Businesses around the world depend on technology to operate and grow. Along with that growth, however, the risk of cyber attack expands. To avoid the potentially crippling consequences of those attacks, CISOs (chief information security officers) must be aware of the cyber threats and risks affecting them – whether those risks are data breaches, malware attacks, cyber espionage, phishing scams, or other threats.

Moreover, CISOs must prioritize their cyber risks so the organization can take action to mitigate those risks and minimize potential damage as efficiently as possible.

This article explores several strategies to identify and prioritize the cyber risks affecting your organization.

What Is Cyber Risk?

Cyber risk refers to the possibility of operational disruptions, financial losses, or reputational damage that may result from the failure of IT systems, devices, or applications. Cyber attacks are one of the most significant sources of cyber risk for organizations everywhere. All types of organizations face cyber risk.

Why Is Cyber Risk Prioritization Important?

Cyber risk can materialize in many ways that affect the entire company, not just the IT department. For example, a particular cybersecurity threat may result in a:

  • Security breach to gain access to information systems;
  • Ransomware attack to lock enterprise systems for ransom;
  • Data theft as part of a corporate espionage scheme;
  • Loss of intellectual property that could affect the organization’s reputation, increase customer turnover, or cause regulatory and legal problems

In short, cyber risk represents potential disruptions and costs for your company. To avoid them, you must understand the risks you face. You must also prioritize cyber risks and implement appropriate preventative, detective, and corrective efforts to contain cyber threats with minimal impact on the business.

Identifying Threats to Your Business

One of the problems with cyber threats and risks is that these threats can lurk anywhere. To minimize a cybersecurity risk and the possibility of a cyberattack, first determine where these risks stem from. Knowing this can help you design appropriate incident response strategies.

To this end, it is helpful to “categorize” cyber threats and risks by primary IT functions:

  • Software risks;
  • Hardware risks;
  • Vendor or third-party risks;
  • Data risks;
  • Business continuity risks.

Software Risks

Like 90 percent of businesses, your organization likely uses open-source software libraries and development kits to save time and accelerate development cycles. Despite those advantages, open-source software tends to contain vulnerabilities in its code that bad actors can exploit.

In 2020, 84 percent of open-source codebases contained one or more vulnerabilities, up from 75 percent in 2019. Moreover, in late 2020, there was a 430 percent increase in attacks to infiltrate open-source software supply chains. So if your organization relies on open-source software, this is one risk you should prioritize for assessment and remediation.

The DevOps approach to software development also increases security risks. Although DevOps can improve time-to-market and the quality of the final product, it can also result in new vulnerabilities that may not be caught in time, opening doors to cyber attacks and security breaches. Security monitoring must be built into DevOps pipelines from the start.

Hardware Risks

Like software, hardware can also create cyber risks for your firm. In one 2019 survey, Dell reported that 63 percent of organizations had experienced at least one data breach in the previous year due to a hardware security vulnerability. These may stem from:

  • Flawed processors;
  • Faulty hardware design;
  • Hardware trojans installed via microchips or other hard-to-find hardware devices;
  • Legacy systems lacking updated security patches.

Complex supply chains in hardware manufacturing also create cyber risk, especially when third-party suppliers are involved and create security loopholes.

You should also be more mindful of threats against industrial control systems (ICS) and operational technology (OT) because attacks against these systems more than tripled in 2020.

It’s also essential to build awareness of attacks against hardware and enterprise networks, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, malware attacks, and attacks against IoT devices. Finally, it’s vital to defend your networks, systems, and users against hackers, phishing scams, and social engineering attacks.

Third-Party Risks

One study found that in 2020, 51 percent of businesses suffered a data breach caused by a third party. Further, 74 percent of companies admitted that these breaches resulted from giving too much “privileged access” to third parties.

Modern organizations all over the world have complex and highly-interconnected supply chains, consisting of multiple third parties such as:

  • Vendors;
  • Outsourcing firms;
  • Suppliers;
  • Contractors, temporary workers, freelancers;
  • Consultants;
  • Brokers, dealers, agents;
  • Intermediaries.

Any of these parties may have access to your enterprise assets and customers’ personal data. A failure to secure this access, monitor it regularly, and maintain appropriate access control can increase the risk of cyber attacks and data breaches, resulting in the exposure of sensitive information, legal battles, financial losses, and reputational damage.

You need a robust third-party risk management process to protect your organization from accidental or malicious harm.

Additionally, your organization is also at risk of third-party supply chain attacks if you use third-party software. In such attacks, threat actors slip malicious code into a trusted piece of software, allowing them to scale up the attack quickly. Such attacks may lead to a data leak, malware injection, or unauthorized access of enterprise assets.

Data Risks

The average cost of a data breach rose from $3.86 million in 2020 to $4.24 million in 2021. The number of breaches also increased in 2021. By October 2021, the total number of breaches had already exceeded the total for 2020.

