A security risk assessment evaluates the information security risks posed by the applications and technologies that an organization develops and uses.

An essential part of enterprise risk management, the cybersecurity risk assessment specifically identifies potential threats to information systems, devices, applications, and networks. A risk analysis is completed for each identified risk, and security controls are pinpointed to mitigate or eliminate these threats.

Security risk assessments are essential not just for cybersecurity, but also for regulatory compliance. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) require periodic security risk assessments.

What Are the Elements of Risk Assessment?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Special Publication 800-53, Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments, provides a framework for the risk assessment process. Unlike vulnerability assessments, risk assessments consider elements beyond attack vectors and vulnerable assets.

Risk assessment models typically involve these elements:


The security risk assessments allow you to identify your organization’s critical technology assets and the sensitive data those devices create, store, or transmit. This information is crucial to developing risk management processes tailored to your company’s particular needs.

Risk Profile Creation

Risk profiles are analyses of the potential risks associated with individual assets, allowing you to determine the impact of these assets on your overall risk landscape. Risk profiles facilitate the creation of independent security requirements for physical or digital information assets, and reduce security standards costs throughout the organization.

Critical Assets Map

Determining the workflow and communication process among critical assets provides a distinct risk management perspective focused on maintaining business operations in the event of cyberattacks. In addition, understanding the communication, storage, and distribution of sensitive information facilitates the formulation of safeguard measures to prevent data breaches.

Assets Prioritization

With the number of security threats discovered every day, your company will inevitably suffer a cyberattack or data breach at some point. Prioritizing your assets facilitates the recovery of your business processes when an unexpected event occurs, such as a natural disaster or a cyberattack.

Mitigation Plan

No information gathered in your information security risk assessment will protect your stakeholders unless you use its findings to develop mitigation measures. IT infrastructure segmentation, backup policies, disaster recovery, and business continuity plans are examples of mitigation strategies that use the risk assessment reports to manage the impact of adverse events.

Vulnerability and Cybersecurity Risk Prevention

Within the risk assessment methodology, it’s critical to evaluate the impact of your remediation policies on your security posture. For example, access controls, advanced authentication methodologies, firewalls, vulnerability scanning, and penetration testing can protect high-risk infrastructure from cyber threats.

Constant Monitoring

Even if risk assessments are performed regularly, some measures can passively monitor your network to identify threats and prevent security incidents. For example, passive vulnerability scanners or antivirus scanners perform ongoing monitoring and facilitate information security management.

How Do You Conduct Security Risk Assessments?

A security risk assessment should encompass all parts of a business, from information technology to operations to human resources and accounting. An assessment is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Nonetheless, each assessment provides unique value when following a proven methodology. These steps will guide you to performing a comprehensive assessment.

Asset Identification and Prioritization

Servers, client contact information, critical partner papers, trade secrets, and other items are examples of assets. As a result, you must compile a comprehensive list of all assets to know what needs to be protected. Gather the following information for each asset, where applicable:

  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Data
  • Information storage protection
  • Physical security environment
  • IT security policies
  • Users
  • Support personnel
  • Technical security controls
  • Mission or purpose
  • Criticality
  • Functional requirements
  • Interfaces
  • IT security architecture

You will almost certainly have to limit the scope of the remaining phases to mission-critical assets; otherwise, the process may become too overwhelming. As your organization gains more experience with the techniques, the scope can be expanded.

As a result, you must establish criteria for calculating the value of each item. The asset’s monetary worth, legal standing, and relevance to the company are common factors. Once management has accepted the criteria and formally included it in the risk assessment security policy, use it to classify each asset as critical, major, or minor.

Threat Identification

A threat can be any event that causes damage to your organizational assets or processes. Threats can be internal or external, as well as malicious or accidental. Many threats are unique to your organization, and many are common to your entire industry. As a result, it’s essential to perform a thorough screening for all potential threats.

Vulnerability Identification

A vulnerability is a flaw that allows risk to disrupt your company. Analysis, audit reports, the NIST vulnerability database, vendor data, information security test and evaluation (ST&E) methods, penetration testing, and automated vulnerability scanning technologies can all be used to identify vulnerabilities.

