What You Need to Know About Cybersecurity Risk Assessments

April 16, 2020 Eric Dosal Eric Dosal

8 Min Read

Today’s organizations don’t want to be in the dark when it comes to identifying potential risks that threaten their data and network security. The consequences of suffering a data breach, ransomware attack, or similar incident are simply too dire to ignore, which is why so many companies are undergoing cybersecurity risk assessments to protect their critical assets, data, and applications. 

What is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?

In very simple terms, a cybersecurity risk assessment is a form of IT security testing used to identify and evaluate potential vulnerabilities and threats to an organization’s information systems, IT operations, and data assets. They can be applied to an organization as a whole or focus on specific departments, systems, or processes. Regardless of the types of risk assessment tools utilized, an assessment will provide you with a detailed snapshot of how effective your existing security measures and policies are when it comes to mitigating risk.

Some of the things a typical cybersecurity risk assessment could identify include (but are not limited to):

  • Mission-critical applications
  • Sensitive data
  • Subpar device management
  • Network vulnerabilities
  • Insider threat potential

A cybersecurity risk assessment also takes into account the likely impact of an incident. What, for example, would be the cost of suffering a data breach? If a hacker gains access to critical systems, will they be able to move laterally throughout the network? Does everyone within the organization know how to respond when the network is compromised?

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Most organizations use the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework as their source for cyber risk best practices. First released to the public in 2014, the Cybersecurity Framework was designed through a collaboration between industry and government to identify and promote the best strategies for protecting critical IT infrastructure and data. The standard was updated to the current Version 1.1 in 2018 to provide more guidance on issues related to identity management and supply chain cybersecurity.

The Cybersecurity Framework consists of three primary components:

Framework Core

The first foundational component provides organizations with desired cybersecurity practices and goals that help them to better manage risk in ways that complement their existing security controls and processes. Core lays out industry standards, guidelines, and practices that allow cybersecurity activities and outcomes to be communicated across an organization, from the executive level down to the operations level.

Framework Implementation Tiers

This component describes the scope of an organization’s cybersecurity risk management practices, ranging from Tier 1 (partial) to Tier 4 (adaptive). Each successive tier incorporates more intensive and increasingly proactive risk management solutions to meet changing business needs, regulatory requirements, and shifting threat environments.

Framework Profiles

The final component establishes an organization’s alignment of their specific requirements and objectives, risk tolerance, and resources against the desired outcomes defined in Framework Core. Profiles help them to identify and prioritize areas where cybersecurity can be improved. Organizations can use Profiles to assess their progress as well, comparing their “Current” Profile (“as is” state) to a defined “Target” Profile (“to be” state).

Why do Companies Conduct Cybersecurity Risk Assessments?

Understanding and navigating risk is foundational for any successful business strategy. With that in mind, there are naturally many benefits to conducting a cybersecurity risk assessment. Failing to identify the risks your organization faces from a cybersecurity standpoint can also leave you vulnerable to a wide range of unpleasant consequences.

Long-Term Cost Reduction

While conducting a security assessment may seem like a luxury when resources are tight and things are going well, identifying and addressing threats before they lead to a cybersecurity incident can save costs tremendously in the long run. Setting aside the potential for serious financial losses, a single incident can damage an organization’s reputation beyond repair. Putting scalable cybersecurity processes and controls in place early can also make it easier to meet future risks as your company grows.

Improved Awareness

Simply knowing where vulnerabilities are located is critical to developing a plan for improvement. Cybersecurity risk assessments help organizations to identify their weaknesses so they can focus their resources on solving problem areas. Their findings can be used to create or modify information security policies that establish clear data management processes and educate employees about the various threats the organization faces.

Prevent Data Breaches

Few threats loom larger in the minds of organizations than data breaches. Whether it’s a breach involving proprietary assets or sensitive customer data, these incidents can expose companies to massive financial losses and devastate their reputations. Performing a cybersecurity risk assessment can identify where IT systems may be vulnerable to infiltration, potentially saving an organization from catastrophe.

Avoid Compliance Issues

Many industries are subjected to complex regulatory guidelines and compliance standards, and any organization that fails to adhere to these requirements can find themselves struggling to compete in an information-rich marketplace. Some compliance standards (such as HIPAA/HITECH) are mandated by federal law and can carry a hefty regulatory fine when violations lead to data breaches. Failing to comply with other standards, such as PCI DSS or ISO/IEC 27001:2013, may not result in fines, but could make it difficult for a company to work with vendors or convince customers to let them handle their sensitive data.

Reduce System Downtime

Organizations that struggle to deliver high levels of network uptime and data availability will also struggle to keep customers. System downtime results in several cascading negative effects, including lost productivity, lost opportunities, and, in some cases, lost data. Risk assessments identify potential points of failure and help organizations identify where redundancies need to be put in place to avoid a costly network outage.

What Does a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment Include?

