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10 Pitfalls Of IT Risk Assessment

Avoid these assessment mistakes to make better long-term security decisions

As IT organizations seek to make better risk-based decisions about security practices, perhaps the No. 1 component for success is the IT risk assessment. However, even when organizations actually conduct a risk assessment, they frequently fall prey to mistakes that can greatly devalue the exercise. Here are some of the most common blunders to avoid.

1. Forgetting To Assess Third-Party Risk
Most IT risk experts agree that most enterprises today simply don't work to gauge the level of IT risk posed by vendor and other partner infrastructure that touches their most sensitive data.

"One area that many companies are not doing enough on is managing their relationships with third-party vendors they use," says Brad Johnson, vice president of consultancy SystemExperts. "Often, once the lawyers have finally signed off on an agreement, both parties tend to have a very hands-off approach with each other and forget the details of making sure things are staying on course. "

When organizations fail to really do their due diligence -- both before and after a contract is signed -- they're bound to miss critical details that will drastically change how the real risk exposure looks.

"For example, a client company may not be aware that a vendor is storing their regulated data in a public cloud," says Natalie Kmit, senior information security adviser for security consultancy Sage Data Security.

2. Making Assessments Too Quantitative
True, analytics and numbers are really important for evaluating risk and how it could materially impact the bottom line. But organizations need to understand that the numbers game doesn't have to be perfect to be effective, especially when it comes to estimating breach impact.

"Ranges of impact make it easier to get on with the discussion and focus on how you'll mitigate risk, rather than spending a lot of cycles debating about whether the impact is $20 million or $21 million," says Dwayne Melancon, CTO of Tripwire. "Once you figure out whether the impact of a realized risk is catastrophic, painful, inconvenient, annoying, or not a big deal, you can have a good conversation about how much you want to spend to mitigate the most serious risks."

Melancon says that going overboard with analytics, in general, can bog down the assessment process and that organizations should be wary of taking so long on things like classifying risk that they are lengthening the assessment cycle to the point of ineffectiveness.

Besides, says Manny Landron, senior manager of security and compliance at Citrix ShareFile's SaaS Division, there are also qualitative risk factors that organizations need to find a way to incorporate into the assessment.

"Quantitative assignments should be well-defined, and the cost-benefit assessment should have a qualitative counterpart at each turn," he says. "Having too narrow a focus, using strictly quantitative measurements, not having a framework to work against, and not having sufficient periodically scheduled risk assessments are all mistakes risk executives should aim to avoid."

3. Letting Assessment Suffer From Myopic Scope
It's the rule rather than the exception that most large organizations overlook key assets and indicators in their risk assessments, says Jody Brazil of firewall management firm FireMon.

"Among the most frequent issues are those related to identifying vulnerabilities as 'risks' without any greater qualification, such as exposure to available access or exploitation," he says. "There's also the labeling of individual threats as 'risk,' and the failure to properly assign values to specific assets-most often exemplified by treating all hosts or underlying systems as equal."

Mike Lloyd, CTO of RedSeal Networks, agrees, stating that most organizations just don't keep good enough track of their infrastructure assets they own to properly assess them.

"Most organizations have lost track of the assets they own," he says. "Performing a risk assessment on the asset inventory system can be like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post, even though he dropped them in the alley, because the light is better under the lamp post."

What's more, even with complete data sets they're frequently assessed in separate silos, making it difficult to understand interdependencies.

"Sometimes an assessment focuses on a very specific application, but fails to embrace the entire infrastructure," says Gregory Blair, senior director of operations for FPX, a company that develops price-quoting software. "For example, the assessment might look only at an application focused on securing a database and misses the general computing controls that are used in a specific industry -- things like encryption, firewall, authentication, and authorization."

4. Assessing Without Context
IT risk assessments are all about context, whether it is systems context as mentioned above or business context. Organizations that fail to put vulnerabilities and threats in context of the information assets and their importance to the business can't truly develop a good risk assessment or a way to apply it back to IT practices.

"When assessing risks, many times CISOs lack the context to the business. In other words, they need to ask, "What's being assessed and how does it affect the business?'" says Amad Fida, CEO of big data risk analysis firm Brinqa. "Results that are analyzed without business context provide a 'technology' view but not a 'business-plus technology' view."

[Your organization has been breached. Now what? See Establishing The New Normal After A Breach.]

5. Failing To Fold IT Risk Assessment Into Enterprise Assessments
Similarly, businesses want to understand how IT risks interplay with all of the other risks set in front of other business units. More often than not, organizations treat IT risks as their own category without considering their broader impact.

"More risk-aware organizations recognize that IT is an integral part of their business success and work to make sure IT is engaged in the business risk conversation," SystemExperts' Johnson says. "A number of organizations I work with have cross-functional teams that look at risk holistically to better understand dependencies, and these teams make recommendations about which risks the company should focus on from a business perspective."

Next Page: Assess And Forget Syndrome Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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Peter Fretty
Peter Fretty,
User Rank: Moderator
10/30/2013 | 5:02:52 PM
re: 10 Pitfalls Of IT Risk Assessment
Great advice Ericka. Especially when resources are limited it's so easy to get pigeonholed into one way of doing things without realizing the need to step back and reassess the approach. Needless to say risk assessments need to be a key component of any solid security strategy in line with educating the team and embracing meaningful tools.

Peter Fretty, IDG blogger working on behalf of Sophos
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