Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Three Marks of Risk Assessment

Risk assessment has been addressed extensively in available security and risk assessment literature and in public and semi-public standards1. Despite this coverage, and perhaps because of the scope and complexity of it, the essence of risk assessment is often lost. In a recent article, I spoke of widespread and significant misunderstanding about risk assessment, a misunderstanding which leads many to think that they are performing risk assessment when they are doing something more akin to a compliance assessment or a controls assessment.

I will provide three litmus tests to differentiate a risk assessment from other types of assessments, to help you determine if your organization is on the right track. Keep in mind that this is not a how-to and it is not comprehensive. Simply stated, if you are not doing all of the following, then you are not doing risk assessment. It's likely that you need to re-evaluate your entire approach, for which I provide further suggestions.

The three litmus tests:


1. Your organization has answered the question, "What business assets or capabilities are we trying to protect?”. The discussion about assets and capabilities implies the closely related question, “Why do we exist?”. It should be obvious, but the reason for existence must be other than, “to be compliant.” While it is true that non-compliance could pose financial risks, or in extreme cases an existential risk, it not a reason to exist, even if related to the ability to continue to exist. In other words, non-compliance is but one of many possible risks to the organization. (Here’s a hint for those in healthcare attempting HIPAA Security Risk Assessment: you’ve been told your asset, and it’s electronic Protected Health Information.)

2. Your organization has identified threats to its assets and possibly threats to the organization’s mission at a broader level. Each item on your threat list has implicit or explicit threat actors such as employees, hacktivists, mother nature, competitors, and so on. (If the only or primary threat actors are regulators, that’s a compliance assessment.) These threats are documented, and they are used throughout the risk assessment process. If the question you are asking is of the form, “Are we fulfilling this particular regulatory requirement for X?”, then you are not actually doing a risk assessment, you’re doing a compliance assessment. The questions should be of the form, “How could these threats act on our assets to cause harm?”.

3. Your organization’s discussion is focused mostly on possible future negative events, and current facts contribute information to determine aspects of risk such as probability and impact. Risks are stated in terms of impact to organizational mission, objectives, operations, or value. (If your "risks" are each equivalent to, "We are not compliant”, then that is a compliance assessment.2) Risks may manifest as lost revenue, diminished reputation, direct customer impact, financial impact, possible regulatory action, inability to conduct business, and so on.

To reiterate, the above three items are not meant to be comprehensive and are not all that is required for a risk assessment. If you are doing the above, your risk assessment process may still not be as complete or as mature as your organization needs. However, if you are not doing the above three things, then you are not on the right track and need to re-evaluate your approach.

Next Steps


At this point you may be asking, "What do I do if I missed one or more of these?” Here are recommended next steps:

1. Do research on available and industry-appropriate risk assessment methodologies and approaches. If you have access to ISO 31010, this standard contains a comprehensive list and comparative analysis of various risk analysis methods. Having access to this list is generally not necessary to get started and is more important for maturing risk assessment processes, but is still a useful reference. Also, look to industry-specific standards, high-performing peers, and qualified and experienced consultants to provide guidance and assistance.

2. Share your concerns and a proposed risk assessment approach with senior management. Provide plausible business rationale for your concerns and business-based justification for your proposed approach. This is another area where an experienced information security risk consultant can help, particularly one familiar with your industry. Such an advisor can bring to light specific business requirements, risks and benefits related to conducting a proper risk assessment.

3. Select your people, methods, and tools - in that order. Risk assessment benefits from multiple business and technical perspectives. Include various IT specialities, lines of business, and specialists, depending on the particular assessment.

4. Conduct your risk assessment(s).

5. Track, manage, and report risks on an ongoing basis. Risks should be documented and explained in non-technical, relevant terms in such a way that organizational leaders can understand them. This step is technically risk management. I include it because risk assessment has little purpose and negligible impact without some level of risk management.


1 Examples include:

  • NIST Special Publication series: SP 800-30 Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments;
  • ISO IEC 31010:2009 Risk management -- Risk assessment techniques;
  • ISO/IEC 27005:2011 Information technology -- Security techniques -- Information security risk management;
  • CERT OCTAVE (Operationally Critical Threat, Asset, and Vulnerability Evaluation) Allegro
  • PCI Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) Information Supplement: PCI DSS Risk Assessment Guidelines

2 Compliance issues are not excluded because non-compliance impacts may include loss of license, fines, additional oversight; all of which have operational or financial implications. These, in turn, have consequences on the mission, business objectives, operations, and value of an organization.

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