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In the wake of the Sony attack and tens of millions of cases of consumer credit card and personal information being compromised the White House is championing legislative proposals to help address the challenge of cybersecurity.  At the heart of the proposal, and many before this one is “Enabling Cybersecurity Information Sharing” which “promotes better cybersecurity information sharing between the private sector and government, and it enhances collaboration and information sharing amongst the private sector.” So, will better information sharing help the vast majority of companies prevent, detect or respond to cyberattacks? Probably not and here are 3 reasons why:

1. No Tools…

The vast majority of companies say under twenty billion in annual revenue, are not equipped to analyze and act on cyber threat data because they have not been resourced for the mission. Actionable intelligence is only useful if the company you provide it to has made the right investments to take appropriate action.

IP addresses, signatures, filenames, MD5 hashes and other actionable cybersecurity intelligence are mostly interesting but irrelevant if you don’t have a person, process, and technology to take the appropriate action. Handing off this kind of intelligence to an organization who has not made the appropriate Security information and event management (SIEM), Intrusion detection system (IDS), or similar investment will only serve to further exacerbate the problem.

2. You’ve Got Tools…

But not enough people to support them and certainly not any documented, repeatable, or ideally automated process to optimize them. This is where the vast majority of organizations find themselves, tool heavy and people and process starved. Sharing threat information with a tool heavy organization will further overwhelm the less than ten security professionals that typically try and deliver security for multinational corporations of twenty billion or less. Yes, less than ten full-timers delivering security is the norm so throwing tools at the problem is not the answer either.

Many readers can remember when you bought a Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tool in response to an internal audit and then another tool in response to something else and so the tool tree grew but few can probably remember resourcing the people and processes to support those tools.

3. No business plan for security…

Be as proactive as you can probably be in security and do an assessment of your entire security organization and its capabilities. This assessment will serve as your business plan for security and facilitate a conversation with your board that educates and informs.

Security assessments are like home inspections in that they give you an expert view of red flags, watch items and things that are in good shape for now. Without a comprehensive assessment and corresponding plan of action to address the findings you’re likely to have more tools than people to support them and when the FBI comes knocking with actionable intelligence you will be in the unenviable position of asking the government for help it likely can’t provide.

Security assessments can be of transformational value for your organization or they can be shelfware, the determining factor on what you end up with is a matter of leadership and strategy. Here just one example of how an assessment can be transformational.

Several years ago I came into an organization with 5 separate security silo’s, all reporting independently of one another with almost no unifying set of objectives or control framework. One thing all 5 groups had in common was their belief that “the business just doesn’t get it”, it being security. When the 5 “families” got together the debate was fierce, discussions academic and action towards improvement nonexistent. If only we had more money, more tools, more people, more, more, more…then and only then could we be effective. I’m simplifying the story a bit to fit into a blog posting, but not by much.

Having the advantage of being new to the organization I recognized that part of the problem with the state of security was security. If you listened to the groups the sky was falling but they had no data to support their assertions. They had no way to demonstrate, with facts and figures, that the company was taking on more risk than was reasonable.

We needed a quantifiable way to give the business actionable data and let them come to the right conclusions around investments in the security arena. So with my enormous team of 1 which eventually grew to 3 (including me), we set out to educate the business as to the risks they were taking and make the company more secure. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the effort to transform security at a global Fortune 500 company began with 3 people and an assessment.

We knew that we needed a way to measure security and to do that we had to select a control framework that could withstand scrutiny and provide an actionable baseline against which we would measure improvement year over year. The two candidates were NIST and ISO and there were passionate arguments for and against each. In my opinion, this is an area that can be “overthought”, meaning you can always change your mind later but the most important thing is taking action now. In fact, we did exactly that by selecting ISO and then reverting NIST.

Contrary to what many people might think the next step was not to start the assessment. For the assessment to be effective the business would have to understand how and why it was important to their business and making them ISO or NIST experts was not in the cards. We had to select the parts of ISO and NIST that were relevant to the business from a regulatory compliance perspective. The business understands compliance, be it with HR (Employment law), workplace safety (OSHA), finance (SOX) and or any other functions that support the business. Security, however, had never taken the time to map the work they were doing back to regulatory requirements in a language the business could understand.

So we set out to do that mapping….long before we started engaging vendors to do an assessment. In my next post, I’ll share some of the challenges with doing the mapping and how we ended up selecting a vendor.

This post will be broken into multiple parts…taking readers through my experience from the customer side of the equation and how to derive real value out of security assessments.

Before I get too far into this posting let me provide a disclaimer similar to a financial pundit who has to disclose the stocks he/she owns as they pontificate on the merits of said stocks. DISCLAIMER: One of the services my company sells is assessment services and I think they are invaluable, not because I sell them but because in past lives I’ve used them to literally transform the organizations I was leading. Assessments tell you where you are and provide the map that will get you where you want to go.

