Benchmarking digital risk factors facing financial service firms

Risk management is the foundation upon which financial institutions are built. Recognizing risk in all its forms—measuring it, managing it, mitigating it—are all critical to success. But has every firm achieved that goal? It doesn’t take indepth research beyond the myriad of breach headlines to answer that question.

But many important questions remain: What are key dimensions of the financial sector Internet risk surface? How does that surface compare to other sectors? Which specific industries within Financial Services appear to be managing that risk better than others? We take up these questions and more in this report.

  1. The financial sector boasts the lowest rate of high and critical security exposures among all sectors. This indicates they’re doing a good job managing risk overall.
  2. But not all types of financial service firms appear to be managing risk equally well. For example, the rate of severe findings in the smallest commercial banks is 4x higher than that of the largest banks.
  3. It’s not just small community banks struggling, however. Securities and Commodities firms show a disconcerting combination of having the largest deployment of high-value assets AND the highest rate of critical security exposures.
  4. Others appear to be exceeding the norm. Take credit card issuers: they typically have the largest Internet footprint but balance that by maintaining the lowest rate of security exposures.
  5. Many other challenges and risk factors exist. For instance, the industry average rate of severe security findings in critical cloud-based assets is 3.5x that of assets hosted on-premises.

Dimensions of the Financial Sector Risk Surface

As Digital Transformation ushers in a plethora of changes, critical areas of risk exposure are also changing and expanding. We view the risk surface as anywhere an organization’s ability to operate, reputation, assets, legal obligations, or regulatory compliance is at risk. The aspects of a firm’s risk exposure that are associated with or observable from the internet are considered its internet risk surface. In Figure 1, we compare five key dimensions of the internet risk surface across different industries and highlight where the financial sector ranks among them.

  • Hosts: Number of internet-facing assets associated with an organization.
  • Providers: Number of external service providers used across hosts.
  • Geography: Measure of the geographic distribution of a firm’s hosts.
  • Asset Value: Rating of the data sensitivity and business criticality of hosts based on multiple observed indicators. High value systems that include those that collect GDPR and CCPA regulated information.
  • Findings: Security-relevant issues that expose hosts to various threats, following the CVSS rating scale.

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The values recorded in Figure 1 for these dimensions represent what’s “typical” (as measured by the mean or median) among organizations within each sector. There’s a huge amount of variation, meaning not all financial institutions operate more external hosts than all realtors, but what you see here is the general pattern. The blue highlights trace the ranking of Finance along each dimension.

Financial firms are undoubtedly aware of these tendencies and the need to protect those valuable assets. What’s more, that awareness appears to translate fairly effectively into action. Finance boasts the lowest rate of high and critical security exposures among all sectors. We also ran the numbers specific to high-value assets, and financial institutions show the lowest exposure rates there too. All of this aligns pretty well with expectations—financial firms keep a tight rein on their valuable Internet-exposed assets.

This control tendency becomes even more apparent when examining the distribution of hosts with severe findings in Figure 2. Blue dots mark the average exposure rate for the entire sector (and correspond to values in Figure 1), while the grey bars indicate the amount of variation among individual organizations within each sector. The fact that Finance exhibits the least variation shows that even rotten apples don’t fall as far from the Finance tree as they often do in other sectors. Perhaps a rising tide lifts all boats?

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Security Exposures in Financial Cloud Deployments

We now know financial institutions do well minimizing security findings, but does that record stand equally strong across all infrastructure? Figure 3 answers that question by featuring four of the five key risk surface dimensions:

  • the proportion of hosts (square size),
  • asset value (columns),
  • hosting location (rows),
  • and the rate of severe security findings (color scale and value label).

This view facilitates a range of comparisons, including the relative proportion of assets hosted internally vs. in the cloud, how asset value distributes across hosting locales, and where high-severity issues accumulate.

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From Figure 3, box sizes indicate that organizations in the financial sector host a majority of their Internet-facing systems on-premises, but do leverage the cloud to a greater degree for low-value assets. The bright red box makes it apparent that security exposures concentrate more acutely in high-value assets hosted in the cloud. Overall, the rate of severe findings in cloud-based assets is 3.5x that of on-prem. This suggests the angst many financial firms have over moving to the cloud does indeed have some merit. But when we examine the Finance sector relative to others in Figure 4 the intensity of exposures in critical cloud assets appears much less drastic.

In Figure 3, we can see that the largest number of hosts are on-prem and of medium value. But high-value assets in the cloud exhibit the highest rate of findings.

