Risk, Rubble and Investment

rubbleOriginally written and posted October 13th 2014 on the InfoSecurity 2014 Blog (and reiterating a pet core message of mine  again!).

Risk is a bad thing. Therefore risk needs to be reduced to rubble, or even better to dust and then swept away under the carpet never to be seen again.

This is the attitude that many of us have, and then pass onto our senior leadership when it comes to information security programs. “Invest £10 million and we will buy technology that will make us safe” we have often said in the past. “My blinky boxes will soon find your risks and reduce them to nothing!”. It should be no surprise for so many of our industry therefore that CISO stands for “Career Is So Over”.

What we often fail to appreciate is that the senior leadership and boards of virtually all organizations understand risk far better than us. They deal with financial, legal, HR and international risk on a regular basis, and know how to take advantage of it to their benefit. Their advisors in the various fields know how to communicate their unit risks in a way that makes sense to business, be it financial, reputational or whatever else makes sense in their industry. The leadership do not require specialist knowledge of these areas because the risk is being translated into terms they understand.

The information security industry however still often talks in terms of “APT’s”, “DLP”, “TLS” and other obscure TLA’s* while trying to explain why more money is needed to “secure all the things”. What is the benefit to the business? What is the real risk in terms everyone can understand? Translating these technical issues and risks into business risks has always been a challenge and has often resulted in information security being perceived as the “expensive part of IT” asking for more money with little positive influence to the business.

If you work in a brewery, the ultimate goal of everyone who works there should be to sell more beer. If you work for Oxfam, the ultimate goal is to get aid to those that need it as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible. If you work in a publicly listed company, the ultimate goal is to make more money for the shareholders. The role of information security within any organization is not exempt from this; security doesn’t get a special pass because it is, well, security. The role of the information security function is to support the ultimate goal of the organization it operates in.

Understand what your ultimate goal is. Focus your strategy on ensuring you are helping meet that goal. Be willing to compromise in certain areas of security if it helps meet that goal. Ensure you senior leadership understand the risks (in their language, not yours) involved in those compromises. if you don’t get what you want then move onto the next piece of work that supports your ultimate goals (or be prepared to fight harder and more lucidly for your original cause).

If it was that easy you wouldn’t be reading this, but surely it is easier than the ongoing battle for investment that we ultimately never win anyway?

*Three Letter Acronyms (surely you know that?)

Computing SecurityNote: Many of you know I was up for the “Personal Contribution to IT Security” Award at the recent Computing Security Awards. I was (un)fortunately Runner Up in this category, but thank you again to all of you who not only may have voted for me but also nominated me in the first place. It was a wonderful evening with good friends from my work and InfoSec life, and a good excuse to dress up in my best party frock. Here’s to next year!


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.

Cross Post – The Human Element

(Originally posted on the Iron Mountain Information Advantage Blog, November 20 2013.)

lost-keys1Leaving things on the train or in a restaurant, or in fact anywhere is an unpleasant fact of life for many of us. I would guess that almost all the readers of this blog have at some point left their keys, wallet, shopping, hat, gloves, children, scarf or phone somewhere or other. On occasion, such lapses in concentration can be upsetting, costly, or embarrassing and in some rare instances even dangerous. But in most cases what we leave behind is either easily replaceable (gloves), insured/covered (bank cards) or worth the cost to change and replace (keys). It’s very rare that we leave and lose something irreplaceable (presumably you found the kids!). This is because the items we treasure often have significant intrinsic and/or emotional value. A good example would be family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation; we treasure them and therefore take care to protect them, storing them in a safe (or at least a safe place) to be taken out only on special occasions.

What about leaving data somewhere? It wasn’t so long ago, that civil servants and the MOD were criticised frequently in the media for leaving highly sensitive and valuable data exposed in public places. Rarely, it seemed, did a day go by without the Daily Mail bemoaning the inability of the public sector to protect our data. Headlines called for heads to roll. And yet, invariably, these were just the kind of simple, human mistakes that every one of us have made in one way or other. These days, however, the vast majority of data is (or at least should be) encrypted, both when it is on the move and when it’s at rest. Consequently, the loss or theft of encrypted data may now raise fewer eyebrows.

