The World Economic Forum ranked cybersecurity as one of the top five global risks in 2022. In that same report, the WEF said that companies that fail to implement proper governance on cybersecurity will be considered “less resilient and less sustainable.”

Cybersecurity governance is the blueprint that guides an organization's approach to protecting its digital assets. It encompasses policies, procedures, and processes that define how cybersecurity is approached, managed, and monitored.

Whether you're a small business or a global enterprise, setting the right foundation is key. Let’s dive into the basics of cybersecurity governance to understand its significance and how to get started.

What is cybersecurity governance?

Cybersecurity governance is the comprehensive approach an organization takes to manage cyber risk, as defined by top-level management. 

It involves establishing and maintaining a framework and supporting management structure and processes to:

  • Ensure that cybersecurity strategies are aligned with and support business objectives
  • Comply with applicable laws and regulations through adherence to policies and internal controls
  • Assign responsibility and accountability for cybersecurity

Cybersecurity governance activities include establishing decision-making hierarchies and accountability frameworks, setting expectations for risk appetite and risk tolerance, and setting up oversight processes and procedures.

A simple way to think about cybersecurity governance is to compare it to playing a sport, which includes:

1. Setting rules: Cybersecurity governance establishes rules for how a company or organization uses and protects its computer systems from cyberattacks. These rules might include who can access certain information and how that information should be kept safe.

2. Making a game plan: Planning is a big part of cybersecurity governance. Imagine you're creating a play for blocking a field goal attempt or advancing a runner from second to third base. You'd need a plan to make sure every team member understands their role in successfully running the play. Organizations make plans to protect their information from hackers and other cyber threats.

3. Following the rules: This is like having a referee to make sure everyone is following the rules. In cybersecurity governance, there are systems and/or teams that regularly check to make sure all security policies, processes, and other controls are being followed.

4. Addressing problems: Player injuries, equipment failure, weather delays — sometimes, despite all the planning, something might go wrong. Part of cybersecurity governance is having a response plan for what to do if there is a security breach, system failure, or other incident.

5. Continuously improving: Technology changes quickly, and new threats appear all the time. So just like updating the rules of a game when you find something that doesn't work, cybersecurity governance involves regularly reviewing and updating policies, processes, and controls to make sure they're still effective.

In short, cybersecurity governance is about having an organized, effective plan for safeguarding information within your organization and responding appropriately in the event of an incident.

Why is cybersecurity governance important?

As cyber risk grows, so do the concerns and scrutiny being placed on companies’ cybersecurity practices. Investors have begun prioritizing cybersecurity in their analysis of companies and regulatory bodies have begun developing legal guidelines and standards for increased transparency and accountability around cyber risk management and incident disclosure. 

By implementing proper governance on cybersecurity, your organization can demonstrate its preparedness, resilience, and response to cybersecurity incidents to investors and other shareholders (including employees and customers) as well as regulators and governments.

This can not only help you build trust with investors, partners, customers, and prospects and achieve and maintain legal and regulatory compliance. It can also help you:

  • Mitigate the risks of a data breach
  • Respond to cybersecurity incidents faster
  • Better understand and adapt to new cyber threats 

Cybersecurity governance vs. cybersecurity management

Cybersecurity governance and cybersecurity management are two interconnected aspects of an organization's overall approach to data security, but they have distinct roles and functions. The relationship can be compared to the difference between creating laws (governance) and enforcing them (management).

Cybersecurity governance

Governance refers to the overarching cybersecurity strategy, policies, and principles within an organization. Creating a cybersecurity governance strategy involves:

  • Strategic Alignment: Communication with key stakeholders like board members, shareholders, and regulators ensures cybersecurity initiatives align with broader business processes and goals.
  • Policy Development: Cybersecurity policies, guidelines, and standards define the organization’s approach to information security.
  • Risk Management: Understanding the threat landscape helps organizations be strategic about determining their risk appetite and overall approach to risk management.
  • Compliance Oversight: Organizations may need to comply with external laws and regulations such as GDPR and HIPAA, as well as cybersecurity frameworks like SOC 2, ISO 27001, PCI, and NIST 800-53. A cybersecurity governance strategy should address any compliance and regulatory requirements to simplify certification with relevant security standards.

Cybersecurity management

Cybersecurity management, on the other hand, involves the day-to-day activities and business operations that put a cybersecurity governance strategy into practice.