A cybersecurity risk assessment should be conducted at least every two years, but organizations that handle large volumes of data or face specific, industry-related compliance guidelines will typically conduct assessments more often. The scope and types of risk assessment will vary based on a variety of factors, but the size and complexity of an organization’s IT environment could determine what path the assessment should take.

Regardless of scope, all risk assessment methods should aim to understand the existing IT system architecture and network environment and then utilize security testing tools to analyze gathered data to identify potential risks. Importantly, an assessment should never assume that it knows where risks are located. Doing so could lead to a scattered approach that fails to create a comprehensive picture of risk.

This IT inventory should include any devices that connect to the network as well as any connections to third-party services such as cloud providers or off-site data storage. With so many devices now capable of connecting to the internet, security vulnerabilities could be found in rather unexpected places. The review should also evaluate all documentation and processes related to the organization’s network systems.

Some areas of specific focus typically include:

  • System architecture and network configurations.
  • Physical assets and devices.
  • Database management systems.
  • Access control mechanisms.
  • Antivirus and anti-spam controls.
  • Business and technology processes.
  • Identification and authentication mechanisms.
  • Documented security procedures.
  • Compliance attestations and audit reports

How to Do a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment 

Once all the relevant information has been gathered, it’s time to conduct the cybersecurity risk assessment. NIST positions the assessment itself as part of a broader risk management process designed to produce an effective strategy that helps organizations make decisions involving risk.

NIST’s Risk Management Process

  1. Frame Risk: Establishes the context of risk, or the environment in which risk-based decisions will be made.
  2. Assess Risk: The actual risk assessment process that identifies the vulnerabilities that could threaten an organization.
  3. Respond to Risk: Establishes a course of action for addressing specific threats identified in the risk assessment.
  4. Monitor Risk: Evaluates whether or not the organization’s response to risk has been effective over a period of time.

NIST’s 6 Risk Assessment Steps 

The NIST’s Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments lays out a series of specific risk assessment steps that should be taken to evaluate risks accurately.

  1. Identify threat sources that are relevant to the organization.
  2. Identify threat events that could be produced by those sources.
  3. Identify vulnerabilities within organizations that could be exploited by threat sources through specific threat events and the predisposing conditions that could affect successful exploitation.
  4. Determine the likelihood that the identified threat sources would initiate specific threat events and the likelihood that the threat events would be successful.
  5. Determine the adverse impacts to organizational operations and assets, individuals, and other organizations resulting from the exploitation of vulnerabilities by threat sources (through specific events).
  6. Determine information security risks as a combination of likelihood of threat exploitation of vulnerabilities and the impact of such exploitation, including any uncertainties associated with the risk determinations.

Maintaining Security Following a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment With a Virtual CISO

After threats are identified during the assessment and solutions put into place during the response stage, organizations still face the ongoing challenge of monitoring whether or not their risk management strategy is successfully mitigating risk. Unfortunately, many companies lack the necessary resources to hire a full-time chief information security officer (CISO) to enforce its new cybersecurity strategies. Without an emphasis on risk management being pushed down through every level of the organization, there is a strong possibility of backsliding to older, higher-risk habits.

Fortunately, a virtual CISO service from a managed security service provider (MSSP) can take on the responsibility of maintaining these cybersecurity policies at a much lower cost. With a VCISO service, organizations gain access to an entire team of cybersecurity experts who can provide 24/7 surveillance and support. Drawing upon a broad range of collective knowledge and experience, a VCISO team can deploy the latest security testing tools to make ongoing adjustments to your risk management strategy to ensure that it accounts for the new threats as they emerge.

Cyber Security Analyst vs Virtual CISO: Which Option is Better?

Some organizations that lack the resources to bring on a dedicated CISO turn instead to a cyber security analyst. This position is often tasked with assessing risk, evaluating threat intelligence, and implementing security measures and controls to safeguard data and critical infrastructure. They may also be responsible for actively responding to security breaches. Sometimes called information security analysts, cyber security analysts are typically much easier to find and hire than a CISO. That’s because cyber security analyst tends to be an entry-level IT position that requires less experience and education. For an organization capable of hiring multiple analysts to fill out an IT department, they can present an attractive option.

For most companies, however, hiring a single cyber security analyst provides far less utility. The analyst may not have the experience necessary to build an entire security strategy or design comprehensive controls for data and access management. More importantly, they’re still only one person. That means when they’re not on the job, an organization could be more vulnerable to attack. With a VCISO service, companies have 24/7 access to an experienced team of security experts. That team also brings more expertise to the table than a single cyber security analyst, especially if that analyst lacks extensive experience with developing enterprise security solutions.

Whether your organization is ready to undertake its first cybersecurity risk assessment or is looking for a trusted partner to implement a plan in the aftermath of an assessment, Compuquip’s VCISO team is ready to help. Contact us today to find out how a virtual CISO service can help protect you from the risks that can potentially threaten your business.

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