Cybersecurity threat assessments are essential to identifying threats and risks to your organization’s digital assets, especially those in proximity to sensitive data. Whether you are looking to conduct cybersecurity threat assessments for the first time or optimize an existing process, this guide will break down everything you need to know. Read on to learn more.
What is Cybersecurity Threat Assessment?
Cybersecurity threat assessment refers to a set of processes or tools that identify threats to your digital assets. Since cybersecurity threats come in various forms, it is critical to know how best to identify and mitigate them before they can become full-blown attacks.
As an introduction to cybersecurity threat assessments, we’ll explore how to:
- Conduct a cybersecurity threat assessment across your assets
- Leverage a cybersecurity threat assessment methodology for assessments
Conducting cybersecurity threat assessments is essential to any cybersecurity program. With the help of a threat and vulnerability management partner, you will streamline cybersecurity threat assessments and optimize them to your organization’s specific needs.
How to Conduct Cybersecurity Threat Assessments
In its Special Publication SP 800-30 “Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments,” the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends several strategies to help organizations conduct cybersecurity threat assessments. These recommendations will help you prepare for, conduct, and implement ongoing cybersecurity threat and risk assessments.
Define Cybersecurity Threats
Cybersecurity threats must be taken seriously. Threats to sensitive data can significantly compromise its integrity, availability, and confidentiality. When preparing for cybersecurity threat assessments, you must define the various threats that may affect your organization’s assets.
The NIST defines threats as any events or circumstances that can disrupt your normal business operations or compromise the integrity of assets across your organization. In most cases, cybersecurity threats materialize following the exploitation of existing or unknown security vulnerabilities by cybercriminals. Sources of cybersecurity threats typically include:
- Direct attacks on an organization’s assets (e.g., ransomware campaigns)
- Human errors due to negligence or non-compliant practices (e.g., poor password use)
- System failures of IT security controls (e.g., hardware, software)
- Natural disasters outside of human control (e.g., floods)
Cybersecurity threats may not be limited to a single threat source and can be caused by a combination of threat sources. Hence, it is crucial for any cybersecurity threat assessment you conduct to address all possible threats to your organization.
Identify Security Vulnerabilities
The NIST defines vulnerabilities as gaps in security controls that can be exploited by threat sources. In most cases, vulnerabilities are attributed to poor implementation of security controls or lack thereof. Even with fully functional security controls, the cybersecurity threat assessment process will help identify vulnerabilities that may naturally emerge due to changes in:
- Technologies used within your industry
- The environment within which your business operates
- Organizational missions or business functions
However, vulnerabilities may also arise from:
- Gaps in organizational governance due to:
- Poor risk management practices that expose assets to security threats
- Inconsistent decision-making around business-critical mission functions
- Improper management of cybersecurity infrastructure
- Insufficient oversight of third-party cybersecurity compliance
When identifying cybersecurity vulnerabilities, it is critical to define threat scenarios based on the potential for these vulnerabilities to become threats and, consequently, full-blown attacks.
Determine Threat Likelihood
Depending on your security posture and overall cybersecurity infrastructure, you may be prone to certain threats moreso than others. When conducting cybersecurity threat assessments, you should determine the likelihood of threat occurrence for specific vulnerabilities or attack vectors.
Threat likelihood is typically determined based on historical evidence or empirical data that help predict whether threats will occur. For example, the state of your organization or the types of controls you currently implement can point to some threats being more likely than others.
Assessment of threat likelihood involves an evaluation of:
- The intent of the adversary (e.g., stealing sensitive data to sell on the dark web)
- The capability of the cybercriminal (e.g., the sophistication of an attack vector)
- The intended target of the perpetrator (e.g., servers containing sensitive data)
And you can determine the threat likelihood via three steps:
- First, you can investigate the possibility of threat initiation or occurrence.
- Next, you can evaluate the possibility that threats will adversely impact your assets or broader IT infrastructure, should they occur.
- Then, you can assess the threat likelihood as a combination of threat initiation or occurrence and the potential for adverse impact.
A proven approach to determining threat likelihood during a cybersecurity threat assessment is to review all the possible vulnerabilities potential or actual across your assets. Then, you assess which vulnerabilities could be exploited by specific threats to them, along with factors like how easily an attack could be prevented, identified, and adequately addressed if it were to occur.
Evaluate Threat Impact
Once cybersecurity threats have been identified and the likelihood of occurrence has been determined, you must evaluate the potential impact that an actualized attack could have.
Per the NIST’s SP 800-30, threat impact is measured by the consequences of unauthorized:
- Disclosure of sensitive information, resulting in its exposure
- Modification of data, compromising its integrity
- Deletion of data, resulting in its loss
Evaluating the potential impact of threats to all stakeholders connected to your organization will guide cybersecurity threat assessments in the long term and keep your organization safe from security threats. When partnering with stakeholders, it is critical for them to know which:
- Processes were used to assess the threat impact
- Assumptions were involved in determining the threat impact
- Sources helped determine the threat impact
Learning how to conduct cybersecurity threat assessments will help optimize your security posture, especially when guided by a threat and vulnerability management partner.
How to Leverage a Cybersecurity Assessment Methodology
Cybersecurity threat assessments are most effective when implemented via a cybersecurity assessment methodology. These methodologies provide guidance on best practices to prepare for, conduct, and implement ongoing assessments—ensuring all your assets remain secure.
Given the complexities detailed above, a cybersecurity assessment methodology takes the guesswork out of threat assessment process and helps you evaluate risks with confidence.
In many cases, a cybersecurity assessment methodology comprises:
- Threat assessment processes – The various steps involved in conducting cybersecurity threat assessments include:
- Preparing for the assessment
- Conducting the assessment
- Disseminating the assessment results
- Maintaining ongoing assessments
- Risk models – Integrating risk models into cybersecurity threat assessments helps determine the risk factors involved along the threat lifecycle and prepares you to assign appropriate risk rankings.
- Assessment approaches – Threat risk assessments can be conducted using three methods:
- Quantitative assessments use numbers to evaluate threat risks.
- Qualitative assessments categorize risks based on non-numerical values.
- Semi-quantitative assessments leverage processes from qualitative and quantitative assessments to quantify risks.
- Analysis approaches – Depending on where you start the threat assessment (see above), you can analyze threat risks based on:
- Impact on assets
Although the NIST’s cybersecurity threat and risk assessment methodology can apply to any organization, it helps to optimize cybersecurity threat assessment processes based on your unique security needs. The most effective way to do this is by working with a threat and vulnerability management expert, who can advise on best practices for threat assessments.
Conduct Effective Cybersecurity Threat Assessments
Developing a framework for conducting cybersecurity threat assessments will help you safeguard your entire IT infrastructure from security threats. When optimized in partnership with an experienced threat and vulnerability management partner, your cybersecurity threat and risk assessments will remain effective in the long term and keep your sensitive data safe at all times.
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