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Cybersecurity: Balancing Risk and Cost

It seems not a week goes by without an unplanned data access, unapproved data exfiltration or unauthorized system access hitting the headlines. Most recently, the U.S. Government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) made the news, disclosing the unauthorized access to the personally identifiable information of over 21 million government employees, applicants, and non-applicant individuals including over 5.6 million employees’ fingerprints.

Insurance companies are familiar with risk management and the cost of a known risk being exercised. When that exposure occurs, the financial payouts can be staggering. Equal risks come from the possibility of information systems’ breach and data exposure. 

However, many companies struggle with limited budgets and resources. It inevitably becomes an exercise in balancing risk and cost. I like to use the following analogy: You don’t put a $1,000 fence around a $100 horse. You take reasonable care to make sure the horse stays within the appropriate boundaries, but if that horse gets loose and causes damage in significant excess of the $1,000 fence, you might rethink that decision. 

It’s a risk-based decision that can come back and haunt you. So, with solutions ranging from free to millions of dollars, how do you prepare a cyber risk management plan without breaking the bank?  

The first step is to understand your risk and your vulnerabilities. What assets do we have in our infrastructure? What personally identifiable and/or sensitive data do we have to protect? What vulnerabilities do we have that need to be mitigated?

In order to understand your information technology assets, an assessment of the infrastructure should be undertaken. Asset management discovery via a network scan will highlight the connected and active assets and what those devices are connecting to. The output of this assessment gives a baseline of the infrastructure to upon which to base your vulnerability analyses.

Infrastructure-specific risk areas can be identified by conducting independent vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. These tests typically are performed by ethical hackers simulating how someone would attack your network and systems. They give you concrete data on where your immediate infrastructure vulnerabilities are.

As this first step is critical in crafting your program, it is a good place to invest budget dollars.  Many companies offer the assessment services listed above for reasonable costs. If you must choose only one, it is crucial to have independent vulnerability assessment/penetration testing. 

Next, you have to decide what your risk tolerance is. What happens when the horse gets out?  How much risk do we want to retain? What is our budget? How much do we want to spend on technical prevention versus mitigation and response?

When answering these questions, you should keep in mind that it’s not a question of ‘if’ you will have an incident; it is a question of ‘when and how bad.’ While you can certainly seek the advice of a cyber professional, ultimately these are questions only you can answer and the answers will be different for every company. 

You are now equipped with the information you need to build a balanced, comprehensive program that is unique to your organization. While your needs and their related costs will vary, here are some effective and inexpensive ways to help strengthen the overall security posture of your organization.

  • Create a culture of security awareness. The number one security threat to an organization is its people. It is important to educate and enlist all members of your team in protecting your company’s assets. Securing the organization begins at the executive level—lead by example. Help manage your security awareness by walking around, look for unsecured systems or passwords on Post-It notes. See something, say something. An educated employee/user is a valuable security warrior in the fight against cyber threats.  The SANS publication Securing the Human is a good resource to review and validate your security awareness program. 
  • Hit the low hanging fruit. The SANS Top 20 Controls is a list of critical items the security community has identified as having significant value in reducing an organization’s security gaps and controls. Adopting these controls can reduce an organizations exposure and potential liability by showing due diligence to addressing security issues.

Whether we are prepared for it or not, cyber intrusions are now a fact of life for businesses of all sizes. We need to recognize that fact and take the appropriate steps to protect our data and our customers’ data to the best extent possible within the reasonable limits of our financial and technical resources. 

The basic cyber protections outlined herein are a quick and inexpensive place to begin your efforts. We can’t build a Berlin Wall to keep the horse in the field, but we can build and maintain a strong, wood-rail fence that contains and protects our data appropriately for our industry’s well-being.

Chuck McGann is chief cyber strategist for Salient Commercial Solutions.


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