Did you know that the FBI received nearly 850,000 cybercrime complaints in 2021, with each data breach costing $9.44 million on average? If those numbers sound dramatic, it’s because they are. As companies become more open to new cloud-based technologies and remote work, they have to account for a growing number of risks and vulnerabilities. Even just from 2020 to 2021, there was a 50% increase in how many cyberattacks occurred per week.
What’s worse, reports indicate that hackers are now targeting small- and medium-sized businesses. This is at least partially due to the fact that larger companies and corporations have invested in top-of-the-line, comprehensive cybersecurity solutions. In other words, small businesses aren’t protected from cyberattacks. Just because they might seem like minor targets to hackers, that’s simply not the case.
Fortunately, with a firm understanding of the different types of risks and vulnerabilities—and how to address them—small business owners can rest a little easier knowing that their applications, operations, and data are safe.
In this article, we’re going to:
Explore a range of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, risks, and threats.
Discuss a basic framework for cybersecurity risk assessments.
Explain how a cybersecurity risk assessment can keep your assets and organization safe.
When people talk about cybersecurity risks and risk management, they’re typically referring to some combination of application, cloud, critical infrastructure, Internet of Things (IoT), and network security concepts.
Application security relates to continuously monitoring the security of mission-critical applications. Includes factors like software updates, antivirus and other security suite components, access control measures, and more.
Cloud security relates to the security of sensitive data hosted in the cloud. Includes factors like multi-factor and/or password-less authentication, identity and access management protocol, and more.
Critical infrastructure security relates to protecting key systems, networks, and assets in cases where their operations classify as “necessary to ensure the security of a given nation, its economy, and the public’s health and/or safety.” Impacts various businesses since “every business in every country relies on critical infrastructure” in one way or another.
Internet of Things (IoT) security relates to potential security vulnerabilities of IoT devices, applications, and related technologies. Includes measures to manage IoT devices and protect against phishing attacks, data theft, denial of service (DDOS) attacks, and more.
Network security relates to an organization’s network infrastructure. Includes protecting physical assets (like routers, data centers, and servers), as well as technical and administrative functions (like encrypting data, managing files, account-based restrictions, and more).
One of the most difficult aspects of cybersecurity is being aware of—and keeping up with—the threats, vulnerabilities, and risks that can put your organization at risk. While they’re often used in tandem or even interchangeably, it’s worth noting the difference between a “threat,” a “vulnerability,” and a “risk.”
Threats are actions or activities with the potential to exploit vulnerabilities (see below), posing a distinct risk to a company’s assets.
Vulnerabilities refer to weak points within an organization's hardware, software, or procedures.
Risks relate to the potential for valuable assets to be lost, damaged, or destroyed.
In other words, Threat + Vulnerability = Risk. Next, let’s look at specific examples of vulnerabilities, risks, and threats.
What Are Examples of Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities?
Cybersecurity-related vulnerabilities are often categorized by type or cause. There are three common cybersecurity vulnerabilities–your network, operating system, and processes/people.
Network vulnerabilities relate to hardware or software configurations that leave the door open for intrusion (e.g., Wi-Fi access points, firewalls).
Operating system vulnerabilities leave certain assets accessible to hackers (e.g., hidden backdoor programs).
Human and process vulnerabilities include human error or weak processes that might put sensitive data and systems in danger (e.g., weak passwords).
What Are the Most Common Responses to Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities?
Cyber criminals can be both determined and inventive, so it’s difficult to give a full picture of the extensive list of potential vulnerabilities. A few of the most common categories include:
Endpoint Protection: For many smaller organizations, endpoint security is synonymous with antivirus protection. Unfortunately, many common antivirus solutions offer incomplete protection, especially against sophisticated attack types such as zero-day exploits. More comprehensive, next-generation antivirus packages offer more robust endpoint detection and response features, though.
Data Backup and Recovery Policies: In the face of ransomware and other nasty threats, all organizational data needs to be well-organized, backed up, and secure. Operate under the assumption that any potential vulnerabilities will be subject to attack; it’s often just a matter of time.
