Who is the Customer for Security?

When looking at an application from a security perspective I can assess the controls involved and try to understand the threats it faces. But then comes the question, is this application secure? You can look at an application and declare it insecure easily enough. Finding a flaw in the design of the controls or the implementation makes an application insecure. Essentially all applications appear to have vulnerabilities according to this 2017 report. When you have the keys to the kingdom to protect you can go to significant lengths to protect them, like AWS does with its provable security measures.

For those of us with more limited means, we need to find a way to determine where is the line for what we should do. There isn’t a clear line for what’s good enough, a risk based approach makes too many guess, and an absolute approach doesn’t scale with organizational size. You build a system that looks secure to the best of your knowledge and monitor it to make sure it stays that way. You counter new known vulnerabilities as they come up. You can try to be proactive with scanning; you can try to put yourself in a good place to be reactive to issues that come up. You can build defenses in depth and apply any sort of new emerging technologies to the problem, but if the only restriction to how much work you put into security is how much money you have, how do you decide when you have enough?

Some searching turned up this formula

ROI=(Average loss expected / cost of countermeasures)

Conceptually it makes sense, but what is the average loss expected? The article defined it as (Number of Incidents per Year) X (Potential Loss per Incident). That’s still a guess at best, if you experienced some number of incidents in the past you can project forward. On the loss side you have reputational damage from the incident, the cost of response, any regulatory fines. So at this point you have a guess times a guess and you estimate how any action you take will impact those two guesses to determine if it is worth doing or not. That doesn’t seem like a good way to measure if you are making an impact.

I’ve been trying to think through other ways to analyze this sort of position. I keep coming around to something similar to downtime analysis. How confident are you in understanding your security and how long does it take you to react to something that needs to be remediated once you’ve identified it? This formulation gives you a different way to scope your security activity. It brings a number of different things as security related that wouldn’t make sense under the earlier formulation. Things like the scalability of your build and deployment pipeline are a security concern, because if you need to build and redeploy hundreds of services after finding out about a vulnerability in a commonly used library it would be good not to bottleneck the system.

I think this metric makes sense from a more technical perspective of the security of the system compared to the incidents and losses perspective which makes more sense from a business risk perspective. Having this additional perspective in a

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