Given that cloud vs. on-prem exposure disparity, we feel the need to caution against jumping to conclusions. We could interpret these results to proclaim that the cloud isn’t ready for financial applications and should be avoided. Another interpretation could suggest that it’s more about organizational readiness for the cloud than the inherent insecurity of the cloud. Either way, it appears that many financial institutions migrating to the cloud are handling that paradigm shift better than others.

It must also be noted that not all cloud environments are the same. Our Cloud Risk Surface report discovered an average 12X difference between cloud providers with the highest and lowest exposure rates. We still believe this says more about the typical users and use cases of the various cloud platforms than any intrinsic security inequalities. But at the same time, we recommend evaluating cloud providers based on internal features as well as tools and guidance they make available to assist customers in securing their environments. Certain clouds are undoubtedly a better match for financial services use cases while others less so.

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Risk Surface of Subsectors within Financial Services

Having compared Finance to other sectors at a high level, we now examine the risk surface of major subsectors of financial services according to the following NAICS designations:

  • Insurance Carriers: Institutions engaged in underwriting and selling annuities, insurance policies, and benefits.
  • Credit Intermediation: Includes banks, savings institutions, credit card issuers, loan brokers, and processors, etc.
  • Securities & Commodities: Investment banks, brokerages, securities exchanges, portfolio management, etc.
  • Central Banks: Monetary authorities that issue currency, manage national money supply and reserves, etc.
  • Funds & Trusts: Funds and programs that pool securities or other assets on behalf of shareholders or beneficiaries.

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Figure 5 compares these Finance subsectors along the same dimensions used in Figure 1. At the top, we see that Insurance Carriers generally maintain a large Internet surface area (hosts, providers, countries), but a comparatively lower ranking for asset value and security findings. The Credit Intermediation subsector (the NAICS designation that includes banks, brokers, creditors, and processors) follows a similar pattern. This indicates that such organizations are, by and large, able to maintain some level of control over their expanding risk surface.

A leading percentage of high-value assets and a leading percentage of highly critical security findings for the Securities and Commodities subsector is a disconcerting combination. It suggests either unusually high risk tolerance or ineffective risk management (or both), leaving those valuable assets overexposed. The Funds and Trusts subsector exhibits a more riskaverse approach to minimizing exposures across its relatively small digital footprint of valuable assets.

Risk Surface across Banking Institutions

Given that the financial sector is so broad, we thought a closer examination of the risk surface particular to banking institutions was in order. Banks have long concerned themselves with risk. Well before the rise of the Internet or mobile technologies, banks made their profits by determining how to gauge the risk of potential borrowers or loans, plotting the risk and reward of offering various deposit and investment products, or entering different markets, allowing access through several delivery channels. It could be said that the successful management and measurement of risk throughout an organization is perhaps the key factor that has always determined the relative success or failure of any bank.

As a highly-regulated industry in most countries, banking institutions must also consider risk from more than a business or operational perspective. They must take into account the compliance requirements to limit risk in various areas, and ensure that they are properly securing their systems and services in a way that meets regulatory standards. Such pressures undoubtedly affect the risk surface and Figure 6 hints at those effects on different types of banking institutions.

Credit card issuers earn the honored distinction of having the largest average number of Internet-facing hosts (by far) while achieving the lowest prevalence of severe security findings. Credit unions flip this trend with the fewest hosts and most prevalent findings. This likely reflects the perennial struggle of credit unions to get the most bang from their buck.

Traditionally well-resourced commercial banks leverage the most third party providers and have a presence in more countries, all with a better-than-average exposure rate. Our previous research revealed that commercial banks were among the top two generators and receivers of multi-party cyber incidents, possibly due to the size and spread of their risk surface.

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Two Things to Consider

  1. In this interconnected world, third-party and fourth-party risk is your risk. If you are a financial institution, particularly a commercial bank, take a moment to congratulate yourself on managing risk well – but only for a moment. Why? Because every enterprise is critically dependent on a wide array of vendors and partners that span a broad spectrum of industries. Their risk is your risk. The work of your third-party risk team is critically important in holding your vendors accountable to managing your risk interests well.
  2. Managing risk—whether internal or third-party—requires focus. There are simply too many things to do, giving rise to the endless “hamster wheel of risk management.” A better approach starts with obtaining an accurate picture of your risk surface and the critical exposures across it. This includes third-party relationships, and now fourth-party risk, which bank regulators are now requiring. Do you have the resources to sufficiently manage this? Do you know your risk surface?

Click here to access Riskrecon Cyentia’s Study

Perspectives on the next wave of cyber

Financial institutions are acutely aware that cyber risk is one of the most significant perils they face and one of the most challenging to manage. The perceived intensity of the threats, and Board level concern about the effectiveness of defensive measures, ramp up continually as bad actors increase the sophistication, number, and frequency of their attacks.