Security professionals share a common trait, they all have more work than resources and that is not likely to change anytime soon. So, every day is spent fighting fires and you end up “living” on the hamster wheel of security.  Fun, right? Because there is always so much to do its difficult to know what to do first, then second, then third….so that eventually you have strung together a series of investments that measurably improve your security posture. More likely than not you will make a series of investments in response to a series of crisises and probably not have the time or system of management in place to measure the effectiveness of those investments.  Assessments can change that paradigm, permanently and for the betterment of your entire company, if you do them correctly.

The assessment is not an audit so don’t describe it that way; socialize it appropriately with your management and your team. How? Every culture and set of circumstances is different but something along the lines of, “We’ve got a good understanding of what we need to do in security to better align with the business and we are using this assessment to validate that thinking and create a multi-year investment strategy that will drive measurable improvement as opposed to the one off point solution improvements.”  If this assessment is going to be transformative you need to build support before it starts and ultimately you will have a burning platform off of which you can launch your strategy. The assessment is a tactic that will enable the execution of your strategy.

Don’t do the assessment yourself; you won’t have the time to do it justice and somehow having a third party conduct the assessment is always more effective. When you select a third party make sure they invest the time to know what you want to get out of this assessment. Lots of mediocre companies can produce assessments that follow a boiler plate template and answer all of your obvious question leaving you no better off than where you started and a little poorer. Take time up front to write a statement of work that forces your provider to deliver real value and not just a 100 page report. What’s real value?

In my next post I’ll take you through my experience as a customer and how I derived transformational value from security assessments, multiple times…

Due diligence and fiduciary responsibility for corporate executives is now widely acknowledged to include exercising sound judgment and effective controls in the domain of cybersecurity. There’s no escaping the responsibility to protect corporate information and infrastructure and eventually the law will catch up with this reality. Until it does here’s what you should be doing to right now to exercise due care in managing cybersecurity risk.

1 – Be pragmatic, there are more risks than you can possibly address. If you try to do everything you will end up doing nothing.

2 – Get a baseline of the controls you currently have in place, how effective they are and compare yourself with NIST 800-53 or the Consensus Audit Guidelines. (HINT: Remember step 1 and don’t overthink this, your assessment shouldn’t be a six month exercise.)

3 – Do something! Prioritize your risks and address ONLY the things that can show measurable improvement, i.e. reduced risk. If you’re stuck in analysis paralysis just start with Consensus Audit Guidelines and address the ones that you’ve found to be vulnerabilities in your baseline.

4 – Document and tell your story using words and numbers that matter. Telling the board that SQL injection vulnerabilities have been reduced because you implemented a Web Application Firewall is why security often doesn’t get “a seat at the table”. Talk in term of compliance and risk, they get that.

5 – Stop buying tools and adding complexity until you’ve mastered the ones you already own and have laid in the process (documented) to use them effectively and in an integrated fashion.

As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Apply this approach in exercising due care with respect to cybersecurity.

Security assessments can be of transformational value for your organization or they can be shelfware, the determining factor on what you end up with is a matter of leadership and strategy. Here just one example of how an assessment can be transformational.

Several years ago I came into an organization with 5 separate security silo’s, all reporting independently of one another with almost no unifying set of objectives or control framework. One thing all 5 groups had in common was their belief that “the business just doesn’t get it”, it being security. When the 5 “families” got together the debate was fierce, discussions academic and action towards improvement nonexistent. If only we had more money, more tools, more people, more, more, more…then and only then could we be effective. I’m simplifying the story a bit to fit into a blog posting, but not by much.

Having the advantage of being new to the organization I recognized that part of the problem with the state of security was security. If you listened to the groups the sky was falling but they had no data to support their assertions. They had no way to demonstrate, with facts and figures, that the company was taking on more risk than was reasonable.

We needed a quantifiable way to give the business actionable data and let them come to the right conclusions around investments in the security arena. So with my enormous team of 1 which eventually grew to 3 (including me), we set out to educate the business as to the risks they were taking and make the company more secure. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the effort to transform security at a global Fortune 500 company began with 3 people and an assessment.

We knew that we needed a way to measure security and to do that we had to select a control framework that could withstand scrutiny and provide an actionable baseline against which we would measure improvement year over year. The two candidates were NIST and ISO and there were passionate arguments for and against each. In my opinion, this is an area that can be “overthought”, meaning you can always change your mind later but the most important thing is taking action now. In fact, we did exactly that by selecting ISO and then reverting NIST.

Contrary to what many people might think the next step was not to start the assessment. For the assessment to be effective the business would have to understand how and why it was important to their business and making them ISO or NIST experts was not in the cards. We had to select the parts of ISO and NIST that were relevant to the business from a regulatory compliance perspective. The business understands compliance, be it with HR (Employment law), workplace safety (OSHA), finance (SOX) and or any other functions that support the business. Security, however, had never taken the time to map the work they were doing back to regulatory requirements in a language the business could understand.

So we set out to do that mapping….long before we started engaging vendors to do an assessment. In my next post, I’ll share some of the challenges with doing the mapping and how we ended up selecting a vendor.

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