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How to Conduct a Cybersecurity Assessment

calendar icon March 11, 2022 | by Steve Ellis

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. 

 

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in particular are now more frequently targeted with sophisticated cyberattacks. According to Accenture, as much as 43% of cyberattacks target small businesses, and about only 14% are adequately prepared to defend their Information Technology (IT) infrastructure. 

 

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.

 

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.

 

It's critical as 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. Whenever that happens, everyone is also 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.

 

A comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment starts with answering questions like:

 

  • 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 acceptable level of risk for my organization?
  • How can we best address identified vulnerabilities?

 

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. 

 

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.

 

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 NIST Cybersecurity Framework?

 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity framework helps organizations to 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:

 

  • Auditing
  • 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: 

 

  1. Identify
  2. Protect
  3. Detect
  4. Respond
  5. 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 to 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.

 

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How to Conduct a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

 

When it comes to conducting practical cybersecurity risk assessments, the best approach will depend on your organization, industry, and geological location-specific regulatory requirements. However, the foundation of cyber resilience remains the same.

 

The first step is to choose a framework that fits the organization's unique IT infrastructure and business processes. Some basic steps included in a cybersecurity risk assessment can be summarized as follows:

 

Cybersecurity Assessment Checklist

 

 

Step 1: 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.

 

Step 2: 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.

 

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. 

 

Step 3: 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:

 

  1. People
  2. Processes 
  3. Technology 
  4. Data 

 

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 play 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 to ensure robust protection. 

 

Step 4: 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.

 

Step 5: 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 there are any vulnerabilities that can 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 

 

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.

 

Step 6: 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. 

 

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.

 

Step 7: 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 dictate 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.

 

Step 8: 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. 

 

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. 

 

Why is a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment So Important?

 

A comprehensive cybersecurity assessment is critical to understand whether your organization is prepared to defend against an extensive range of security threats. It's important as 64% of organizations worldwide have experienced at least one form of a cyberattack.

 

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. 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.

 

  • 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.

 

  • 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 in the event that a data breach does occur.

 

Start Your Journey To Better Security

Categories: Security, Strategy, cyber security, IT Outsourcing, Network Security, proactive network security, Cloud Computing Security

Steve Ellis

About Steve Ellis

Snow hater, technology lover, information sharer, camper, biker, and hiker. Steve Ellis has been with Office1 since 1995. He’s filled many positions from a brand new copier tech to his current position serving as the VP of Professional Services. He has a passion for learning and sharing the knowledge that might make someone’s life easier. He holds several certifications including MCSA and MCITP. He is currently working on his CompTIA CySA+. Steve has been in the copier industry for more than 25 years and has been interested in tech since 2000.

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