In cybersecurity terms, a “risk” represents how much harm a threat or vulnerability can cause to your personnel, clientele, and other stakeholders. The role of risk control in risk management is to proactively prevent and mitigate these threats, keeping an organization secure.
Is your organization managing risks effectively? Request a consultation to find out!
What is the Role of Risk Control in Risk Management?
Simply put, risk control is the epicenter of risk management. It is a proactive approach to both preventing and mitigating risks, ensuring that there are as few as possible and that the ones that do surface have the least possible likelihood of causing harm to anyone in your IT environment.
Fully appreciating the role of risk control in risk management means understanding:
- What the various risks are and what stakes they have for your organization
- How controls function to identify and mitigate all kinds of security risks
- How regulatory concerns factor into risk control and risk management
- Why governance is critical to effective risk control (and how to achieve it)
For the purpose of IT asset management, risks and controls are opposing forces. You should look to counterbalance risks with controls at least equal to them for equilibrium—neutralization.
The Meaning and Stakes of Security Risks
Risk is expressed in many different ways depending on the context. For cybersecurity purposes, it is defined as a relationship between vulnerabilities and threats. It expresses how likely it is for a vulnerability to be exploited, in terms of the percentage chance that it would occur. But it also expresses the potential harm that could happen, in terms of cost in dollars from both immediate impacts and longer-term consequences, like reputational or opportunity costs. In the best risk analyses, these figures are triangulated and compared against the likely costs of prevention.
For example, risks that are identified may be given a score based on their likelihood, potential impact, and costs to address (or ranges thereof), and the score can dictate mitigation priority.
Risk management is an accurate accounting of the real impacts risks have, even beyond their effects if they materialize into actual incidents. Risk controls aid in the management process by proactively monitoring for, mitigating, and ideally eradicating or otherwise neutralizing risks.
Ultimately, understanding and controlling risk requires appreciating and addressing both the vulnerabilities that could be exploited along with the vectors and actors that would exploit them.
Identifying and Addressing Vulnerabilities
Security vulnerabilities are gaps or weaknesses in your IT and security environment that leave room for a threat actor or other vector to compromise your assets. In most cases, these gaps exist on individual assets. For example, a piece of hardware may be missing a firmware update that keeps its visibility or access controls running. A program might be connecting to unsecured networks inexplicably, or allowing server traffic that should not be allowed due to a workaround.
But in other cases, vulnerabilities exist in the intangible spaces between assets, systems, and users. For example, there may be a critical vulnerability in the form of user awareness. Users may not be trained on proper remote use of organizational assets, leading to other individuals in their home (or at a cafe, etc.) gaining illegitimate access to sensitive, protected information.
Overall, the most common vulnerabilities are missing or out-of-date protections across systems, caused by neglect or impediments to updates and patches made available by vendors. Patch management, or scanning for and installing patches systematically, is an essential risk control.
Detecting and Neutralizing Security Threats
Threats are the flip side of vulnerabilities. Weaknesses need to be exploited for harm to happen, and threats are both the means by which they are exploited and the actors that employ them:
- Threat vectors – These are the ways in which assets are compromised, including:
- Intentional vectors: These are specific kinds of cyberattacks, such as hacking, social engineering, ransomware, distributed denial of service (DDoS), etc.
- Unintentional vectors: These are accidental and other impacts that can lead to data being lost or illegitimately changed, such as natural disasters (i.e., flooding).
- Threat actors – These are individuals or groups who exploit vulnerabilities, including:
- External actors: These are most often cybercriminals with financial motives who want to seize your data or render it unusable, often for direct ransom payment or to cause harm to your organization. They may be or work with your competitors.
- Internal actors: These are often disgruntled current or former employees who want to cause harm to the organization and leverage their knowledge or any residual access to do so. Often, they will collaborate with external actors.
Risk control requires constantly scanning for indicators of threat vectors or actors by identifying irregular or otherwise suspicious activity across your systems. Organized cybercriminals often specialize in a subset of vectors, so they will more likely attack specific sets of vulnerabilities.
How Controls Limit the Scope of Security Risks
In practice, risk control means putting proactive protections in place to limit how many risks appear, how likely they are to cause damage to your systems, and how much harm they could possibly cause if an event were to occur. To that end, you need to install security safeguards.
Most cybersecurity controls can be considered infrastructural or architectural. The former refers to underlying structures that govern how specific hardware, software, and users operate. The latter refers to systems and protocols developed on top of that structure to control said assets.
Some of the most impactful infrastructure and architecture solutions for risk control are:
- Secure networks – Organizations need to ensure that all networks are monitored and protected and that devices are only able to connect across known and trusted networks.
- Visibility assurance – All organizational assets need to be accounted for and available for inspection, including on-demand indexing of information about location, activity, etc.
- Firewalls and web filters – Content entering and exiting servers and networks should be filtered by deny-all-except rulesets that only allow for specifically authorized traffic.