Don’t restrict your analysis to technical flaws; there are also physical and human flaws. For example, placing your data room in the basement makes you more vulnerable to flooding. Additionally, failing to teach your staff about the dangers of phishing attacks makes you more susceptible to malware.

Controls Analysis

Analyze the measures that are in place to reduce or eliminate the likelihood that a threat will exploit a vulnerability. Encryption, intrusion detection techniques, and identity and authentication solutions are examples of technical controls. Security policies, administrative measures, and physical and environmental processes are examples of non-technical controls.

Both technical and non-technical controls might be defined as either preventative or detective. Preventive controls try to anticipate and prevent problems from happening. Detective controls, including audits and intrusion detection systems, are used to detect risks that have already happened or are still in progress.

Determination of Incident Likelihood

Evaluate the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited. Factors to consider include the kind of vulnerability, the capacity and purpose of the threat source, and the existence of internal controls. Many companies use a scale of high-, medium-, or low-risk (rather than a numerical score) to estimate the chance of an adverse event.

Impact Assessment

It is also necessary to assess the impact of these threats on your company’s operations if they were to materialize, along with potential ripple effects or collateral damage. Similarly, this impact can be categorized as high, medium, or low.

Information Security Risks Prioritization

In this phase, the severity of each threat is determined according to its likelihood of occurrence and its impact. The value calculation will provide a risk prioritization scale, which will allow security teams to focus on those with the highest severity.

Recommendation of Measures

According to the severity scale, mitigation or prevention measures (such as internal controls) can be recommended to ensure the best outcome based on cost-benefit, reliability, applicable regulations, effectiveness, reliability, and operational impact.

Assessment Report

Finally, create a risk assessment report to help your risk management team make the most favorable decisions to protect your organization and its stakeholders. For each threat, you should visualize its corresponding vulnerability, assets at risks, impact, the likelihood of occurrence, and recommendations.

Which Industries Require Security Risk Assessments?

Every company deals with some type of sensitive data. Many companies require personally identifiable information (PII) or personal health information (PHI) for corporate operations. This data is provided by partners, clients, and customers. Some of the industries that require periodic risk assessments are:

Healthcare Industry

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires all covered entities and business associates to conduct security risk assessments to identify threats and prevent data breaches. If a data breach is identified, an assessment must be completed to determine the level of risk posed to individuals and communicate accordingly.

Payment Card Industry

According to requirement 12.2 of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), any business that processes or handles payment cards must adopt a risk assessment methodology that is completed at least annually and whenever there are substantial changes in the environment.

Critical assets, threats, vulnerabilities, and the impact on the cardholder data environment, must all be identified throughout the risk assessment process. A formal, documented risk analysis should emerge from the risk assessment.

Public Companies

These types of organizations must perform a top-down risk assessment (TDRA) to comply with SOX Section 404. The purpose of the TDRA is to determine the effectiveness of the company’s internal controls and, depending on the company’s size, requires an external auditor for its implementation.

Conduct Risk Assessments with ZenGRC

Nothing should be left to chance in a security risk assessment. Errors and omissions caused by manual procedures and untrained hands may be expensive and damaging to your company’s reputation.

Instead of using spreadsheets to manage your security and compliance requirements, adopt ZenGRC to streamline evidence and audit management for all of your compliance frameworks. ZenGRC’s compliance, risk, and workflow management software is intuitive and easy to use.

ZenGRC is ready to assist you in managing the whole lifecycle of all your essential cybersecurity risk management frameworks, such as PCI, ISO, HIPAA, and others. Templates and control mapping simplifies document management and reduces duplication of efforts across frameworks.

It is a single source of truth that ensures your organization is always audit-ready. Policies and procedures are revision-controlled and easy to find in the document repository. Workflow management and risk registry features offer easy tracking, automated reminders, and audit trails. Insightful reporting and dashboards provide visibility to gaps and high-risk areas.

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

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