As the famous saying goes, nothing is certain, except death, taxes. And cyberattacks?
Cyberattacks and data loss are now a case of not if but when, and having an information security risk assessment will drastically delay and decrease an attack’s effectiveness.
This article will discuss why your business should engage in the risk assessment process and how you can carry out an information security risk assessment.
What is an Information Security Risk Assessment and Why Do You Need One?
The information security (IS) of a business has become an integral part of any organization’s risk management framework. The highly digitized nature of the current business environment means organizations can not forgo their information security responsibilities.
Much like any other risk management assessment, the information security risk assessment has the organization weigh the possibilities that bad actors will exploit their IT infrastructure vulnerabilities. And how they can mitigate the fallout of these risks if they were to come to pass.
Costs and Budgets: if you have prepared an information security risk assessment, you should use it as a tool in the next budgetary meeting. Finding risks, vulnerabilities, and threats on the business information system can help justify any costs needed to fix those issues. You can quickly identify the cost-benefit of inaction while also showcasing the likelihood of a risk crippling the business operations. Specific scenarios will far outweigh the cost of inaction.
Increasing IT Productivity: It is like a risk assessment to identify gaps in the system. This gap analysis also aids in highlighting productivity inefficiencies in the assessed system. For example, an IS risk assessment could identify two different data storage centers storing similar information. Operating two centers at half capacity is much more costly than running one at full capacity. Leveraging these discoveries can lead to increased productivity and efficiencies in the business information system.
Communication: The most critical aspect to the success of cybersecurity projects is communication. Have you ever watched a movie where the characters continuously find themselves in a predicament, and you, as the viewer, can see it coming from a mile away? You sit there shouting at the screen because that one character didn’t mention a critical piece of information that could have changed the outcome to a more positive one.
Plot deconstruction aside, this is very similar to what happens at an organizational level. a lack of communication is a vulnerability in itself. And bad actors will take advantage of this. The information risk assessment is the viewer, in this case, seeing all the plot paths and mapping them, so all the “characters” of the organization know what is happening at all times.
Cross Department Fertilization: Lastly, an IS risk assessment should involve upper management and the IT department, but only for design and evaluation. In the best of cases, the review is organization-wide, as all parties can be the victims or result of a breach. It is in your organization’s best interests that all departments are made aware of the cybersecurity risks. Encourage them to develop a culture that is more aware of security issues.
Conducting an Information Security Risk Assessment
The IS risk assessment process is relatively straightforward. Doing it right just takes some practice, refinement, and revisions.
The steps you will want to follow:
- Identify IT assets
- Identify threats
- Identify vulnerabilities
- Designate risk factors quotient
- Prioritize the risks to the information system
- Design, suggest, apply mitigation controls
- Document the results
These seven steps will set you up with a complete IS risk assessment. We will explore each step in more detail in the coming sections and how your organization can accomplish it.
Identify IT Assets
Identifying the information assets that your organization holds is the first step in the risk assessment process. Without correct identification, you will not know what systems are at risk and how to protect them.
Keeping inventory is an essential element of many cybersecurity frameworks, and the list has two categories.
- Hardware asset inventory
- Software asset inventory
For this part of the process, you will want to document all software and hardware assets that contribute to the business information system’s operation.
For example, under your hardware assets, you will want to mention:
- Workstations and desktops
- Company laptops
- USB, hard drivers, and other portable storage devices
- Company cell phones
- Printers, copiers, and fax machines
- IoT devices
Under the software assets, you would include things like:
- Operating systems, mobile, desktop, etc
- Email platforms
- Cloud storage and software-as-a-service providers
- Communication infrastructure networks, intranet or internet
Don’t forget to include or mention any asset that comes from a third-party service provider. As mentioned under the software asset class, cloud storage and SaaS falls under a third-party network. Awareness of your third-party assets is essential as it can increase the risk factor, which we will discuss later on.
Lastly, one aspect of hardware security often overlooked, is the physical security of paper documents and physical forms of sensitive data such as memos. These can be classified as pseudo-hardware assets as it does contribute to business operations but might not come in a traditional hardware form.
Now that you have identified all the information system’s assets, you can locate the applicable threats.
In this step, you should research and understand all the existing threats to the IT assets. For example, suppose your organization runs an operating system that has been known in the past to be susceptible to ransomware attacks. In that case, one potential threat that has to be noted is: “Malware on system x.”
