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.


May I Ask YOU A Question Or Two…?

The iPhone5 launch is very exciting for many people, and I have to admit myself included. Whatever your opinion of that particular can of worms, one thing is for sure, and that is many people will be parting with a lot of money in the next week or two in order to get hold of the latest piece of geek chic.

When there is a likelihood of a money changing hands, scammers and criminals will never be far behind.

I took a phone call (from a UK 0845 number) on my mobile phone on Saturday from someone claiming to be from O2, with an offer to get the new iPhone5 on the day of release without having to queue for hours at my local O2 store. They would even honour the lower retail store price compared to the order online price; on my tariff that meant £70 for the handset rather than £100 because I was a good customer (which I am). What an offer!

Without thinking, I confirmed the first line of my address… and then thought “Oh crap, shouldn’t have done that”; I got a bit carried away. They had called me, not the other way around, I really had no idea who they were!

Cast your mind back a few years ago, and there was a semi legal scam whereby people would take calls from “a representative from <insert mobile provider here>”. They would entice the individual with early upgrades and a new phone, get the verbal agreement, and then shift the contract to a new, third party provider. The downside was that this provider had many hidden charges and an average £25 bill would become £125 overnight partnered with a legally binding contract. This was soon clamped down upon, but this example starting to ring through my mind!

It was at this point that I had verbally agreed that I wanted the new iPhone delivered to my door on a new and cheaper contract this coming Friday… Oh dear God, Have I just committed professional suicide here?!

I turned on my professional brain, and then asked the person at the end if she really was from O2, and obviously she replied “yes!”. So I asked her if she would mind if I asked her a few security questions “of course not, I would do the same!”. i logged onto my O2 account and asked her for my account number, last bill amount and how long I had been a customer. She had all of the information to hand, I was happy, and I am now looking forward to a new phone on Friday (either that or this blog will be closed down on Saturday!).

It did occur to me however that I felt a little awkward asking these questions. How many other people in a similar position, offered an enticing deal would do the same thing? And how often would someone be ripped off as a result. We receive phone calls all the time from our service providers, and very often just asking for innocent information or making sure you are happy with their current deal, but sometimes the first question they ask is a “security” question to confirm you are the correct person. This normal procedure is easily hijacked by social engineers who could over the course of a few months gather a vast amount of information just from phoning you and asking you outright!

Has anybody else experienced this kind of thing? Have you missed some great deals because you missed the opportunity to grab it because you were too suspicious or have you thrown caution to wind only to regret it later, if only for a short period of time? How cautious do we need to be in these circumstances?

One thing I learnt however is that in the middle of a conversation, it is very easy to forget who called who; remembering that if you answer the call you haven’t confirmed their identity and therefore need to ask some security questions of your own is probably  the best way of keeping you out of trouble!