How to Conduct a Cyber Security Assessment

How to Conduct a Cyber Security Assessment

Table of Contents

Just about every company today is a technology company. Digitally transformed organizations operate on a solid technological foundation and consequently are always at risk of falling victim to a cyberattack. To make matters worse, the contemporary threat landscape is more relentless than ever before. 


Increasingly, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have been in the crosshairs of threat actors. When SMBs become victims of sophisticated cyberattacks, the repercussions are disastrous. According to IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach 2023 report, the global average cost of a data breach was $4.45 million. These data breaches can severely hinder business objectives and compromise high-value information assets.   


Failure to prepare for an attack can have far-reaching consequences. Active security events will disrupt everyday operations. If you end up with damaged sensitive information and critical assets in a data breach, it'll demand significant resources to quickly boost uptime and recover data. Other areas of damage, like reputation, can be even harder to recover from. 


To better understand your security posture and manage it more efficiently, an enterprise must engage in regular cybersecurity risk assessments. This approach helps organizations identify potential weaknesses and resolve them before cybercriminals exploit them. This is important because modern cybercriminals deploy cyberattacks with the help of AI technologies. AI helps adversaries attack your IT infrastructure at a greater speed and scale than previous eras. Therefore, it’s imperative for businesses to understand their cyber resilience and stay one step ahead of their adversaries.  


It's critical because early risk mitigation and risk management help prevent or reduce the cost of security incidents like data breaches. It also helps businesses avoid regulatory and compliance violations and associated costs.


The added benefit is that it also helps companies rally their troops and create a risk-aware culture. In a healthy security culture, everyone is alert and obliged to consider the risk level and how it may impact the organization's overall objectives.


What is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?


A cybersecurity risk assessment examines an organization's IT infrastructure and analyzes the ability of established security controls to remediate vulnerabilities. Organizations must always conduct a vulnerability assessment within the context of the organization's objectives. As such, this approach is different from cybersecurity audits that base their analysis on a checklist.


Cybersecurity assessments aren't just about examining IT infrastructure. It also analyzes an organization's digital assets and procedures to gain high-level insights into potential weaknesses in enterprise networks. 


Once identified, security teams can rank potential vulnerabilities according to those that pose a severe and immediate cyber threat. Then they can unleash IT security teams to quickly implement security controls to mitigate risk in order of importance.


Most importantly, remember that there are 3 critical phases to establish a robust cybersecurity program. This post focuses on the first phase - the assessment. Once the assessment is complete, it’s time to develop a cybersecurity strategy. After you complete developing the strategy, it’s time for the cybersecurity program implementation.


How Should You Begin a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment?


A comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment starts with answering questions like:


  • What cybersecurity assessment tools (antivirus, firewalls, vulnerability scanning mechanisms, etc) should my organization use?
  • What are my organization's critical digital assets?
  • What are my organization's most sensitive data and critical assets? Where is it stored?
  • What are the most pertinent cyber threats faced by my organization?
  • What will the impact be if those potential threats come to fruition?
  • What are my organization's potential internal and external vulnerabilities?
  • What is the likelihood of hackers exploiting those vulnerabilities?
  • What is the potential impact of a data breach on the company?
  • What incident response plans are in place to contain the damage of cyberattacks?
  • What is the acceptable level of risk (risk tolerance) for my organization?
  • How can we best address identified vulnerabilities?
  • What are our new security requirements?


By answering such critical security questions, your cybersecurity risk assessment will provide a top-to-bottom view of your organization's cybersecurity posture. It will help highlight the areas of most concern through risk analysis of the identified vulnerabilities. It’s essential to prioritize risk because businesses, especially SMBs, have limited resources and need to know where to focus their cybersecurity investments.  


As such, your security team will have the necessary information they need to formulate their security strategy and develop a cybersecurity plan of action to address those vulnerabilities in the most effective way possible, adequately. Remember that it’s impossible to make informed decisions about your organization’s security without conducting in-depth assessments of potential risk, existing security measures, and the more high-risk areas of current and future business operations. 


How Can Cybersecurity Assessment Frameworks Help?


Another excellent approach to conducting cybersecurity risk or vulnerability assessments is to follow the guidelines set forth by a cybersecurity assessment framework. 


The NIST Cybersecurity Framework and the ISO 27000 standards are two such examples of proven cybersecurity assessment frameworks and are incredibly beneficial in helping you assess your own organization's cybersecurity posture.


What is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?