Networking Configurations: Similar to the importance of having well-organized, secure data management processes, networking configurations must also be probed for potential vulnerabilities (before cyber criminals find them). If they can find one weakness, they can most likely find a way to exploit it, putting the entire network at risk.
Authentication and Credentialing: If an organization reuses passwords or fails to implement strong authentication processes, its data, applications, and systems are put at great risk. It’s important to manage aspects like user access, password, and authentication policies to keep data out of the wrong hands and uncompromised.
General Awareness: Organizations shouldn’t assume that cybersecurity is just the responsibility of the IT department. In reality, many systems are breached as a result of end-user error, with employees potentially falling prey to phishing attacks and other forms of targeted social engineering.
Four of the biggest risks facing modern small businesses are access management, cloud misconfigurations, zero-day vulnerabilities, and risks caused by third parties. These are somewhat technical terms, so we’ll define these next..
Access Management: This risk type is fairly self-explanatory. A huge subset of SaaS applications involves some level of sensitive data, such as its users’ personally identifiable information (PII) or transaction data. It is vital to ensure that applications enact strict access management controls and secure the single point of access that connects to the public cloud.
Cloud Misconfigurations: This cybersecurity risk type arises from issues related to how an organization sets up and manages its cloud environment and infrastructure. With cloud networks being increasingly complex and vital to operations, mitigating these risks is essential and requires a decent amount of expertise. Otherwise, cloud networks are subject to a range of risks, like security breaches, ransomware, malware, and more.
Third-Party Risk: When SaaS solutions are dependent on the public cloud, they assume a type of third-party risk. SaaS companies need to not only firm up their own cybersecurity posture, but work with any third-party providers to ensure that systems, applications, and data are safe from attacks.
Zero-Day Vulnerabilities: The term “zero-day” refers to a security flaw that is unknown to the software or hardware provider. Hackers will find these hidden flaws and exploit them (often via malware), before an organization is even aware of the vulnerability. That’s what makes them especially dangerous.
In response to a specific, detected risk, there are five key actions to undertake:
Risk Avoidance: Eliminating or otherwise avoiding any specific activities or processes that make an organization vulnerable to various risks.
Risk Reduction: Reducing present and future risks through various best practices, including actions that strengthen network, systems, and application security.
Risk Sharing: Making sure all users and other stakeholders are properly informed about vulnerabilities and potential risks so the organization as a whole can be more conscientious and aware.
Risk Transference: Determining which teams, departments, or individuals are best-suited for cybersecurity monitoring and risk management activities.
Risk Acceptance: Understanding the inevitability of certain known risks, taking steps to improve cybersecurity posture, and effectively communicating these risks (and their fixes) to stakeholders.
The top 3 cyber threats of 2023 are:
Ransomware Resurgence: In 2021, data shows that two-thirds (66%) of organizations were affected by ransomware attacks—a sizable increase over 2020. As these numbers continue to trend in an unfortunate direction, it underscores the importance of investing in effective ransomware protection, regardless of organization size. Here’s something scary: cybercriminals are starting to use programs like ChatGPT to write ransomware.
Cyber Warfare Growth: The threat of cyber warfare is increasing in both frequency and sophistication, posing an ongoing challenge on the cybersecurity front. Until businesses, government agencies, and even individuals take the threat more seriously, cyberware is expected to continue to grow. Common cyber warfare threats include system hacking, malware, DDOS attacks, and more. What’s most concerning is that cyber criminals are only going to continue refining their approaches, launching more frequent—and potentially more devastating—attacks in the future.
Potential Third-Party Vulnerabilities: SaaS companies must remain diligent in not only erecting their own defenses against cyberattacks, but they must also make sure any third-party providers they work with have a similar cybersecurity posture. Otherwise, even if an organization’s own data, systems, and applications are as safe as they can be, there will still be dangerous vulnerabilities threatening their security.
There are seemingly new types of cyberattacks being undertaken on a continuous basis, but 10 of the most common cyberattack types are:
Denial of Service (DoS) and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks
Man in the Middle (MITM)
You can learn more about each of these attack types in our article, Top 10 Cyber Security Threats and How to Prevent Them.
