Digital transformation has created enormous opportunities for businesses to grow and prosper. It has also brought great risk, foremost from criminals armed with sophisticated cyber-attack tools.

To ward off those attackers, and to keep critical infrastructure and data safe, organizations must protect themselves with the right tools, technologies, and procedures — but first the organization must understand where it is vulnerable; and that is where cyber situational awareness comes in.

Cyber situational awareness is your understanding of the IT environment and the cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities confronting that environment; as well as anticipating the potential consequences. Awareness enables enterprises to get a holistic, real-time view of cyber threats, understand their security profile, and respond appropriately to a security event.

Effective cyber situational awareness requires both people and technology. Technology like cybersecurity tools and automation software allows organizations to collect, analyze, and respond to threat data. But people are also crucial because they’re the ones who use the tools, interpret the data, use tools, and make decisions to strengthen cyber defense.

What Are the Benefits of Cyber Situational Awareness?

Strengthen Cyber Defenses

Cyber situational awareness empowers organizations to understand current risks and anticipate future ones. Organizations can then design or identify the required solutions to strengthen their cybersecurity posture and improve their risk management program.

Protect Organizational Assets

By anticipating future adverse events, leaders and decision-makers can develop effective countermeasures to protect themselves, their IT assets, and their customers and stakeholders from cyber-attacks such as malware and data breaches.

Mitigate Human Weaknesses

These figures show how humans are a critical weakness in cybersecurity:

  • 66 percent of organizations believe that insider attacks are more likely than external attacks;
  • 57 percent feel that insider incidents have become more frequent since 2020 (particularly since the onset of the pandemic);
  • 59 percent of IT leaders expect insider risks to increase over the next two years.

The potential for human error is high, and these errors could lead to severe damage. To prevent such errors (or at least to catch them early) cyber situational awareness is crucial.

Cyber situational awareness enables organizations to understand threats from employees, ex-employees, and even third-party stakeholders. Equally important, it sets the stage for designing appropriate threat response and risk mitigation strategies.

What Are the Key Elements of Cyber Situational Awareness?

The modern cyber threat landscape is vast, complex, and constantly growing. Organizations require more than reactive cybersecurity operations and stand-alone tools for intrusion detection or endpoint protection to stay ahead of the bad guys.

A lack of real-time and relevant information about threats and threat actors, and a poor understanding of your own cyber situation, can be particularly dangerous. That cyber situational awareness must be improved on three key fronts:

Network Situational Awareness

Once upon a time enterprise networks were much less complex than they are today. They had closely defined perimeters and on-premises systems; and didn’t have to deal with the risks created by remote workers, BYOD devices, cloud-based assets, or third-party access. All of this has now changed.

Today the enterprise network no longer has a defined perimeter, and the number of threats in the network environment has exploded. To prevent these threats from damaging enterprise systems or data, comprehensive network situational awareness is crucial. It should include multiple aspects, including:

  • Understand the structure of the network;
  • Regularly inventory and continually manage all assets and configurations;
  • Implement robust patch and upgrade management;
  • Perform routine vulnerability auditing to find vulnerabilities before bad actors can exploit them;
  • Improve incident awareness, and share this information across the organization and with relevant stakeholders.

Threat Intelligence

New threats, vulnerabilities, and threat actors are emerging every day, so organizations must scale up their threat awareness. Further, threat awareness must include up-to-date knowledge of both external and internal threats. And for this, threat intelligence is vital.

Actionable threat intelligence provides contextual, real-time threat information that empowers organizations to prevent, identify, prioritize, and mitigate cyber-attacks.

To maintain high threat awareness in the modern-day threat landscape, enterprises must:

  • Identify and track all internal threats, including suspicious behaviors;
  • Identify, track, and stay current on external threats;
  • Participate in information sharing communities to stay updated on new and emerging threats.

Mission Awareness

Cyber situational awareness is incomplete without mission awareness, which we can broadly define as an awareness of the organization’s mission or business, and how threats and countermeasures fit into the perspective or context of this mission. To start with, this requires developing a comprehensive view of the critical mission dependencies to operate in cyberspace successfully.

By understanding these dependencies, the organization can:

  • Respond appropriately to a security event or crisis;
  • Triage, or prioritize, security incidents as per their impact on the organization’s mission or business;
  • Anticipate threats and risks by conducting risk and readiness assessments;
  • Implement informed defense planning to mitigate future events;
  • Conduct post-event forensic analysis to identify and address gaps in the security posture, and to minimize the chance of repeat events in future.

How Can I Improve My Cyber Situational Awareness?

Ongoing and robust cyber protection requires cyber situational awareness at every level of the enterprise. A tactical and on-the-ground understanding of threats is critical for day-to-day security.

It’s also crucial to develop strategic and operational cyber situational awareness. Senior leadership should understand the potential impact of a security event on the organization’s ability to execute its operations.

To achieve this level of situational awareness, lower-level details must be summarized and correlated to the business context. It’s also important to look for information about:

  • Indicators of compromise (IoC);
  • Threat actors;
  • Tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs);
  • Threat trends.

The right tools can help improve visibility into the threat landscape and improve situational awareness by tracking:

  • Enterprise devices (endpoints), processes, applications, and users (both authorized and unauthorized users);
  • How authorized assets serve the organization, and how critical they are;
  • Known vulnerabilities on these assets.

In addition to leveraging tools for:

  • Threat detection and management;
  • Network management;
  • Incident reporting;
  • Threat intelligence sharing;
  • Risk monitoring.

Enterprises must also integrate information and contextualize it to create a clear picture of what is versus what should be. For this, a robust system for situational awareness can be beneficial.

Finally, organizations should assure that information sharing happens regularly and at every level. Creating awareness about threats and vulnerabilities should flow from security and IT operations teams to employees to provide ground-level situational awareness.

At the same time, empower employees to share information with security stakeholders via incident reporting for strong threat mitigation. Cybersecurity awareness yields dividends when you can prevent chaos, rather than react to it.

Mitigate Cyber Risks With ZenGRC

Improve your organization’s cyber situational awareness and control cyber risks with ZenGRC. Leverage its single source of truth to centralize activities for risk management and mitigation.

Manage information security risk across the enterprise, prioritize concerns, and take quick actions to address vulnerabilities before bad actors exploit them. ZenGRC can help you mitigate business exposure and maintain a consistently strong cybersecurity profile. Learn more about ZenGRC.