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The volume and sophistication of cyber-attacks faced by businesses today are at an all-time high, and the challenge is growing all the time. Although no business can confidently claim total security, it is still important to understand risks and mitigate breach attempts wherever possible. A critical step in this process is conducting cyber-security risk assessments. In this article, we explore what they are, the reasons for performing them, and how to conduct a cyber-security risk assessment for your business.
A cyber-security risk assessment is an evaluation of your assets, the threats they may face, and what the impact of a cyber-attack on those assets may be. This process requires you to determine cyber-security scenarios and classify their risk levels. For example, if your assets are vulnerable to SQL injection attacks, it would be classified as a high and likely threat.
Performing this assessment updates key stakeholders on the status of your organisation’s security stance and informs an appropriate response to potential threats. The results of a cyber-security risk assessment positions you to implement the right security controls within specific applications to target the threats that pose the greatest risk to your business and assets.
Cyber-security risk assessments offer a new vantage point on your organisation’s defences, equipping you to view the business from the perspective of an attacker. This valuable insight prevents you from wasting resources, time, and effort, which may be spent in bolstering parts of the organisation that are less vulnerable than others. They enable you to double down on the attack surfaces and weak points that could result in a costly data breach and service downtime.
By describing what a cyber-security risk assessment is we have already touched on some of the reasons for performing one, but there are some primary motives worth exploring further.
The operational and reputational damage caused by data breaches can amount to millions, with data needing to be recovered and systems checked and reinstated. Time will need to be spent reassuring existing clients that their data is safe in your hands, and many valuable customers are likely to leave in the process. By assessing potential cyber-security risks and putting in place measures to mitigate them, you can reduce the financial impact this might have on your organisation in the long-term.
Better decision-making is guaranteed after you have completed a cyber-security risk assessment, as it will reveal hidden vulnerabilities and steer your selection of solutions. It will also provide insights for business leaders and security specialists to develop a more effective security strategy, ensuring that there is an aligned, well-co-ordinated response in the event of a cyber-attack. This informed decision-making will provide better security training for your organisation, which will help to build a stronger ‘human firewall’ to aid in the future security of the business.
Ensuring data safety and compliance is another major incentive to carry out a cyber-security risk assessment. Companies that are found to not have taken adequate steps to prevent a breach can face heavy fines under GDPR. Not only is this an important consideration for global enterprises, but also for small businesses that need to identify the best route to securing valuable assets and customer data.
Now that we have established what a cyber-security risk assessment is and why they are necessary, we will take a step-by-step look at the main elements that need to be included when conducting one:
Map the extent of your risk assessment from the outset to decide how it will be structured. In most cases, larger organisations will carry out assessments by department or business unit, to make them manageable and to provide clear insights that can be compared. Another option is to carry them out across different segments of the service you offer, or by location if your organisation has multiple sites.
During this first stage, it is also the time to ensure that the key stakeholders within the areas being assessed are on board. This is crucial because their expertise is required to provide a detailed picture of the most important assets, the cyber-risks they face and are vulnerable to, and the potential impact on the business if those assets were compromised. Preparing these individuals in advance is important as they will need a degree of proficiency with the language involved in cyber-security risk assessments. This will enhance contributions and general communication throughout the process.
Identifying the assets and the risks forms the main element of a cyber-security risk assessment, as it is the basis from which the benefits of the process will come. This can be approached by creating a bank or inventory of all the digital or physical assets that may come under threat. While this is an all-encompassing task, you need to look out for the most mission critical assets that cyber-attackers may target, and how they might try to breach them.
Understanding the impact of an attack on your most critical assets is the next thing you need to review as part of a cyber-security assessment, requiring you to determine the threat, the specific vulnerability, the asset, and the resulting consequence. This exercise enriches the overall picture of your security position and helps to further pinpoint the types of attacks these assets may face and how you need to go about defending them.
Ranking and documenting risks combine to form the last part of a cyber-security risk assessment. You should pinpoint assets and their associated threats, and attribute rankings of likeliness against those security scenarios. Plotting these on a graph can help to identify where high likelihood and high-risk cross, helping you to prioritise which assets you need to ensure are protected. Once this is complete, you will not only know where additional mitigation is required, but you will also know whether certain features of your business are creating unnecessary levels of risk.
Documenting the risks is critical so that ongoing monitoring and tracking can occur in the future. This is especially important since the cyber-security threat landscape is changing and evolving faster than ever, with new and more sophisticated attacks and methods emerging all the time. Because of this, the results of your assessment can change frequently, and the arrival of a new attack variant may pose a high level of risk to a different asset. This not only emphasises the need for regular and thorough documentation, but also the need to conduct new assessments consistently.