A cybersecurity risk assessment is a best practice that is designed to help an organization to understand its current landscape—including vulnerabilities, risks, and threats. The findings of this assessment help a company strengthen its overall cybersecurity strategy. The primary objectives are to ensure that networks, applications, data, and assets are well-protected, and that comprehensive measures are in place to guard against future threats.
The main reason why an organization should regularly perform a cybersecurity risk assessment is that you can only strengthen your cybersecurity if you’re intimately aware of the potential vulnerabilities, threats, and risks you’re up against. As such, conducting a cybersecurity assessment should be a key component in any risk management initiative. More specifically, a cybersecurity risk assessment can help you better understand the finer details of any potential threats, including the:
Types of threats that are present or possible.
Severity (and potential impact or cost) of potential threats.
Prevalence (or widening scope/target) of perceived threats.
Further, a cybersecurity risk assessment provides organizational value in various forms, including:
Making it easier to find affordable cyber insurance to meet an organization’s needs and provide peace of mind. Learn more about Trava’s solutions for insurance.
Enabling organizations to achieve SOC 2, ISO 27001, and HIPAA compliance. Learn more about Trava’s solutions for compliance.
Helping managed service providers (MSPs) to simplify their processes and more effectively build trust with their clients as a partner who takes cybersecurity seriously. Learn more about Trava’s solutions for MSPs.
Empowering SaaS organizations with the actionable insights they need to ensure their cybersecurity posture is sound, improve client relationships with increased trust, and work toward becoming a leader in their industry. Learn more about Trava’s solutions for SaaS leaders.
In broad terms, a cybersecurity risk assessment template is a multi-step process that includes three key stages.
Evaluation: What is the current state of cybersecurity? What vulnerabilities, risks, or threats are present or possible? How does the organization currently respond to threats, and how successful are those efforts? Are there already specific cybersecurity assessment tools in use, or are you still exploring your options?
Identifying and Prioritizing Areas for Improvement: Based on the initial findings of the cybersecurity evaluation, an organization can work to further understand—and mitigate—their most-pressing vulnerabilities, threats, and risks.
Making an Action Plan: In response to items 1 and 2 above, a cybersecurity action plan outlines what measures should be taken, including a timeframe.
Depending on the organization and its objectives, there are several different types of security risk assessments, including:
Penetration Testing: A simulated cyberattack is performed as an evaluative measure.
Vulnerability Assessment: A review of existing and/or potential weaknesses within an organization’s cybersecurity posture.
IT Audit: A test of cybersecurity controls’ presence and effectiveness in order to validate that systems are secure and regulatory compliance is adequate.
IT Risk Assessment: An evaluation of vital information assets, including where they are stored and managed, as well as how protected they are against cyberattacks.
Red Team Testing: Similar to penetration testing, red team testing includes simulated cyberattacks as a means to evaluate cybersecurity posture. The key difference, however, is in their scope and approach. Penetration testing looks for any/all vulnerabilities. Red team testing, by contrast, attempts a much more focused, even multi-prong type of testing, meant to thoroughly test one or more key vulnerabilities and any protection measures that are in place.
Do you know your Cyber Risk Score? Take our free assessment to gain new insights into how you can strengthen your cybersecurity posture.
A cybersecurity risk assessment framework provides a template of repeatable practices for understanding, addressing, and guarding against a range of organizational threats. A common framework is a set of recommendations put together by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These recommended practices are centered around key concepts like continuous improvement and ongoing compliance.
Broadly, NIST’s recommended Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is meant to establish a common language and approach for strengthening cybersecurity. According to the NIST, it exists to empower organizations with a consistent, repeatable process to:
Describe their current cybersecurity posture
Identify and prioritize opportunities for improvement
Assess progress toward a target state
Communicate among internal and external stakeholders about cybersecurity risk
The NIST Cybersecurity Framework provides a model for identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, risks, and threats. This framework categorizes main activities into five distinct functions:
Identifying cybersecurity risks that could interfere with an organization’s ability to execute critical functions.
Limiting who can access potentially compromised assets and/or sensitive information.
