What is risk heat map

A risk heat map (or risk heatmap) is a graphical representation of cyber risk data where the individual values contained in a matrix are represented as colors that connote meaning. Risk heat maps are used to present cyber risk assessment results in an easy to understand, visually attractive and concise format.

Where charts have to be interpreted and tables have to be understood, heat maps are self-explanatory and intuitive. Because they are tailor-made for putting massive data sets into a context that’s easy to understand, they are increasingly valued as a superior data visualization tool in cybersecurity for identifying, prioritizing, and mitigating risks.

Top ways to use risk heat maps

1. Risk impact heat map to show likelihood of a risk event happening vs. business impact of such that event.

Risk is the product of breach likelihood and breach impact. In this type of heat map, the horizontal axis shows the likelihood of a cyber security breach. The vertical axis shows the business impact of a breach. The colors are risk areas (eg, green colored boxes indicate no action needed and red boxes indicating immediate action needed). The individual risk items are then plotted on the heat map based upon the Business Impact and Likelihood of breach happening (Risk = Impact × Likelihood).

Risk Heat Map

2. Comparing breach likelihood across different business areas

Here is an example of a heat map that IT can use to compare breach likelihood across different areas or groups. Such charts can be created for multiple types of risk groups – asset types, locations, business units, and more.

Risk Heat Map for IT

3. Mapping IT asset inventory by type and risk associated with each of those categories.

How to calculate risk

Traditional risk calculation methods are typically based on CVSS score and a simple business impact model (high, medium, low). A major drawback of this approach is that it prioritizes based on severity, not by risk to your business. Severity doesn’t prioritize issues that need to be addressed first, leading to wasted effort.

A more accurate and actionable risk calculation method uses 5 factors –

Risk = Likelihood x Business Impact
  1. Vulnerability severity
  2. Threat level
  3. Business criticality
  4. Exposure/usage to the risk
  5. Risk-negating effect of any compensating controls an enterprise has in place

This results in very accurate prioritization and helps you avoid needless busy work fixing low priority issues.

Key considerations for risk heat maps

To develop an effective cybersecurity risk heat map, consider these critical elements:

  • What are your most critical systems and information assets (those you want to map)?
  • How accurate is the data and where is it coming from?
  • What is your organization’s appetite for risk?
  • What categories and levels of impact would be considered material (e.g., monetary, brand reputation, other)?
  • What is the range of acceptable variance from your key performance and operating metrics?
  • How will you define terms to integrate potential risk events with your heat map?

Benefits of using risk heat maps

Risk heat maps can offer significant benefits to the security teams:

  • A visual, big picture, holistic view that can be shared to make strategic decisions
  • Improved management of risks and governance of the risk management process
  • Increased focus on risk appetite and the risk tolerance of the company
  • More precision in the risk assessment and mitigation process
  • Greater integration of risk management actions across the enterprise

How to build a cyber-risk heat map

For the heat map to be insightful and comprehensive, it needs to be created using accurate, and complete information.

With a rapidly increasing attack surface, the first step is to accurately measure your attack surface. This means getting complete visibility into all your IT assets (devices, apps, and users) and then continuously monitoring them across all 200+ attack vectors in adversaries’ arsenals.

Then, you need to analyze the observations to derive risk insights. This is a layered calculation that involves incorporating information about threats, vulnerabilities, mitigating actions, business criticality, impact elasticity, and time-to-repair.

Cybersecurity heat maps involve an extensive and disciplined assessment process at the back end, in order to present a simple visualization of risks and recommended actions at the front end. The heat map is an essential and useful output of your overall cybersecurity assessment and vulnerability management process.

In order to keep up, you need continuous risk measurement and visualizations that identify security gaps in real time.


Cyber-attackers continue to launch evasive, multi-pronged attacks. Risk heat maps are an important output of comprehensive security intelligence solutions that monitor the organization’s cyber-health and detect, analyze, and remediate cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities. Automation (AI, self-learning systems) can help an organization wrap its arms around massive amounts of data. And, the heat map’s use of data visualization helps organizations see information differently – making better decisions in a way that spreadsheets and traditional static business intelligence are simply unable to support.

In short, heat maps present a very complex set of facts in an easily digestible way. This helps organizations build cyber-resilience in a very challenging cyber-world.