What does a CISO actually do?

I read this wonderful article by Helen Patton  a CISO and contributor to Medium, and in it she describes the seven main areas she spends her time as a CISO; Technology, Data, Business, All The Other Internal Stuff, Vendors and Partners, Law Enforcement and Customers. (She also adds an eighth area, her Security Team of course!).

It is a fascinating read and one that tells a lot about the type of work a CISO will find themselves doing, and much of it resonated with me. I do believe however that the viewpoint is constrained by one aspect of her role, and one Helen states upfront:

Given that Cyber Security is about, well, cyber, and given that in my organization my administrative reporting line goes through the CIO, I spend a fair amount of time working on technology strategy.

It prompted me to write this post because I feel a CISO can do so much more once the role is removed from the auspices of IT. This has been a pet topic of mine for a number of years now, and it is a similar challenge CIO’s once faced, i.e. not reporting into the highest level of management possible. even spoke back in 2013 at RSA on just this topic.

This is a very common reporting line of course, largely because information security responsibilities often come out of IT, or the focus is purely on IT security and therefore fits into that service. It does however create potential issues:

  • The infosec message is filtered through the IT lens, and security issues become a smaller part of the overall IT programme.
  • The role is focussed significantly more on technology (the first item on Helen’s list above) and doesn’t take into account other factors, such as physical, people, or even awareness.
  • If the security function is dictating or heavily influencing technology and architecture, a conflict of intents can arise if there are security deficiencies in those aspects. There is no independent perspective on testing the environments, and a conflict of interest in highlighting deficiencies therein.

In these circumstances the role has a tighter focus, is more hands on, and may potentially not bring the benefits to an organisation that it could.

So what should CISO be doing then?

The CISO primarily needs to be a representative of the business, and not of a department. By that I mean that the CISO is not always going to be the best information Security professional in the same way that the CFO is not always the best accountant. They are however the best person to make decisions that span their area of responsibility AND the business, and actually focus on the bigger picture.

My role as a CISO therefore is not to make the company the most secure company in the world. If I did that, it would be out of business in a matter of months; loss of agility, inability to invest, reluctance to accept certain projects etc etc would make the company wholly unprofitable. My role is to help the company sell more, do more, innovate more and earn more… through the judicious application of security as a competitive advantage.

Put simply, a CISO needs to stop saying “No” to projects or requests that on the face of it are high risk, and stop expecting 100% security on rollouts prior to launch. That doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to perfection, or aim to build the very best environment we can, we just have to accept that something that is a high risk to us, may be a low risk to the business overall. Of course the business needs to understand what the security risks are and be cognisant of the risk when taking decisions, but security is not the single most important input here, it is one of many. We are advisors, not dictators.

The CISO therefore not only does many of the things Helen points out in her article, but it goes beyond that; above everything else in my opinion is being able to truly understand the business, it’s challenges, goals and vision, provide performance information, read the company reports and educate the senior leadership on what risks there are without sowing F(ear), U(ncertainty) and D(oubt). In other words then, what does a CISO do…?

Powerpoint and politics.

Everything else is just details.


Ground Control to Major Thom

I recently finished a book called “Into the Black” by Roland White, charting the birth of the space shuttle from the beginnings of the space race through to it’s untimely retirement. It is a fascinating account of why “space is hard” and exemplifies the need for compromise and balance of risks in even the harshest of environments.

Having seen two shuttles first hand in the last nine months (the Enterprise on USS Intrepid in New York and the Atlanta at Kennedy Space Centre), it boggles my mind that something so big could get into space and back again, to be reused. Facts like the exhaust from each of the three main engines on the shuttle burn hotter than the melting temperature of the metal the engine ‘bells’ are made of (they ingeniously pipe supercooled fuel down the outside of the bells to not only act as an afterburner of sorts but also cool the bells themselves) go to show the kind of engineering challenges that needed to be overcome.

There was one incident however that really struck me regarding the relationship between the crew onboard and the crew on the ground. On the Shuttle’s maiden flight into space, STS-1 also known as Columbia carried out 37 orbits of the earth with two crew on board, mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Once orbit was achieved an inspection of the critical heat tiles on the underside of the shuttle showed some potential damage. If the damage was too extensive the return to earth would (as later events in the Shuttle’s history proved) be fatal.

The crew however were tasked with a variety of other activities, including fixing problems onboard they could address. They left the task of assessing and calculating the damage to those on the ground who were better equipped and experienced to deal with the situation. This they duly did and as we know Columbia landed safely just over two days later.

It struck me that this reflects well the way information Security professionals should treat the individuals we are tasked with supporting. There is much that individuals can do to help of course, and that is why training and awareness efforts are so important, but too often it is the case that “we would be secure if it wasn’t for the dumb users”. The sole purpose of the Columbia ground crew was to support and ensure the safe return of those on board STS-1 so that they could get on with their jobs in space. Ours is the same.

Just because te crew had extensive training to deal with issues as they arose, the best use of their time was to focus on the job in hand and let ground crew worry about other problems. The people we support should also be trained to deal with security issues, but sometimes they really need to just get on with the deliverables at hand and let us deal with the security issue. They might be trained and capable, but we need to identify when the best course of action is to deal with their security issues for them, freeing them to do their work.