  • Operational execution: Implementing and updating cybersecurity policies that support the information security goals defined by governance.
  • Security controls: Selecting, implementing, and maintaining specific security controls and technologies.
  • Monitoring and response: Continuous monitoring of cybersecurity controls, identifying vulnerabilities, and responding to incidents.
  • Employee training: Training employees on the practical aspects of cybersecurity, like identifying social engineering attempts and following security best practices.
  • Performance measurement: Assessing and reporting on the performance of cybersecurity efforts.

Cybersecurity governance is about defining the "what" and "why" of cybersecurity: the policies, strategies, and overall direction. Cybersecurity management is about the "how": implementing those policies through specific technologies, procedures, and day-to-day activities.

The role of cybersecurity risk management within governance

The relationship between cybersecurity governance and risk management is also deeply intertwined, with risk management being a core aspect of cybersecurity governance. It's a bit like the relationship between the architectural planning of a building (cybersecurity governance) and the structural engineering practices to ensure it's safe (risk management).

Risk management plays a vital role within cybersecurity governance:

1. Aligning risk appetite with business objectives: How much information security risk is acceptable? A governance framework ensures that cybersecurity efforts align with overall business goals, balancing the need for security with other objectives. Risk management helps achieve this balance by assessing and mitigating risks with these goals in mind.

2. Risk identification, assessment, and mitigation: Risk management involves identifying potential threats and vulnerabilities, assessing their likelihood and potential impact, and determining a response plan. This includes choosing and implementing security controls to reduce risks to acceptable levels, such as adding firewalls, encryption, and access controls.

For example, a delivery business would need to decide how much risk they’re willing to accept and what they’re going to do to treat unacceptable levels of risk. The likelihood of a few fender benders is high, and they accept the cost of fixing dents, dings, and scratches. However, they’re not willing to accept the risk of a major accident or engine failure, so they commit to hiring drivers with clean driving records, regularly scheduled maintenance, and advanced safety features like driver assist and automatic braking for all their vehicles.

3. Compliance monitoring and reporting: Governance includes ensuring compliance with security frameworks as well as applicable laws and regulations, many of which involve managing risks to sensitive data. Risk management involves ongoing monitoring and reporting on risks, ensuring that measures are effective, and adapting to changes in the risk landscape.

The relationship between cybersecurity governance and risk management programs is continuous and dynamic. Effective cybersecurity requires that these two aspects be tightly integrated, working together to ensure that the organization's digital assets are protected in a way that aligns with its overall goals, values, and regulatory obligations.

How to build a cybersecurity governance program for your organization

Starting a cybersecurity governance program in your company is a significant step towards protecting your organization's information and assets, but it can be daunting to start from scratch. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you build a strong foundation.

Step 1. Assess your current situation

Which information assets need to be protected? How does data flow throughout your systems? Who has access to different types of information, and for what purpose? Identify what security measures are already there, what information needs to be protected, and where the weak spots might be.

Step 2. Define goals and objectives

Decide what you want to achieve with your cybersecurity governance program. Goals might include reducing the number of security incidents, improving operational efficiency, reducing downtime, and achieving continuous compliance with any applicable security frameworks or regulatory requirements.

Step 3. Assign responsibilities

Identify the key roles and responsibilities within the governance structure. The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and other security leaders should lead the process and work with the executive leadership team to establish a strong security program throughout the company. Building a security-first culture means everyone should understand the importance of data security and their role in maintaining it.

Step 4. Develop policies and procedures

Create clear guidelines and processes that outline who is responsible for what, how information is to be protected, and what to do if something goes wrong. CIOs and CISOs should be in regular communication with other executives and the board of directors to align security policies with business strategies.

Step 5. Select and implement security measures

Start selecting and implementing specific security controls, such as firewalls and encryption, as well as any physical access controls (if applicable).

Step 6. Verify legal compliance

Make sure that everything you're doing is in line with applicable legal, regulatory, and//or compliance requirements. You’ll also need to stay aware of any updates to laws or frameworks that could affect your compliance status.

Step 7. Educate and train personnel

Annual security awareness training ensures everyone knows common cybersecurity attack methods and best practices for data protection. Personnel should also read and acknowledge policies and understand the incident response plan.

Step 8. Monitor and conduct regular internal audits

Annual internal security audits can ensure your cybersecurity governance program is functioning as intended and still effective.

Bonus: Consider expert guidance

Implementing cybersecurity governance is a bit like putting together a complex puzzle. If you don’t have a CISO or defined information security team, it can be wise to bring in a specialist. Cybersecurity experts can help ensure that your program is comprehensive and aligned with best practices.

At Secureframe, we pair every customer with a security and compliance expert to offer guidance, answer questions, and help companies build a scalable security posture that fits their unique needs.

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