  • A privacy officer to locate personally identifiable information, as required by the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • The compliance officer to assure compliance with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), or other security standards that might apply to your business.
  • Someone from the marketing team to discuss any customer information that’s collected and stored.
  • Someone from the product management team to assure product security posture throughout the development cycle.
  • Human resources, to give insight into employee personally identifiable information.
  • A manager from each central business line to cover all enterprise data and lead response initiatives.

Step 1: Catalog information assets

Your risk management team should catalog all your business’s information assets. That includes your IT infrastructure, as well as the various software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) solutions used throughout the company. It also includes the data that those systems process.

To understand the types of data your company collects, stores, and transmits, as well as the locations involved, ask these questions:

  • What kinds of information are departments collecting?
  • Where do they send that information?
  • Where are they collecting it from?
  • Which vendors does each department use?
  • What access do those vendors have?
  • Which authentication methods, such as multi-factor authentication, are used for information access?
  • Where does the company physically store information?
  • Which devices do employees use?
  • Do remote workers access information? If so, how?
  • Which networks transmit information?
  • Which databases store information?
  • Which servers collect, transfer, and store data?

Step 2: Assess the risk

Some types of information are more critical than others. Not all vendors are equally secure. So once you’ve identified the information assets, it’s time to assess their risks and the enterprise.

  • Which systems, networks, and software are critical to business operations?
  • What sensitive information or systems must maintain availability, confidentiality, and integrity?
  • What personal information do you store, transmit, or collect that needs to be anonymized in case of an encryption failure?
  • Which devices are most at risk of data loss?
  • What is the potential for data corruption?
  • Which IT systems, networks, and software might cybercriminals target for a data breach?
  • What reputation harm might arise from a security incident?
  • What are the financial risks of a potential data breach or data leak?
  • What business operation risks would result from a cybersecurity event?
  • Is there a business continuity plan to help business operations resume quickly after an IT disruption?

The risk assessment process considers risks to the information assets and what harm breaches of each might cause to the enterprise. That includes harm to business reputation, finances, continuity, and operations.

Step 3: Analyze the risk

Risk analysis assigns priority to the risks you’ve listed. For each risk, give a score based on the following:

  • Probability: the likelihood of a cybercriminal obtaining access to the asset
  • Impact: the financial, operational, strategic, and reputational impact that a security event might have on your organization

To establish your risk tolerance level, multiply the probability by the impact. Then, for each risk, determine your response: accept, avoid, transfer, or mitigate.

For example, a database containing public information might have few security controls, so the probability of a breach might be high. On the other hand, the damage would be low since the attackers would only be grabbing information that’s already publicly available. So you might be willing to accept the security risk for that particular database because the impact score is low, despite the high probability of a breach.

Conversely, suppose you’re collecting financial information from customers. In that case, the probability of a breach might be low, but the harm from such a breach could be severe regulatory penalties and a battered corporate reputation. So you may decide to mitigate these high-risk scenarios by taking out a cybersecurity insurance policy.

Step 4: Set security controls

Next, define and implement security controls. Security controls will help you manage potential risks so they are eliminated, or the chance of them happening is significantly reduced.

Controls are essential for every potential risk. That said, they require the entire organization to implement them and assure the risk controls are continuously carried out.

Examples of controls include:

  • Network segregation
  • At-rest and in-transit encryption
  • Anti-malware, anti-ransomware, and anti-phishing software
  • Firewall configuration
  • Password protocols
  • Multi-factor authentication
  • Workforce training
  • Vendor risk management program

Step 5: Monitor and review effectiveness

Organizations have relied on penetration testing and periodic audits to establish and assure IT security. But as malicious actors keep changing tactics, your organization must adjust its security policies and maintain a risk management program that monitors the IT environment for new cybersecurity threats.

Risk analysis needs to be flexible, too. For example, as part of the risk mitigation process, you must consider your response mechanisms to maintain a robust cybersecurity profile.

What Companies Should Perform a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?

All organizations that use IT infrastructure should conduct cybersecurity risk assessments. That said, some small businesses may have limited resources, which impedes the ability to assess and mitigate risk thoroughly. For that reason, many organizations turn to cybersecurity software to help them better evaluate, mitigate, and monitor their risk management strategies.

Modern cybersecurity solutions are designed for threat intelligence to prevent the three significant categories of cybersecurity risk: malware, ransomware, and phishing. And why is understanding and mitigating cybersecurity risk so important?

Benefits of Performing a Security Risk Assessment

There are many benefits to performing a cybersecurity risk assessment and implementing a risk management process within the organization. Here are just a few:

  • Reduce costs associated with security incidents. You can reduce the long-term costs related to damage caused by a data breach or theft of critical assets.
  • Establish a baseline for organizational risk. Risk assessments provide a baseline for future assessments as you address your level of risk over time.
  • Support the need for a cybersecurity program. Conducting a risk assessment provides the CISO with proof of the need for a cybersecurity program, which the CISO can then show stakeholders.
  • Avoid data breaches. You can identify potential threats, mitigate them, and avoid data breaches.
  • Avoid compliance issues. You can avoid regulatory compliance issues related to customer data.
  • Avoid lost productivity. When you identify and mitigate vulnerabilities, you avoid disruptions that can lead to lost productivity.
  • Avoid data loss. The theft of critical information assets could cost you more than monetary damages. You could lose your reputation and, ultimately, your ability to operate your business.
  • Be more compelling to business partners. If business partners see that your cybersecurity risks are well managed, you become less of a third-party risk to them.

RiskOptics ZenGRC for Cybersecurity Risk Assessments

ZenGRC is a governance, risk, and compliance platform that can help you implement, manage, and monitor your risk management framework and remediation tasks.

For example, ZenGRC can prioritize tasks so everyone knows what to do and when. Its user-friendly dashboards make reviewing “to do” and “completed tasks” lists easy. The workflow tagging simplifies assigning tasks for the activities involved in risk assessment, risk analysis, and risk mitigation. In addition, the ServiceNow connector enables two-way communication with that popular workflow application.

When audit time rolls around, ZenGRC “single source of truth” audit-trail document repository provides quick access to the evidence you need of data confidentiality, integrity, and availability as required by law.

The ZenGRC platform can help you streamline the entire lifecycle of all your relevant cybersecurity risk management frameworks, including Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), HIPAA, and more.

Schedule a demo to get started on worry-free risk management.

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