Printed matter, however, is another thing entirely. You can’t encrypt paper documents, and paper is very difficult to secure during transport, without somehow physically attaching it to your person. Taking sensitive documents from one location to another, so often a necessity, quickly becomes a thing of peril. Conceptual drawings, designs, technical drawings, mock ups etc. will often need to be taken to a client site or a manufacturer, and sometimes cannot be sent electronically. After a successful pitch and a few celebratory drinks afterwards those documents could all too easily be left on the night bus to Neasden, unprotected and full of intellectual property and sensitive information. A breach like that can so easily turn a night of celebration into a morning of embarrassment and apologies, followed by the inevitable search for new clients.

Protecting printed documents is difficult, probably more difficult than electronic information, and yet we seem to put all of our efforts into the very latest and best encryption, protected USB keys, and expensive data loss prevention (DLP) initiatives. It’s easier to put in place a technology, especially a “transparent” one than it is to change behaviours.

I would suggest that the information security community needs to address this disparity; the paperless office hasn’t transpired, the digital documents are secured, but paper has been left behind. How can we address this without handcuffing briefcases to people? As usual, it has to come down to awareness, we need to drive home the message that paper should be transported with the same care as electronic records, observing sensible procedures such as ensuring there are always two people present when travelling with paper (to act as more of a reminder than as a physical protection) or even only couriering them with a specially selected and reviewed vendor.

I don’t want to turn the Chief Information and Security Officer into a George Smiley type character, but I do want all of our sensitive records to be treated with the same level of protection irrespective of format.

Risk Appetite – managing feast and famine

images-1I was able to attend the RANT forum a few nights ago, and watch an excellent presentation by Sarb Sembhi. However, and this is no insult to the speakers at the RANT forums (being one myself) the most valuable part of the evening is the socialising with colleagues and peers before and after.

I was talking to a couple of people who were recounting the challenges they face with their leadership regarding their risk management activities. I paraphrase greatly, but the gist of the issue was

Highlighting risks to them is all well and good, but then suddenly they tell us that another activity needs to be escalated up the risk matrix, or that there is a hot topic that they want pushed to the top of the risks list so it gets more attention. How are we supposed to manage a risk programme with any credibility when risks get artificially prioritised or de prioritised according to the mood of management?

We came to the conclusion that the risk appetite of the management team in question was a very flexible and fluid thing that changed quite frequently, and seemed entirely disconnected from the risk management activities being carried out.

This is a complex issue, and not one that can be solved in a single blog post, but there are a few guidelines and concepts that may be pertinent to heading off this kind of behaviour.

  1. Listen to them. On the whole an organisations management know what activities and changes will affect the business more than you. If they are highlighting something it is not to mess you around but because they are genuinely concerned about it. Look at your risk programme; does it squarely address the risks they are highlighting? Are they new risks, old risks, or poorly understood risks? Perhaps you have already found them and they need to be reviewed under the new light cast on it by management.
  2. Educate them. How much does your management team actually understand about the risk work you are doing? Do they really know what the scope of your remit is, how you go about finding risks, and more importantly how you measure them? ISO27005 is often described as an arbitary way of measuring risk, but it does a good job of explaining how you can approach and understand it. If you use that standard in your programme, make sure they understand how you measure them, and get their buy in to the approach. This way, when you disagree with their analysis of a “new” risk you can explain in agreed terms why.
  3. Use your governance structure. Your management team should only be looking at risks that are escalated to them, that is to say residual risks that are still considered as “high” (or whatever parlance you use). Every other risk below that should be managed and dealt with by the governance structure in place. Certain lower risks can be mitigated (managed, avoided or transferred) by people closer to that risk; a developer could change a portion of code, a project manager could remove or add contractors or a team member could go through more awareness training. Changing the course of a project or increasing the staffing costs by 50% is beyond their remit and they are therefore not able (or authorised) to treat them effectively; these risks get passed up your governance chain until they reach a point at which they can be dealt with. At the very top I would estimate they should be seeing no more than 0.1% of total risks escalated to them. Any more and it may be that the structure underneath is not doing their job.
  4. images-2Understand their appetite. One of the standard ISO 27005 risk acceptance approaches provides a matrices for what is acceptable and what isn’t. It is provided as an example only, and should not be used out of the box without considering the risk appetite of your organisation. If you are a risk averse organisation, the yellow and red band move down to the lower left, thereby meaning more “red” risks will need to be addressed. A risk taking organisation will move the green and yellow band up, thereby ensuring fewer “red” risks will need to be addressed. The risk profile of an organisation is something that is rarely understood by those that measure risk, and therein lies the problem. Only if the risk profile is drawn up, understood (including the approach to measure the risks in the first place) and signed off can risks be identified, “measured” and addressed in a way that meets the organisations business objectives.
  5. Accept that the appetite changes. if you review your risks annually (as a bare minimum) that is also a cue to review the risk appetite. If incidents throughout the year affect the business for the good or bad, that is a cue to review the risk appetite. If the organisation management suddenly think something is a big risk and needs to be addressed, that is a cue to review the risk appetite. And when I say review, I mean with the management, and not just in isolation.


