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5 Key Steps on How to Perform a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

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Assessing cybersecurity risks is critical for identifying vulnerabilities in your systems that can potentially lead to data breaches, financial loss, reputation damage, legal liabilities, and other negative consequences. Knowing your weaknesses will help you take proactive measures to protect your sensitive information, comply with relevant regulations, and ensure business continuity.

This article will show you how to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment and use your findings to minimize threats within your organization. 

What is a cybersecurity risk assessment?

A cybersecurity risk assessment is the process of identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing cybersecurity-related risks. It involves evaluating an organization’s digital infrastructure, processes, and policies. 

“Cybersecurity risks relate to the loss of confidentiality, integrity, or availability of information, data, or information (or control) systems and reflect the potential adverse impacts to organizational operations (i.e., mission, functions, image, or reputation) and assets, individuals, other organizations, and the Nation.”

NIST.

The primary purpose of a risk assessment in cybersecurity is to help organizations detect potential vulnerabilities and threats that could compromise their assets. A cybersecurity risk assessment aims to identify:

  • weak points in your organization’s cybersecurity
  • the likelihood of these vulnerabilities being exploited
  • the potential impact that may occur from the exploitation of these vulnerabilities.

The cybersecurity risk assessment process typically involves analyzing the probability and potential impact of insider threats, malware, ransomware, unauthorized access, and other threats that may compromise your IT operations or data.

The end result of the assessment is a report listing possible cyber risks and a deep analysis of your organization’s ability to protect data and critical systems against every relevant cyber threat. 

The cybersecurity threat assessment acts as a foundation for a comprehensive insider risk management process, informing companies about potential dangers. Based on the findings, organizations can develop a comprehensive mitigation strategy and use effective controls to prevent, detect, and respond to insider threats. 

Cybersecurity risk management rocess

The benefits of cybersecurity risk assessment

There are many advantages of performing a cybersecurity risk assessment and implementing a risk management process. 

The benefits of a cybersecurity risk assessment
  1. Support the need for a cybersecurity program. Conducting a risk assessment provides security officers with evidential proof of the need for a cybersecurity program, which they can further present to executives and stakeholders. Cybersecurity risk assessment also enables proactive risk management and security decision-making within your organization.
  1. Find vulnerabilities and neutralize them. A risk assessment can help you evaluate your current cybersecurity posture and identify flaws in workflows or cybersecurity gaps that may open doors to malicious insiders.
  1. Identify and mitigate cybersecurity risks. When you know what assets could potentially result in data breaches or identity theft, you can protect them with additional security methods. For example, you might provide granular access to critical assets and enhance their protection with multifactor authentication.
  1. Reduce costs associated with security incidents. You can prevent or minimize the financial impact of cyber attacks and security incidents by proactively identifying and mitigating risks before they’re exploited.
  1. Get insurance coverage. It’s often mandatory to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment before applying for cybersecurity insurance. Insurers need to assess your cybersecurity posture to determine the insurance plan corresponding to your organization’s level of risk and potential exposure to cyber threats.
  1. Ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations. Some cybersecurity regulations, standards, and laws require organizations to assess cybersecurity risks. The most common are GDPR, HIPAA, PCI DSS, ISO/IEC 27001, and FISMA.

When to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment?

To ensure the security and resilience of your organization, it’s essential to conduct cybersecurity risk assessments in the following situations:

  • Before integrating new technologies, software, or systems, to identify potential vulnerabilities and develop an appropriate risk mitigation strategy.
  • After significant modifications in your IT infrastructure, to evaluate the impact on your cybersecurity posture and adjust measures accordingly.
  • After security incidents, to assess the damage, identify the cause, and fortify defenses to prevent future security events.
  • When new compliance requirements appear, to ensure adherence to new industry regulations, standards, and laws regarding data protection and cybersecurity.
  • In case of supplier or vendor changes, to mitigate potential risks stemming from new third parties. 
  • When new policies are introduced in the workflow, to assess potential risks associated with the new processes.

Aside from these circumstances, it’s best to continually perform cybersecurity risk assessments. You may establish a regular schedule, e.g. quarterly or annually, to identify new threats and vulnerabilities. 

Conducting a сybersecurity risk assessment: a step-by-step guide

There are time-proven frameworks for conducting risk assessments such as NIST Special Publication 800-30 [PDF] and Clause 6.1.2 of ISO/IEC 27001. Although these frameworks have certain distinctions, they offer a similar approach to security risk assessment. In this guide, we shed light on the key cybersecurity risk assessment steps:

A cybersecurity risk assessment checklist

Step 1: Prepare for the assessment

The key objective of the preparation process is to establish a context for your risk assessment. Consider the following points during preparation:

  • Purpose of the assessment. Identify what kind of information the assessment needs to produce and what decisions it has to support.
  • The team responsible for the assessment. Decide on the personnel involved in the risk assessment planning and implementation. 
  • Resources you need. Define the tools, software, and other assets your team may need to effectively perform the risk assessment. 
  • IT compliance. Determine the laws, regulations, and standards you need to consider during the risk assessment.

Step 2: Define the scope

Next, you should decide whether you want to assess risks within the entire organization or just a specific department. Once done, identify and create an inventory of all assets that will be within the scope of the cybersecurity risk assessment. It’s important to take into account all critical assets, including Active Directory servers and communications systems that attackers may use as an entry point.