Training personnel to effectively monitor risks and practice cybersecurity risk management best practices.
Outlining a well-defined risk strategy to manage information and assets.
Developing and implementing cybersecurity protocol regarding information and assets.
Performing maintenance and repairs as needed, such as in response to imminent or potential vulnerabilities.
Adopting cybersecurity tools and practices for ongoing evaluation and protection of assets.
Detecting whether certain systems or assets are compromised or otherwise vulnerable, and how severe or prevalent the associated risks could be.
Responding to breaches and other attacks in a quick and complete manner, in order to minimize any disruption or damages.
Recovering any data that may have been compromised or lost after a breach or other attack, and developing solutions to prevent similar threats in the future.
You can explore the current NIST risk assessment framework in more depth on the NIST website. Key resources include:
NIST 800-30: NIST Special Publication (SP) 800-30, Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments
NIST 800-37: NIST Special Publication 800-37, Risk Management Framework for Information Systems and Organizations: A System Life Cycle Approach for Security and Privacy
NIST 800-39: NIST Special Publication 800-39, Managing Information Security Risk: Organization, Mission, and Information System View
These include additional, voluntary elements that are new to the framework.
At a high level, you can create your own security risk assessment program by executing five steps. Coincidentally, these aren’t too different from the NIST framework components we covered earlier, and include:
Assessing the organization’s overall cybersecurity posture.
Identifying any cybersecurity gaps or vulnerabilities.
Planning for cybersecurity improvements and creating a roadmap/timeline.
Executing the plan in order to address any/all identified vulnerabilities.
Monitoring the cybersecurity strategy’s effectiveness, as well as how the cybersecurity landscape changes over time (and what new vulnerabilities it may present).
What’s important to note here is that cybersecurity is not one-size-fits-all, so developing a consistent and repeatable cybersecurity risk assessment methodology that fits your needs is crucial. For a more in-depth look at this process—and how Trava Security can power your cybersecurity initiatives–download Trava’s Guide to Beginning a Cybersecurity Program.
A cybersecurity risk assessment report provides a standardized method for communicating an organization's cybersecurity posture, including how it plans to address or respond to various vulnerabilities, threats, and risks. It should offer specific as well as industry-level information about real or potential vulnerabilities, how valuable data and other assets are stored and secured, potential consequences of data breaches or other attacks, and so on. Creating a clear and well-organized report helps stakeholders and investors understand that your organization takes cybersecurity seriously—as it should.
A cybersecurity report should, at a minimum, contain 5 distinct components:
An overview of relevant cybersecurity threats.
A description and valuation of current IT assets that could be targeted.
Information about the potential impact of various cyberattack types on those assets.
Guidance around the current response plan for attacks of varying types and severity.
Recommended next steps for strengthening the organization's cybersecurity posture.
To wrap up our cybersecurity risk assessment guide, here’s a basic checklist to get you started with your own risk assessment program.
Identify valuable assets, so you can develop a comprehensive program for their protection and management.
Determine potential consequences, so you know exactly what’s at stake.
Understand threats and the dangers they pose, in order to quantify and prioritize them.
Identify and address vulnerabilities, for similar purposes of prioritization and planning.
Conduct a risk assessment, like Trava’s Cyber Risk Score assessment.
Create a plan, to keep the team aligned, on track, and moving forward.
Build a strategy for mitigation, including how you’ll monitor known risks as well as those that may not have made themselves known (yet).
For a more in-depth exploration of this checklist, read our related article.
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now.” Are you familiar with this proverb? Well, the same can be said about cybersecurity.
Perhaps as you’ve read this article, you’ve been concerned that with so many new and evolving security threats occurring every day, your own cybersecurity posture is lacking something. If that’s the case, then there is no better time than right now to start developing a cybersecurity program for your organization.
Trava offers a wide range of cybersecurity risk assessment tools, including vulnerability scans tailored to applications like:
Asset / Discovery
Trava has risk assessment surveys and phishing simulations available as well. To learn more about each of these scan types and more, download Trava’s Complete Guide to Vulnerability Scan Types.