Friday, February 20, 2009

The next 12 months

Yesterday at the Chicago ISACA meeting I had the opportunity to hear Dave Ostertag from Verizon walk through the 2008 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, point by point. At the time of publication, the report included over 100 data points from 500 cases, but the base is now up to 700 cases and still more interesting patterns in the data continue to emerge.

The report is 27 pages long, but it informs an information security strategy by simply and persuasively answering one simple question: “What changes can I make in the next 12 months that will significantly reduce the likelihood and impact of a security incident in my organization?”

Across all the activities lumped under the banner of information security, Verizon found that a surprisingly small set of outcomes (or more accurately, the absence of these outcomes) mattered most. The survey lists nine recommendations, but I’ve re-worded and consolidated them a bit here:
1. Execute: ensure that security processes implement the identity management, patch management and configuration management basics. From the survey: “Eighty-three percent of breaches were caused by attacks not considered to be highly difficult. Eighty-five percent were opportunistic…criminals prefer to exploit weaknesses rather than strengths. In most situations, they will look for an easy opportunity and, finding none, will move on.” In contrast, among poor-performers, “…the organization had security policies … but these were not enacted through actual processes…victims knew what they needed to do … but did not follow through.”
2. Inventory, segment and protect sensitive information: “Sixty-six percent of breaches involved data that the victim did not know was on the system.” Know where critical data is captured and processed, and where it flows. Secure partner connections, and consider creating “transaction zones” at the network level to separate baseline business activities from high sensitivity environments.
3. Increase awareness. “Twelve percent of data breaches were discovered by employees of the victim organization. This may not seem like much, but it is significantly more than any other means of internal discovery observed during investigations.”
4. Strengthen incident handling capabilities. Monitor event logs, create an incident response plan, and engage in mock incident testing.

Steps 1 and 2 reduce the likelihood of an incident; steps 3 and 4 primarily reduce the potential impact by decreasing the time lag between an intrusion and its eventual identification and containment.

As for step four, my first thought is that mock testing won’t be much of a need for most incident response teams because of the natural cycle of event monitoring, suspected incident reporting, and initial response to events that are often false positives. Organizations that promote active reporting of suspicious events, and who treat each one as an actual incident will have much of the practice in a live setting that mock drills would otherwise offer. Instead of trying to prevent false postitives from occurring, an IR team should work to become more efficient at quickly ruling them out. As they do, the threshold for activating an initial review will drop, and ultimately they’ll catch more events closer to the time of occurrence.

It’s still a good idea to ensure that all stages from identification through remediation and recovery are fully practiced, but in general achieving containment quickly reduces the number of records exposed, and thus the eventual full cost of the breach.

Which brings us to next steps for Verizon; it seems that they’re now working on developing an incident costing model. This will be huge, because without it, organizations will continue to struggle with how to set specific protection goals that align with their cost structure and business strategy.

As an example, the survey looked at four sectors. Retail was one that contributing a sizeable amount of data (which is a polite way to say they got hacked a lot.) No surprise that simple survival is usually a bigger concern than security for many retailers: net profit margin among publicly traded companies in this sector often ranges between two and six percent. An additional dollar spent on physical security needs to be matched by up to $25 in additional sales … just to break even. Considering the wholesale cost of merchandise, it’s understandable why management accepts the risk of physical theft, formally accounting for it as “shrinkage.”

Unfortunately, while this mindset towards risk carries over into the electronic space, the analogy doesn’t. A dollar lost to computer crime, either through the cost of the incident itself, or the cost of organizational response, comes straight out of profits. It’s a much more damaging effect.

But, without a clear measure of the cost of an incident, the value of steps 1-4 to the CFO are murky at best. It doesn’t need to stay this way: calculating the direct and indirect handling costs of an incident isn’t a terribly difficult exercise, and most organizations already have the data needed to put it together. At JMU I started down this path with Dr. Mike Riordan in his Managerial Accounting class, drawing heavily on Gary Cokins’ paper Identifying and Measuring the Cost of Error and Waste to frame the problem. We need a credible model backed by lots of data, and I’m really hoping Verizon is able to put it together.

As for the next 200+ cases, I can’t wait to see how they present the 2009 findings. To characterize the survey as “pathology” might be a bit strong, but I thought it was interesting to note Dave’s background as a former homicide investigator. During the live session, you get some answers to the “so then what happened?” questions that the report doesn’t touch.

On our end it may feel like a never ending battle, so it’s good to talk to someone with a broad view of what is going on internationally. It’s more than a little comforting to learn how much progress is being made in locating and taking legal action against the bad guys…

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