Busy Doing Nothing?

When you are faced with managing third-party risks, it can feel like a Sisyphean task at best. Even a small organisation is going to have  20+ third parties and vendors to deal with, and by the nature of a small business, absolutely not a full-time person to carry them out. As an organisation grows, at the other end of the extreme there will be many thousands of vendors and third parties in different countries and jurisdictions; even a large team is going to struggle to deal with that volume of work.

In The Lost CISO this week I talk about how to manage a third-party risk management programme from the perspective its sheer volume of work.

The key to dealing with this volume is, of course, to take a risk-based approach, and consciously decide to do nothing about a large proportion of them. It sounds counter-intuitive, but then a risk-based approach to anything can seem counter-intuitive. (Why would you “accept” a high-level risk for goodness sake?!) In this case, you would quite literally be putting some effort into deciding what not to do:

We’re busy doing nothing.

Working the whole day through.

Trying to find lots of things not to do.

Busy Doing Nothing, written by Jimmy Heausen-Van & Johnny Burke

This means your best approach is to filter who you absolutely must assess, who you should assess, and who can be reasonably ignored. In theory, the last group will be the majority of your third parties. How you filter is of course down to what is important to your organisation, industry, clients, the data you hold, the physical location of your environment (office or hosted) and any other criteria you can consider. Ultimately, it is what is important to your organisation, not what is important to you as a security person. Why? Because if security has the final say, there is a potential for a conflict of interest and the limiting of the organisation to operate effectively and efficiently. Here is a sample list of criteria you can sort your third parties by:

  1. Do they have access to our client’s (or our client’s customers) confidential/sensitive data?
  2. Do they have access to our confidential/sensitive data?
  3. Do they have data access to our IT infrastructure?
  4. Do they have physical access to our premises?
  5. Is our organisation reliant on their services being available at all times?

Inside each of these selected criteria, you may wish to refine further; in answer to the question, think “yes, but…” and you may find a particular vendor does not make your list as a result.

Congratulations! You have now hopefully reduced your third-parties needing to be assessed by hopefully about 80%. If that is not the case, go back to the beginning and validate your criteria, perhaps with business leadership themselves, or (ironically) a trusted third-party.

This may well still leave a formidable list to get through, so there are some more tricks you can use.

When assessing some of the larger third-parties (think Apple, Google, Microsoft etc.), you may wish to accept their certifications on face value. The chances of getting a face to face meeting and tour of the facility, whilst not impossible, are remote, and very much dependent upon how much you spend with them. The more reputable vendors will be transparent with their certifications, findings and general security programmes anyway.

You can then use this filter again with the slightly less well-known vendors but include a handful of questions (no more than fifteen) that you would like answered outside of certifications.

The smallest vendors with the least formal certification and publicly available can be presented with a more detailed set of “traditional” third-party risk questions. Make sure they are relevant, and certainly no more than 100 in total. You are better off getting a good idea of most of the vendor environments from a returned questionnaire than you are a perfect idea of a handful of environments from a barely returned questionnaire. The idea here is to get a consistent, medium level view across the board in order to spot trends and allocate your resources effectively.

Still overwhelmed with sheer volume? If this is the case, look to a three-year cycle rather than an annual cycle. You can reduce the workload by up to two-thirds this way, but you may wish to consider that some vendors are simply too crucial to have on this kind of cycle.

So all that is left is to ensure all of this is carefully monitored, tracked and managed. For instance, what are you going to do with a vendor that doesn’t meet your standards?

And that, my friends, is for another blog.

(You can download a sample third-party security questionnaire from the (TL)2 security Downloads area. There will be more templates arriving soon that you can download and use for yourself, or you may wish to contact (TL)2 if you would like some help and support in creating a third-party risk programme.)