When choosing a supplier to partner with, organizations need to perform their due diligence and assess the cyber risks associated with each particular supplier using risk assessment evaluations. Part of the supplier lifecycle management process includes ensuring that these third parties are meeting minimum security requirements, maintaining strong cybersecurity programs, and adhering to all relevant compliance regulations.

Especially during the procurement phase, organizations need to determine whether or not to work with a specific supplier or if their risks are worth taking on. Over the entire supplier lifecycle, organizations will need to continue conducting supplier risk assessments to ensure that they are upkeeping their security postures and have not introduced new risks to their IT infrastructure.

This post will examine how organizations can perform a supplier risk assessment and prevent data breaches from happening and how to mitigate the risks involved.

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What is a Supplier Risk Assessment?

Supplier risk assessments help organizations understand and prioritize all the cyber risks associated with a particular supplier. It’s an essential part of a broader supplier risk management strategy that assesses the level of risk the supplier comes with and if there could be potential issues down the line from partnering with them.

Using the information gained from the risk assessment, top-level executives and shareholders can make necessary business decisions about the supplier’s security posture and a potential partnership. Whether it’s a potential new supplier or an existing one, supplier risk assessments must be conducted regularly throughout the supplier lifecycle to minimize potential business disruptions, supply chain attacks, and reputational damages.

Some major considerations that need to be answered in the risk assessment phase are:

  • What are the main threats affecting the supplier?
  • What is the likelihood of a cyber attack successfully occurring?
  • What is the potential impact of a successful cyber attack?
  • How much risk is my organization willing to accept?
  • Will the identified risks affect business operations?
  • Which critical data or assets will the supplier require access to?

Refer to this example of a vendor risk assessment to understand how it's structured and the data it contains.

Download your vendor risk assessment template >

Suppliers vs. Vendors

Although suppliers and vendors can sometimes be used interchangeably, there is a small difference between the two, based on the nature of the relationship between the organization and the third party.

Suppliers are direct third parties that provide services or goods to an organization and are often the first link in the supply chain. Vendors (or service providers) are often the last link in the supply chain and provide goods and services to the end consumer.

In the context of cybersecurity, both suppliers and vendors are critical components of the third-party supply chain risk management process and overall business operations. The risk assessment process for both is the same, as the end goal is to identify, assess, and mitigate all potential risks associated with these external parties.

How to Perform a Supplier Risk Assessment

Before starting a supplier risk assessment, you’ll want to first prepare by designating an individual or group of individuals to take the lead on the process. Appointing someone to take charge of the assessment phase, it allows for better communication and a more streamlined process.

Second, you’ll want to identify where the designated individual can access all relevant data pertaining to the risk assessment and potential roadblocks that could constrain the assessment process. In some cases, the designated individual is on the IT team and can easily access all of this data through manual spreadsheets or dedicated cyber solutions.

If you're new to risk assessments, refer to this overview of performing a third-party risk assessment.

Step 1: Identify Critical Assets and Critical Suppliers

Although the goal of every risk management program is to secure each risk and minimize its impact, it may be a costly venture to do so, which means that organizations should focus on their most important assets in areas of critical or high risk. Assets classified as critical for business continuity, compliance, or legal and handled by the suppliers should be prioritized first.

The scope of the risk assessment should first extend to only the most critical suppliers that have a more direct impact on your business or handle extremely sensitive data. Those suppliers should be labeled as “critical suppliers” and are assessed and managed before all others.

Step 2: Determine Risk Tolerance and Risk Appetite

Next, your organization needs to determine its risk tolerance and risk appetite for new and existing vendors. This means that for each risk category (information security, email security, network security, incident response, regulatory compliance, etc.), your organization must determine how much risk it is willing to accept per category and aggregately.

For larger organizations, this is also known as enterprise risk management, which takes a more structural and metric-based approach to determine their risk exposure and risk acceptance levels.

For other organizations, determining risk acceptance levels may be as simple as limiting the number of high or critical risks in the supplier’s overall risk profile or gauging the severity of each critical risk against asset values and business continuity requirements.

Learn how to create a vendor risk assessment matrix >

Step 3: View Security Ratings

Security ratings are useful risk assessment criteria that objectively measure supplier performance using a single risk score. Ratings are calculated using various methods of aggregate risk categories. The goal is to gain further visibility into a supplier’s security posture by categorizing each risk by criticality to determine risk mitigation and remediation prioritization.

For an overview of the top features of an ideal risk assessment solution, read this post comparing the top third-party risk assessment software options.