The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity framework helps organizations enhance both the security and cyber resilience of critical infrastructure. The NIST cybersecurity framework is always well-planned and easy to implement.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework Infographic

The NIST cybersecurity framework has five security functions. They break down these five functions into multiple categories and subcategories to make them easier to follow. These subcategories contain the actual cybersecurity controls and include an extensive list of cross-references to well-known standards and frameworks. For example, NIST SP 800-53, ISO 27001, COBIT, and ANSI/ISA-62443.


By cross-referencing, organizations can implement the framework and map it to other frameworks and standards. In this scenario, any IT security team member or cybersecurity services provider can reference the NIST cybersecurity framework to justify their decisions regardless of what security standards they must comply with.


The NIST cybersecurity framework fuses together several approaches to effectively manage security threats. This includes:


  • Security audits
  • Defining roles
  • Monitoring
  • Setting up procedures
  • Training


NIST's five pillars of a cybersecurity framework also provide a solid foundation to develop your cybersecurity plan: 


  • Identify
  • Protect
  • Detect
  • Respond
  • Recover


The above also supports cloud security protocols executing NIST's cybersecurity framework in Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM). 


What is ISO 27000 Standards?


ISO 27000 is a family of standards or a series of best practices developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This framework concentrates on information technology, information security management systems, and security techniques that help organizations boost and improve their information security protocols.

ISO 27000 Standards Infographic

For example, the ISO 27001 standard explains the requirements of information security management systems. This approach helps companies prove they met regulatory requirements related to the protection of sensitive information and confidential business data.


The ISO 27001 standard also demands that your enterprise data management staff assess the company's information security risks systematically. This translates into considering all weak or vulnerable points in the system and the threat that could potentially exploit them. 


ISO 27000 also demands businesses design and deploy a comprehensive suite of information security controls. This approach helps address security risks deemed dangerous or too risky. It also ensures that management adopts business processes and procedures that provide security and compliance.


How to Conduct a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment


When it comes to conducting practical security risk assessments, the best approach depends on your organization, industry, and geological location-specific regulatory requirements. While the intricacies of cyber risk assessments may vary from organization to organization, the foundation of cyber resilience remains the same.


The following is a step-by-step template that businesses can use to conduct thorough cybersecurity risk assessments and optimize their risk management frameworks.


Evaluate the Scope of the Overall Cybersecurity Assessment


Identify all enterprise assets that demand evaluation and determine the full scope of the cybersecurity assessment. In this case, security experts recommend limiting the evaluation scope to one type of asset instead of trying to do it all at once.


Once you narrow it down and choose an asset type, start looking at all other assets, data, and devices it touches. This approach ensures that security teams take a comprehensive look at your entire network.


Choose a Cybersecurity Assessment Framework


As mentioned in the previous section, cybersecurity assessment frameworks can provide guidance and make the subsequent steps in this list simpler to navigate. While we highlighted the NIST framework and ISO 27000 Standards, it’s important to remember that other options also exist. 


Businesses must conduct some critical research to identify which framework would work best for them. For example, it might be useful to assess what frameworks other organizations in the same sector or geography use.


Determine the Value of Your Data


Not all data is created equal. Although your organization may collect and store oceans of data, some information will be more important than others. As such, the second step is to determine which data needs the most protection. 


This can include any data that has personally identifiable information, customer credit card details, trade secrets, and much more. In other words, identify all sensitive data that can have disastrous consequences if it falls into the wrong hands, and dedicate your security resources to protect these assets. 


Data for critical day-to-day operations is also crucial and must be protected. If not, your company will experience significant downtime during an active security incident. 


Identify and Prioritize Your Assets


Once you identify the data, break them down into different categories, and prioritize those categories based on how important it is to keep them secure. Your IT team must create a cybersecurity plan with the best approach to secure sensitive information. 


The risk management process should also highlight which data assets are vital and how to secure them. The cybersecurity assessment also includes the hardware and software where that data is stored, staff who have access to that data, physical security controls, IT security protocols, and more. 


You can break down the critical assets that demand examination into the following four categories:


  • People
  • Processes 
  • Technology 
  • Data 


Alternatively, you can break down their assets by following the pillars of zero trust, a security model that many enterprises may want to adopt or mature. The pillars of zero trust are: 


  • Identities
  • Devices
  • Networks
  • Data
  • Workloads


It's important to analyze each one in that exact order to determine how large of a role each asset category and each individual asset plays in your overall security posture. 


After you identify your organization's critical assets, you must rank them according to the value of the data they help protect. You should also consider the importance of their role in ensuring robust protection. 


Identify Threats


The next step in the risk assessment process is to ascertain which data demands the most protection (and the assets associated with it). Then you can contemplate and calculate various loss scenarios for future decision-making.


