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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.

Less is sometimes more; InfoSec’s role in the business

Funny-and-Lazy-Animals-7-300x229I read an excellent article the other day from a LinkedIn reference talking about how laziness can be an effective approach to productivity. It dispelled the myth that “leaning in” when applying yourself to your job isn’t always required to do a good job. There is no need to get up at 04:30hrs to get your morning yoga done before getting to the office at 06:00 and working through the next fourteen hours. it even makes mention of an old Prussian army management matrix that made use of this concept. It reminds me of a Bill Gate’s quote (although it sounds like Steve Jobs!):

I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it

When put like that it sounds right, and yet the concept of using a lazy person seems counterintuitive. Perhaps we should replace lazy with “busy”, or “time poor”, but I think the point is well made nonetheless.

It reminded me of when I wast first put in charge of an information security project to ascertain the organizations level of exposure to personally Identifiable Information (PII). There had been a number of high profile breaches in the media, and the leadership was concerned about how many records we had access to and what we were doing about it. My approach was to work with a very talented team of junior infosec professionals, and we came up with an amazing spreadsheet that tracked every facet of what we thought we might need with, with macros and reporting buttons, lovely color scheme etc. We even tried to make it as friendly as possible as the trick up our sleeve was that we would be asking 95% of the organisation to fill this in themselves (and therefore saving on high labour costs to get this done). The other 5% were the very risky ones we already knew, so they got a personal visit from us to make them feel really special!

After a month of pushing, chasing and cajoling, our completion rate was something like 13%, and we were just a few days away from our deadline. Senior management were not happy, and demanded a full review. The career dissipation light started blinking in my peripheral vision.

We were trying to be far too clever for our own good, far too detailed, we wanted to cross EVERY i and dot EVERY t, whatever the cost to the project and the business. We were detail oriented and were going to get the most accurate report this company had ever seen. Except we didn’t. I was clearly told in no uncertain terms that I had completely misunderstood the business, how busy they were, how finite detail wasn’t what was at stake but getting a good idea of the scale of the problem was, and also to understand that people are generally doing their best to protect the company and were not in the habit of hiding the sort of activities we were doing our best to uncover.

We reduced the 154 question spreadsheet to 10 questions, some of which were voluntary. They were the the most important questions we had to ask, and we subsequently got the data we needed in a little over three weeks for roughly 97% of the organisation (you can’t help some people unfortunately). I managed to keep my job.

Perhaps it is our backgrounds in audit and compliance, but we infosec professionals love our checklists, our questions, our matrices and black and white answers to really drill down to the finite detail. That is not to say that at times they are not important – a good penetration test does need to be detailed and very complete, but that is mainly because the expectation of it being so. It wouldn’t surprise me though if 20% of a pen test uncovers 80% of the vulnerabilities. Vendor security questionnaires, risk assessments, audits, project or team reviews etc., can all potentially be done just as effectively with an element of brevity. Understanding what is important to the business and not to the security function is key here. If infinitesimal detail is important to the business then by all means go for, just ensure that is what the business really is after. most of the time they just need a reasonable picture.

Creating barriers to the successful adoption of security practices by using fifty page reference documents, or encouraging people to work around a security risk because doing the right thing involves sign off from six different gatekeepers is not a recipe for success as it puts the organization in direct opposition to the security function. By making sure that checklists and questionnaires are focussed, relevant and to the point will only encourage people to adopt the security measure that matter because there is clear benefit for a small amount of input.

We have all got better things to do with our time than collate thousands of questions that we have insisted are answered in order to ensure that the ultimate security objectives have been met. In some instances there may be value in that, but in the majority of cases I would wager there is none.

And besides, the rugby/cricket/baseball* match is on this afternoon, so we need to leave early to catch the game.

*Delete as appropriate. Just don’t add football.


Woof Woof, Bark Bark (or how to not support security in your organization).

security_dog_hoodie_on_black_whiteI recieved the email below from a colleague at work. At first glance it is funny, the chief security officer being represented by a dog… Hilarious! Of course security is just about being able to bark at people and occasionally bite them. This role isn’t about corporate responsibility or even enterprise risk management, it is about wagging your tail and barking at people and getting them to do things because you have barked it so.

I’m having second thoughts about my growth plan if this is where it leads to.

