Protecting your organization against security incidents is easy enough in theory, but many businesses struggle to find the right approach when it comes to their cybersecurity.
As the digital transformation takes hold of the modern business environment, implementing safeguards to your organization’s critical information is only going to become more critical for survival-and if you aren’t doing so already, it’s time for your organization to take proactive protective measures.
To do so, many organizations and even some government agencies are utilizing something called operational security (OPSEC) – a security strategy that encourages an approach to the risk management process from the perspective of a potential attacker in order to better protect that information from becoming the target of a cyberattack.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at operational security, including what it is, why it’s important, and how you can create an OPSEC plan that’s best for your business and its bottom line. Armed with this knowledge, your organization will be better prepared-and protected-on the path toward worry-free cyber risk management.
What is Operational Security?
OPSEC is both a process and a strategy. As a strategy, OPSEC is designed to help your IT and security managers think about your organization’s business operations and its systems from the perspective of a potential attacker. As a process, OPSEC can help your organization identify actions that could expose your sensitive information to unauthorized parties.
At its core, operational security uses the risk management process to uncover potential threats and vulnerabilities in your organization’s existing systems and processes as well as the software and hardware your organization uses. Sometimes, OPSEC also includes a number of analytical activities and processes like behavior monitoring, social media monitoring, and security best practices.
By approaching your systems and operations from an attacker’s point of view, you’ll be better able to discover issues that may have been previously overlooked or ignored so that you can implement the appropriate countermeasures and keep your data secure.
In today’s business climate, OPSEC is primarily centered around enterprise security measures, and especially cybersecurity. However, its origin story reveals how it can also be applied to a variety of other threat landscapes-such as the midst of a war.
During the Vietnam war, a U.S. military counterintelligence team called Purple Dragon first coined the term OPSEC, defining it as “the ability to keep knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses away from hostile forces.” The counterintelligence team recognized that their adversaries were able to anticipate the U.S. military’s strategies and tactics without decrypting communications or using intelligence assets to steal their data.
Eventually, they determined that the U.S. military operations were inadvertently revealing information to the enemy. In response, the team developed and deployed an operational security strategy that would help them anticipate the ways in which their sensitive data might be targeted.
Today, the same OPSEC process has been adopted by a number of government agencies including the Department of Defense (DoD) in their efforts to protect national security and trade secrets.
No matter how confidential or sensitive the information you’re trying to protect, OPSEC can be instrumental for organizations and government entities alike when it comes to addressing risk management and implementing incident response. Typically, those organizations that most effectively apply an OPSEC approach to their overall corporate governance tend to be better protected against cyber risks in the long run.
Now that you know what OPSEC is, it’s time to take a closer look at why it’s important for your organization, including some of the potential consequences stemming from a poorly executed or nonexistent risk management plan. Then, we’ll outline some of the steps you can take to create an operational security plan and provide a few best practices you should consider along the way.
What is the Importance of Operational Security?
As with most business endeavors, the primary motivation for an operational security program is financial. While the upfront cost involved in creating, implementing and maintaining a comprehensive risk management plan can be rather hefty, it’s probably a lot less than the average cost of a data breach in 2021 – a whopping $4.2 million. In addition to the financial burdens associated with an information security incident like a data breach, you also have to consider the reputational, legal and regulatory consequences.
Because OPSEC uses the risk management process to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities before they’re exploited, this type of approach can also protect your organization from potential business disruptions that could also affect your business financially.
The most effective operational security program is one that helps your organization prevent both intentional and unintentional exposure of your classified or sensitive information. Ultimately, this will enable your organization to prevent any details about your future activities, capabilities, and intentions from being made public without your authorization.
So, what is the key to a successful OPSEC program? The answer lies in identifying and understanding what your most sensitive information is, where it’s located, what level of protection is already applied to it.
In the next section, we’ll suggest five steps you can take to create an operational security plan that protects your organization and its sensitive information by using the risk management process to identify, analyze, prioritize and mitigate both existing and potential threats, vulnerabilities and operational risks.
5 Steps to Creating an Operational Security Plan
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to risk management-it’s a process that your organization will probably have to adjust a number of times before it really works, and even then, a serious disruption could force you to start all over again almost at any time.
Fortunately, there are a number of existing frameworks and risk management methodologies that can help your organization to get started. Before taking any of the following five steps, we recommend you begin by checking out some of the most common risk management frameworks, including NIST, COSO, ISO, and COBIT. This step is also important for determining whether your organization must meet compliance requirements or standards specific to your industry, and if so, what they are.