- Regular vulnerability scans – All hardware and software should be monitored regularly for irregularities and set to be taken offline and addressed if a vulnerability is present.
- Identity and access management (IAM) – User accounts need to be protected with measures like password/passphrase complexity and multi-factor authentication (MFA).
These elements constitute essential cyber hygiene practices, which all organizations should have in place to prevent threats. However, they all depend on training and awareness to create a culture of vigilance across all personnel. Effective control requires an educated, ready staff.
Third Party Risk Management Controls
Critically, vulnerabilities and threats are not limited to the first party assets constitutive of or controlled by your organization. If you operate with a network of strategic partners, such as vendors, service providers, or with third party assets, like devices or networks owned and operated by third parties, you need to manage the risks associated with them, as well.
The practice of third party risk management (TPRM), as with conventional risk management, depends on risk control. But third party risks are unique in their challenges, and third party risk management controls need to account for these difficulties in an intentional way. For example, it might not be possible to extend the same kinds of visibility or access controls to third parties, as their device configurations may not meet specific requirements placed on internal resources. Or you might not be able to gauge contractors’ security awareness as readily as you can staff’s.
Risk Control Regulatory Considerations
One of the more complicated kinds of risk that organizations need to manage comes from the obligations they’re subject to because of laws that protect the data they process. There are several regulations that apply on the basis of industry or location, either of the organization itself or of its clientele. For example, organizations in and adjacent to healthcare need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). And those that collect personal data from EU residents need to abide by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). One of the more effective methods for controlling these risks is implementing omnibus frameworks.
Context-Specific: COSO Risk Management
Risk control is especially impactful in service-oriented industries, where both B2C entities and their B2B partners depend on the latter’s risk management to secure the data of individuals impacted. Of the many regulating bodies with stakes in the accounting, financial services, and managed services industries, two of the most important are the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations (COSO) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
COSO oversees various regulatory guides, and one of their most widely used is the Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) framework. Last updated in 2017, it provides guidance on how to address and minimize risks systematically, and its controls are applicable to a wide variety of industries and contexts. While COSO risk management principles are not coded into federal law, they are often expected in B2B arrangements and may be de facto requirements to follow.
COSO’s principles also inform many of AICPA’s governing frameworks, which are likewise de facto requirements for operating in many service provider engagements. SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3 audits all include elements of the COSO framework that are tailored to the needs of financial institutions (SOC 1) and other service organizations more broadly (SOC 2 and 3).
COSO-informed risk control is essential to meeting clients’ expectations and winning contracts.
Comprehensive: HITRUST Risk Controls
For organizations that straddle multiple compliance contexts by operating in several regulated locations or across multiple industries, there are many frameworks to account for. It becomes much easier to fail an assessment or otherwise fall into noncompliance as the sheer volume and diversity of requirements scale upward. That scenario in itself is a risk to control and manage.
Enter the HITRUST CSF, which is designed specifically to help organizations meet multiple regulatory needs simultaneously. By integrating controls and audit protocols from several other frameworks (HIPAA and SOC included), it allows organizations to “asses once, report many.”
In particular, there are three kinds of HITRUST assessments currently available:
- HITRUST Essentials (e1) – These assessments focus on Foundational Cybersecurity, or basic cybersecurity hygiene and risk control. They provide certification for one year.
- HITRUST Implemented (i1) – These tests focus on Leading Practices, including 182 Requirements for Year 1 and Rapid Recertification (~60 Requirements) in Year 2.
- HITRUST Risk-based (r2) – These tests focus on Expanded Practices centering risk management over ~375 Requirements for Year 1 and ~40 for a Year 2 interim audit.
These assessments, especially r2, empower the most dynamic risk management across any regulatory landscape. They allow organizations to control most (if not all) compliance risks.
Why Governance Matters in Risk Control
In the same way that risk control is critical to risk management, governance is essential to risk control. Accurately identifying, cataloging, and addressing risks requires adequate infrastructure along with coordination across teams. And, beyond risk prevention, leadership is what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful incident response and management.
For most organizations, and especially those with larger and more mature IT environments, governance is at its best in the hands of a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). CISOs provide an unparalleled level of cybersecurity expertise from years of controlling and managing risks in a wide variety of contexts. But recruiting and retaining a CISO often come at great costs.
Enter the virtual CISO (vCISO), an as-needed solution that provides the same if not greater capacity for risk control, prevention, and mitigation, often at a fraction of the overall costs.
Control and Manage Risks Efficiently
Risk management depends on risk controls to limit the potential impacts that vulnerabilities can have on your organization if they are exploited by threats. Controls are also critical for regulatory compliance, and efficiency—especially through third-party assistance—powers incident control.
At RSI Security, we’re committed to helping organizations of all kinds exert active control over risks that threaten their business rather than dealing with them in a passive, reactive posture.
We know the right way is the only way to keep your data safe, and we’ll help you achieve it.
To learn more about the role of risk control in risk management, or to get started implementing controls and managing your security risks as efficiently as possible, contact RSI Security today.