List the potential threats and the likelihood of the threats becoming a reality. Identifying the threat sources posed by cybercriminals and the sophisticated methodology at their disposal to try and compromise your data is a great place to start. 


Ransomware, malware, phishing attacks, DDoS, and adversarial attacks such as corporate espionage are typical examples of information security threats faced by most organizations.


But identifying cybersecurity threats doesn't end with recognizing the dangers posed by cybercriminals. In addition to external attacks, risk assessments must include potential threats such as system failure, human error, insider threats, and natural disasters.


Identify Vulnerabilities


Once you see the whole picture and better understand your current security posture, start searching for vulnerabilities within your information systems. The best approach here is to engage in penetrating testing to see if any vulnerabilities leave your company exposed. 


The vulnerabilities come in many different forms, including: 


  • Faults in employee training protocols
  • Flaws within the physical defenses of your assets
  • Vulnerabilities in the software and hardware you use
  • Weaknesses within your company and security policies 
  • Third-party risks and vendor-related vulnerabilities 


Suppose you want to better understand the various vulnerabilities that your organization might have. In that case, the NIST's National Vulnerability Database (NVD) is a great place to begin your research.


Analyze Your Controls


The next step in a cybersecurity risk assessment is to analyze the controls you have in place to mitigate risk. At this stage of the risk assessment process, we shouldn't be afraid to implement new security controls if necessary. 


To analyze these controls, businesses must:


  • Identify existing controls for hardware, software, networks, data, and digital identities
  • Cross-reference with cybersecurity assessment frameworks to identify gaps
  • Document findings
  • Map out missing or suboptimal controls
  • Develop a plan to implement new controls


Cybersecurity controls that shore up your vulnerabilities and protect against potential security threats come in many different forms. For example, organizations can deploy technical controls such as encryption, continuous data leak detection, and multi-factor authentication. 


Businesses also have the option of implementing nontechnical controls such as corporate cybersecurity policies and any physical mechanisms used to protect enterprise data—for example, backup servers, physical locks, keycard access, and much more. 


Often, organizations try to skip this step and go straight into control implementation. This is a big mistake as you need to understand the cybersecurity threats you're facing, vulnerabilities present in your infrastructure, and vital areas that demand the most protection to know what controls perfectly fit the use case. It will also help enhance your security strategy when it comes to incident response.


Perform an Information Value vs. Cost of Prevention Analysis


Before you buy a whole bunch of new security controls, you will first want to perform an information value vs. cost of prevention analysis. It's important because you might find that the cost of securing a category of data might cost more than the fallout from a data breach.


For example, let's say that you identified a threat that could cost your company an estimated $1 million if it becomes a reality. However, you found the likelihood of this threat rearing its ugly head to be about a one in ten-year occurrence. In this example, a budget of $100,000 a year is justifiable and enough to go towards protection against this specific security threat.

Cost of a cyber attack


Making such comparisons dictates the best way to spend your cybersecurity budget. However, it's important to note the less obvious impacts of a cybersecurity breach, such as damage to brand value and reputation.


After completing your cybersecurity risk assessment, formulate a risk management strategy that considers the risk level of various vulnerabilities. As such, it should enable you to allocate your risk mitigation budget in the most effective way possible.


Document Your Results in a Risk Assessment Report


Once you complete the risk assessment process, the final step is to document all your findings. The best approach here is to create a well-organized risk assessment report. 


To create a useful risk assessment report, businesses must address the following questions: 


  • What cyber risks did we identify?
  • What components of our IT ecosystem do those risks affect? 
  • Which risks are most dangerous to mission-critical operations? 
  • How do we mitigate these risks? 
  • Are our risk documentation and reporting protocols efficient? 
  • How can cybersecurity strategy development and implementation teams use this information?


This cybersecurity risk assessment report will serve as an invaluable tool that helps optimize the risk management process. Organizations can use it to train employees, develop a more effective methodology, and determine the best way to allocate their security funds. 


An ideal risk assessment report should include all results and insights gathered from the security assessment. This includes strengths, weaknesses, details on security testing activities, and any other critical information gathered from the current state assessment.  


Why is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment So Important?


A comprehensive cybersecurity assessment is critical to understanding whether your organization is prepared to defend against an extensive range of security threats. The modern enterprise has a relentless barrage of security threats to reckon with. Cyberattacks are rising at previously unseen rates, and the repercussions are disastrous. According to The Independent, data breaches affected more than 364 million individuals in 2023.


Conducting regular risk assessments (at least every two years) helps businesses better protect themselves and ensure uptime and business continuity. By engaging in cybersecurity assessments, enterprises can also protect themselves from ransomware, malware, social engineering (including phishing campaigns), Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks, and data breaches. 