Never forget that we support our organisations/businesses to do their jobs. We provide tools to allow them to be more effective in their end goals but it is still our responsibility to do the heavy lifting when the time comes. Except in very rare cases we are there because of them, not in spite of them.

(Photo courtesy of William Lau @lausecurity)


Security is Not, and Should not be Treated as, a Special Flower

My normal Wednesday lunch yesterday was rudely interrupted by my adequate friend and reasonable security advocate Javvad calling me to ask my opinion on something. This in itself was surprising enough, but the fact that I immediately gave a strong and impassioned response told me this might be something I needed to explore further…

The UK Parliament in this report have recommended that CEO salaries should be defined by their attitude and effectiveness of their cybersecurity. I am not one normally for histrionics when it comes to government reports, partly because they are often impenetrable and not directed at me or my lifestyle, but I will make an exception in this case. I think this attitude is quite simply short sighted and a knee jerk reaction to a very public breach that was admittedly caused by a lackadaisical attitude to security.

I have argued for a long time that the security function is not a “special flower” in the business, and that by supporting that case security becomes an inhibitor of the business, restricting it from taking the kind of risks that are vital to a growing and agile business. The only way I would agree to this demand would be if the CEO’s compensation was directly related to financial performance, staff attrition, number of court cases levelled and number of fires or false alarms in its premises, and have that all supported by a change in the law. If that happened, there would suddenly be a dearth of well paid, well motivated CEO’s in the country.

By calling security out individually means the security function will all to easily slip back into old behaviours of saying NO! to every request, only this time the reason given is not just “it’s not secure”, but also “Bob’s pay depends on it”.

This can only work if every other function of the CEO was also covered by similar laws as I said above. Sure, there are basic behaviour laws around financial, people, legal, facilities etc. such that a company can’t be embezzled, people can’t be exploited or put into danger etc.. But this recommendations makes security far to primary a concern. It also doesn’t even take into account the fact that determined hackers will get in anyway in many cases, or that data can easily be stolen through softer, social engineering techniques. Zero day exploit, never before seen? Sorry Mr CEO, you need to take a pay cut for not having a cyber crystal ball and defending against it. Determined nation state attacks? Tough luck you only have a cyber budget a fraction the size of the attackers, back to reduced pay.

I get that many folks are angry with the level of CEO pay and reward in the workplace these days. In the case of Talk Talk I find it astounding that Dame Dido Harding has been awarded £2.8 million GBP in pay and shares after what has to be an absolutely disastrous year fro Talk Talk. That said, I also don’t know the details of her contract and the performance related aspects of it; maybe she hit all of her targets, and cyber risk was not one of them.

This is where we need to address this; not in law and regulation, but in cyber savvy contracts and performance metrics within the workplace and enforced by the Board. No emphasis on cybersecurity, but a balanced view across the entire business.

No single part of a business is the special flower, we all have an equal and unique beauty and contribution to make.


Making the world angrier, one process at a time

Angry Thom BlogI have recently set up Family Sharing on my iOS devices, so that I can monitor and control what apps go on my kids devices without having to be in the room with them. Previously they would ask for an app, and I would type in my AppleID password and that was  that. Unfortunately with my new role I am travelling so much now that the thought of waiting a week before they can get an apps was causing apoplectic grief with my kids. Family Sharing was the solution, and when I had finally worked it out, we were goood to go and it works well. I can now authorise a purchase from anywhere in the world. I get woken up at 3am with a request for a BFF makeover or car crash game (one girl, one boy) but my kids are happy.

One problem however was that for some reason my daughters date of birth was incorrect, therefore indicating that she was an adult, and thereby breaking the whole “app approval” process. Straightforward to fix? Not at all.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the most frustrating process I have encountered in a long time. I admit, I misinterpreted the instructions along the way (they were a bit asinine in my defence), but it came down to the fact that I had to have a credit card as my default payment method for my family account, not a debit card, simply to authorise the change of status of my daughter from an adult to a child. In other words, I had to jump through hoops to restrict her  account rather than give it more privilege. Not only that, but from an account that already had the privileges in the first place. There didn’t seem to be any element of trust along the way.

I am sure there is a good, formal response from Apple along the lines of “take your security seriously”, “strong financial controls” etc, but as an experience for me it sucked, and if I could have worked around it I would have. Thankfully not all of Apple’s ecosystem works like this!

This is a problem for many information security organisations when they introduce procedures to support organisational change or request mechanisms. For instance, how many times have you seen a change request process require CISO, CIO and potentially even higher approvals for even simple changes? Often this is due to a lack of enablement in the organisation, the ability to trust people at all levels, and often it is a simple lack of accountability. It seems we regularly don’t trust either our own business folks as well as our own employees to make the right decisions.

