Information risk management in cybersecurity is the process of deciding which information to protect and how to protect it. The process entails using various tools and techniques to identify, analyze, mitigate, and respond to the inherent data management risks of your organization. Each kind of risk in information security comes from different sources and drivers and can impact businesses differently, but these risks are often managed in the same basic ways.
What is Information Risk Management in Cybersecurity?
Information risk management is crucial to effective cybersecurity. While information security and risk management relate, the two have subtle, critical differences. Information security deals with technology, whereas information risk management comprises accounting for all of the policies, procedures, guidelines, and human behaviors that constitute the risk environment around data.
There are three primary components to understanding information risk management:
- The overall purpose of information risk management in cybersecurity
- The benefits of a custom-tailored information risk management framework
- The general process of information risk management in cybersecurity
We’ll touch on all of these below, along with ways in which a quality managed security service provider (MSSP) can optimize your implementation of an information risk management program.
The Purpose of Information Risk Management in Cybersecurity
Information risk management is necessary because of vulnerabilities inherent to information or the environments in which it is processed. These are unavoidable during your regular business activities—along with the threats of exploitation present both within the organization and without. Therefore, information risk management exists to identify, account for, mitigate, and ultimately minimize the extent and severity of these risks. There are four general metrics that a sound strategy should use to inform its goals and accomplishments:
- Discovering and inventorying all digital assets used, along with the general conditions of their use, to establish a baseline against which to map and compare suspicious activity
- Monitoring continuously, both internally and on broader segments of the public and dark web, to discover potential vulnerabilities and threats that could compromise assets
- Developing protocols and responsibilities for instant and comprehensive mitigation when an identified or unidentified risk manifests into an event (i.e., seamless business continuity)
- Automating or otherwise generating the most efficient possible methods to ensure data confidentiality, integrity, and availability (among other properties) without compromise
To satisfy your organization’s thresholds, as defined for each of these metrics, it may be beneficial to begin scanning for indicators of the most common, most dangerous risks to your information security.
Common Risk #1: Insufficient Architecture Implementation
The most critical risk factor impacting all information stored or processed by an organization is its cybersecurity architecture implementation. More specifically, the risk lies in the inability to maintain a robust and fully-functioning cyberdefense program that keeps pace with, much less outpaces, the rising threats of cybercrime.
The most basic elements are essential perimeter protections, like firewall and web filtering configurations. Organizations should cater these to specific categories of information they process, along with any commonly associated risks.
Then, a rigorous patch management program helps reinforce this system over time, detecting and installing patches as soon as they are available to prevent new and emerging threats to sensitive information. MSSPs can provide or oversee these services remotely or on-premises.
Common Risk #2: Third-party Threats and Vulnerabilities
While perimeter defenses are an excellent starting point for information security, they have become harder to define in an increasingly mobile and decentralized business environment. Risks to your organization’s information security are no longer confined to the assets and systems “internal” to your organization. Instead, they also include risks inherent to all your:
- Contractors with physical and virtual access to information
- Vendors and suppliers whose solutions and services integrate with your IT systems
- Clients who contact unsecure apps or other interfaces
Information security and risk management systems focused on neutralizing these risks across your network or strategic partners are known as third-party risk management (TPRM or 3PRM).
Common Risk #3: Targeted Attacks and Persistent Threats
All organizations field basic risks to their information in the form of widespread and low-leverage cybercrime campaigns. For example, certain cybercriminals focus primarily on baseline phishing scams without many specific details. These are unlikely to fool most recipients of emails—if they even pass through an organization’s filters. But other cybercriminals opt for quality over quantity, crafting targeted social engineering, malware, and hacking attacks on specific organizations.
Targeted attacks, especially multi-layered ones, are extremely dangerous information risks.
To prevent them, one of the best approaches is penetration testing, which stages an attack on your information systems to assess your capacity to respond before too much damage is done. External pen tests begin with testers having little to no knowledge of your IT systems, and internal ones begin from a position within them. Both routes lead to greater information security.
The Benefits of an Information Risk Management Framework
On a base level, a risk management framework is a systematic approach to identifying threats, vulnerabilities, and their relationships. These factors allow for risk ranking and determining a given risk’s likelihood and potential impact if realized, and their definitions are derived from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Risk Management Framework (RMF).
NIST’s project comprises several regulatory guides (e.g., Special Publication 800-53) and informs most organizations’ internal RMFs.
An information risk management framework is typically a smaller subset of a larger RMF, tailored to the specific categories of information an organization uses and the particular risk factors and risk environment surrounding this information. It may involve special characteristics of the data, such as with personal or personally identifiable information (PII), or it may primarily involve legal or regulatory restrictions pertinent to that information or its components.
For example, your company may process documents that include individuals’ names and details about their medical history. These documents’ contents may not seem to pose a threat to your company initially. But—to the extent that they could be used to identify the individuals—the data may be considered protected health information (PHI) subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Even if an organization is not a “covered entity” proper, it may qualify as a “business associate” thereof and need to follow HIPAA rules.
The implication here is that a new risk category relates to the relationship between the data you process and laws applicable to it: compliance risks. A thorough RMF or information RMF will account for this and other unforeseen threats—before they turn into punishable violations.