There… simple! Well, not at all when you face these challenges every day, but if you can start that dialogue with your management and start to understand the business as they understand it you will be a long way towards heading off the “the sky is falling, fix it now!” response to risks.

The EU, Porn, and Hollywood

And if that title doesn’t attract attention I don’t know what will…

Unfortunately (for you) while this title is accurate the rest of this post may not quite deliver what you are expecting or hoping for. Just a few days ago (Thursday 16th May) I attended for the first time an ISSA-UK chapter meeting in Bristol where Marcus Alldrick, Richard Hollis and myself were presenting (in that order) to the great and the good of the south west infosec community.

Marcus Alldrick emphasises...

Marcus Alldrick emphasises…

Marcus’ presentation of The EU’s Proposed Data Protection Regulation, It’s Life Jim But Not As We Know It was very well received with a huge amount of interaction to the point of a  twenty minute overrun. I have tended to avoid expending too much energy on draft legislation like this as it often changes dramatically the closer it gets to publication (MA201 CMR 17 is a good example of this), and so the view that Marcus presented was a welcome one. Although his deck was content rich he put it across in his own inimitable style and I found it hugely educational. One point that came across loud and clear is that if it gets enacted in its current format one of the most sought after roles in any company will be that of Chief Privacy Officer for the job security alone (the role must be filled by the same person for a minimum of two years!).

...and Richard hills boasts

…and Richard Hollis boasts

Second up was Richard Hollis with his hotly anticipated Deep Threat – Top 10 Lessons to Learn from the Online Adult Entertainment Industry. While the expected jokes and euphemisms came thick and fast underneath it were some startling and very interesting lessons, but namely that the adult entertainment industry simply does information security far better than the rest of us; they are single minded, have a lot to lose, and ultimately see the “battle” with maintaining security as just that… it’s a war which they are determined to win. A fascinating insight into an often overlooked industry with some great lessons summarising the underlying security ethos of this industry.

I'm a little teapot

I’m a little teapot

Finally it was my turn. To be honest I was somewhat apprehensive following these two presentations; there was a huge amount of interaction to this point and while my presentations somewhat relied on audience participation the main points I was raising were quite high level and in some cases not often talked about. I shouldn’t have worried. I had an absolute blast talking about different elements of risk management and getting some excellent feedback, comments, questions and of course different opinions. My case was obviously helped by the fact that I was handing out prizes for each correct answer identifying a quote to a film! The presentation itself is below along with a few snippets of the presentation itself taken from the back of the room.

I have always been impressed with the ISSA-UK meetings, the quality of the discussion between people and to be honest the great value that membership of this association brings. I am very much looking forward to more of these, and if asked to present again at one of their sessions. My thanks to Alan and Gabe (@infoseccrow) for giving me the opportunity to present here.

UFOs Dirty Dancing and Exploding Helicopters (PDF)