4 steps to better managing cyber security risks

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2016 was a somewhat successful year for attackers and consequently a challenging year for defenders.

From the stolen email archives of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman to numerous reports of attacks on companies, hospitals, schools and others, cybersecurity has continued to expand into a major mainstream news topic. Googlesearches on “cybersecurity” spiked to an all-time high during the year.

While high-profile breaches are not new news – the growing list of victims including Yahoo,Wendy's, the University of Central Florida and the Bangladesh Bank illustrate the continuing threat of cyber attacks – 2016 demonstrated that the threats are ongoing and can target every type of organization in every industry. No sector or group is immune.

Organizations around the world are now more aware of the risks and know they must take deliberate steps to address the threats. But how?

Here are four approaches that companies can embark on immediately to more effectively mitigate risks and respond to the threats that they face:

1. Double down on the basics.

Many organizations insufficiently invest in and execute on the fundamentals or “the basics” of cybersecurity – identifying the assets that they need to protect and ensuring that the most recent patches and updates have been applied shortly after vulnerabilities are announced.

Each organization needs to answer some basic questions: What is our strategy? Who owns the responsibility? What is their specific process and plan? Without a clear framework, dedicated resources and accountability, problems are inevitable.

In 2017, every organization should commit to a strategy and adopt a cybersecurity framework to help them more effectively understand their current level of maturity and what the desired state should be. A framework should help an organization identify key assets, how those assets are going to be protected and monitored, and how they would respond and recover should a breach occur. The NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is one option that is gaining momentum and adoption, as it is designed to be within reach of any organization regardless of their current level of cybersecurity maturity.

2. Watch and secure the supply chain.

One of the fastest growing trends in recent breaches is for attackers to gain access to their victim’s sensitive data through unsuspecting third parties. For example, the intrusion into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2015 that resulted in the compromise of personal information on approximately 21.5 million people began in the network of a third-party OPM contractor.

While companies need to build and execute on their own internal security programs, they cannot neglect the “extended enterprise” composed of all of the of third parties, law firms, payroll agencies, marketing firms, etc. with whom they share sensitive data or privileged relationships that can be exploited.

The growth of outsourcing and online services has blurred or completely dissolved the boundary of the traditional network. The day has arrived where it is no longer sufficient for organizations to protect themselves. They also have to actively monitor and manage the security risks of those with whom they do business.

It is important to keep in mind that the management of third party risk is increasingly becoming part of new regulations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Management and Budget and General Services Administration are among the federal agencies that have worked on measures focusing on the cybersecurity of the supply chain or third-party ecosystem.

3. Invest in employee training.

It is almost a cliché now that when a breach is announced, the company states that the attack originated from an inbound malicious email or phishing attempt. An employee opened an email from an attacker and either downloaded a malicious attachment or was tricked into revealing sensitive system passwords.

For example, Snapchat revealed in February “with real remorse and embarrassment” that attackers obtained confidential data about 700 current and former employees by tricking an employee into opening an email that impersonated the CEO and clicking on a link that installed malware.

It has been widely reported that John Podesta, Clinton campaign chief, fell victim to a phishing scheme – a fake “account reset” email purporting to be from Google.

Technical controls should be put in place to neutralize some of these attacks (such as multi-factor authentication against password theft); however, technical controls are not sufficient. Organizations need to educate employees on the risks and how to respond. Humans make mistakes and will click on links and fall victim to attacks. A combination of technical controls and trained employees may be able to more rapidly identify issues and respond in order to limit the damage.

Employees should learn about potential threats and how to report suspicious activity within the company. Additionally, organizations need to make sure they have a detection and recovery plan in place for when, despite the training, the mistakes happen.

4. Track metrics and work as a team.

Effectively mitigating against cyber risks requires a collective effort. The responsibility cannot simply fall on a single individual or group.

Having established a framework, organizations should set and track benchmarks to help them assess the effectiveness of their own efforts as well as of their critical third parties. Corporate risk and information security teams should be actively involved in developing and tracking performance metrics.

Cybersecurity also should be a high-priority matter at the board level. Senior leaders should actively engage the board in discussing the strategy, the initiatives and the company’s progress and performance over time against its objectives. Performance and key benchmarks should be a regular item on board meeting agendas.

Given the risks and its fiduciary responsibility, the board must understand the need for and then support the development and maintenance of a robust cybersecurity program. Boards cannot abdicate this responsibility or simply assume that senior management is taking care of everything. History has taught us that the reputational damage and financial impact associated with failing to execute is high.

The threats will continue unabated in 2017 and defenders will continue to be challenged. Organizations will be much better positioned by taking these steps in the year ahead.

(About the author: Stephen Boyer is co-founder and chief technology officer of security ratings company BitSight.)

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