What Is a Cyber Security Risk Assessment Matrix?

A cyber security risk assessment matrix is a crucial tool for helping organisations protect sensitive data and prevent data breaches.

The matrix provides a consistent way to measure and compare threats and vulnerabilities. It’s also an ideal resource for explaining the findings of your risk assessment to the board.

It gives a clear and graphical representation of the risks you face, demonstrating why certain risks are dangerous and the need to prioritise defence capabilities.

What is a cyber security risk assessment matrix?

Organisations are coming to understand the importance of cyber security in the modern business landscape. Failure to adequately protect systems could result in cyber attacks or privacy breaches that compromise people’s sensitive data.

You might think, therefore, that the best approach when addressing this threat is to close any weakness that you find. If every risk is accounted for, then surely your cyber security strategy is as strong as it could possibly be.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Any organisation that tried to do this would soon realise they face countless risks, and mitigating them all would be prohibitively expensive. It would also result in a complex set of processes and technologies that would be impossible to maintain.

This is why best practice guidance – such as the international standard for information security, ISO 27001 – recommends that organisations prioritise the biggest risks and find an appropriate way to address them.

This is where the cyber security risk assessment matrix comes in. It’s a system that enables organisations to ‘score’ their risks based on two questions:

  1. How likely is it that this risk will occur?
  2. How damaging would this risk be to our organisation?

These matrix helps organisations consider both issues and create a single value that accounts for both factors.

Benefits of a cyber security risk assessment matrix

A cyber security risk assessment matrix helps organisations understand their most significant weaknesses and ensure they respond appropriately.

It can pinpoint risks that require the most money and resources to fix. Few organisations have the means to invest time and money into mitigating every risk, so a scoring system based on the risk matrix gives them an accurate scientific rationale for their mitigation strategies.

Organisations don’t have to rely on instincts or assumptions, plus there is a consistent approach for measuring risks across the business.

This reduces the possibility of certain weaknesses aren’t weighted more heavily than others because of the assessor’s biases – whether conscious or unconscious.

What does a cyber security risk assessment matrix look like?

A cyber security risk assessment matrix is essentially a graph. On one axis, you have the likelihood of a risk occurring, and on the other, you have the damage scale.

There is no set rule on how those axes should be labelled, except that various levels of risk should be scored quantitively, with the value increasing incrementally based on set characteristics.

The most common scale has four values: 1 (little to know probability/damage), 2 (moderate probability/damage), 3 (high probability/damage), 4 (extreme probability/damage).

However, there’s no uniform rule on what each score should represent or how high the numbers should go. The only thing that matters is that a consistent approach is taken when measuring your risks.

With each axis labelled, the graph is then divided into a series of blocks and colour-coordinated based on the risk score, until you end up with a system that looks like this:

This matrix is divided into four sections – green, yellow, amber and red. This generally correlates to four levels of risk score:

Low-level risks (green) are unlikely to occur and will pose little damage if they do. They are generally considered acceptable, because the cost to mitigate them will be higher than the costs incurred if the risk manifested.

Medium-level risks (yellow) are either likely to occur but will pose little threat or unlikely to occur but pose a moderate threat. This is the point at which organisations should take mitigation strategies.

However, the relative lack of threat means that minimal resources should be dedicated to such risks. Where possible, defensive strategies should be bundled with similar risks to preserve your budget and keep your processes as efficient as possible.

High-level risks (amber) pose a significant problem on one or both ends of the axes. The scale of the threat – either in terms of likelihood or damage – cannot be ignored, and you must develop a robust mitigation strategy.

Critical risks (red) are both likely to occur and cause damage, so you must be extremely careful with any scenarios that present such problems.

These risks are considered intolerable, and you should take urgent action to lower your risk score. Given the scale of the risk, it’s worth questioning whether this scenario can be eradicated altogether.

You might cease any activity that creates the risk or alter it substantially to make it either less likely or less damaging.

How a cyber security risk assessment matrix works

Like many cyber security tools, the risk assessment matrix is only useful if you know how to use it correctly. One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is creating a consistent and logical way of assigning numerical scores to the risks you have observed.

Getting this right is essential, because if everyone has a different idea of a low, medium or high risk, then your results will be of little value.

As such, the risk assessment process should be completed by experienced professionals who understand the cyber security industry and your organisation. It’s also worth creating clear definitions of both probability and damage.

You could, for instance, label ‘probability’ in terms of how often the threat would typically manifest over a set time-period. Likewise, ‘damage’ might be conceived of in terms of financial repercussions and the impact the scenario will have on your organisation’s reputation.

A similar issue relates to the thresholds at which you will address certain risks. In the section above, we set out guidelines stating how organisations would approach each level of risk, but this approach won’t apply universally.

Rather, an organisation’s response strategy will be governed by its risk appetite. This describes the level of risk that an organisation deems acceptable. It’s typically tied to a specific score, and anything below that will be considered ‘acceptable’ and ignored.

In the example above, the risk appetite is set at 2, but for organisations with a smaller budget and limited defence capabilities, the risk appetite might be higher with a greater number of threats deemed acceptable.

Of course, that leaves them vulnerable to security incidents, which could result in greater costs in the future, so every organisation must strike a balance between short- and long-term planning.

Meanwhile, if you have the means to address a risk, there is no reason to continue considering it ‘acceptable’, and therefore your risk appetite will be much lower.

The cyber security risk assessment can be configured in a variety of ways to account for your risk appetite. The colour-coded categories are not standardised; they are visual representations that you can use to explain your organisation’s approach to cyber security to stakeholders.

Simplify the cyber risk assessment process with CyberComply

You can learn more about the risk assessment process and discover how to meet your compliance requirements with Vigilant Software’s CyberComply platform.

This toolkit helps organisations manage their cyber security compliance requirements. It guides you through your compliance needs and the most appropriate controls to mitigate risks.

Plus, it comes with tools dedicated to treating security threats, risk management and data flow mapping.

The platform is ideal for small- and medium-sized organisations to address their information security and compliance requirements.

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