Additionally, we recommend that before you take the first step to creating an OPSEC plan, you make sure that you have the right team in place. As a best practice, this includes deploying dual control to ensure that the teams and individuals responsible for setting your security policies are separate from the teams and individuals responsible for maintaining the corporate network.
Once you’ve referenced some of the existing risk management frameworks, identified compliance requirements and assembled a team, it’s time to get started on your OPSEC plan.
Step 1: Identify Information Assets
Hopefully, you already have a pretty good idea of what data you have and what data is the most sensitive. This includes information such as customer details or other personally identifiable information, credit card numbers, bank account information, employee login credentials, financial statements, intellectual property, product research, trade secrets, and more.
Ask yourself, “what are the proverbial crown jewels of my organization?” Again, an OPSEC strategy means approaching risk management as if you were a cybercriminal yourself. Carefully consider what data might be most valuable or of most interest to a malicious actor, and how far they might be willing to go to get it.
Once you’ve completed the process of identification of critical information, then you can start to think about the less important stuff too. While you probably won’t be able to protect every single piece of data, it’s still a good idea to keep an updated inventory of all your assets and your information so that you can avoid this step in the future.
Step 2: Identify Threats
Now you need to determine the potential threats to each of the assets you identified in the previous step. This is where your team of security experts needs to come together in order to pinpoint all of the hypothetical threats to your information security. With OPSEC in mind, your team should hold table topping exercises that facilitate thinking about threats from a threat actor’s point of view.
In the cybersecurity realm, a threat generally involves a malicious act that aims to destroy your sensitive data, inflict harm on your organization, or disrupt your operations. Some of the most common cybersecurity threats today include malware and ransomware attacks, phishing campaigns, third-party data breaches, and insider threats.
Most importantly, behind every malicious act is a malicious actor. Whether it’s an anonymous hacker, nationstate, or disgruntled employee-it’s up to you and your team to imagine every possible scenario in which your most sensitive information might be compromised.
After this step, you should have a comprehensive list of all your information assets and all of the potential threats facing them. Ideally, you should keep this data in a threat catalogue or risk register so that you’re able to update it frequently as new threats emerge.
Step 3: Identify Vulnerabilities
At this point, you have two very important pieces of the puzzle: your assets and the threats to those assets. The next step is to identify and conduct an analysis of vulnerabilities in your security measures that could create an opportunity for a threat actor to exploit.
Vulnerability identification usually involves vulnerability detection using either vulnerability scanning software or penetration testing. With either method, the goal is to identify any vulnerabilities in your security so they can be ranked and remediated. To identify any known vulnerabilities in your systems, we also recommend referring to a vulnerability database such as the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) catalogue.
An important part of this step includes assessing the processes and technology solutions you already have in place and identifying any vulnerabilities or weaknesses in those systems. Vulnerabilities exist in systems regardless of make, model or version. In software and applications, vulnerabilities are often patched by the manufacturer to harden and prevent exploitation of the weakness.
Even with an effective patch management program in place, your organization is still at risk of zero-day exploits-vulnerabilities that were unknown or undiscovered until the very moment they were first successfully exploited. However, there are some things you can do to better position your organization’s response to these types of incidents, which we will discuss in more detail in the following section.
Step 4: Analysis
With all of the information you’ve collected thus far, you should have more than enough to begin the process of risk analysis. Ideally, this step should help you prioritize mitigation for the hypothetical security incidents with the highest potential for disruption-or risk level.
But before you conduct a risk analysis, you should first conduct a vulnerability assessment to help you rank your vulnerabilities based on the likelihood they will be targeted by an attacker, the level of damage that will incur if they are exploited, and the amount of time and work that will be required to mitigate and repair the damages.
Now, you should have everything you need for the following calculation: Threat x Vulnerability x Information Value. Together, these three factors will inform the level of risk associated with each of your information assets. You should also use this information to conduct an assessment of risks to help you determine not only the likelihood that a threat will occur, but also the impact of any resulting consequences.
The higher the likelihood and impact of a security incident, the more resources and priority your organization should dedicate to mitigating the risk. Prioritize your risks based on the cost of prevention vs. information value to help you determine specific actions senior management or other stakeholders should take to mitigate potential risks using risk level as a basis.
After your risk assessment, you should end up with a risk assessment report that will help you support management decision making on budget, policies and procedures. In this report, make sure to describe the risk, vulnerabilities and value for each threat along with the likelihood of occurrence and security control recommendations.
Step 5: Mitigation
In OPSEC, the first step to risk mitigation is putting the appropriate countermeasures in place to eliminate threats and mitigate cyber risks. Ideally, your approach to risk mitigation will involve a variety of both technological and best practice methods.