CSO dog

If I am honest, I am guilty of this too. I have often described myself as an “overpaid security guard” to people who haven’t a clue about information security, and they nod knowingly at me, thinking they understand InfoSec policy, enterprise risk and even DLP.

The above example of belittling the security function of an organisation has steeled me into action; if I can’t explain the role of a CISO/CSO to my Mother, then I need to re-evaluate what it is I am doing and the impact it has on the business. It also annoys me that the role of CISO is so easily belittled. I don’t think I have ever seen a CFO role boiled down to an image of a coffee bean, or even the CIO image reduced to a mouse or keyboard. What makes this worse is that this product offers “the highest security for your files in the cloud” and yet this is how seriously they take security.

A fundamental part of this is down to us as CISO’s and security people to ensure we don’t belittle ourselves to ingratiate ourselves. It is extremely difficult for us to ensure we are valued and respected in our organisations as it is, and sometimes the somewhat subservient/comedic route feels easiest. This is not the best way; it is the longest and hardest route to acceptance and understanding because the role is by it’s nature seen as a frivolity and a hilarious side act.

(We should note however that there is a place for humour in security, and if used correctly it is extremely effective. The point I am making above is that security as a serious subject should not be presented as a humourous aside.)

I recall a situation where I noticed someone working at a hot desk who had no visible identification. I asked around if anyone knew who the individual was, and nobody did. As I approached the individual I was met with a chorus of “get him Thom” and “tackle him mate!” etc. with much hilarity ensuing. None of it was meant meanly of course, but it was synonymous with the  simplistic attitude of security. If any of the people who had spoken those words had any real idea of the security implications of having someone in their office without any idea of who they are, then their response may have been a bit more serious. The best part is of course that I had plainly failed in my security education and awareness with this group of people.

We are not guard dogs. We are not security guards (although they are an important part of the security function). We are not bouncers. We are not doing security for theatrical effect.

We are here to protect your revenue, your reputation and your bonus payouts. We are here to ensure we maintain good relationships with our clients, and allow our organisations to take on greater risk and therefore reap greater reward. We are here to help inform the business of security risk and advise as required.

What’s so funny in that?

Note: I have been extremely quiet on here these last few months; my role has changed dramatically at work requiring more travel and less time for the frivolous acts of blogging. Combine that with a busy schedule with Host Unknown and my other info sec commitments I have neglected this blog site somewhat. Hopefully this post sees me back in the saddle again, and you can always catch up with me on Twitter. Oh, and the holiday was good too!


ThomLangford_2014-Aug-10 1



Not All Risks Are Bad (even the bad ones…)

Keep_Calm_Big_ThinkThe very term ‘risk” often makes people feel uncomfortable, with connotations of bad things happening and that if risk is not minimized or removed then life (or business) becomes too dangerous to continue.

Crossing the road is risky, especially if you live in a busy city, and yet people, young and old alike, do it every day. In fact it is riskier than flying  and yet I would argue that there are more people afraid of flying that of crossing the road. Hugh Thompson of RSA put it very well in his 2011 RSA Conference Europe presentation when he raised the issue of “Sharkmageddon”; more people are killed every year sitting on the beach by falling coconuts than those by sharks, but there is an almost universal fear of sharks. We irrationally consider swimming in the sea safer (less risky?) than sitting under a coconut tree.

Risk is an inherent part of our lives, and if we let the realities of risk take control of our business decisions we become the corporate version of an agoraphobic; staying in the safe confines of the environment  we know and not ever venturing out to be active in the outside world; ultimately we wither and fail be it as individuals or as a business.
In my experience, one of the most misunderstood approaches to treating a risk is to accept or manage it. Most people are comfortable with mitigating, transferring or avoiding a risk as they involve some kind of act to deal with them, something we are all familiar with. We fix a problem, give the problem to someone else or stop doing the thing that causes us the problem in the first place. However, it often feels wrong to simply accept a risk, in essence to do nothing. Although this is not strictly the case, it is essentially how we feel we are dealing with it. You are accepting that there is either nothing you can do, or nothing you are willing to do to reduce the risk. However, you are not blindly accepting it at face value; rather you are being cognisant of the risk as you continue your operational activities. You know it is there as you carry on your day job. These activities and the very environment you are operating in can change without notice, and make the decision to accept a risk now the wrong course of action.

