Glossary Glossary

Cyber Risk Prioritization

Cyber risk prioritization is the process of identifying, assessing, and ranking cyber risks based on various factors, such as threat likelihood, issue severity, potential impact in case of a successful attack, and cost to remediate. Prioritization informs decision-making and helps organizations focus their limited resources on addressing the most critical risks first.

Cyber risk prioritization is a crucial step in the attack surface management (ASM) process. As attack surfaces expand, security teams cannot tackle all threat vectors simultaneously. They need to allocate resources efficiently by concentrating on the most urgent and high-impact risks, which can only be determined through risk prioritization.

Table of Contents

Cyber Risk Prioritization: A Deep Dive

What Is the Risk Prioritization Process?

Since cyber risk prioritization is embedded into the ASM process, it typically begins with asset discovery and vulnerability detection. These and the other steps involved are described below.

Cyber Risk Prioritization steps
  1. Attack surface enumeration: The first step is to identify and inventory all assets within an organization and scan them for vulnerabilities. The exploitable security issues, misconfigurations, and other weaknesses found in this step make up an organization’s attack surface.
  2. Threat exposure analysis: With an understanding of their attack surface, organizations can then analyze the cyber threats they are exposed to and create a threat profile. At this point, security teams may identify the people and cyber incidents that can put their systems at risk. They can also determine if exploitation tactics exist for the vulnerabilities detected, specifically those targeting their industry and, therefore, are most relevant to their organization.
  3. Comprehensive risk assessment: For each threat identified, organizations need to evaluate the likelihood of its occurrence and potential impact if exploited. This assessment should consider factors, such as the sensitivity of the affected data, the criticality of potential target systems, and possible financial and other losses.
  4. Risk scoring: Based on the likelihood and impact assessment, organizations can assign risk scores to issues and vulnerabilities to establish remediation priority. They may consider the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), a standard framework for assessing the severity of vulnerabilities, along with other aspects of risk prioritization (e.g., risk appetite and business impact).    
  5. Risk response: Security teams can then define and implement cyber risk management programs to address high-priority risks through applicable responses, which may include risk remediation, mitigation, or transfer. Remediation involves patching vulnerabilities or decommissioning exposed assets to remove a risk entirely, while mitigation focuses on implementing security controls or updating security policies to minimize risks. Meanwhile, organizations may also transfer potential risks that are challenging to mitigate or remediate by buying cyber insurance policies.
  6. Risk monitoring: As attack surfaces and cyber threats constantly evolve, organizations must endlessly monitor risks and adapt their prioritization and mitigation strategies accordingly. That is especially true in light of changes in business operations and digital transformation that are inevitably increasing the number of exposed assets. On top of that, threat actors are continuously finding new infiltration tactics.

        How Do You Prioritize Cyber Risks?

        No one-size-fits-all formula for risk prioritization exists since it ultimately depends on an organization’s unique needs, risk appetite, and industry. Still, companies tend to follow the steps mentioned above and prioritize risks based on factors like the likelihood and severity of an attack, the cost and ease of remediation, and regulatory compliance.

        common risk prioritization factors

        The risk prioritization factors common across frameworks and methodologies include:

        • Likelihood of attack: The probability of a specific vulnerability getting exploited and leading to a successful attack.
        • Severity of attack: The potential damage that can result from a successful attack, including financial loss, data breaches, reputational damage, and operational disruption.
        • Cost of remediation: The financial, time, and human resources required to tackle a vulnerability.
        • Ease of remediation: The complexity and time required to fix a vulnerability.
        • Regulatory compliance: The potential for noncompliance with industry regulations and legal requirements if specific risks are not actively tackled.

        Why Is Cyber Risk Prioritization Important?

        Resources for security measures are limited. And since not all potential threats pose the same level of danger, security teams need to prioritize risks. Accurate cyber risk prioritization specifically helps organizations:

        • Enhance their security posture: Focusing on the most critical and relevant threats enables security teams to minimize the attack surface threat actors can target. It also allows them to respond quickly and readily to critical threats if they do emerge, reducing their potential impact.
        • Optimize resources: Limited security budgets and personnel can be strategically directed toward mitigating the most significant risks, allowing for more efficient resource usage.
        • Make informed decisions: Prioritization helps organizational leaders make informed choices about security investments. Understanding relative risk levels allows them to allocate resources effectively and approve appropriate security controls.
        • Demonstrate due diligence: In the event of a security incident, organizations can show that they took reasonable steps to identify and address the most critical risks. That can help them mitigate legal or regulatory repercussions.

        What Are the Most Common Cyber Risks Across Industries?

        While cyber threats can vary depending on the industry an organization belongs to, some general categories pose high risks across sectors. Here are some of the most common cyber risks that organizations across industries should monitor and consider throughout the risk prioritization process.

        • Malware infiltration: Blackberry Cybersecurity reported a 70% increase in the volume of unique malware from June to August 2023, highlighting the urgent need to closely monitor attack surfaces for blindspots that any malicious actor can exploit. That includes security issues found on Mitre’s lists of Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) and Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE).
        • Supply chain attacks: Successfully infiltrating a third-party vendor’s network can allow threat actors to access multiple targets in one go. Careful vetting of vendors, suppliers, and partners is thus necessary. And that starts with gaining visibility into the part of their attack surface connected to your critical systems and data.
        • Cloud security risks: Securing cloud environments has become crucial as more and more organizations use cloud-based solutions. Misconfigurations, insecure access controls, and data breaches affecting cloud storage services can pose significant risks. Shadow IT can amplify risks, too, as employees create public-facing cloud assets outside the security team’s oversight.
        • Zero-day attacks: Previously unknown vulnerabilities are particularly dangerous because there is no immediate defense against them. Protective measures involve proactive cybersecurity efforts that tap into deep threat intelligence sources for continuous visibility into the threat landscape directly affecting an organization’s attack surface.

        Key Takeaways

        • Cyber risk prioritization is the process of identifying, assessing, and ranking cyber risks based on their likelihood, severity, and potential impact on an organization.
        • Prioritizing cyber risks is crucial to an efficient ASM process since it allows security teams to allocate resources effectively.
        • Risk prioritization begins with attack surface enumeration, which involves asset discovery and vulnerability detection.
        • Once critical assets and vulnerabilities are identified, cyber risks must be evaluated and scored to guide remediation efforts.
        • The factors that affect cyber risk prioritization include the likelihood and severity of an attack, the cost and ease of remediation, and regulatory compliance.
        • Common cyber risks organizations must consider during prioritization include malware infections, supply chain risks, cloud security risks, and zero-day attacks.

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