Nearly every industry has its version of an integrity audit: where a system or process is evaluated for potential risk and vulnerability to any given security threat. Structures and mechanisms are subject to inspections. Products are vetted through quality control. In information security risk management, this practice is known as the cybersecurity risk assessment process

Regularly performing a risk assessment is a critical element for any effective risk management framework. In this article, we'll discuss why, what value they provide, and how best to put them to use.

What Is a Security Risk Assessment? 

Just as inspections help identify potential weaknesses, hazards, or problems in a physical structure, a risk analysis can aid risk management  teams in proactive efforts to address vulnerability and minimize cyber risk. In many ways, the goals are the same: ensuring safety and preventing catastrophe. 

Unlike most construction inspections, however, a security risk assessment has to consider the near certainty that cybercriminals will attempt to exploit any potential vulnerabilities in the system.  

As such, your cybersecurity risk assessment process ideally will comprehensively evaluate your system's security posture, architecture, policies, resources, strategies, and response plans. Done properly, the assessment will provide a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses in the organization's security operations, highlighting any security gaps and providing direction on how to remediate potential threats. 

The Purpose of a Security Risk Assessment 

As mentioned above, the primary goal of a risk assessment is risk identification. For many organizations, their biggest potential threats are ones they are currently unaware of; identified risk is manageable risk.  

IT, infrastructure and operations (I&O), and InfoSec teams often work with limited resources and labor hours, making it difficult to perform in-depth evaluations like this. Even for teams with processes to facilitate continual security monitoring, system-wide visibility can be difficult to achieve, and some risks can slip through the cracks. 

Risk assessments provide a way to get a fresh, external perspective on the system's security posture. It's a diagnostic check intended to pinpoint areas of concern before they can become major threats or even lead to a data breach. 

How Do Risk Assessments Work? 

While there is still no standardized procedure or regulation for how organizations should achieve and maintain security, these evaluations are commonly mandated by regulatory bodies, and the number of industries that require them is on the rise.  

Much like a financial audit or a health inspection, these assessments are performed by a third party, and security posture is measured against established risk measures and metrics. Unlike other forms of audits, however, security assessments can be administered via software. As a result, these security assessment tools can expedite the process while still providing comprehensive insights. 

Assessments can be one-off projects or part of ongoing risk-monitoring efforts, bolstering security teams as they work to identify and close vulnerabilities before they can become a problem.

Making the Most of Security Risk Assessments 

It's important to remember that a risk assessment is only as useful if the information is leveraged effectively. No amount of auditing, analysis, or investigation will make any difference if the reports sit abandoned on the corner of a desk, never to be read or put to use. Put another way, assessments provide a view of the battlefield, but the battle itself still has to be fought.

Beyond that, making the most of risk assessments is a matter of applying them anywhere they might be applicable. This article has already addressed how they can be used internally to benefit an organization's security posture. But it can also be used to evaluate third-party vendors, both current and prospective. 

However, many of the recent, high-profile security breaches have resulted from mishandling by a third-party—improper asset disposal, mishandling of data-bearing assets, and insufficient security in third-party apps. When a trusted vendor instead becomes the weak link in the security chain, it can have devastating effects on any of their partners that trusted them to uphold the relevant privacy standards. 

This is why performing security assessments on these vendors is so important. Without a way to benchmark their level of security, your team may unknowingly partner with a vendor that has let their standards slip and who won't provide adequate protection.  

By evaluating third parties with assessments, organizations can successfully sidestep potential security timebombs by partnering only with vendors offering reliable protection. 

Can Risk Assessments Help Avoid Risks Altogether?

Unfortunately, nothing in business (or in life) is zero-risk. There is simply no way to guarantee the prevention or avoidance of failure or misfortune. Case in point: terms like "waterproof," "fireproof," and "bulletproof" are colloquial ones; when discussed from an engineering or professional context, the term isn't "-proof," it's "-resistant," because even the best protection has limits.  

The same is true in cybersecurity. No system is hack-proof or immune to all potential risks. So, much like the terms mentioned above, the goal is for security teams to achieve high levels of resistance. And the first step on that journey is identifying the weak points.  

In other words, security risk assessments, on their own, don't prevent or avoid breaches, disasters, or other problems. Instead, they tell information network security teams where to focus their efforts, what to fix, and how closely to monitor a given point of access. In extreme cases, it may be the proof needed to justify a complete overhaul of the security posture.  

Ideally, though, it serves more as a status report, helping teams stay the course and ensure the maximum protection possible.

How RiskRecon Can Help 

Whether data privacy and network security have always been high priorities for your organization or your team is only now starting to make changes to better protect the system, a qualitative risk security assessment is one of the simplest ways to accelerate your efforts. And RiskRecon by Mastercard can make the process easier than ever before.  

With RiskRecon, your team can seamlessly integrate a regular information security risk assessment into your continuous monitoring processes, so you always have a complete picture of where your system is the most vulnerable. Beyond that, you can fully vet current and potential third-party vendors, helping you avoid threats that target data and assets handled by less-secure business partners. 

Try it free for 30 days, and see just how much a little security intel can do to help you protect your organization.