Balancing budget and system security: Approaches to risk tolerance
Data breaches are a dime a dozen. Although it’s easy to look at that statement negatively, the positive viewpoint is that, as a result, cybersecurity professionals have plenty of learning moments. Learning what went wrong and why can be a good sanity check for organizations that want to revisit their security readiness and up-level their cyber vulnerability and risk management programs.
Recently, it was revealed that Nickelodeon, an American TV channel and brand, has been the victim of a data leak. According to sources, the breach occurred at the beginning of 2023, but much of the data involved was “related to production files only, not long-form content or employee or user data, and (appeared) to be decades old.” The implication of this ambiguous statement: because the data is old and not related to individuals’ personally identifiable information (PII) or any proprietary information that hasn’t already been publicly released, this is a non-incident.
Let’s say Nickelodeon didn’t suffer any material harm because of this incident — great! It’s probable, though, that there are facts we don’t know. Any time proprietary data ends up where it shouldn’t, warning bells should go off in security professionals’ heads. What would be the outcome if the “decades old” files did contain PII? Some of the data would be irrelevant, but some could be crucial. What if the files contained other protected or private data? What if they compromised the integrity of the brand? All organizations need to think through the “what ifs” and apply the worst and base case scenarios to their current security practices.
The Nickelodeon case raises the question of whether keeping “decades old” data is necessary. While holding onto historical data can, in some cases, benefit the organization, every piece of kept data increases the company’s attack surface and increases risk. Why did Nickelodeon keep the old files in a location where it could be easily accessed? If the files were in a separate location, the security team likely did not apply adequate controls to accessing the files. Given that the cost of securing technology and all its inherent complexity is already astronomically high, CISOs need to prioritize budgetary and workforce allocation for all security projects and processes, including those for all past, present, and future data protection.
In a slow economy, balancing system security and budget requires skill and savvy. Even in boom times, though, throwing more money at the problem doesn’t always help. There is no evidence that an increase in security spending proportionately improves an organization’s security posture. In fact, some studies suggest that an overabundance of security tools leads to more confusion and complexity. CISOs should therefore focus on business risk tolerance and reduction.
Approaches to cyber risk management
Because no two organizations are alike, every CISO must find a cyber risk management approach that aligns with the goals, culture, and risk tolerance of the organization. Budget plays an important role here, too, but securing more budget will be an easier task if the security goals align with those of the business. After taking stock of these considerations, CISOs may find that their organizations fall into one or more core approaches to risk management.
Risk tolerance-based approach
Every company– and even every department within a company– has a tolerance for the amount and type of risk they’re willing to take. Security-specific tolerance levels must be based on desired business outcomes; cyber security risk cannot be determined or calculated based on cybersecurity efforts alone, rather how those efforts support the larger business.
To align cybersecurity with business risk, security teams must address business resilience by considering the following questions:
- How would the business be impacted if a cybersecurity event were to occur?
- What are the productivity, operational, and financial implications of a cyber event or data breach?
- How well equipped is the business to handle an event internally?
- What external resources would be needed to support internal capabilities?
With answers to these types of questions and metrics to support them, cyber risk levels can be appropriately set.
Many companies today estimate their cyber risk tolerance based on how mature they perceive their cybersecurity team and controls to be. For instance, companies with an internal security operations center (SOC) that supports a full complement of experienced staff might be better equipped to handle continuous monitoring and vulnerability triage than a company just getting its security team up and running. Mature security teams are good at prioritizing and remediating critical vulnerabilities and closing the gaps on imminent threats, which generally gives them a higher security risk tolerance.
That said, many SOC teams are too overwhelmed with data, alerts, and technology maintenance to focus on risk reduction. The first thing a company must do if it decides to take on a maturity-based approach is to honestly assess its own level of security maturity, capabilities, and efficacy. A truly mature cybersecurity organization isbetter equipped to manage risk, but self-awareness is vital for security teams regardless of maturity level.
Budget constraints are prevalent in all aspects of business today, and running a fully staffed, fully equipped cybersecurity program is no bargain in terms of cost. However, organizations with an abundance of staff and technology don’t necessarily perform better security- or risk-wise. It’s all about being budget savvy for what will be a true compliment to existing systems.
Invest in tools that move the organization toward a zero trust-based architecture, focusing on security foundation and good hygiene first. By laying the right foundations, and having competent staff to manage them, cybersecurity teams will be better off than having the latest and greatest tools implemented without mastering the top CIS Controls: Inventory and control of enterprise and software assets, basic data protection, secure configuration management, hardened access management, log management, and more.
An important aspect of a threat-based approach to risk management is understanding that vulnerabilities and threats are not the same thing. Open vulnerabilities can lead to threats (and should therefore be a standard part of every organization’s security process and program). “Threats,” however, refer to a person/persons or event in which a vulnerability has the potential to be exploited. Threats also rely on context and availability of a system or a resource.
For instance, the Log4Shell exploit took advantage of a Log4j vulnerability. The vulnerability resulted in a threat to organizations with an unpatched version of the utility running. Organizations that were not running unpatched versions — no threat.
It is therefore imperative for organizations to know concretely:
- All assets and entities present in their IT estates
- The security hygiene of those assets (point in time and historical)
- Context of the assets (non-critical, business-critical; exposed to the internet or air-gapped; etc.)
- Implemented and operational controls to secure those assets
With this information and context, security teams can start to build threat models appropriate for the organization and its risk tolerance. The threat models used will, in turn, allow teams to prioritize and manage threats and more effectively reduce risk.
People, process and technology-based approach
People, process, and technology (PPT) are often considered the “three pillars” of technology. Some security pros consider PPT to be a framework. Through whatever lens PPT is viewed, it is the most comprehensive approach to risk management.
A PPT approach has the goal of allowing security teams to holistically manage risk while incorporating an organization’s maturity, budget, threat profile, human resources, skill sets, and the entirety of the organization’s tech stack, as well as its operations and procedures, risk appetite, and more. A well-balanced PPT program is a multi-layered plan that relies evenly on all three pillars; any weakness in one of the areas tips the scales and makes it harder for security teams to achieve success — and manage risk.
The wrap up
Every organization should carefully evaluate its individual capabilities, business goals, and available resources to determine the best risk management strategy for them. Whichever path is chosen, it is imperative for security teams to align with the business and involve organizational stakeholders to ensure ongoing support.