Vendor Risk Assessment for Small and Medium Concerns

In my last paper I discussed the high level of risk that third-party service providers and vendors pose to organizations. If vendors have a connection to your internal network, or are trusted implicitly by organizational staff, they are a potential risk to private information and services at your business. Because of this danger, it is becoming increasingly important to conduct vendor risk assessments. In addition, vendor risk assessments will produce information valuable to increasing the accuracy of the organization’s business impact analysis. For small to medium size businesses, the goal is producing a useful vendor risk assessment without expending inordinate amounts of time and resources. I will outline below the basic methodology for conducting such a risk assessment.

The first step is formulating questionnaires for both internal employees and for the services providers being assessed. For the internal questionnaires, it is best to question application/vendor owners and subject matter experts. It is also valuable to have the input of IT and security personnel. Some of the information you may want to gain from this effort includes:

  • What data and systems does the vendor have access to? How critical to the business are these systems and data? Is the data regulated or sensitive (i.e. PPI, PHI)?
  • How does the vendor access these assets (i.e. via VPN, 2FA, simple user name/password)? Is access automatic or must it be enabled before access is granted? Is vendor access logged and monitored? Is there a shared access account used to communicate with the vendor, or is access individual to the employee?
  • How critical is the availability of this vendor to business processes? Is the vendor really necessary (Are there other vendors used by the organization that provide similar services to other lines of business, and is it possible to a number of vendors with just one)?
  • Has a review of vendor contracts and agreements been performed to see if they meet the organizations security policy and functional requirements?
  • Are there periodic reviews of the vendor performed to check on their status in the industry (i.e. financial status, reputation)?

For the external questionnaires, the goal is to gain information about and from the vendor. This information can be gleaned from publicly available sources, user groups, the Better Business Bureau, or you can contact the vendor itself. Some of the information you may wish to collect includes:

  • Does the vendor have a SOC 2, PCI DSS, ISO certification in place, or is there other evidence of a risk management program in place?
  • Does the vendor support multi-factor authentication mechanisms such as hard tokens, Okta, etc.?
  • Is the vendor financially sound?
  • Does the vendor have a good reputation in the industry and among users of the vendor service or application?
  • Does the vendor have a documented information security program in place that is compliant with the organization security program? Does the vendor perform logging and monitoring of their systems? Do they have an incident response program in place? Etc.
  • Does the vendor have a history of security compromises or data breaches?

Once you have the information about the vendors you need, you can apply the regular risk assessment paradigm to them; what threats may menace the vendor, what impacts would the business suffer if the vendor were compromised, how likely is compromise of the vendor? From this you assign the vendor a risk rating, usually stated as high, medium or low.

After the risk ratings have been assigned to all of the organization’s vendors, the risk treatment process can be undertaken. For example:

  • Should additional security controls be put in place around the vendor?
  • Should a replacement be found for the vendor?
  • Is there a way to avoid the risk posed by the vendor to the organization?
  • Does the benefit derived from using the vendor outweigh the risk posed to the organization by the vendor?
  • Can agreements with the vendor be renegotiated in order to meet the organization’s security and functionality needs?

Although this process is relatively simple, the organization can derive great benefit from undertaking it. In the present business climate, information security cannot be taken too seriously.