Typically, best practices for risk mitigation involve taking actions such as updating hardware and software, creating policies around safeguarding sensitive information, implementing identity and access management, and providing employee training on security best practices and data protection policies. Technological risk mitigation measures usually involve things like encryption, firewalls, antivirus software, threat hunting, and any other automated security processes.
Another important part of risk mitigation is incident response, and specifically, an incident response plan. How your organization responds to existing risks is important, but it’s also important to plan for cybersecurity threats that have yet to materialize.
It’s nearly impossible to mitigate every single cybersecurity risk in its entirety. Any risk left over after applying all the possible mitigation measures is called residual risk, and to deal with it, you have two choices: learn to live with it (accept the risk), or transfer the risk to an insurance provider who will absorb it for a fee.
3 Best Practices for OPSEC
There are far more than three best practices when it comes to operational security, but for the sake of brevity, we’ve chosen the top three things your organization can do to implement an OPSEC strategy that informs your overall risk management program.
Implement Identity & Access Management
Identity and access management (IAM) is about confirming that only authorized users have the appropriate access to your technology resources. The goal of IAM is to prevent data breaches and unauthorized access to your systems. IAM is an important component of risk management, and should receive special attention when it comes to OPSEC.
IAM is an umbrella category that encompasses a number of more specific technological controls and security best practices, including the following:
- The principle of least privilege.
- Zero trust.
- Multi-factor authentication.
- Single sign-on.
As a best practice, IAM has a number of benefits for the organizations that employ it. The most obvious is that it’s a practice that will effectively protect your business interests, information assets, and stakeholders from cybercrime.
Create a Disaster Recovery & Incident Response Plan
Even the most well-protected organizations can still fall victim to a cyberattack, or any other type of disruption. When disaster strikes, your organization needs to be prepared. Having a plan in place will help you resume operations as quickly as possible. From natural disasters to cyberattacks, a disaster recovery plan (DRP) will help you regain access and functionality to your IT infrastructure following the event.
Disaster recovery planning is one aspect of business continuity planning that often gets overlooked. A business continuity plan (BCP) is a set of contingency plans that outlines how your organization will continue business operations and essential services in the case of an emergency or unexpected event. Ultimately, business continuity is about building resilience-ensuring that your organization will survive a potentially catastrophic event.
Creating a BCP and a DRP is a critical step for developing a proactive risk management program. A well-designed DRP will enable a more efficient recovery of your critical systems, and it will help your organization avoid any further damage to your mission-critical operations.
Another important part of proactive risk mitigation is incident response, and specifically, an incident response plan. How your organization responds to existing risks is important, but it’s also important to plan for cybersecurity threats that have yet to materialize.
Automate Wherever Possible
In the world of technology and cybersecurity, humans are often the weakest link. If left to their own devices, most systems and software would run perfectly without much room for incident. But when humans are introduced into the equation, the likelihood that a mistake will occur suddenly increases exponentially.
Humans make errors, and they act maliciously-things that technology doesn’t necessarily do on its own. To eliminate these errors, more and more organizations are turning to automation for help. Automated solutions reduce the likelihood that someone will interrupt those processes that can be executed without the help of humans.
Fortunately, there are good governance, risk management and compliance (GRC) solutions that can help automate the worst parts of the risk management process for you.
Secure Your Business with Reciprocity ZenRisk
To get the most out of your risk management program, you need a solution that can help you better manage risks and mitigate business exposure by providing you with greater visibility across your organization.
Reciprocity® ZenRisk is an integrated cybersecurity risk management solution designed to provide you with actionable insights to gain the visibility you need to stay ahead of threats and clearly communicate the impact of risk on high-priority business initiatives. Turn the unknown into quantifiable and actionable risk insights with built-in expertise that identifies and maps risks, threats and controls for you, so you can spend less time setting up the application and more time using it.
A single, real-time view of risk and business context allows you to clearly communicate to the board and key stakeholders in a way that’s framed around their priorities, keeping your risk posture in sync with the direction your business is moving.
Reciprocity ZenRisk will even notify you automatically of any changes or required actions, so you can be on top of your risk posture like never before. Eliminate time-consuming, manual work and streamline collaboration by automating workflows and integrating with your most critical systems.
Plus, Reciprocity ZenRisk is seamlessly integrated with Reciprocity ZenComply so you can leverage your compliance activities to improve your risk posture with the use of AI. Built on the Reciprocity ROAR Platform, the Reciprocity product suite gives you the ability to see, understand and take action on your IT and cyber risks.
Now, through a more proactive approach, you can give time back to your team with Reciprocity ZenRisk. Talk to an expert today to learn more about how the Reciprocity Product Suite can help your organization mitigate cybersecurity risk and stay ahead of threats.