The scope of a cybersecurity risk assessment

Assets

Identify the assets (physical, digital, intellectual) that are essential to your organization’s operations and may be at risk.

System and networks

Establish which systems, networks, and IT infrastructure support critical business functions and may be susceptible to cyber threats.

People

Assess the roles and responsibilities of individuals within your organization, including employees, contractors, and third-party vendors.

Processes

Determine which business processes, workflows, and procedures would be affected by cyber threats and disruptions.

External dependencies

Identify external factors that may introduce cybersecurity risks or dependencies. You should consider all external connections with other systems, services, or organizations.

It’s important to keep a register and record the ownership of each of your assets (or groups of assets).  Asset owners are responsible for what happens to their assets and how risks affecting them should be managed.

Step 3: Identify risks and threats

After defining all assets within the scope of assessment, consider how they could become compromised by malicious actors. Gather information about potential cyber threats and attack vectors relevant to your organization’s industry, geographic location, and business operations. Also, it’s good practice to review past security incidents, data breaches, and cyberattacks within your industry to understand common patterns, trends, and tactics used by hackers.

Conduct scans and assessments to identify weak points and vulnerabilities within your systems, networks, and applications that could be exploited by attackers. To find vulnerabilities in your systems and services, you may refer to the UK National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) guidance regarding secure system administration, secure design principles, and cloud security.

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Step 4: Analyze and prioritize risks

To analyze risks and their potential consequences, an organization needs to determine their probability and impact

When thinking about probability, you should look through fresh cybersecurity reports, or you may take as an example a similar organization within your sector. For example, if organizations in your industry are suffering particular attacks, then there is a high probability that you will be attacked too. This metric can be expressed on a 0–10 scale or as a 0%–100% percentage. These scales can be then represented using labels like “Low”, “Medium”, and “High” probability.

To evaluate possible impact, you need to understand the potential consequences of each compromised asset. Think of the financial, operational, business, and reputational impact on your organization. 

At this stage, you can deploy the FAIR framework — the international quantitative model for information security and operational risk.  

FAIR framework

The next step after assessing the probability and impact of cybersecurity risks is prioritization –  determining which risks pose the greatest threat to your organization. To prioritize risks effectively, assign scores to each risk based on its probability and impact. You can use a cybersecurity risk analysis matrix where risks are classified into high, medium, and low, based on their risk scores.

Risk matrix

With a complete picture of your risk levels, you can determine which risks require maximum attention and resources.

Step 5. Communicate risks and offer solutions

The final step of your assessment is communicating assessment results to your management and offering security solutions to mitigate the cybersecurity risks you uncovered. 

As a key element of this process, you will need to recommend how to effectively manage the identified risks and what solutions to implement. For instance, you can offer to introduce specific security controls to reduce the likelihood and impact of the security event, thereby keeping the risk within the risk tolerance level.  

Since no system can be made completely secure, there will always be some risk remaining. The residual risk must be formally accepted by the executive board as part of your cybersecurity strategy. Also, the executive board should assign risk owners — individuals or teams responsible for ensuring that remaining risks stay within the tolerance level.

It’s also crucial to document all this risk-related information in a risk register, which should be regularly reviewed and updated with the following information:

  • Current risk level.
  • Planned mitigation activities.
  • Progress status.
  • Risk level after implementing mitigation measures.
  • Risk ownership.

It’s important that you consider risk management a continuous process and review your security strategy and controls regularly.  

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Assessing and mitigating cybersecurity risks with Ekran System 

To optimize cybersecurity risk assessment and management, you may need to implement certain cybersecurity solutions. Ekran System is a full-cycle insider risk management platform that can help you assess your organization’s cybersecurity risks, protect sensitive data, and effectively mitigate the impact of security threats.

Ekran System's capabilities for managing cybersecurity risks

With Ekran System, you can carry out a cybersecurity threat assessment and manage risks effectively with the help of the following capabilities: 

User activity monitoring (UAM). Get visibility into the activity of employees and third parties within your IT infrastructure. You can view both live and recorded user sessions backed with the following metadata: opened apps, visited URLs, typed keystrokes, clipboard activity, connected USB devices, and more. By leveraging UAM, you can quickly spot unsafe user activities and mitigate them. 

Privileged access management (PAM) and privileged user monitoring (PUM). Grant granular access to your critical assets and monitor how users handle sensitive data. In addition, Ekran System offers robust identity management capabilities like two-factor authentication for verifying user identities or secondary authentication for identifying users of shared accounts.

Alerts and incident response. Detect abnormal activity and respond to it in real time. You can choose default alerts or set up custom ones for detecting unique user activity scenarios — opening a specific app or a website, typing certain words, sharing files via cloud services, etc. When suspicious user activity is detected, you can respond manually or configure an automatic response, such as blocking the user or terminating the process.

Auditing and reporting. Gather insights into user activity and get a clear picture of your current cybersecurity posture. You can define custom rules for generating ad hoc and scheduled reports displaying specific data you need. Ekran System can also be integrated with Microsoft Power BI to deliver insightful reports and visually support your cybersecurity risk assessment results with even more convenience. 

Conclusion

A cybersecurity risk assessment can help you find vulnerabilities in your systems, prioritize areas for improvement, and implement efficient measures to mitigate identified risks. It’s an essential process to improve resilience against cyber threats, thus, saving your money and reputation.

Ekran System’s comprehensive insider risk management functionality can help you both assess and mitigate cybersecurity risks, which will benefit your organization’s cyber resilience and well-being.

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