How UpGuard Can Help

UpGuard scans billions of data points daily to collect data at scale and feeds that data into a proprietary scoring algorithm that measures a company’s security performance instantly through a single, easy-to-understand score out of 950. The algorithm is updated over time to reflect the most accurate in-class security posture.

Using a Gaussian weighted mean, each organization’s security rating is weighted over various risk categories, with a heavy weight towards the weakest areas. Security ratings can also be broken down by risk factors and their severity classification for a high-level overview of the supplier’s overall cyber resiliency.

Learn more about UpGuard’s Security Ratings >

Step 4: Send Out Security Questionnaires

Security questionnaires are a major part of the vendor risk management process to gather information about a supplier’s current state of cybersecurity, including which security controls they use, what frameworks they are currently mapped to, their incident response plans, and more.

Questionnaires also help identify if an existing or new vendor is at compliance risk and failing to meet regulation standards. Non-compliance is especially critical because failure to comply can potentially lead to significant supply chain disruptions and massive penalties by governing bodies.

How UpGuard Can Help

UpGuard Vendor Risk helps organizations gain deeper insights into their third parties’ security posture using an automated vendor risk assessment process. Through the UpGuard platform, organizations can monitor and track their supplier questionnaire responses to automatically assess security posture through identified risks. Set regular reminders so your suppliers complete their questionnaires faster and save time by not having to chase them down individually.

Using a comprehensive library of 20+ prebuilt, customizable questionnaires, businesses can now map industry-specific or globally-recognized frameworks and regulations to their supplier’s security controls. Organizations will also have the ability to request remediation from their vendors and suppliers or waive them completely.

Learn more about UpGuard’s security questionnaires >

Step 5: Tier Vendors and Suppliers By Criticality Level

Using both instant security rating and security questionnaire responses, one of the final steps in the third-party risk assessment process is to tier vendors and suppliers by their criticality level. Vendor criticality levels are typically classified into four main groups:

  1. Critical risks - Risks or vulnerabilities that place the business in immediate threat of data breaches or leaks.
  2. High risk - Severe risks that need to be addressed immediately to protect the business.
  3. Medium risk - Unnecessary security risks that can potentially lead to more serious vulnerabilities.
  4. Low risk - Areas of improvement to reduce risk and improve cybersecurity ratings.

The goal of vendor/supplier tiering is the help streamline the risk management process so that security teams can begin prioritizing risk remediation in a sequenced, more logical manner.

How UpGuard Can Help

UpGuard allows you to customize vendor tiers based on their importance to the business and the level of risk that they hold. Suppliers and vendors that handle more critical information can be classified into a higher tier to help you prioritize and allocate adequate resources during the risk assessment and management process.

Learn more on how to tier vendors and other third parties >

Step 6: Track for Data Leaks

Data leaks are a significant operational risk because it means employee credentials, sensitive data, or internal classified information has been exposed somewhere on the web. Organizations need a way to detect data leaks quickly to identify the source of the leak, especially if it’s from a third or fourth party.

How UpGuard Can Help

UpGuard uses a proprietary data leak detection engine to scan hundreds of millions of pages and billions of records online to find every potential leak. Combined with an expert team of cybersecurity analysts, UpGuard can quickly filter out false positives and provide better actionable intel to begin working with vendors and suppliers to remediate the issue.

UpGuard’s team of analysts also provides assistance for building remediation workflows as part of the vendor management process. Each data leak comes with in-depth context on where the leak has been found, when it was discovered, which part of the business has been impacted, where the leak likely came from, and the type of data that was exposed.

Learn more about UpGuard’s data leak detection >

Step 7: Conduct Annual Risk Assessments

The ongoing supplier and vendor relationship management process involves assessing security postures and compliance over time. Vendors and suppliers need to be reviewed regularly (typically on an annual basis) for critical risks or other potential security gaps. This also gives organizations a chance to proactively adjust their security programs in relation to new business processes, new regulation compliance standards, external attack surface management, and changing business environments.

How UpGuard Can Help

UpGuard helps organizations build better supplier relationships through its user-friendly, comprehensive platform that scales as the business grows. With potentially hundreds of vendors to manage, UpGuard Vendor Risk streamlines that workflow so businesses can quickly scan through their vendors and ensure they are all meeting minimum security requirements and compliance standards. Everything can be managed from a single, centralized dashboard to help businesses save time and resources.

Learn more about the entire vendor risk assessment process >

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