How to Conduct a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

Cybersecurity breaches are expected to increase nearly 70% by 2024. Despite most companies knowing about this growing threat, a recent survey found that 61% of companies have understaffed cybersecurity teams.

Every company, no matter its size, needs to prepare for the prevalent and growing threat of cybercrime so they can protect their business’ and customers’ data.

How do you start bolstering your defenses against cybercrime? By conducting a cybersecurity risk assessment. Let’s go over what a risk assessment is, its purpose, why it’s so important, and how you should approach it.

What Is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?

Cybersecurity risk assessments are processes that identify and evaluate cybersecurity risks within a system, whether it involves software or hardware. Once the threats are evaluated, they are prioritized based on the risk factors. Then your cybersecurity team can make informed decisions about ongoing security improvements.

Risk assessment should not be confused with risk management (even though they often work hand-in-hand). Risk assessment is a proactive way to assess and prioritize risks, while risk management often refers to dealing with risks after they present themselves.

What’s the Purpose of Cybersecurity Risk Assessments?

Cybersecurity risk assessments are multi-faceted, but their primary purpose is to act as a preventative measure, rather than a reactive protocol. To achieve this purpose, cybersecurity assessments have two components:

  • Identifying cybersecurity threats
  • Establishing a strategy to combat those threats

While there are many ways you can improve your cybersecurity hygiene, cybersecurity risk assessments are one of the most proactive strategies you can implement.

Why Is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment So Important?

Nearly every organization today, across all industries, relies on information technology to run its operations. And for most, those systems are not easily replaceable or repairable—they’re finely tuned and specialized. Allowing them to be compromised can spell danger for both your business and your clients.

Additionally, cybersecurity threats are always changing. When combined with other tools, like threat intelligence software, your cybersecurity risk assessment can alert you to the most advanced cyberattacks.

As such, organizations must do everything in their power to protect and secure those technologies from threats.

Are Cybersecurity Threats That Severe?

Yes, cybersecurity threats are both severe and incredibly prevalent. Some counts estimate that a cyberattack is launched 2,200 times a day, or once every 39 seconds.

Plus, while the frequency of cybersecurity attacks has trended downward in recent years, the severity of breaches has increased, costing some businesses millions of dollars to repair or restore what was lost.

Cube block combined a risk word.

The Dangers of Not Doing Risk Assessment

If you don’t practice cybersecurity threat assessments and allow your system to remain vulnerable to the threats currently out there, you could risk:

  • Eroding client trust: If you let the personal data of your customers get into the wrong hands, you can seriously harm your organization’s reputation. Depending on the type of personal information you carry, a public breach could cause even the most loyal customers flock to your competitors.

  • Spending thousands of dollars in reparations: It costs to patch up your security network when you find threats. But those costs don’t equate to what it can cost to repair your system.

  • Wasting time looking for a solution: When you assess risks ahead of time, you know where the holes are. So even when a breach occurs, you can quickly identify how it happened. But if you don’t practice cybersecurity risk assessment, you’ll waste precious time looking for the solution.

What Industries Require Security Risk Assessments?

While every industry could benefit from stronger cybersecurity, there are four industries that have specific cybersecurity requirements:

Healthcare: Health facilities hold a lot of sensitive information about their employees and their patients. Protocols established by HIPAA, and section 5 of the Federal Trade Commissions Act penalize healthcare organizations for not adequately protecting information systems.

Government: Governing agencies and government contractors have an obligation to protect the information they gather about their citizens and the projects they work on. While the FTC Act also applies to government entities, Executive Order 14028 (Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity) has added additional mandates on the criteria for evaluating software security and security practices.

Financial services: Banks and other financial institutions hold what is quite literally the most valuable resource: their customers’ financial information. As such, a data breach could lead to catastrophic consequences. Many different institutions have mandated cybersecurity protocols, but the Financial Sector Cybersecurity Framework profile, developed by the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council (FSSCC), is a protocol that helps to consolidate all those issues.

Energy: Cybersecurity breaches to fuel lines and power grids can spell disaster for millions. The office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) outlines several directives those in the energy sector must follow to keep their systems protected and online.

5 Steps of a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

There are five main phases to cybersecurity risk assessment: prepare, frame, assess, monitor, and respond. Within each of those phases are individual steps—we’ll go through every step in each phase so you can ensure your system is protected with proven practices.

1. Prepare

Before you do anything, you need to prepare for the assessment. This means establishing the scope of the assessment. Are you looking at just a small portion of your cybersecurity framework? Or are you running through the entire thing?

This is also the time to identify any hypotheses or assumptions you have about your cybersecurity. For example, an IT professional may have identified a vulnerability that prompted you to begin this assessment.

You must also identify who and what will be a part of this assessment. If you have an IT team, they may be the leading group. Or, if you work with an outsourced cybersecurity firm, you’d let them take point on the project.

2. Frame

The second step is to frame the risk, which essentially means to contextualize it. Framing would answer questions like, “Where does this risk create a vulnerability?” and, “If the risk turns into a breach, how would it affect other systems?”

