How to Establish an Effective Security Risk Assessment Plan

It’s been said that measuring something is the first step toward understanding, controlling and improving it. In the case of cybersecurity, that maxim finds its purest expression in the practice of risk assessments. These tools, also sometimes called audits, are a critical step toward maintaining an effective security posture — and one that remains in a state of continuous improvement.

With that in mind, let’s review some key information that will help you establish a strong security risk assessment plan.

The Basics of Information Security Risk Assessment

Each IT cybersecurity risk assessment typically begins with a review of these objectives:

  • Identifying critical assets and any data that is transmitted by these assets
  • Identifying the business processes that use or rely on these assets
  • Identifying the kind of threats that could jeopardize these assets and impact business continuity

Understanding the nature and value of what you need to protect is step one. Step two is establishing your risk tolerance and developing risk management strategies. Such strategies should identify the risks being mitigated, how those risks rank in terms of priority and the most efficient and effective way to address those threats.

Why Undertake a Risk Assessment?

There are a variety of advantages to conducting regular risk assessments. First, they reduce the risk of suffering financial or reputational harm as the result of a data breach. Assessments also build on each other, allowing you to continuously learn and improve based on past reviews. This is critically important for the development of institutional knowledge and expertise. Maintaining compliance and avoiding costly downtime are also important reasons why risk assessments are such valuable tools.

Organizations that have the internal expertise to conduct a cybersecurity posture assessment will typically handle it in-house. However, smaller or less-resourced enterprises may choose to work with a qualified third party for their needs.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Cybersecurity Assessments 

Now that we’ve covered risk assessments in broad strokes, let’s go into deeper detail about each step of the process.

Asset identification begins by examining how data is stored, protected and managed and who has access to the data. Next, the purpose and scope of the assessment is defined and a risk model is developed.

Determining the value of assets can be established by asking:

  • Does loss of the data expose the company to legal or regulatory sanction?
  • How valuable is the data in terms of competitive differentiation?
  • How long would it take to recreate this data?
  • How badly would it impact business operations, revenue or profit?

Once these issues are interrogated, assets should be ranked by priority. A catalog of potential threats (ranging from natural disasters to Advanced Persistent Threats) should be outlined, including common risks such as data leaks or access control problems.

Next, a vulnerability assessment can help show the precise weaknesses that could be exploited to devastating ends. Tools such as scanners and network attack simulation software can help organizations get a much clearer picture with regard to current security gaps.

Finally, controls should be analyzed and implemented where necessary. Once these steps are complete, organizations have the necessary information to determine the likelihood and probable impact of various modeled risks and can make informed prioritizations. After compiling these steps into a report, the risk assessment is complete.

The Takeaway

A well-executed risk assessment plan should be a foundation piece for your overall security posture. Breach and attack simulation (BAS) solutions, such as that offered by XM Cyber, can play a critical role in the process by helping to identify threats to your most critical assets and guide remediation. Unlike a more reactive approach that relies largely on vulnerability scanning and timely patching, BAS platforms allow you to actively and continuously test your defenses through the eyes of an attacker.

Raz Kotler is VP Customer Operations at XM Cyber