Building a cyber security risk assessment template

Defending your school district’s IT infrastructure is hard enough as it is. It’s a lot tougher if you don’t know what to defend against.

That’s why you need a cyber security risk assessment template. Not familiar? No worries.

Let’s discuss the importance of risk analysis and how to conduct a cyber security risk assessment for your school district.

What is a security risk assessment?

According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a cyber security risk assessment is an exercise that assists organizations in understanding potential threats to their operations, critical assets, and individuals. For a school district, that means it helps you identify and prioritize potential risk factors that could disrupt learning, compromise information assets, expose sensitive data, or negatively impact students and staff.

Like all aspects of information security, risk analysis is full of complicated terminology. So, to bring you up to speed, let’s review key terms as defined by CISA:

  • Threat: A circumstance or event that has or indicates the potential to exploit vulnerabilities and to adversely impact organizational operations, assets, individuals, other organizations, or society. For example, a ransomware attack is a potential threat to operations, assets, and individuals.
  • Vulnerability: A characteristic or specific weakness that renders a school district or asset open to exploitation by a given threat. Lackluster cloud security, for instance, is a vulnerability that could give way to a cyber attack.
  • Likelihood: The probability that a risk scenario will occur.
  • Risk: The potential impact resulting from an incident, event, or occurrence, as determined by the likelihood that a particular threat will exploit a particular vulnerability with the associated consequences. As an example, if it’s highly likely a ransomware gang exploits weaknesses in your cloud security posture, that would be considered a significant security risk for your district. Why? Because it has the potential to cause financial damage, disrupt learning, and violate student privacy.

A risk analysis, or security assessment, is the process of determining your school district’s most critical assets (information technology, storage systems, cloud services, etc.). It’s then a case of identifying cyber threats that could adversely affect those assets and the potential impact they may have on students, staff, and the community. This enables you to make informed decisions about how and where to implement security controls, mitigation strategies, and other protective measures.


Why is risk analysis important?

Risk assessment is an essential component of incident response planning, which is key to protecting sensitive data from unauthorized access. After all, you can’t plan ahead if you don’t know what you’re up against.

And, in truth, there’s plenty to plan for these days. K-12 security teams are facing unprecedented challenges from cyber threats of all shapes and sizes. Worse yet, many don’t have the resources or expertise to tackle them effectively.

According to the Center for Internet Security’s (CIS) Nationwide Cybersecurity Review (NCSRR), which surveyed hundreds of districts, K-12 respondents report their top five security concerns as follows:

  • Lack of sufficient funding: 81% of participants
  • Increasing sophistication of threats: 59% of participants
  • Lack of documented processes: 58% of participants
  • Lack of a cybersecurity strategy: 47% of participants
  • Inadequate availability of cybersecurity professionals: 41% of participants

Although it won’t mitigate all of the above challenges, conducting a risk analysis is a step in the right direction. At the very least, risk assessments make school districts aware of their threat environment and can help identify areas of improvement, vulnerability, and/or prioritization. Critically, a security risk assessment can provide a compelling case to administrators, helping IT departments acquire additional resources for data protection.

Fortunately, nearly 60% of survey respondents indicated they already provide periodic information risk, control, and security reporting to top-level decision-makers. Those who do display a 52% higher overall average maturity score than school districts that don’t. In simple terms, risk analysis and reporting lends itself to stronger cyber resilience and preparedness.

Benefits of conducting a vulnerability assessment

There are several reasons your school district should consider a cyber risk assessment:

  • Cost savings: Recovering from a K-12 data breach can be expensive. Cases are known to result in monetary losses ranging from $50,000 to $1 million per event. Identifying potential threat vectors, and mitigating them, reduces incident severity, saving you money in the long term.
  • Future improvement: Risk analysis isn’t a one-and-done ordeal. With a solid first attempt, you’ll have a cyber security risk assessment template you can turn to down the road. The result? Faster processes and more comprehensive reporting.
  • Stronger cyber risk awareness: Completing a risk assessment report ensures everyone is on the same page and aware of potential threats. Moreover, it builds your district’s knowledge base, which you can use to classify incidents as they occur.
  • Information security: The better you understand your risk landscape, the better you can squash cyber attacks. In turn, you can protect your students’ sensitive information from unauthorized access and exposure.

How to perform a cyber security risk assessment

Conducting a risk assessment may be overwhelming if you’re a beginner. But, if you break down the components, it’s much more approachable than you might imagine.

Here are the key steps you need to take:

1. Define the scope

An effective security assessment starts by determining what falls within its scope. In other words, what are you specifically evaluating?

Larger districts may have tens of thousands of students and hundreds of information systems. That’s a big undertaking. It’s often easier to assess one aspect at a time rather than the entire district in one fell swoop.

Once you’ve determined a starting point, identify the stakeholders whose activities fall within the scope of the assessment. Their input is valuable to understanding which information assets are most important.

2. Identify critical assets

Next, create an inventory of all critical assets — the hardware, software, devices, systems, and applications you most need to protect.

Keep in mind that each of these items may contain sensitive data (payment card information, medical histories, personally identifiable information, Social Security numbers, and so on). It’s helpful to consider who has access to these assets and what permissions they have. This can aid in understanding where a data breach could originate within the system and where it could spread.


3. Audit your threat landscape

Threat actors use a wide array of strategies to launch cyber attacks. In fact, there are so many it’s usually easiest to consult a resource like the Mitre ATT&CK Knowledge Base. Libraries like this provide updated information on emerging cyber threats.

What matters is that you cover your bases and account for any potential risk factors relevant to your environment. Here are some of the most common causes of K-12 data breaches:

  • Malware: Malicious software that infects your computer systems to steal sensitive information.
  • Ransomware: Malware strains that specifically steal data or disable critical resources until you pay for their release.
  • Phishing: Social engineering scams that trick users into sharing personal information or downloading viruses.

4. Consider potential impacts

Evaluate how damaging it would be for a threat to exploit potential vulnerabilities. For example, consider the following risk scenario:

  • Threat: A scammer sends a phishing email to a student’s school-provided inbox.
  • Vulnerability: Your email client’s spam feature fails to recognize the threat.
  • Impact: The student clicks a link, which directs them to a malicious website. It infects their personal device and steals sensitive data about your student.

In this case, the potential impact is fairly contained. But, in reality, most risk scenarios can lead to bigger and more devastating consequences.

That’s why it’s important to evaluate the threats you identified in the previous step. If you assign them a risk score or risk level, determined by their potential impact, you can create a rating scale. This will be essential to the following exercise.

5. Determine and prioritize risks

With a risk rating system, you can better prioritize your mitigation strategies based on what has the greatest magnitude of harm. That way, you don’t waste resources on your least important assets, only to leave potential vulnerabilities open for exploitation.

Lastly, compile these insights into a risk assessment report. Share this document with your stakeholders to ensure everyone is aware of the findings.

What to do after the security assessment

After you’ve wrapped the assessment, it’s time to deploy the appropriate mitigation strategies. Not sure where to begin? Try a risk monitoring solution, like Cloud Monitor.

Cloud Monitor by ManagedMethods is a cloud-based platform that integrates with Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. It provides enhanced visibility into your risk environment, allowing you to spot potential threats and vulnerabilities as early as possible.

Using data loss prevention capabilities, it automatically scans your domain for policy violations. Let’s say a student receives a phishing email in their inbox. Cloud Monitor addresses this risk scenario by quarantining the threat and alerting you, or a designated administrator, of the incident. With a more rapid investigation and response process, you can rest assured your district is well-protected against the latest cyber threats.

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