The threat landscape is ever-changing, and it can be challenging to remain on top of all possible threats out there. But you should try your best to identify as many threats that apply to your information systems as possible.
Clear identification of potential threats will help significantly in the development of the information security risk assessment. Keep in mind that such an evaluation is a “living” document and should be open to changes when needed. Static risk assessments will quickly be outdated and could cause more harm than good, especially if your organization is acting upon obsolete information.
Remote working novelty
One thing to mention is the rising threats from remote working. Remote working is becoming a staple in a post-covid world, and your organization should factor this into the IS risk assessment.
The next step is to identify the vulnerabilities of your information system…
To identify weaknesses, you will need to list known vulnerabilities and test them against the asset inventory. Then you must document any new vulnerabilities alongside previously identified issues.
Vulnerability VS. Threat
While a threat may be malware that affects the operating system, a vulnerability is an element of the operating system that the malware will exploit. For example, open ports are a vulnerability because it is easy for a hacker to access the system through an open port and deploy a data package onto the network (which would be the threat).
Designate Risk Factor Quotients
The risk factor quotient will give your organization an idea of which risk to act upon and which risks will not need further action.
The risk factor quotient consists of two variables:
- Likelihood of event
- Impact of event
The risk factor quotient will be a function of the vulnerabilities and threats, where the combination of the exposure and the underlying danger becomes an event. You must then calculate the likelihood of occurrence, which will give you the risk factor.
For example, let’s say that you are running a vulnerable legacy operating system due to outdated security patching. The threat is bad actors gaining access through a rootkit attack. You can see that the likelihood of the vulnerability being discovered and exploited is high, but seeing as the system is a legacy system, no critical business information or sensitive data is stored. So, the impact of the event would be low.
Using this information, you can then develop a risk quotient, which could be on a scale from 0 to 1. zero being low risk to one being severe risk. In the example above, the risk quotient could return something like 0.2 because the likelihood is high, but the impact is minimal.
This risk quotient will help in the next step of the risk assessment process.
Prioritize Risks To The Information Systems
Once you have designated a risk factor quotient to all your hardware and software assets, you will have a clearer picture of all the risks of the business information system.
The risk factor quotient will make it much easier to prioritize the risks in order of magnitude, from critical to low, or no risk.
You should create a grid list, dashboard, or other visual aid that will rank and rate all the risks. Why a visual aid?
Employ visual aids to help upper management teams and less technically minded people understand the information at a glance. Visual aids facilitate an easier transition into the budgetary requirements of the risk assessment.
It will also be much easier to refer back to the document or layout when you eventually need to apply technical or organizational safeguards to mitigate the risks.
Design, Suggest or Apply Mitigation Controls
With priorities set straight, you can quickly see which risks require immediate attention and which do not. Then you will have to design, suggest, or apply mitigation controls to those risks.
For example, in the earlier scenario using legacy systems, you could suggest one control to the management team for deleting the system or disconnection from its intranet. This simple control method should mitigate any risks that arise from the continued use of the legacy system.
In some situations where the organization has an in-house or partnered security team, it is possible to apply directly any technical and organizational safeguards to risks without going through the decision-makers.
But in the cases where this is not possible, you should suggest all possible courses of action and any associated costs so that the decision-makers have an easier time approving forward progress.
Finally, you will want to document all the previous steps into one comprehensive assessment document that is also open to further changes.
From this document, you will see if there are any shortfalls in the risk assessment process and ways to improve the assessment in the future.
There are benefits to conducting an information security risk assessment that goes beyond mere compliance.
Benefits that you can expect from information security risk assessments:
- To Improve the cyber resilience of your organization and its IT infrastructure.
- Increase the productivity flow with the IT infrastructure and improve organizational decision-making.
- Eliminate inefficiencies within the information system by discovering gaps in the processing of business-critical information and sensitive information storage.
- It helps build the security culture within the organization leading to better long-term success.
If you are an organization that has fully embraced the digital business environment, it is vital that you conduct an information security risk assessment. Begin the process sooner rather than later.
If you need assistance on the risk assessment process and all things cyber-related, don’t hesitate to reach out. RSI Security is the nation’s premier cybersecurity provider. Leverage our knowledge and experience and schedule a consultation today!