How to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment



#GoToGetsIT: This article is part of an ongoing series from GoTo’s thought leaders on the frontlines: Our Solutions Consultants deeply understand our customers’ unique challenges and connect the right solutions to meet their goals using GoTo technology. Here, they share their industry knowledge on what it takes to help businesses everywhere thrive in a remote or hybrid world.

Cybersecurity is no longer an optional concern but a fundamental necessity for organizations. In an era of relentless data flows and escalating cyber threats, safeguarding sensitive information has taken center stage. To navigate this complex landscape, organizations rely on a critical process known as a "cybersecurity risk assessment." This systematic evaluation is the compass that guides them through the challenges of the digital realm, helping them identify vulnerabilities and protect their valuable digital assets.

What is a cybersecurity risk assessment?

A cybersecurity risk assessment methodically examines an organization's digital infrastructure, policies, practices, and potential vulnerabilities. Its primary goal is to identify, analyze, and mitigate risks associated with cyber threats. It is a diagnostic tool that allows organizations to understand their cybersecurity posture and take proactive measures to fortify their defenses.

How to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment

Below are seven steps to execute a cybersecurity risk assessment effectively.


1. Establish Objectives and Scope

To initiate a cybersecurity risk assessment effectively, IT leaders should ensure that the objectives and scope are crystal clear. Determine what you want to achieve through this evaluation, whether it's to bolster overall cybersecurity, pinpoint vulnerabilities, or comply with specific industry regulations. Next, determine the scope of the assessment by identifying the systems, assets, and processes that will be included. The goal is to set well-defined boundaries to ensure that the assessment concentrates on the most critical areas of concern. This could encompass on-premises systems, cloud infrastructure, remote work environments, and third-party vendors or partners that have access to your organization's data or systems.

In today's landscape, where remote work is prevalent, it's important to consider the broader context. Questions to ask include:

  • Remote Access: How do employees access company resources when working remotely? Is there a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) in place?
  • Cloud Presence: What is the extent of your organization's cloud presence? Which cloud service providers are used, and what data or services are hosted in the cloud?
  • Mobile Device Usage: Do employees use their personal mobile phones or devices to access company systems or data? Are there policies in place for securing mobile devices?
  • Data Classification: What types of data does your organization handle and store? Is it company intellectual property, customer data, employee data, or sensitive financial information?

2. Create a Skilled Team

Assemble a skilled team with diverse expertise. This team should comprise individuals knowledgeable in cybersecurity, IT, compliance, and relevant business functions. For example, your team might include network security analysts, cloud specialists, compliance experts, and representatives from finance and legal departments. To ensure a cohesive and well-structured effort during the assessment, it's essential to allocate specific roles and responsibilities to team members. Another pivotal step is designating a leader, often in the form of a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), who provides strategic direction, oversees the assessment process, and ensures alignment with organizational objectives.

3. Threat Identification

Next, identify potential threats and vulnerabilities. To optimize this process, start by categorizing threats into different types, such as cybercriminal activities, technical vulnerabilities, human-related risks, and physical security threats. This structured approach ensures comprehensive coverage and systematic analysis. As part of this process, maintain a centralized repository for meticulous documentation of identified threats. 

4. Risk Assessment

Once potential threats have been identified, the next crucial step is assessing the associated risks. This involves evaluating the likelihood of each identified threat occurring and the potential impact it could have on your organization. Factors such as threat frequency, historical data, and the sensitivity of the assets at risk must be considered.

To conduct this assessment effectively, organizations often employ risk assessment methodologies tailored to their specific needs. Quantitative analysis involves assigning numerical values to likelihood and impact, enabling a data-driven approach to risk prioritization. In contrast, qualitative analysis relies on subjective assessments, providing valuable insights, particularly when quantitative data is limited.

Creating a risk matrix or scoring system that combines likelihood and impact assessments helps rank threats based on their overall risk level. High-priority threats, those with high likelihood and high impact, should be addressed urgently through detailed risk mitigation plans. These plans should outline specific actions, responsible parties, timelines, and required resources.

5. Control Evaluation

Now evaluate the effectiveness of your current security controls and measures. Consider adopting established cybersecurity frameworks like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, CIS Controls, or ISO/IEC 27001 to guide your control evaluation process. These frameworks offer comprehensive guidelines and best practices for assessing security controls. 

In addition, organizations can enhance their control evaluation process with practical steps such as gap analysis, security control testing, performance metrics, incident review, and external assessments. Conducting a gap analysis helps identify where existing controls may fall short in mitigating identified risks. Security control testing, including vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, provides hands-on validation of control effectiveness against a wide range of potential threats. Performance metrics and incident reviews help measure control performance and learn from historical security incidents.

6. Training and Awareness

Provide cybersecurity training and awareness programs for your employees. One way to maximize the impact of these initiatives is tailoring training to different employee roles and expertise levels so that it addresses specific cybersecurity challenges relevant to their job functions. Also regularly conduct simulated phishing exercises to assess susceptibility to phishing attacks, identify training needs, and foster a culture of alertness.

To make the training content more relatable and effective, integrate real-world cybersecurity scenarios and case studies into training sessions. You can also engage employees through interactive learning methods and gamification, such as quizzes and simulations. Consider launching security awareness campaigns that offer tips, best practices, and updates on emerging threats through various communication channels, and find ways to reward those who excel in cybersecurity awareness. 

Lastly, measure the effectiveness of training programs with metrics such as the reduction in successful phishing attempts or an increase in reported suspicious incidents. Secure executive leadership support to emphasize the importance of cybersecurity throughout the organization, reinforcing a culture of security awareness from top to bottom.

7. Continuous Monitoring

Implement continuous monitoring practices to stay vigilant against evolving threats. Start by incorporating automated monitoring tools that can scan network traffic, systems, and applications in real-time, detecting anomalies and suspicious activities. These tools, such as intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions, form the frontline of defense. 

Consider establishing or strengthening a Security Operations Center (SOC) with dedicated personnel responsible for continuous monitoring and incident response. A SOC acts as a centralized hub for monitoring and incident management. Regularly conduct vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to identify system weaknesses, followed by prompt remediation actions. Engage in proactive threat hunting activities, where security experts actively search for hidden or advanced threats within your network, providing a vital layer of protection.

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