Research Hub > Staying One Step Ahead of Cyber Threats With a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

November 03, 2023

5 min

Staying One Step Ahead of Cyber Threats With a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment

Cyber threats loom large for us all — but a cybersecurity risk assessment can help quantify cyber risks across your organization and enable data-driven decisions about risk prioritization and resource allocation to prevent negative outcomes.

In the final installment of our Cybersecurity Awareness Month series, we’re taking a closer look at how cybersecurity risk assessments can enable organizations to make more informed decisions about their security priorities to better rationalize their technology spends and allocate resources in the process.

Technology is pervasive for every organization today, no matter the size or industry. Organizations everywhere have accelerated the capture of information from individuals and businesses, bringing productivity to new heights — however, as we become more reliant upon and integrated with technology, we also expose our businesses to greater risks. Cyber threats loom large for all businesses today, and their potential to disrupt operations and tarnish reputations continue to mount with ever-increasing consequences.

We recognize that businesses don't exist in a risk-free world. However, it’s important for every organization with a digital footprint to not only recognize the risks they face but also put in place appropriate mitigations against those risks to ensure that they’re exercising a minimum duty of care standard when handling sensitive information.

Navigating this digital frontier means recognizing the importance of assessing cybersecurity risk — and taking appropriate measures and precautions to mitigate adverse outcomes with reasonable responses including controls, cyber insurance and more.

Understanding the Cybersecurity Risk Landscape

It’s no secret that cyber threats are evolving in both complexity and scope every day. From sophisticated hackers using operational technology to breach IT networks, to phishing attacks or insider threats like Generative AI model theft, the attack vectors are multifaceted and can seem relentless. This may include intentional attacks — like holding your organization’s critical data for ransom or compromising your business email server — to unintentional incidents like a member of your organization inadvertently publishing sensitive information on a public-facing site.

Even a single cyberattack can result in millions of dollars in costs including unplanned downtime, damage to your reputation, regulatory fines and penalties, litigation and, in some cases, even the demise of your business. Your organization now faces the daunting task of not only defending against these threats and ensuring cyber resiliency in the wake of an attack but staying one step ahead of cyber adversaries as well.

Assessing Your Organization’s Cyber Risk

To better understand how the risks of a cyber incident may impact your business, security prioritization exercises like cybersecurity risk assessments are an essential component of any proactive cybersecurity strategy.

These assessments are systematic evaluations of an organization's digital vulnerabilities, analyzing both the potential impact of adverse outcomes and the likelihood of their occurrence. The goal of a cybersecurity risk assessment is to quantify risk across your organization in a structured and data-driven way to enable your organization to make more informed decisions about prioritizing risks and allocation of resources to prevent negative outcomes.

A cybersecurity risk assessment involves a few key steps:

  1. Identification. The first step in measuring cybersecurity risk is identifying threats and vulnerabilities within your enterprise environment. This will include assessing hardware, software and networks, in addition to human vulnerabilities that bad actors may exploit. Vulnerability scanning tools and penetration testing can also be used to identify technical and configuration cyber risks during this phase.

  2. Evaluation. Once the population of threats and vulnerabilities are identified, the next step is to evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of an adverse outcome. 

  3. Risk calculation. By estimating the magnitude of a cyber incident (e.g., low impact, moderate impact, high impact or severe impact) along with the likelihood of occurrence (e.g., remote likelihood, moderate likelihood, high likelihood) and then identifying mitigating control activities, you’ll be able to estimate the residual risk.

  4. Cyber risk quantification.  Another lens to evaluate cyber risk exposure is to leverage the emerging offerings from firms that provide cyber risk quantification (CRQ) services based on firm-specific factors including size, type of data captured and maturity of cyber controls. CRQ services can provide cyber exposure in dollars and also allow organizations to perform hypothetical sensitivity analyses based on cyber investment scenarios (for example, investing in more cyber training vs. additional user behavior analytics) to evaluate the impact of risk exposure reduction based on cyber investment.

Security Challenges Resolved

Beyond strengthening your organization’s overall security posture and improving your resilience in response to cyberattacks, a comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment brings with it a multitude of additional benefits, including:

  • Technology spend rationalization. Every enterprise faces budgetary constraints, and the allocation of resources for cybersecurity is no exception. The true value of cybersecurity risk assessments and CRQ lies in their ability to guide security prioritization efforts and allocate resources where they’re needed most. Instead of spreading resources thinly across all potential risks, your organization can focus its attention and budgets where it matters most — the vulnerabilities with the highest residual risk scores and most critical security needs.

  • Cyber liability insurance premiums. Procuring cyber liability insurance has become increasingly difficult and costly, especially after recent, large-scale breaches. How can you ensure that you’re getting the best “bang for your buck” and not overpaying? CRQ also provides organizations the ability to look at their risk exposures and residual risk scores in actual dollar amounts, which can pay off in dividends when selecting a cyber liability insurance plan that’s right for you. A cybersecurity risk assessment can also help confirm that your organization meets ever-stringent eligibility requirements for cyber liability insurance.

  • Regulatory compliance. In an era of increasingly rigorous data protection and cybersecurity regulations, failure to perform a cyber risk assessment can result in legal ramification and costly fines. Cybersecurity risk assessments are a great way to help your organization identify and rectify potential compliance gaps, reducing the risk of regulatory violations.

Challenges in Measuring and Assessing Cyber Risk

When it comes to your organization’s cybersecurity strategy, guesswork is no longer an option. The bottom line is that many bad actors and cyber attackers are economically driven and will prey on any organization with weak links in their cybersecurity posture. Despite any cybersecurity skill gaps that may exist, it’s imperative to train everyone in your company from the executive level down to be risk-savvy since training has been shown to be an effective mitigation to cyber threats.

Security prioritization exercises like cybersecurity risk assessments are designed to help identify vulnerabilities, evaluate the greatest threats, and quantify the specific risks your organization faces. From there, you’ll be able to allocate your resources strategically and enhance your resilience while safeguarding the reputation of your company.

So, where should you start?

An expert partner with a deep understanding of both the cybersecurity technology required to measure and quantify your risk, as well as the people and processes that make up your complete security posture can be invaluable. Because there is no one single solution that can secure your hardware and software while helping you identify and solve for risks and implement controls along the way, it’s important to partner with a solution provider with a deep vendor portfolio in all aspects of cybersecurity to find a solution best fit for your business.

Larry Burke

Principal & Vice President, GSSO, CDW
Larry Burke is a principal and vice president with the Global Security Strategy Office at CDW, serving as an executive leader providing governance, risk and compliance advisory services, mostly to large global organizations operating in industries under various regulatory and industry frameworks.