Cyber risk management is high on or at the top of the agenda for financial institutions across the sector globally. Highly visible attacks of increasing insidiousness and sophistication are headline news on an almost daily basis. The line between criminal and political bad actors is increasingly blurred with each faction learning from the other. In addition, with cyberattack tools and techniques becoming more available via the dark web and other sources, the population of attackers continues to increase, with recent estimates putting the number of cyberattackers globally in the hundreds of thousands.

Cyber offenses against banks, clearers, insurers, and other major financial services sector participants will not abate any time soon. Looking at the velocity and frequency of attacks, the motivation for cyberattack upon financial services institutions can be several hundred times higher than for non-financial services organizations.

Observing these developments, regulators are prescribing increasingly stringent requirements for cyber risk management. New and emerging regulation will force changes on many fronts and will compel firms to demonstrate that they are taking cyber seriously in all that they do. However, compliance with these regulations will only be one step towards assuring effective governance and control of institutions’ Cyber Risk.

We explore the underlying challenges with regard to cyber risk management and analyze the nature of increasingly stringent regulatory demands. Putting these pieces together, we frame five strategic moves which we believe will enable businesses to satisfy business needs, their fiduciary responsibilities with regard to cyber risk, and regulatory requirements:

  1. Seek to quantify cyber risk in terms of capital and earnings at risk.
  2. Anchor all cyber risk governance through risk appetite.
  3. Ensure effectiveness of independent cyber risk oversight using specialized skills.
  4. Comprehensively map and test controls, especially for third-party interactions.
  5. Develop and exercise major incident management playbooks.

These points are consistent with global trends for cyber risk management. Further, we believe that our observations on industry challenges and the steps we recommend to address them are applicable across geographies, especially when considering prioritization of cyber risk investments.

FIVE STRATEGIC MOVES

The current environment poses major challenges for Boards and management. Leadership has to fully understand the cyber risk profile the organization faces to simultaneously protect the institution against everchanging threats and be on the front foot with regard to increasing regulatory pressures, while prioritizing the deployment of scarce resources. This is especially important given that regulation is still maturing and it is not yet clear how high the compliance bars will be set and what resources will need to be committed to achieve passing grades.

With this in mind, we propose five strategic moves which we believe, based on our experience, will help institutions position themselves well to address existing cyber risk management challenges.

1) Seek to quantify cyber risk in terms of capital and earnings at risk

Boards of Directors and all levels of management intuitively relate to risks that are quantified in economic terms. Explaining any type of risk, opportunity, or tradeoff relative to the bottom line brings sharper focus to the debate.

For all financial and many non-financial risks, institutions have developed methods for quantifying expected and unexpected losses in dollar terms that can readily be compared to earnings and capital. Further, regulators have expected this as a component of regulatory and economic capital, CCAR, and/or resolution and recovery planning. Predicting losses due to Cyber is particularly difficult because it consists of a combination of direct, indirect, and reputational elements which are not easy to quantify. In addition, there is limited historical cyber loss exposure data available to support robust cyber risk quantification.

Nevertheless, institutions still need to develop a view of their financial exposures of cyber risk with different levels of confidence and understand how this varies by business line, process, or platform. In some cases, these views may be more expert based, using scenario analysis approaches as opposed to raw statistical modeling outputs. The objectives are still the same – to challenge perspectives as to

  • how much risk exposure exists,
  • how it could manifest within the organization,
  • and how specific response strategies are reducing the institution’s inherent cyber risk.

2) Anchor all cyber risk governance through risk appetite

Regulators are specifically insisting on the establishment of a cyber risk strategy, which is typically shaped by a cyber risk appetite. This should represent an effective governance anchor to help address the Board’s concerns about whether appropriate risks are being considered and managed effectively.

Setting a risk appetite enables the Board and senior management to more deeply understand exposure to specific cyber risks, establish clarity on the Cyber imperatives for the organization, work out tradeoffs, and determine priorities.

Considering cyber risk in this way also enables it to be brought into a common framework with all other risks and provides a starting point to discuss whether the exposure is affordable (given capital and earnings) and strategically acceptable.

Cyber risk appetite should be cascaded down through the organization and provide a coherent management and monitoring framework consisting of

  • metrics,
  • assessments,
  • and practical tests or exercises

at multiple levels of granularity. Such cascading establishes a relatable chain of information at each management level across business lines and functions. Each management layer can hold the next layer more specifically accountable. Parallel business units and operations can have common standards for comparing results and sharing best practices.

