How to Perform an IT Security Risk Assessment

Today’s organizations are getting serious about cyber-crime prevention.
Rather than keeping security concerns largely compartmentalized, cyber-attack prevention is now seen as a core strategic objective. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020, business leaders rank cyber-attacks as the second greatest risk for businesses globally over the next decade. This places it in the same category as climate inaction, economic confrontations, loss of planetary biodiversity, and other profound long-term risks.

Business leaders, clearly, are more appreciative than ever of the value of a strong security posture. Yet these good intentions must translate into vigorous action — and performing a comprehensive IT cybersecurity risk assessment is one of the most impactful things any organization can do in this regard.

Let’s take a closer look at cyber-risk assessments and how smart organizations handle them.

Why Cyber Security Risk Assessments for Business Are More Important Than Ever

If you read the news headlines, you likely have a sense of the state of modern security. Large scale data breaches occur with alarming regularity, and attackers grow ever more sophisticated. Complicating matters is the rapid growth of the overall cybersecurity attack surface, which includes all IT and Internet-exposed environments, networks, devices, applications etc. The bottom line is simple: Attackers are becoming more powerful and coordinated while the job of maintaining effective security grows more difficult and complex.

A cybersecurity risk assessment is a cornerstone tool for leveling the playing field between attackers and defenders. These assessments provide a holistic view of an organization’s security posture and give the actionable data needed to make informed decisions. In this sense, it serves as both a snapshot of where an organization stands and a lone star to help chart a course for stronger security.

How to Create an Effective Risk Assessment

While there are multiple approaches to creating a risk assessment, there are some general principles organizations should follow to help ensure the document is compelling, accessible and thorough. First, the language used within a cyber risk assessment should be concise and elevated; corporate leaders typically don’t have the background or time to get too deep into the weeds on technical matters.

Next, it makes sense to define the parameters of the assessment and kick things off with a data audit that defines the type of information being kept and how it is stored and protected. Once this is done, next steps include identification of threat sources and events; identification of vulnerabilities and the likelihood they can be exploited; an analysis of likely impact and the overall risk level posed.

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Answering Four Critical Questions

Ultimately, an effective cyber risk assessment helps answer four key questions:

  • Where is our organization vulnerable?
  • Which threats, external or internal, pose the greatest risk?
  • What is the probability of each identified exploit?
  • What is the likely cost of these exploits?

Interrogating these questions can help surface the most pressing risks and then help make a determination about the best way to mitigate them. It’s not always a simple question of identifying the most likely risk and addressing it first. If the most likely risk has a relatively minor cost attached, it makes more sense to address risk with lower probability and a much more significant potential cost.

Cyber assessments, when done correctly, can not only minimize the risk of a breach, they can also lower costs and create a foundation for ongoing security optimization. Assessments should be a repeatable process, with each new assessment building on the work of the prior engagement. A well-executed assessment also plays an important role in maintaining robust cybersecurity as a critical strategic objective within an organization. The conclusions of an assessment should circulate throughout an organization, giving all stakeholders a window into the current state of security and facilitating open communication and input.

Using a Third-Party Cyber Risk Assessment Tool

The value of a risk assessment is often enhanced with the addition of a cybersecurity assessment tool, or an outside team of experts. For companies with little expertise in this regard, it may make sense to contract with consultants specializing in risk assessments.

Under perfect conditions, however, an organization will have internal staff who can handle some or all of this task. The reason for this is simple: No third party knows an organization and its relative strengths and weaknesses better than that organization’s own staff. This kind of visibility is crucial in creating a valuable assessment.

The right security tool can also play an important role in probing for vulnerabilities. One example is XM Cyber for Attack Simulation, a leading breach and attack simulation (BAS) solution. A BAS platform works by launching simulated attacks against organizational defenses, uncovering any vulnerabilities that exist. Unlike conventional penetration testing, BAS solutions work in an automated and continuous fashion, allowing for constant vigilance. After identifying security gaps, XM Cyber for Attack Simulation then provides prioritized recommendations for mitigation.

As you might imagine, this kind of tool can play an integral role in creating a comprehensive risk assessment, as it helps identify and rank vulnerabilities that may otherwise go undetected.

In Conclusion

The mandate of maintaining strong organizational security has never been harder to meet. Cyber risk assessments play a critical role in this regard, as they can serve as a snapshot of existing risks and a roadmap to a better security posture.

Third-party tools such as BAS platforms have their own role to play, helping to make these assessments stronger and more comprehensive — and ultimately lowering the profound security risks faced by today’s organizations.

Vance Carlaw is Regional Sales Director, North America West for XM Cyber

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