Benefit #1: Comprehensive Protection of Sensitive Data
One excellent example of an information risk management framework is embedded within a broader cyberdefense framework: the HITRUST Alliance’s CSF. Originally developed for risks within the healthcare industry, the HITRUST CSF (now in version 5.0) and the whole HITRUST Approach now account for various other industry-specific risks to information security, with:
- Dynamic Control Categories (14 total) that account for all possible risks to information security, both in absolute terms (Access Control) and contingent ones (Compliance)
- Uniform assessment and reporting tools (i.e., the MyCSF tool), facilitating an “assess once, report many” capability and mapping out information for various regulatory needs
This second detail is where the most significant benefit lies: the ability to account for all risks, including those that pertain to specific legal requirements, from a central, easily accessible dashboard.
However, HITRUST CSF certification is not an information risk management certification in itself, just as CSF implementation is not the same as HIPAA compliance proper. Still, your organization should pursue a similarly comprehensive approach to detecting and mitigating information security risks proactively. HITRUST implementation is one way you might do so.
Benefit #2: Seamless Security Incident Management
Beyond facilitating a unified approach to all risks across applicable legislation and regulations, an information risk management framework can also prepare your organization for more seamless responses to and management of cybersecurity risks that materialize into events. An effective incident management approach begins with the visibility and monitoring infrastructure needed for risk management. This enables swifter identification, mitigation, and recovery.
Revisiting HIPAA compliance as a scenario demonstrates how this benefit plays out in practice:
- Your information risk management systems determine that processed data is subject to HIPAA’s Privacy and Security rules, including restriction of all uses and disclosures
- This requires implementing more extensive monitoring and installation of HIPAA-specified safeguards.
- Because of the Security Rule’s safeguards, your organization discovers a potential data breach or infringement of the Privacy Rule. Upon investigation, a breach (i.e., improper use or disclosure of PHI) is confirmed.
- Your early discovery of the breach enables swift resolution, quarantining the impacted systems and stopping the spread before it compromises more information.
- The increased visibility also enables swift reporting of the incident to all stakeholders, as required by the Breach Notification Rule, and facilitates the implementation of additional preventive safeguards.
Note that the Security Rule does require organizations to implement risk management, suggesting NIST SP 800-30 for guidance, but doesn’t require any particular information risk management framework.
The Process of Information Risk Management in Cybersecurity
There are various approaches to information risk management. No single information risk management framework will work perfectly for all organizations; however, similar routine activities can be identified within all effective IRM frameworks.
One approach particularly effective for baseline IRM strategizing is managed detection and response (MDR), which comprises four major components that form a simple, cyclical, stepwise process for IRM:
- Detection and identification
- Comprehensive response
- Root cause analysis (RCA)
- Compliance and continuity
Step #1: Detection and Identification
Vulnerabilities and threats need to be identified before they can be mitigated or otherwise managed. Therefore, the first and most essential process is ongoing scanning across all system components for any known vulnerabilities, threats, or indications thereof.
Public threat intelligence, such as the common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE) list, should be cross-referenced with more specific data from your organization and other, comparable entities.
For example, and returning to the healthcare examples above, covered entities and business associates should optimize their internal threat intelligence to threats specific to PHI.
Step #2: Comprehensive Response
When a threat is identified, the catalog of threat intelligence enables instant identification and inventory logging. Ideally, these should be followed by automated response protocols, a thorough process of manual assignment, and escalation to eradicate the threat.
Identified threats and vulnerabilities should be responded to before developing into a full-on attack, leak, or another cybersecurity incident. To reduce the strain of incident response, threats and vulnerabilities should be accounted for as incidents and managed accordingly. One way this relates to the HIPAA examples above is that, strictly speaking, even a minor breach of the Privacy Rule could be interpreted as a data breach—all threats need to be taken seriously.
Step #3: Root Cause Analysis (RCA)
One crucial difference between responding to an incident and responding to a risk is that the former involves a recovery process, whereas the latter typically does not. In its place, however, organizations should conduct deep-dive analyses into the root causes that led to the vulnerability or threat manifesting. These may include:
- Faulty security architecture planning or implementation
- Missing or incomplete patches to software or hardware
- Inappropriate user behavior due to ignorance or malice
Whatever a threat’s source or extent of materialization, its mitigation is incomplete if root causes are unknown.
Step #4: Compliance and Continuity
Vulnerabilities, threats, and risks cause volatility in both the short and long term with respect to an organization’s ability to maintain service and good delivery. This is why the final consideration in MDR is both making sure that end-user-facing functions remain as available as possible—despite threats—and that systems are prepared for the long-term work of reporting and maintaining compliance.
Without thorough, proactive information risk management, any individual threat can do irreversible harm.
RSI Security: Professional Information Risk Management
Managing cybersecurity risks is crucial to your organization’s success. It’s a continuous process that should be at the top of your organization’s priorities. However, it is challenging to implement the stages of information risk management in cybersecurity without a robust, well-defined methodology or information risk management framework.
For guidance with both strategizing and implementing an information risk management system, contact RSI Security today!