For instance, it may now be cheaper to fix the risk than it was going to cost you, or the highly lucrative contract that made the risk acceptable is now over and there is a greater risk of financial lost that costs more than the revenue you are bringing in. The reasons for change are often financial, although not always. Your risk appetite may also have reduced or the industry you are operating in becomes more regulated; all of these example mean your decision to accept needs to be reviewed.

All risk decisions need to be reviewed regularly, for exactly the reasons given above, but in my opinion it is risk acceptance decisions that should be reviewed more often, as they are the ones that are made as a result of more transient and changing factors, and are the ones that will potentially harm the organisation the greatest.

tiger__extIt’s a bit like keeping a tiger as a pet – it looks awesome and maybe even draws admiring glances from many, but if you forget you locked it into your bathroom overnight you are going to have a very big surprise when you get up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. You can’t accept risks without truly understanding them in the first place.

An Approach to Risk Decision Making – a Review

Public expenditure

I decided to write a review of a paper submitted to on the subject of “An Approach to Risk Decision Making” by Curt Dalton. I must however declare an interest in this, in that I happen to report to Curt in my day job (he is global CISO), and that he was kind enough to share drafts with me as he wrote it for feedback. This will of course therefore be a somewhat biased review, although not too much, but I do hope if nothing else it generates conversation around topics and approaches like this. I have a huge respect for Curt, have learnt much from him over the last few years and hope to get a good score in the next performance review!

In essence, this model is designed to help an orgnaisation decide if it is financially viable to invest in security technology/controls/procedures in order to address a given risk. It is not designed to be used across an organisations risk management porogramme, but rather with those handful of risks that can’t be addressed in day to day operations and have to be escalated to senior management to be effectively resolved.  With limited budget and access to that senior leadership, this approach provides support and guidance on what to ‘fix’ and what not to fix.

This scope is a key element of the model; it uses very traditional approaches to monetizing risk versus the more in vogue approach I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog. To that end it uses assigned numerical values to elements of its calculations; this is of course where ‘errors’ may creep in, but in theory an experienced risk manager familiar with their environment should be able to assess this reasonably well.

In summary, the model is as follows:


Figure 2 in the model requires an analysis of controls required to address a risk.


This does of course beg the question, how do you know you have all of the controls required and how do you know you have selected the correct numerical value? Again, the pragmatist in me suggests this is entirely possible with someone who is familiar with the environment and the organisation, but this may of course be more difficult in other situations.

Figure 3 does a similar thing with a similar level of granularity, i.e. defining in nine increments the ease of exploitation of a given risk; where I think there is potentially something missing is that this value applies to ALL of the risks listed in figure 2 rather than individually.


Obviously this would massively increase the complexity of the solution but this is a deliberate approach to ensure simplicity across the model.

These two numbers are then combined with a simple calculation of impact to etsablish a level of monetized risk. Finally, the 80/20 rule (or Pareto’s Principal) is used as a rule of thunmb to define the actual budget that should be spent to mitigate a risk. In the example given therefore a monetized risk of roughly $1.5m USD should be mitigated by spending up to $380k USD and no more. The Pareto Principal can of course be adjusted accoring to your organisations risk appetite, that is, the more risk averse the organisation the more the rule would move from 80/20 to 70/30 or 60/40 etc..

There are a lot of assumptions used in this model, not least the numerical values that may seem to be arbitrarily assigned. However, I believe this can be forgiven for the very simple reason that this is a pragmatic, transparent and easily understood approach; it can be easily transferred into an Excel spreadsheet meaning that some simple modelling can be carried out. I have said before that until the newer approach to risk management has a more easily understood and implentable approach it will not be adopted. This model does.

The other part to this model that I like is that it is not designed to be a cure all, but rather a tool to help organisations decide where to spend money. If the approach is understood then an informed decision can be made within the constraints of that model (or indeed any other model). I believe it is influenced by the ISO27005 approach to risk management which means many risk management folks will be able to grasp and adopt it more easily.

Overall, this is a model that can be adopted quickly and easily by many organisations, and implemented successfully, as long as its basis in assigning numerical values is understood, and calculations are carried out by those in a position to understand their risk profile well. I would strongly recommend you tai a look at the model yourself over at Wired Innovation Insights.

Pros – easily understand, pragmatic, focussed on one business issue, easily implemented.

Cons – relies on assigning ‘arbitrary’ numerical values, doesn’t address granularity of risk and ease of exploiutation.

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