The Challenges of CISOs

Are CISOs investing enough in protection? Do they have good visibility to threats?

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Aub Persian Zam Zam

Long ago there used to be a bar on Haight St. called Aub Persian Zam Zam, run by a cranky guy named Bruno. Bruno who hated everyone, and he preferred only to serve martinis.  If you walked in before 7:00pm, he told you that table service started at 8:00pm.  And if you walked in after 7:00pm, table service stopped at 6:00pm. As a customer, I felt a little like a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). 

CISOs constantly face a challenge with their boards: how much to invest in security. If you haven’t been hacked, then you are accused of spending too much on protection (and might be out of a job); and if you have, then you spent too little (and might be out of a job).  But CISOs have to operate in the here and now. They don’t get to have the luxury of hindsight. What CISOs need is an appropriate level of investment to secure their charges and situational awareness to make good decisions.

Much is being made of the lax security that Solar Winds had. As Bruce Schneier pointed out in the New York Times, they had been hacked not just once, but several times. There was the attack on the company and then there was the attack on their customers. The attack on the customers involved the use of a DNS-based command and control (C&C) network, very stealthily crafted code, and the potential for an infected system to probe whatever was available to it at government and industrial installations across the globe. This may have been particularly damaging in the case of Solar Winds because the legitimate software could have stood in a privileged point within an enterprise, requiring access to lots of other core infrastructure. The Russians picked a really juicy target. They were, if you will, an incident waiting to happen, and happen it did. Solar Winds was detectable, but it required an appropriate investment in not only tooling but back-end expert services to provide situational awareness.

Not every target is quite so juicy. Most hackers hit web servers or laptops with various viruses. The soft underbelly of cybersecurity, however, are the control systems, who themselves have access to other infrastructure, as was demonstrated this past month, when a hacker attempted to poison a Florida city with lye. Assuming they have one, the Oldsmar CISO might have some explaining to do. How might that person do so, especially when it is the very system meant to protect the others? It starts by knowing how one compares to one’s peers in terms of expenditures. It’s possible to both under- and overspend.

Gordon Loeb Model

Optimal investment models for cybersecurity has been an ongoing area of research. The seminal Gordon-Loeb Model demonstrates a point of optimality and a point of diminishing returns for risk mitigation. The model doesn’t given you the shape of either curves. That was the next area of research.

For one, some things are easy to do, and some are hard; but the easy things are often not the right things to do. Low level cybersecurity professionals sometimes make the wrong choices, being risk seeking for big ticket items like device policy management, two-factor authentication, training, and auditing; while being risk adverse to matters that are within their control. Back in 2015, Armin Sarabi, Parinaz Naghizadeh, Yang Liu, and Mingyan Liu set out to answer this question. The table below liberally borrowed from their paper shows a risk analysis of different sectors.

Sarabi et al, Prioritizing Security Spending: A Quantitative Analysis of Risk Distributions for Different Business Profiles, Workshop on the Economics of Information Security, 2015.

What this says is that based on reports received, configuration errors were a substantial risk factor pretty much everywhere but accommodation and food services, but they suffered because employees share credentials. It was a limited survey, and surely the model has changed since then. In the intervening time, cloud computing has become far more prevalent, and we have seen numerous state actors take on a much bigger, and nastier, role. It’s useful, however, is for a CISO to have situational awareness of what sorts of common risks are being encountered, and to have some notion as to what best practices are to counter those risks, so that whatever a firm spends is effective.

Expenditures alone don’t guarantee against break-ins. Knowing one’s suppliers and their practices is also critical. Knowing that Verkada had sloppy practices would have both deterred some from using their cameras, and in turn encouraged that provider to clean up their act. Again, situational awareness matters.


Gordon Loeb Diagram by By Luca Rainieri – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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