What Security Teams Can Learn From The Department of Streets & Sanitation

As I sit here typing in beautiful Chicago, a massive blizzard is just starting to hit outside.  This storm is expected to drop between 12 to 20 inches over the next 24 hours, which could be the most snowfall in over 40 years.  Yet in spite of the weather, the citizens and city workers remain calm, confident in the fact that they know how to handle an incident like this.  A joke has been going around on twitter about the weather today – “Other cities call this a snowpacolypse.  Chicago calls it ‘Tuesday’”.

Northern cities like Chicago have been dealing with snowstorms and snow management for decades, and have gotten pretty stable at it.  Yet, when cities fail at it, there can be dramatic consequences – in 1979, the incumbent mayor of Chicago, Michael Bilandic lost to a challenger, with his poor response to a blizzard cited as one of the main reasons for his defeat.

The same crisis management practices, as well as the same negative consequences attached to failure, apply to information security organizations today.  Security teams should pay attention to what their better established, less glamorous counterparts in the Department of Streets and Sanitation do to handle a crisis like two feet of snow.

So, how do cities adequately prepare for blizzards?  The preparations can be summarized into four main points:

  • Prepare the cleanup plan in advance
  • Get as much early warning as possible
  • Communicate with the public about how to best protect themselves
  • Handle the incident as it unfolds to reduce loss of continuity

These steps are all also hallmarks of a mature security program:

  • Have an incident response plan in place in advance of a crisis
  • Utilize real-time detection methods to understand the situation
  • Ensure end users are aware of the role that they play in information security
  • Remediate security incidents with as little impact to the business as possible

An information security program that is proactive in preparing for security incidents is one that is going to be the most successful in the long run.  It will gain the appreciation of both end users and business owners, by reducing the overall impact of a security event.  Because as winter in Chicago shows us – you can’t stop a snowstorm from coming.  Security incidents are going to happen.  The test of a truly mature organization is how they react to the problem once it arrives.

Response to Visa’s Chief Enterprise Risk Officer comments on PCI DSS

Visa’s Chief Enterprise Risk Officer, Ellen Richey, recently presented at the Visa Security Summit on March 19th. One of the valuable points made in her presentation was defending the value of implementing PCI DSS to protect against data theft. In addition, Ellen Richey spoke about the challenge organizations face, not only becoming compliant, but proactively maintaining compliance, defending against attacks and protecting sensitive information.

Recent compromises of payment processors and merchants that were stated to be PCI compliant have brought criticism to the PCI program. Our views are strongly aligned with the views presented by Ellen Richey. While the current PCI program requires an annual audit, this audit is simply an annual health-check. If you were to view the PCI audit like a state vehicle inspection. Even though at the time of the inspection everything on your car checks out, this does not prevent the situation of days later your brake lights go out. You would still have a valid inspection sticker, but are no longer in compliance with safety requirements. It is the owner’s responsibility to ensure the car is maintained appropriately. Similarly in PCI, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure the effectiveness and maintenance of controls to protect their data in an ongoing manner.

Ellen Richey also mentioned increased collaboration with the payment card industry, merchants and consumers. Collaboration is a key step to implementing the technology and processes necessary to continue reducing fraud and data theft. From a merchant, service provider and payment processor perspective, new technologies and programs will continue to reduce transaction risk, but, today, there are areas where these organizations need to proactively improve. The PCI DSS standard provides guidance around the implementation of controls to protect data. Though in addition to protecting data, merchants, service providers and processors need to proactively address their ability to detect attack and be prepared to respond effectively in the event of a compromise. These are two areas that are not currently adequately addressed by the PCI DSS and are areas where we continue to see organizations lacking.

See the following link to the Remarks by Ellen Richey, Chief Enterprise Risk Officer, Visa Inc. at the Visa Security Summit, March 19, 2009:


Weak Application Security = Non-Compliance

I had to post about this one – our general counsel and compliance specialist Dave Stampley wrote an article recently at Information Week about the importance of ensuring application security as part of your regulatory compliance efforts. From the article:

Web-application security vulnerabilities pose a unique compliance risk for companies. Unlike compliance failures that take place in the background–for example, an unencrypted business-to-business transmission of sensitive consumer data–application weaknesses are open to discovery by any skilled Web surfer and even consumers themselves.

“The FTC appears to be taking a strict liability approach to E-commerce security flaws,” says Mary Ellen Callahan, an attorney at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., who has represented clients facing government privacy compliance investigations. “White-hat hackers and tipsters have prompted a number of enforcement actions by reporting Web-site flaws they discovered.”

Read the full article here

Whose Risk?

I often get frustrated when we talk about risk, measurement, metrics, and (my new least favorite buzz word) “key performance indicators”. Because we (as an industry) have a tendency to drop the audience from the statement of risk.

That may sound confusing, but I’ll illustrate by example. This is a real sentence that I hear far too often:

Doing that presents too much risk.

Unfortunately, that sentence is linguistically incomplete. The concept of “risk” requires specification of the audience – Risk to whom/what? This is a similar problem as that which Lakoff presents in Whose Freedom? – certain concepts require a reference to the audience in order to make sense of them. Leaving the audience unspecified is productive when used in marketing (or politics), but creates massive confusion when actually trying to have real productive discourse.

A recent post at Security Retentive illustrates the kind of confusion that ensues when the audience for risk metrics/measurements isn’t specified. (I have also previously talked (ranted?) about this type of confusion here and here.

This confusion fundamentally arises from the need to remember that risk is relative to an audience. The confusion arises because of a lack of perspective – each person in the discourse applies the “risk” to their own perspective, and comes up with radically differing meanings.

It seems important that when we’re talking about and attempting to measure and specify risk, we need to always present the data/information to a relevant audience: risk to what/whom is an important way of ensuring that we don’t remain mired in the kind of confusion that Security Retentive talked about.