What is the difference between a Cyber Risk Assessment and a Vulnerability Assessment?
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Table of ContentsRisk Assessment vs. Vulnerability AssessmentThe Broader Scope of the Risk Assessment:The Benefits of a Vulnerability Assessment:Summary Table:Should I choose a Risk Assessment or a Vulnerability Assessment?
Whilst appearing similar at first, these two forms of Assessment provide quite different end results. To learn about the differences about a Risk Assessment and a Vulnerability Assessment, continue reading below:
Risk Assessment vs. Vulnerability Assessment
As the name suggests, a Cyber Risk Assessment is aimed at identifying anything that poses a security risk to your organisation. This includes people, processes, governance, protection, detection, prevention, response and recovery capabilities - in addition to risks in your IT systems. Because of this, Risk Assessments provide an exceptionally broad and superficial overview of your organisation's cyber security landscape.
In comparison, Vulnerability Assessments are more focussed on the immediate dangers that exist within your IT infrastructure by identifying specific vulnerabilities (as recognised by the National Vulnerability Database (NVD)) and misconfigurations, such as outdated software, insecure networks, and poorly designed websites etc.
Hence, the main difference between a Risk Assessment and a Vulnerability Assessment lies in the breadth and depth of the assessment.
Whilst Risk Assessments take a more abstract, zoomed-out perspective of your cyber security, Vulnerability Assessments provide you with a list of more specific and actionable technical vulnerabilities and misconfigurations of your IT systems.
The Broader Scope of the Risk Assessment:
As discussed above, Cyber Risk Assessments cover various areas of cyber security that Vulnerability Assessments do not:
- Information Security Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC): Having plans, policies and procedures in place ensures that you are both attempting to prevent, and are actively preparing for, a cyber attack. Consequently, Risk Assessment's assess IT Governance, and identify any risks resulting from absent policies, plans and procedures.
- The Wider Cyber Security Landscape: A Risk Assessment should also identify external risks, by viewing the position of your organisation relative to the wider cyber security landscape. Factors such as your industry and the type of data you store impact the likelihood of your business being attacked, along with the amount of damage to your reputation incurred in such an attack. After all, it is far more profitable for an attacker (and far more injurious to your reputation) if you suffer a data breach as a bank as opposed to a property developer! Supply Chain Management is another external influence that must be assessed - if you neglect to appraise the cyber security defences of your vendors, you render yourself more likely to be the victim of a supply chain hack. On the flipside, if your own cyber defences are weak - then you threaten the security of everyone you supply - and thus the risk of legal liability in the event of an attack.
- People as Risks: In case you haven't heard it before - people are one of the biggest risks to your organisation's cyber security! This starts at the very top - C-suite Officers, Board members and senior management should all be aware of the business risks presented by threats to the organisation's cyber security. This awareness should also filter right down to every employee: Are your staff aware of the dangers of unknown software and files? Are they trained to recognise a phishing email? Do you implement User Access Control to restrict administrative permissions to only the employees who need it? If not, it's highly likely that the biggest risk to your organisation is your own employees.
- Prevention & Detection: It should be no surprise that Risk Aversion is a principal element of a Risk Assessment. This element is concerned with whether you have Detection Capabilities (such as Network Traffic Monitoring, Endpoint Detection and Security Information and Event Monitoring) and Prevention technologies (such as Endpoint Protection, Email Protection, an Intrusion Prevention System and SOC analysis) in place. Without the ability to detect and prevent an oncoming attack - your risk burden is considerably greater.
- Incident Response & Disaster Recovery: Whilst a lot of focus is on detecting and preventing a cyber attack, you also need to prepare for the impact and recovery from one. Having a plan in place for when an Incident occurs should substantially reduce the time required to stop an attack and limit its impact on business operations. Likewise, planning to recover from a disaster and regularly practicing this plan should lead to a faster recovery time - so that IT systems are recovered rapidly and business is back running as usual.
What should be clearer now is that Risk Assessments consider both direct and indirect risks to your cyber security. For example, the C-Suite lacking awareness of cyber security won't directly result in an attack (assuming you're not planning to sabotage your own organisation!), however, it can and does contribute to the likelihood of an attack happening - as a poor attitude to cybersecurity means poorly managed, underfunded and/or non-existent cyber security measures.
Additionally, it should be apparent that Risk Assessments are concerned not only with the number of risks present, but the severity of those risks also. For example, neglecting to build an Incident Response Plan or conduct Test Recovery Drills won't reduce the number of risks, but it will reduce the impact of an attack - as the outcomes are likely to be less damaging and extensive as a result.
Hence, Risk Assessments add an extra layer of abstraction to risk awareness - in turn fostering an awareness and attitude to cyber security that encompasses all aspects of your organization.
The Benefits of a Vulnerability Assessment:
Whilst Risk Assessments are a great way to discover your overall cyber security posture - the insights gained are often more abstract, and require more complex transformations to achieve.
In comparison, the insights gained from a Vulnerability Assessment detail specific and actionable vulnerabilities and misconfigurations in your IT Infrastructure. These can often be remediated with simple changes to device, network, web or cloud configuration. Additionally, as the list of vulnerabilities is both broad and actionable, remediating them will have a substantial impact on fortifying your overall cyber security defences.
Should I choose a Risk Assessment or a Vulnerability Assessment?
Whenever possible, you should choose both.
Ideally, you want to combine the holistic overview of a Risk Assessment with the actionable insights provided by a Vulnerability Assessment. Both offer benefits that the other cannot provide.
However, if you cannot implement both, we recommend starting with a Risk Assessment, with the view to conducting Vulnerability Assessments in the future.