Last Updated on 2 November 2022 by Alastair Digby
When researching ways to improve cybersecurity at your business, you’ll often see sources discussing the importance of strengthening your security posture. A strong security posture is only increasing in importance as attack surfaces expand and threat actors target any weaknesses they can find. But what does a strong security posture mean and what does improving it entail? This article clarifies what your security posture is and provides six actionable steps to improve it.
What is security posture?
Security posture is a term that refers to an organization’s overall readiness to prevent, detect, and respond to cyber threats. Understanding your security posture requires a holistic appraisal of the current status of your networks, information, and systems in light of your available personnel, processes, policies, technologies, and other security controls.
It’s important not to view your company’s security posture as an abstract concept that remains relatively static and stable over long periods of time. Rather, consider it as fluctuating regularly depending on the controls you have in place, the current threat landscape, and the level of visibility you have into your attack surface.
Why is security posture important?
The security posture of your organization is important because of how it relates to cyber risk. Cyber risk is the likelihood of some negative outcome occurring multiplied by its potential impact or damage. As an organization’s security posture improves, cyber risks decrease. In particular, managing and enhancing your security posture helps to control the following three risks:
The most recent version of IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach report found that average breach costs reached an all-time high of $4.35 million in 2022. As threat actors increasingly recognize the value of data to businesses, they focus many of their tactics on obtaining unauthorized access to sensitive or confidential information assets.
Often, these data breaches result in data being exfiltrated from organizations’ IT environments. Cybercriminals then try to extort ransom payments from companies to avoid having their data disclosed on the dark web.
Data breaches usually come with significant regulatory penalties due to an increase in data privacy regulations that protect certain categories of data. Further costs include reputational damage and litigation fees. As you strengthen your security posture, the overall probability of a data breach decreases, and the potential damage also reduces.
Of course, there are various other cyber threats that malicious actors can deploy to harm organizations apart from accessing their sensitive data. Users can click on well-crafted phishing emails and spread malware across your network, DDoS attacks can take down critical systems, and zero-day exploits can allow unfettered snooping around your network.
A strong security posture provides a high level of preparedness to mitigate many types of cyber attacks and help avoid the serious damage they can cause. This potential damage extends from direct monetary costs that hit your bottom line to reduced customer trust and lost productivity.
Vulnerabilities and misconfigurations
Not all cyber risks immediately result in damage, but vulnerabilities and misconfigurations are essentially ticking timebombs waiting for malicious actors to find and exploit them. These risks can emerge in software, hardware, cloud services (SaaS apps, storage buckets, etc), and network protocols.
A robust security posture puts important capabilities in place that can identify vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, and swiftly mitigate them. With today’s growing attack surfaces comprising multi-cloud IT environments, more endpoints, and customer-facing web apps, organizations that prioritize attack surface visibility and monitoring strengthen their security postures and reduce the risks from exploitable weaknesses.
6 Steps to improve your security posture
Here are six steps to improve the security posture of your organization.
Conduct regular security assessments
Regular security assessments can provide useful snapshots of the current state of your security posture and help to guide improvement efforts. Any assessment should try to capture a complete picture of your network at the time, including all endpoint devices connected, all users and their permissions, and any other valuable IT assets, including data and systems.
A security assessment then takes this IT inventory and evaluates how well each asset is currently protected against various cyber threats. The results of a security assessment can help you put in place better controls, improve policies, or change the workflow for processes for a stronger security posture.
Monitor networks and software for vulnerabilities
The ability to monitor and swiftly remediate any vulnerabilities that emerge in your environment is central to improving your security posture. These vulnerabilities can pop up in web applications, open ports, websites, cloud infrastructure, and IoT devices.
Application vulnerabilities alone remain a primary cause of data breaches despite widespread awareness of the importance of patching them quickly. The more comprehensive your monitoring capabilities, the faster you can flag vulnerabilities for remediation. With fewer vulnerabilities available for hackers to find and exploit, your security posture improves.
Each element of your IT environment—hardware, apps, users, and endpoints—has its own set of risks that range in severity. Taking a blanket approach to simply mitigating all risks is both inefficient and impractical.
Prioritizing risks is an important step to improve your security posture because you can focus more effort on those risks that have more potential to cause harm. A further benefit of risk prioritization is that it helps determine which risks you are able to accept without weakening your security posture. Risk acceptance usually happens for risks that are extremely unlikely to be exploited and have a low blast radius even in the unlikely event that a threat actor exploits them.
Define and track security metrics
Making real improvements to your security posture over time becomes easier when you have useful metrics that measure the effectiveness of what you’re currently doing. Useful metrics are those that point to the more general status of your networks, information, and systems.
Your chosen metrics should cover important general aspects of security, including visibility into systems and assets, time to patch vulnerabilities, incident rates and their severity levels, the effectiveness of various security controls, and average response times. You can use these metrics to better inform the security decisions you make and the next solutions you procure to boost your overall security posture.
The degree of security automation at a company is a good indicator of a healthy security posture. Part of the reason is that talent shortages continue to plague the cybersecurity labor market, and automation helps strained IT security teams better prepare for and fend off cyber threats. Furthermore, automated solutions can even orchestrate security tasks or triage alerts to help free up time spent on menial tasks and overcome alert fatigue.
Benefitting more from automation requires taking a look at current security processes and protocols and determining which ones lend themselves well to being automated. Potential candidates include automated asset discovery, automated analysis of security alerts generated by applications and hardware, and automated solutions to stop DDoS attacks.
Create and implement an incident response plan
An excessive emphasis on preventative controls leaves significant shortfalls in the overall security posture of your business. It makes sense to reduce your attack surface and put other controls in place in an effort to deter malicious actors, but the most determined and technically knowledgeable hackers could still find a way in.
In fact, an emerging philosophy within security suggests that businesses should strengthen their security posture using an ‘assume compromise’ mentality. This mentality ensures IT security teams also focus on threat detection and response capabilities in addition to trying to keep intruders out.
An incident response plan provides a solid foundation for being prepared to react when things go wrong. Testing, fine-tuning, and enacting this step-by-step plan can limit the potential damage from in-progress attacks detected on the network. The plan should cover roles and responsibilities, detection, analysis, how to contain the incident, and how to recover all affected systems to their previous secure state. For inspiration and more detail, check out CISA’s incident response playbook.
Improve your security posture with external attack surface management
The complex interplay of hybrid workforces, third-party open source code, IoT devices, and cloud and on-premise applications makes today’s attack surfaces more dynamic than ever. Without full visibility into the potential external entry points for cyber attacks in your environment, it’s impossible to even assess your security posture, let alone strengthen it.
External attack surface management improves your security posture by mapping out all your Internet-facing assets, discovering vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, and helping to guide remediation efforts.
Informer’s solution provides automated and continuous asset discovery for near real-time insights into how your attack surface looks to outsiders. You can also get continuous vulnerability and misconfiguration alerts to act on, including the ability to connect to your cloud environment to monitor your externally facing cloud assets. All of this information is invaluable for both understanding your security posture and improving it as it changes over time.