What Is Information Security Risk? Definition and Explanation

Information security is becoming an increasingly important part of business. The average cost of a data breach rose to $4.24 million (about £3.1 million) last year, according to a Ponemon Institute study, demonstrating the severity of the problem.

To mitigate these costs, organisations must conduct risk assessments to determine how they might fall vulnerable. But what risks should you be looking for, and how do you define risks?

We explain everything you need to know in this blog.

Information security risk definition

If you look up the definition of information security risk, you’ll generally get the answer that it encompasses anything that can threaten the confidentiality, integrity or availability of sensitive information.

This might include risks related to physical records, digital assets, systems and servers, as well as incidents in which information is lost, stolen or made temporarily unavailable.

That’s a good basic summary, but the reality is more nuanced than that – and nuance is important if you are to address information security risks adequately.

A more accurate definition of information security risk is that it encompasses the negative effects after the confidentiality, integrity or availability of information has been threatened.

To understand why that’s the case, we need to look at risk within the trifecta that also includes threats and vulnerabilities.

A vulnerability is a known flaw that can be exploited to damage or compromise sensitive information.

These are often related to software flaws and the ways that criminal hackers can exploit them to perform tasks that they weren’t intended for. They can also include physical vulnerabilities, such as inherent human weaknesses, such as our susceptibility to phishing scams or the likelihood that we’ll misplace a sensitive file.

In short, vulnerabilities are the means by which information can be compromised.

A threat occurs when an actor takes advantage of or falls victim to a vulnerability. So, to use the examples above, threats include a criminal hacker exploiting a software flaw or duping an employee with a bogus email.

In other words threats are the actions that result in information being compromised.

Finally, you get to information security risks, which are the effects of a threat exploiting a vulnerability.

In the case of the criminal hacker phishing an employee, the risk is that they will gain access to the employee’s work account and steal sensitive information. This can result in financial losses, loss of privacy, reputational damage and regulatory action.

Types of risks in information security

We’ve already touched on some examples of information security risk, but they can also be broken down into these categories:

Human error

Something as simple as including the wrong person in the Cc field of an email or attaching the wrong document to an email could cause a data breach.

We’re all liable to make mistakes – it’s human nature – but employees need to understand the most important elements of information security. Meanwhile, all staff, technical or not, need to familiarise themselves with the organisation’s security policies and procedures.

Malicious insiders

A core part of an organisation’s security practices are access controls. These limit the information that’s available to employees, ensuring that they can only access records that are relevant to their job.

Meanwhile, strict controls should be placed on highly sensitive information to ensure that only trusted, top-level employees can access the information.

Doing so reduces the risk of an employee deliberately breaching information, whether they’re doing that for personal or financial reasons.

Physical theft

Most discussions of security focus on digital data, but many organisations need to be equally concerned about the protection of physical records. This could be files stored on the organisation’s premises, records that employees print out or the devices on which information is stored.

With hybrid working becoming the norm, organisations must address the risks associated with employees keeping company laptops in their homes. Likewise, data breaches can occur if removeable devices or company phones are lost or stolen.


Emails are a common part of our daily lives, making them a popular attack vector for cyber criminals.

Crooks might adopt the seemingly legitimate credentials of such organisations as insurers, banks, etc. to gain access to your personal information by encouraging you to click an unsafe link or download a malicious attachment.

Phishing is also one of the most common ways that cyber criminals target organisations in order to plant malware – with ransomware quickly becoming their favourite method.

Attacks works by infecting an organisation with malware that worms through an organisation’s systems, encrypting data and forcing the victim to halt operations that require those systems.

The criminals then issue a ransom demand to the organisation, requesting a payment in exchange for the decryption key.

Cyber security experts urge victims not to pay up, because there is no guarantee that the attackers will keep their word, but many take the risk anyway – which is why ransomware attacks remain so prolific.

Are you prepared for a data breach?

If your organisation is to prevent security incidents, you must be able to identify the threats you face and how they can occur.

This can be a labour-intensive task, but our risk assessment tool vsRisk does the work for you.

But by using vsRisk, you simplify the risk assessment, receiving simple tools that are specifically designed to tackle each part of the process.

This software package is:

  • Easy to use. The process is as simple as selecting some options and clicking a few buttons.
  • Able to generate audit reports. Documents such as the Statement of Applicability and risk treatment plan can be exported, edited and shared across the business and with auditors.
  • Geared for repeatability. The assessment process is delivered consistently year after year (or whenever circumstances change).
  • Streamlined and accurate. Drastically reduces the chance of human error.

We’re currently offering a free 30-day trial of vsRisk. Simply add the number of licenses you require to your basket and proceed to the checkout.

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