Procedures like this fail in a number of places:

  1. They place huge pressure on executives to approve requests they have little context on, and little time to review.
  2. The operational people in the process gain no experience in investigting and approving as they simply escalate upwards.
  3. The original requestors are frustrated by slow progress and no updates as the requests are stuck in senior management and above queues.
  4. The requestors often work aroun d the procedure, avoid it, or simply do the opposite of what finally comes out of the request as work pressures dictate a quicker response.
  5. The owners of the procedure respond with even tighter regulations and processes in order to reduce the ability nof the nrequestor to wotk around them.

And so the cycle continues.

The approach I have regularly used in situations like this comprises of two tenets:

  1. Consider the experience of the user first, then the desirable outcomes of the process second.
  2. Whatever process you then come up with, simplify it further. And at least once more.

Why should you consider the expoerience of the user first? Who is the process for the benfit of, you as in formation secuity, or them as the end user? If you answered the former, then go to the back of the class. We are not doing security for our benefit, it is not security for the sake of security, it is to allow the user, our customers, to do more. If we make their experience bad as they do their best to make more money, sell more beer, do more whatever, security becomes an irellevance at best and a barrier to successful business at worst.

Making the requstors exoerience as painless and as straightforward as possible (perhaps eeven throw in a bit of education in there?) they are encouraged to not only see the long term benefits of using the procedure as we defined, but also become fanatical advocates of it.

Secondly, why should we keep it simple? Well not only to support the above points, but also because guess who is going to have to support the process when it is running? Of course, you and your team. If the process itself is bulky and unmanageable then more time will be spent running the process than doing the work that the process needs to support. If that amount of time becomes too onerous over time, then the process itself breaks down, the reporting on the process becomes outdated, and ultimately the process itself becomes irrelevant and considered a waste of time by those it affects.

Putting your requestors at the centre of your simplified process universe will always make that process more robust, more understood, more beneficial and of course more relevant to the business, and who can argue with that?

InfoSecurity Europe

I spoke at this years InfoSecurity Europe in London a few months back on articulating risk to senior management. Peter Wood, the moderator, did an excellent job as moderator of the panel, and even revitalised my faith in them after too many very poor experiences earlier this year.


Your InfoSec premiums have increased by 20% this year. Are we worth it?

High-insurance-PremiumsMy annual home insurance quote came through this morning, with the usual 10-20% uplift that I know I can remove again through simply phoning the provider and threatening to leave. It is a pretty standard technique in the industry that has been going on for years, and that preys upon the lazy people in the world who can’t be bothered to look for a better deal.

Rewind a few months when I spoke with a very senior executive who admitted that he saw information security as a form of insurance.

“I don’t want to have to pay for it, but I do because I know that when I need it you guys come and fix the problems we are in”

This is a somewhat common and fair attitude to information security given our background as an industry and how we often interact with the business (a particularly large topic that this entire blog is really about). yet what was so interesting was his follow on comment:

“the things is, I am sure there is so much more information security can do for us, I just don’t know what it is”

When I first took out home insurance, I was most concerned about getting the cheapest quote. I was young, free and almost single, but all of the extras that the larger insurance companies were offering (and charging for) did not concern me. If my house burnt down I would find somewhere else to live while the insurance company sorted everything out, what do I need a hotel for?  Lost my house keys? I will change the crappy lock on the front door myself when I get round to it, I don’t need a locksmith from the insurance company to do it for me.

Fast forward to today, and I live a far more complex busy life, cash rich (relatively speaking), time poor, with responsibilities to my children and wife, and a lifetime of memories in my house that are virtually irreplaceable. if things go wrong, I need it fixed quickly and easily and with the minimum of impact to me and my family. I even have proactive services, such as boiler cover and servicing to reduce the likelihood of things going wrong in the first place. Therefore I am leveraging every aspect of what the insurance company can give me even before something goes wrong, and the peace of mind that I get knowing they are looking out for me even prior to disaster striking is worth (almost!) every penny.

An information security programme must be able to sell every aspect of its services to the business, and not just be seen as a reactionary force. if it does that, every time something goes wrong, both the financial and emotional premiums of paying for your services will increase time over time until the point the programme is seen as imply an overhead like paying the rent and keeping the plant watered, i.e. when the time comes, costs to be reduced.

Look at how you provide service before the fact; risk assessments, security testing, awareness and education can all be seen as services that prevent and/or add value to the business. What about the day to day? Consultancy to the business to do things securely without them even thinking about it; it doesn’t have to have “security” written on it to be a win for you and the business. And of course don’t forget after the event; incident management, business continuity, or even helping in the quality acceptance environments after something has been developed.

The key is to be involved in the full lifecycle of your business, whatever they are. They will be different from business to business and industry to industry, so it may not always be easy to identify, but it is extremely valuable.

And the prices we quote every year? Unlike insurance premiums, we are worth every penny.

Note: I don’t actually like the analogy of infosec and insurance, but it is one I regularly hear, so I decided to try and embrace it in this blog. I still don’t like it, but I can see how it could be useful for a simple elevator pitch or short conversation. There are plenty of analogies out there, and the best place for them in my humble opinion is at The Analogies Project. Check them out, and use them wherever possible. Even better, think about becoming a contributor.

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