Finally, Second and Third Line can have focal points to review and assure compliance. A risk appetite chain further provides a means for the attestation of the effectiveness of controls and adherence to governance directives and standards.

Where it can be demonstrated that risk appetite is being upheld to procedural levels, management will be more confident in providing the attestations that regulators require.

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3) Ensure effectiveness of independent cyber risk oversight using specialized skills

From our perspective, firms face challenges when attempting to practically fit cyber risk management into a “Three Lines of Defense” model and align cyber risk holistically within an enterprise risk management framework.

CROs and risk management functions have traditionally developed specialized skills for many risk types, but often have not evolved as much depth on IT and cyber risks. Organizations have overcome this challenge by weaving risk management into the IT organization as a First Line function.

In order to more clearly segregate the roles between IT, business, and Information Security (IS), the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and the IS team will typically need to be positioned as a « 1.5 Line of Defense » position. This allows an Information Security group to provide more formal oversight and guidance on the cyber requirements and to monitor day-today compliance across business and technology teams.

Further independent risk oversight and audit is clearly needed as part of the Third Line of Defense. Defining what oversight and audit means becomes more traceable and tractable when specific governance mandates and metrics from the Board down are established.

Institutions will also need to deal with the practical challenge of building and maintaining Cyber talent that can understand the business imperatives, compliance requirements, and associated cyber risk exposures.

At the leadership level, some organizations have introduced the concept of a Risk Technology Officer who interfaces with the CISO and is responsible for integration of cyber risk with operational risk.

4) Comprehensively map and test controls, especially for the third party interactions

Institutions need to undertake more rigorous and more frequent assessments of cyber risks across operations, technology, and people. These assessments need to test

  • the efficacy of surveillance,
  • the effectiveness of protection and defensive controls,
  • the responsiveness of the organization,
  • and the ability to recover

in a manner consistent with expectations of the Board.

Given the new and emerging regulatory requirements, firms will need to pay closer attention to the ongoing assessment and management of third parties. Third parties need to be tiered based on their access and interaction with the institution’s high value assets. Through this assessment of process, institutions need to obtain a more practical understanding of their ability to get early warning signals against cyber threats. In a number of cases, a firm may choose to outsource more IT or data services to third party providers (e.g., Cloud) where they consider that this option represents a more attractive and acceptable solution relative to the cost or talent demands associated with maintaining Information Security in-house for certain capabilities. At the same time, the risk of third party compromise needs to be fully understood with respect to the overall risk appetite.

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5) Develop and exercise incident management playbooks

A critical test of an institution’s cyber risk readiness is its ability to quickly and effectively respond when a cyberattack occurs.

As part of raising the bar on cyber resilience, institutions need to ensure that they have clearly documented and proven cyber incident response plans that include

  • a comprehensive array of attack scenarios,
  • clear identification of accountabilities across the organization,
  • response strategies,
  • and associated internal and external communication scenarios.

Institutions need to thoroughly test their incident response plan on an ongoing basis via table top exercises and practical drills. As part of a table top exercise, key stakeholders walk through specific attack scenarios to test their knowledge of response strategies. This exercise provides an avenue for exposing key stakeholders to more tangible aspects of cyber risk and their respective roles in the event of a cyberattack. It also can reveal gaps in specific response processes, roles, and communications that the institution will need to address.

Last but not least, incident management plans need to be reviewed and refined based on changes in the overall threat landscape and an assessment of the institution’s cyber threat profile; on a yearly or more frequent basis depending on the nature and volatility of the risk for a given business line or platform.

CONCLUSION

Cyber adversaries are increasingly sophisticated, innovative, organized, and relentless in developing new and nefarious ways to attack institutions. Cyber risk represents a relatively new class of risk which brings with it the need to grasp the often complex technological aspects, social engineering factors, and changing nature of Operational Risk as a consequence of cyber.

Leadership has to understand the threat landscape and be fully prepared to address the associated challenges. It would be impractical to have zero tolerance to cyber risk, so institutions will need to determine their risk appetite with regard to cyber, and consequently, make direct governance, investment, and operational design decisions.

The new and emerging regulations are a clear directive to financial institutions to keep cyber risk at the center of their enterprise-wide business strategy, raising the overall bar for cyber resilience. The associated directives and requirements across the many regulatory bodies represent a good and often strong basis for cyber management practices but each institution will need to further ensure that they are tackling cyber risk in a manner fully aligned with the risk management strategy and principles of their firm. In this context, we believe the five moves represent multiple strategically important advances almost all financial services firms will need to make to meet business security, resiliency, and regulatory requirements.

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click here to access mmc’s cyber handbook