6.5 min to readDigital Workplace

How to use a risk assessment vs. a vulnerability assessment

Ravi Bindra
Ravi BindraCISO

Information security is critical to today’s businesses, particularly considering digital transformation strategies and the advent of stricter data privacy regulations. With so much information stored digitally, cyber attacks have become the biggest threat to organizational data and information. But the first step in dealing with these potential attacks involves finding ways to prevent them in the first place.

The two most common ways of understanding common threat sources in information security are risk assessments and vulnerability assessments. Here we outline what each of these assessments involves, why they are necessary, and how to conduct them.

Understanding risk assessments and vulnerability assessments

Risk assessments and vulnerability assessments might seem like the same thing on the surface, but these two concepts are indeed distinct. IT Risks are potential threats or hazards related to an organization’s use of technology, processes and procedures. Vulnerabilities, on the other hand, are weaknesses in the technology that can potentially be exploited.

Risk assessments focus on identifying potential threats associated with a new project or undertaking. The idea is to identify areas of incomplete knowledge, fill in those gaps, and then take steps to mitigate the potential threats.

Vulnerability assessments focus on identifying existing weaknesses in assets or control that malicious actors can exploit and cause harm. Performing a vulnerability assessment allows an organization to identify vulnerabilities and security gaps and then take measures to eliminate them.

In essence, risk assessment involves looking outside of an organization to determine what threats exist that could potentially lead to problems, while vulnerability assessment involves looking inside the organization for structural flaws and weaknesses. The former evaluates which armies might approach the castle gates while the latter checks the locks on the doors.

Why are assessments necessary for businesses?

The answer to this question might seem obvious at first. Of course, businesses want to avoid threats and the possibility of losing data. But at the same time, performing an assessment requires resources so businesses must determine if devoting resources to risk and vulnerability assessments is worth the expense.

A recent report by Audit Analytics titled “Trends in Cybersecurity Breach Disclosures” states that the average cost of a cybersecurity breach for a publicly traded company is $116 million. Moreover, 63 percent of companies admit to having had a breach in the last 12 months that potentially compromised their data. In other words, cyberattacks are real, unfortunately common, and can be extremely costly. Hence it is in every organization’s best interest to take threat assessment seriously.

Choosing the right assessment

Risk and vulnerability assessments often go hand in hand. For example, if you only perform a vulnerability assessment, you may miss dangerous external threats. Going back to the castle analogy: Suppose you devote efforts to reinforcing your walls only to discover the enemy has achieved flight and you have no protection against this new type of attack.

Identifying risks makes it easier to identify vulnerabilities. If you know what types of attacks are likely to occur, it is easier to determine weak spots within your current setup. Therefore, it is often a good idea to lead with a risk assessment. Such assessments should ideally be performed regularly after a comprehensive initial assessment and before any major projects or IT infrastructure changes.

Vulnerability assessments are often performed on a more frequent basis. Not only does a vulnerability assessment provide the opportunity to close security gaps, but it can also help ensure compliance standards are being met.

How to conduct a risk assessment and vulnerability assessment

Performing a comprehensive risk assessment is the first step in securing your data from threats. A risk assessment typically consists of three primary steps:

  1. Identify Risks: Often the most challenging step, this requires identifying all of the potential threats. If not done thoroughly, risks can easily be missed. Compile a list of all IT assets and processes; consider threats for Confidentiality, Integrity & Availability before seeking out information about the latest cyberattacks and re-assessing these risks. It can help to create a detailed log of all potential risks for easy tracking and mitigation later on.
  2. Perform Analyses: Next, study each identified risk thoroughly so that you know the relative likelihood of it leading to a problem as well the potential impact of a successful breach. In this stage, you should also do preliminary research into what methods work best for mitigating each risk.
  3. Evaluate: Since it is virtually impossible to eliminate all risks, in this final step you will want to prioritize the identified risks and determine which mitigation techniques to deploy. You may choose to rank each risk with a category for intolerable risks, a category for more balanced risks, and a category for negligible or inconsequential risks. This will allow you to direct resources where they can have the greatest impact.

A vulnerability assessment may begin with a risk assessment but then goes further with the goal of determining how well the current infrastructure is protected against potential risks. Steps may include the following:

  1. Identify Assets and Risks: Determine what your most crucial IT assets are and where they are located, including on-premises and in the cloud. Make a list of all threats you wish to assess as well as all known risks. Ideally, you will have a security baseline by which to judge the configuration of the system.
  2. Define a System Baseline: Create a detailed picture of the organizational structure, current software and programs used, and the relative knowledge of the people using the IT assets. Understanding the overall structure and use of technology in an organization will make it easier to identify weak spots as well as prioritize fixes.
  3. Perform a Vulnerability Scan: Next, you will need to scan for vulnerabilities. This may be done with different tools and plug-ins explicitly designed for vulnerability assessment. A vulnerability scan may also detect weaknesses in configurations.
  4. Create a Vulnerability Report: Finally, compile a report summarizing each identified vulnerability, its potential impact, and the proposed mitigation strategy.

Again, these two assessment types go hand in hand. You need to both be aware of what risks are out there and examine your current setup for places that threats could breach.

Final Thoughts

Staying on top of your business’s cybersecurity needs is an ongoing process. Your IT team should conduct regular threat risk assessments and prioritize mitigation efforts accordingly. But when it comes to running scans to identify threats, the right tools can make all the difference. Consider using SoftwareOne’s Digital Workplace Security Services, for example, which can help protect your business from phishing, ransomware, hackers, and more. 

Also, keep in mind that one of the largest vulnerabilities when it comes to cybersecurity is users within your organization. If your employees are not trained to identify and report phishing attempts or other problems, all the rest of the security measures may not matter. SoftwareOne’s managed security offerings include our Cybersecurity User Awareness Service which helps your employees gain awareness of threats that could impact your business.

As mentioned in the beginning, the first step in dealing with cyberattacks is finding ways to prevent them in the first place. This is achieved through regular risk and vulnerability assessments, along with a comprehensive security strategy designed to keep your organization’s data safe. Check out our free Cyber Threat Bulletin for regular updates on threats and how to handle them.


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Ravi Bindra

Ravi Bindra

Ravi holds over 20 years’ experience as a cyber security evangelist, holding multiple leadership roles in the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, such as Global Head of Risk Management, Global Head of Architecture and Global Head of Security Operations.