Data breaches can stem from internal sources, such as careless employees, or from external sources, such as cybercriminals that deploy phishing scams to steal data.

Security teams must strengthen enterprise access and security controls to minimize such risks. End-to-end encryption, zero-trust security strategies, granular data audits, regular data backups, and cyber hygiene training for employees and vendors are examples of ways to minimize data risks.

Business Continuity Risks

All the risks we have explored above can affect your organization’s business continuity. For instance, a data breach could result in your customers’ information appearing on the dark web. You need to find ways to recover this data, minimize the damage to customer privacy, and deal with any possible regulatory or legal repercussions.

Likewise, human error can lead to an outage for hours or days, resulting in disrupted processes, angry customers, and financial losses. Natural emergencies, non-redundant hardware, missing data backups, lawsuits, and geopolitical events can also affect business continuity.

A solid business continuity plan (BCP) is critical preparation to weather such storms by:

  • Identifying relevant risks;
  • Mitigating their impact;
  • Implementing response plans;
  • Implementing strategies for data backup, data retention, and disaster recovery.

Strategies to Prioritize Cyber Risk

Knowing the various risks that can affect your organization is only half the battle won. To truly protect the company from bad actors, you must prioritize cyber risk and implement response strategies to mitigate – and, if possible, eliminate – their impact.

Here are some practical ways to prioritize cyber risks and shore up your company’s defenses.

Carry Out Risk Assessments

Not all risks are created equal. Some risks may have a more significant potential impact on your organization, while others may have a low impact but a high probability of occurrence. A proper risk assessment can help you evaluate each relevant risk and then decide how to mitigate it.

For example, you may have discovered that the risk of a data breach due to remote workers is high. (In 2020, remote work increased the average cost of a data breach by $137,000.) You can then assess the risk by its:

  • Cause
  • Probability of occurrence
  • Possible impact (financial and non-financial)

A risk heat map is a valuable tool to assess and compare multiple risks. You can also leverage real-time analytics, automation, and technologies like artificial intelligence to detect and assess cyber risks. Make sure to evaluate risks regularly to account for a changing risk landscape.

Create Threat Scenarios

Creating threat scenarios can be a useful exercise for risk mitigation. Consider various likely scenarios of how each risk may materialize. This kind of thinking helps you better understand the risk involved, so you can create an action plan to identify and stop the threat before it damages the organization.

Create the Organization’s Threat Profile

Create a threat profile for the organization with information about:

  • Threat actors and their motives, intents, capabilities, and potential actions;
  • Threat sources;
  • Threat scenarios;
  • Critical assets.

Articulating this information can also help you prioritize security threats and protect your assets. As you create the threat profile, create a database of potential risk events and an IT asset inventory.

It’s also helpful to understand your organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance, so you can:

  • Better understand its risk landscape and risk profile;
  • Assess its risk health;
  • Implement the best risk identification, assessment, and mitigation strategies;
  • Implement appropriate risk responses.

Create Assessment and Probability Scales

Like most organizations, your company’s risk landscape will include multiple risks. You may not have the resources in place to address all these risks all the time. To improve risk prioritization, create a cyber risk assessment with probability scales.

After identifying various risks, assign a financial value to each risk. Depending on this value, you can determine the appropriate response to deal with its fallout.

For example, a data breach affecting a single data center that results in a loss of less than $10,000 could be assigned “scale 1.” A breach that affects the organization’s entire cloud infrastructure and results in a loss of $1 million or more could be designated “scale 5.”

You can also use the threat scenarios to identify possible threat sources, avenues, and vectors. Then apply the scenario planning to the risk scales for response identification and mitigation.

You can also create a probability scale that reflects the likelihood of a particular event and guide your response strategies. Leverage the risk heat map to drive your efforts in this area.

Leverage Threat Intelligence

Cyber threat intelligence is actionable and contextual threat information revealing a threat actor’s behaviors, motives, and potential targets. It may focus on indicators of compromise (IOCs) or on the various tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). It could also help you understand the risks, likelihood, and impact of new and evolving cyber threats.

Threat intelligence platforms can help you prioritize cyber risks by:

  • Monitoring and analyzing alerts before they become incidents;
  • Implement risk-based incident management and prioritization;
  • Identify, track, and neutralize threat actors;
  • Coordinate mitigation efforts to address threats and minimize their harm;
  • Understand the business-level impact of each cyber risk and plan resources and investments to address them.

Improve Your Cyber Risk Strategy with ZenRisk

Enhance your awareness of existing risks and strengthen your cyber risk management program with Reciprocity ZenRisk. This single, integrated platform reveals information security risks throughout the enterprise.

With its single-pane-of-glass view, easy access to threat intelligence, risk heat maps, and complete visibility of control environments, ZenRisk provides everything your organization needs to improve its cyber risk strategy.

To see ZenRisk for yourself, schedule a free demo.