Risk Assessments Help Save Businesses 

The steady increase in sophisticated and targeted cyber-attacks should serve as a warning for most organizations that it is not a matter of if, but when they will be hacked. From ransomware attacks to malicious phishing emails, cyber criminals use a multitude of vectors to gain access to an organization’s sensitive information. It is all done for financial gain, however the impact to victims can involve financial damage, a loss of performance or reputation. All of these impacts can permanently dissolve a business.

While the consequences may vary, financial loss and reputational damage are among the top repercussions reported by those who have experienced a data breach. One mitigation is to understand the holes in your security prior to the exploitation occurring. The risk assessment is a great method to understand vulnerabilities, threats and consequences as well as their potential impact on your business. By taking a few simple steps you can avoid a lot of headache.

The purpose of a cyber risk assessment is to identify, assess, and prioritize the risks to an organization’s operations and assets resulting from the use of its information systems. Subsequently, security professionals use this information to assist their executives make informed decisions about the company’s approach to security.

When conducting a cyber risk assessment, the organization must first identify its key cyber assets, followed by the threats to these assets. Simultaneously, an organization must understand the vulnerabilities that exist in the system’s hardware and software. In some cases, the people managing the system may also be a vulnerability (i.e. lack of training). Using this information, the team conducts an analysis of the impacts posed by the identified cyber vulnerabilities and threats. Established controls produced by organizations like Center for Internet Security (CIS), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) can then be applied to reduce vulnerabilities and harden against the threats.

Crown Jewel Analysis

Organizations can evaluate their assets by conducting a crown jewel analysis. Each business has number of assets that enable it to operate, which can be both tangible and intangible items. For instance, data, hardware, software, employees, money, buildings, office furniture, are tangible. However, some assets are more crucial than others and are so vital that they are identified as the company’s crown jewels. In other words, so assets underpin the businesses mission essential functions.

For example, a bank may consider personally identifiable information (PII) sensitive. Examples of PII include, but are not limited to, consumer credit reports, background check reports, SSNs, account numbers, etc. Should this information be exploited, the bank will experience critical financial and reputational loss. They may also invite additional regulation. Worse, the loss of this data leads to more cyber-attacks. No person will want to do business with a bank that can’t protect their data and their money.

Sensitive information within in-house data storage centers is also an organization’s crown jewels. Data centers help collect, store, process, distribute, and access large amounts of data. They maintain a complete inventory of data repositories, such as applications, end-user computing units, models, and databases, that identify critical data types, classification, roles, data flows, interfaces and controls used to protect the data. If primary data was lost due to a fire or ransomware, backups can be used to replenish required information. The data center enables business continuity.

Safeguarding the Future

To properly mitigate the impacts of growing numbers of cyber-attacks, organizations must conduct thorough cyber risk assessments. Preparing for the inevitable is key to staying ahead of sophisticated hackers and cyber criminals. More importantly, executing best practices will lower the likelihood of attacks, reducing the company’s risk exposure. This should be done while working to develop a culture of security within the organization. When the people of the organization work as a team, using risk management processes, risk reduction is possible and probable.

Five Steps 

Step 1: Identify

First, organizations must distinguish the possible risks they face. These will vary among companies, as they have different assets that are vulnerable to cyber-attacks and useful to hackers. It is important to recognize risks that may inhibit the organization’s daily operations or affect the quality of work. Risks that affect the company’s “crown jewels” should be prioritized. In this case, the term crown jewels refers to any assets that are so crucial to the organization that any disruption to them would cause business operations to halt.

Step 2: Assess

After identifying the most common risks an organization may face, we must evaluate the likelihood and consequences of each risk. Conducting a risk assessment will help security professionals determine how often certain threats will occur and whether stronger security measures must be kept in places. This also influences the company’s budget and helps executives allocate funds towards particular security measures needed to thwart cyber-attacks. Understanding the nature of risks and their potential to affect daily operations will ensure that appropriate controls and mitigation strategies are put in place. Lastly, we must rank the risks by determining the risk magnitude, which can be calculated by multiplying the likelihood and consequences. Based on these results, leadership teams may opt to accept, transfer, or treat the risks.

Step 3: Control

Now that we have identified and assessed the risks, executives must determine what controls are already in place to mitigate these threats. If there are none, mitigation strategies, preventative plans, and contingency plans must be developed quickly to thwart the impacts of possible cyber-attacks. During this phase, we also create a plan on how to treat or modify these risks to achieve acceptable risk levels using specific controls. Given that risks vary from one organization to the next, control methods will also be different. Unfortunately, there is no one-step fits all solution. Depending on the company’s size, budget will play a large role in implementing meaningful tactics. Moreover, when securing computer systems against threats, it is considered best practice to use multiple layers of security because it can achieve greater security than any single protection mechanism can provide. Based on the cyber threats an organization is faced with, security professionals will often come up with a three-layer mitigation strategy that consists of a procedural, technological and policy-based layer. The most important part of mitigating cyber threats is creating a “culture of cybersecurity” that will be understood by the entire organization. Successful cybersecurity culture will result in smaller numbers of cyber-attacks and good cyber-hygiene.

Step 5: Review Potential Risks

After identifying, assessing, and implementing necessary mitigation strategies, organizations must continuously monitor their potential risks for activity. Successful mitigation techniques will result in fewer data breaches and reduced consequences following a successful cyber-attack. While there is an invisible return on investment, that does not mean the organization’s designated preventative measures are not working. In this case, no news, is good news. A decrease in unpleasant surprises and barriers will contribute to the company’s ongoing success and daily operations. Should the controls be ineffective, executives go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate their mitigation strategies. However, with the growing number of sophisticated and targeted attacks, security professionals should expect to frequently revisit the drawing board. Risk assessment should be continuous process.