Quick Bites Episode 11 – Ranking Application Risks

Quick Bites Episode 11 – Ranking Application Risks
Aaron Moss
Author: Aaron Moss

Threats often evolve faster than defenders can figure out how to prevent them. That’s why keeping up with the threats and assessing the risk associated with them is so important.  Here at Secure Ideas, we believe that assessing and ranking application risks is key.  In this Quick Bites, we’ll talk about some of the methodologies we use to identify and classify risk in applications, which can help you and your business strategize how to mitigate and eliminate the risks. 

Understanding Risk Ranking

First, let’s define risk.  The most simplified approach is to use the formula risk = threat * vulnerability.  Breaking that down, we are stating that risk is the likelihood of occurrence (i.e. the threat) combined with the potential impact (i.e. the vulnerability). There are other, more in-depth risk models that you can use to determine risk for your organization, including NIST 800-30 and the FAIR models – I’ll leave the deep dives into those as an exercise for the reader.  

Risk ranking involves evaluating this risk in quantifiable terms, and then prioritizing it in order of highest to lowest.  In the context of applications, risks can range from simple configuration errors to complex vulnerabilities (looking at you SSRF, deserialization, and SQL injection) which can lead to severe data breaches.  The goal of risk ranking is to address these risks in a systematic manner, allowing you and your organization to designate the appropriate resources and minimize the overall impact of these risks.  

The Benefits of Ranking Web Application Risks

Resource Optimization 

Prioritizing web application security risks, like any other aspect of security, can be a huge feat to undertake. Combine this with the fact that organizations often have limited resources, and now we have a recipe for disaster – if risks are not being managed effectively.  Adopting a standard ranking mechanism can help to optimize an organization’s resources, directing them towards addressing the most critical vulnerabilities first. This ensures that those efforts are focused on applications with the highest potential impact on security.

Proactive Risk Mitigation 

By identifying, classifying, and prioritizing risks, organizations can be more proactive in mitigating threats.  Addressing the high-priority vulnerabilities quickly can significantly shrink the window of opportunity for attackers, enhancing your organization’s overall security posture.  

Compliance and Regulatory Requirements 

Many industries and countries have specific compliance and regulatory requirements regarding data security.  For example, in the United States we have HIPAA, PCI, and the California Consumer Privacy Act.  Risk ranking helps organizations obtain compliance by allowing them to focus on vulnerabilities that pose the greatest risk of non-compliance.

Best Practices for Effective Risk Ranking

Regular Assessments 

Just like applications evolve, so do potential risks. Regular security assessments, including vulnerability scans and penetration testing, can ensure that the risk ranking is based on the most current data.

Effective Collaboration between Security and Development Teams 

Effective risk ranking requires effective collaboration between effective development and  security teams. Developers provide insight into an application's architecture and functionality. Security teams identify potential vulnerabilities.   Being effective means each team has a good grasp of their strengths and weaknesses.  They also understand how the other team can complement their strengths and weaknesses. When both teams work in conjunction with each other, they can eliminate risk faster than doing it alone.

Consideration of Business Impact 

Often, the impact of a vulnerability is not solely technical.  Organizations also need to consider the potential business impact, including reputational damage, financial losses, and legal or regulatory consequences. 


As applications evolve and scale up, so does the complexity of the application. This can introduce more vulnerabilities, which increases the overall risk.  A scalable risk ranking process accommodates the ever-evolving application and ensures that security measures grow with it. Of course, this works best in the earlier stages of application development, particularly when an application is built to scale.  With that said, it’s never too late to think about how to change an approach to risk management to include scalability.

Challenges in Risk Ranking

While risk ranking is a valuable tool, it can come with its own set of challenges. Meeting these challenges head-on is key to maintaining an effective risk management process. 

Dynamic Threat Landscape 

The threat landscape is always changing and evolving. This makes it problematic for an organization to keep risk rankings up to date. By performing continuous monitoring and regular assessments, including risk assessments and penetration tests, organizations can keep up with (or even get ahead of!) threat actors. 

Emerging Threats 

New vulnerabilities and attack vectors emerge almost daily.  Effective risk ranking methodologies need to quickly adapt to identify, classify, and prioritize these emerging threats on a regular basis.

Balancing Speed, Accuracy, and Resource Allocation 

Balancing rapid action with thorough risk analysis involves a blend of well-documented simple scoring for initial assessments and expert scrutiny for detailed evaluation. This approach ensures that high-risk vulnerabilities are prioritized and addressed with urgency, while lower-risk issues are managed more efficiently. Continual refinement of assessment methods is also key, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of web application threats. In essence, the effectiveness of managing vulnerabilities hinges on this delicate equilibrium between fast, yet accurate, risk ranking and judicious resource allocation. 

Secure Ideas is a leader in risk management, composed of a world-class team of experts in risk assessment, ranking, and mitigation.  From vulnerability assessments to penetration testing, we can help your team promptly identify and classify risks, freeing up resources for your organization to focus on what matters most – solidifying your organization’s security posture. Have questions about how we can help? Email me at aaron.moss@secureideas.com or reach out to info@secureideas.com


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