The framing process should give your cybersecurity professional plenty of context around the risk to help them create a strategy for the next three steps. 

This phase requires complete transparency and crystal clear communication. Every team member involved must understand the full weight of the risk to properly plan for it.

Think of this phase as the “identification” portion of the risk assessment—you’ll find out what’s there and what that means for your security. Thus, framing will look something like this:

1. Identify threat sources: Cybercriminals aren’t working from scratch—they’re exploiting already existent holes in your framework. This step’s aim is to find out why those holes exist. Are there situations that may unintentionally expose a vulnerability? Are there coding errors caused by human error? Or are there structural issues to your security framework that leave room for intruders?

2. Identify threat events: Threat events are the actions or techniques your cyber-adversaries use to exploit your cybersecurity. But instead of waiting for them to take those actions, you would find out what those attacks would look like on your own.

3. Identify vulnerabilities and predisposing conditions: Vulnerabilities don’t only lie within the software framework of cybersecurity, but also in the physical organization of your system. Who has access to your data? Do some personnel not need access? Sifting through your security controls and data permissions can identify those vulnerabilities.

3. Assess

Once you’ve finished framing those cybersecurity threats, it’s time to assess them. This is where you determine the adverse impact of each threat and the likelihood of them occurring. You can then rank each threat based on their severity and likelihood of their occurence, thus giving you an accurate determination of risk.

But how do you determine these variables? Let’s look at each one:

  • Determine likelihood: The likelihood of a threat depends on two things. The first is the likelihood that the vulnerability will be exploited. Is it easy to exploit? The second is the likelihood that the threat event results in negative consequences. While some threats are highly exploitable, they don’t always have the same result because of safeguards and other factors.

  • Determine impact: What kind of impact would the threat event have? Would the perpetrator be able to alter information, copy data, or delete your data entirely? How much information would they be able to manipulate by exploiting the vulnerability

  • Determine risk: By combining the above two factors, you can accurately determine which vulnerabilities pose the greatest threat to your organization. A vulnerability should be deemed a high organizational threat if it would be both incredibly damaging and highly likely to occur. If the threat is highly likely but not incredibly damaging (or vice versa), they would appear lower on your priority list.

4. Respond

Now that your threats are properly identified and ranked, it’s time to respond to them. This involves testing and finding solutions to the threats so they no longer pose a problem to your system.

But to create and implement those risk responses, a few steps need to be taken:

  • Develop various courses of action: There are always several different approaches you could take to solve a cybersecurity problem. This first step is simply being able to identify what all of those different approaches are. They may not all be great options, but don’t sift through them yet—think of this as the brainstorming session.

  • Evaluate those different courses of action: After compiling your list of solutions, evaluate them. Which are simpler to implement? Which provides optimal support? Which are long-term remedies and not just short-term solutions? You’ll also need to consider if the remedies are in line with the cybersecurity requirements of your industry.

  • Determine the most appropriate solution: After you’ve determined which courses of action offer long-term fixes and add significant cybersecurity improvements, you can add those protocols to your cybersecurity strategy.

5. Monitor

Finally, after making those changes to your cybersecurity, you must monitor those changes to see if they remain effective at securing your vulnerabilities.

This part takes time—it may not be immediately obvious if a remedy works or not. Therefore, be patient and check back frequently to see if your solution has caused any additional vulnerabilities. If they have, then you can repeat all of these steps to find a better solution (or try one of the other courses of action you discovered in the last step).

Example of Cybersecurity Risk Report

When you examine all of the current threats to your network, you may find it helpful to lay them all out in a chart in your final report. That way, decision-makers can quickly scan through the threats and risk factors and properly address each one in an appropriate amount of time. 

Here is an example of cybersecurity risk assessment report:

Threat Vulnerability Asset & Consequences Risk Solution
Data leaks
Personal internet usage on work device
Unauthorized access to Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI)
Low
Restrict web access to content that is unnecessary to the organization
Accidental file deletion from human interference
Permissions improperly assigned to individuals who don’t need them
All files in a file share could be compromised and critical data could be lost
Moderate
Change and monitor permissions and establish data backups
Malicious human interference with a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS)
Firewall has not been updated for some time, breachable vulnerabilities could be present
Website could become unavailable to users
High
Update and monitor firewall

Can I Perform a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment On My Own?

You should not perform a cybersecurity risk assessment on your own. Frankly, there is too much to do for one person or small IT team to take the task on by themselves. 

Even when well-versed with cybersecurity protocol, going through every cybersecurity risk would simply take too much time. And if vulnerabilities do exist, a breach might occur before you become aware of it, which could result in financial and reputational damage. 

To ensure you are aware of all digital cyber threats to your critical infrastructure and systems and can respond swiftly, it’s best to work with a cybersecurity firm, like Constella. With our digital risk protection platform and assistance, you can rest easy knowing that your people and company’s infrastructure and systems are properly monitored and protected.

Request a demo to see our full services in action.

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