Cybersecurity risk assessments can also prepare businesses from all sectors against dangerous trends. For instance, the biggest concerns in the world of cybersecurity today include AI/ML-based cyberattacks, state-sponsored cybercrime, IoT and 5G-adjacent cybersecurity complexities, cloud-based threats, identity and access management (IAM) challenges, security vulnerabilities in hybrid and work-from-home models, and even attacks on automobiles and connected fleets. By conducting thorough cybersecurity assessments, businesses can keep themselves safe from these dangers and many more. 


Furthermore, organizations are also better placed to avoid hefty fees for regulatory and compliance violations. Cybersecurity risk assessments also help organizations ensure compliance with the following regulatory standards:


  • The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European Union (EU) law with established guidelines governing collecting and processing sensitive data from users living in the EU. GDPR fines can devastate companies. In just the month of January 2024, there were 20 GDPR fines, which amounted to a total of €32,615,640.  
  • The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is a law that allows Californian consumers to demand their personal data stored by various businesses and related third parties (who also have access to that data).
  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a set of rules or uniform standards that govern the transfer of sensitive healthcare data among healthcare providers, health plans, and clearinghouses. According to the HIPAA Journal, a penalty for a single Tier 4 failure could reach a whopping $2,067,813.
  • The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) ensures that all companies that accept, process, store, or transmit credit card data maintain a robust and secure network environment.


This approach also helps staff better understand the level of risk, available defenses, and potential vulnerabilities. All this information could prove to be incredibly valuable if you happen to find yourself scrambling to respond to a cyberattack.


Ensure You're Protected with Effective Cybersecurity Risk Management


As security incidents become the norm, far too many businesses are learning the hard way about the high cost of failing to protect enterprise data (from both internal and external threats).


Whether you are in charge of a small business or a massive corporate giant, conducting regular cybersecurity risk assessments is a must. Failing to do so can kick open the door to dire consequences and even business irrelevance. 


However, by going through the steps above and conducting a thorough cybersecurity risk assessment, you can ensure that your organization remains as secure and well-defended as possible. You can also streamline this approach to incident response and remediation if a data breach does occur.


Remember that a cybersecurity risk assessment, as important as it is, is only the first step in optimizing your organization’s cybersecurity program. The next step, which will involve leadership teams, CISOs, and key stakeholders, involves using insights and identified risks from the assessment to develop a cybersecurity strategy. Once your organization develops a cybersecurity strategy, it will be time for implementation. By conducting assessments, meticulously crafting a strategy, and flawlessly implementing it, you can secure yourselves from threat actors and reap the benefits of a well-fortified digital infrastructure.


Lastly, always keep in mind that an experienced Managed Security Services (MSS) provider can help you conduct the most thorough cybersecurity assessments.


New call-to-action

Categories: Security, Strategy, Cyber Security, IT Security, Cybersecurity, Security Strategy, Cybersecurity Strategy, IT Security Strategy, Cybersecurity Assessment, NIST Framework, Cyber Security Assessment, Cybersecurity Assessment Framework

blogs related to this

How to Develop a Cybersecurity Strategy

How to Develop a Cybersecurity Strategy

Cybersecurity is perhaps the highest priority for most businesses around the world. And if it isn’t, it should be. That’s primarily because more and...

How to Implement a Cybersecurity Program

How to Implement a Cybersecurity Program

There are a few steps that businesses have to perfect before starting a cybersecurity implementation plan. First, they must conduct a thorough...

Everything You Need To Know About Windows 10 EOL

Everything You Need To Know About Windows 10 EOL

Since its release in July 2015, Microsoft’s Windows 10 has been one of the most widely used and popular operating systems worldwide. For many years,...

Artificial Intelligence Can Help Everyone - Including Scammers. What to Look For.

Artificial Intelligence Can Help Everyone - Including Scammers. What to Look For.

We all knew that artificial intelligence (AI) would be a great disruptor. However, now that the era of AI is upon us, its potential dangers and...

How to Protect Your Business From a Brute Force Attack

How to Protect Your Business From a Brute Force Attack

Data breaches are every business’s worst nightmare. With every passing year, hackers find new ways to gain unauthorized access to enterprises’ IT...

Minimize Risk and Maximize Security with Cybersecurity Insurance

Minimize Risk and Maximize Security with Cybersecurity Insurance

Cybersecurity insurance, also known as cyber insurance or cyber liability insurance, provides comprehensive coverage to businesses. It helps them...

How Scammers Can Use Your Voice Against You

How Scammers Can Use Your Voice Against You

Cybercriminals and scammers can use your voice as a weapon against you. Once upon a time, we might have brushed off the idea of fraudsters using...