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Empowering executives with data security effectiveness evidence

After decades of presentations and prayers, security has finally become a business imperative for executives and boards alike. Business leaders are speaking publicly about championing security investments, as it’s important for shareholder value and future expectations. In fact, evidence-based security effectiveness measures are finding their way into annual reports (10-Ks), committee charters, and corporate governance documents.

Because of the spotlight that is on security, your business leaders are demanding security effectiveness evidence from you. This evidence is similar to the data-driven measurements and KPIs seen in other strategic business units such as shareholder return, client assets, financial performance, client satisfaction, and loss-absorbing resources.

Your leaders are making decisions predicated on these non-security measures every day to increase value for their shareholders, address stakeholder requirements, and mitigate business risks. Security is simply another variable in the business risk equation. In fact, your security program isn’t about security risk in and of itself, but rather, the financial, brand, and operational risk from security incidents.

One area where the need for security effectiveness evidence is profusely obvious is around rationalization. For example, many auditors no longer ask, “Do you have security tools in place to mitigate risk?” because the answer is always, “Yes, but we need more tools, training, and people anyhow.” Now auditors are asking for rationalization in terms of, “Can you prove, with quantitative measures, that our security tools are adding value? And can you supply proof regarding the necessity for future security investment?”

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Joseph Galo, application support engineer at MobiTV, Inc., along with other engineers run the daily maintenance and procedures in the network operations center at the company's headquarters in Emeryville, California, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

This evidence-based, rationalization methodology, often characterized as security instrumentation, aligns with the reality that your organization has finite resources to invest in security and that all investments need to be prioritized. Every dollar invested in security is a dollar not applied to other imperatives.

Measuring your security effectiveness: where you’ve been

The sad truth is that most security effectiveness measures are assumption-based instead of evidence-based. Because of a lack of ongoing security instrumentation, you assume your tools and configurations are doing what is needed and incident response capabilities are a well-choreographed integration of people, processes, and technologies. You know that assumption-based security is flawed. But historically, you haven’t had a way to empirically measure security effectiveness. You get some value from penetration testing, the endless march of scan-patch-scan, surveys, and return on security investment calculations, but these approaches don’t truly measure your security effectiveness. As a result, your business leaders are relying on incomplete and/or inaccurate data to make their decisions.

Where you need to be

You need to know if your security tools are working as intended. Once they are, you can optimize those tools to get the most value, rationalize, and prioritize where greater investment is required, and retire tools no longer needed. Then you can monitor for environmental drift so that when a tool is no longer working as needed, you are alerted to the drift and how to fix it. Finally, from a leadership perspective, your team can consider security effectiveness measures when calculating the business risks.

How to get there

By safely testing your actual, production security tools with security instrumentation solutions, not scanning for vulnerabilities, not looking for unpatched systems, and not launching exploits on target assets, but actually testing the efficacy of the security tools protecting your assets, you can start measuring security effectiveness of individual tools as well as security effectiveness overall. When gaps are discovered, you can use prescriptive instrumentation recommendations to address those gaps. Then you can apply configuration assurance to retest the security tools to validate that the prescriptive changes implemented resulted in the desired outcome. Once you have your security tools in a known good state, automated testing can continue validation in perpetuity, alerting you when there is environmental drift.

The end result of security instrumentation is security effectiveness that can be measured, managed, improved, and communicated in an automated way. Your security teams are armed with evidence-based data that can be used to instrument security tools, prioritize future investments, and retire redundant tools. This newfound ability to communicate security effectiveness and trends based on actual proof allows your decision-makers to incorporate security effectives measures when making business decisions.

(This post originally appeared on the ISACA blog, which can be viewed here).

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