Business stakeholders need the full story

(C) Depositphotos / @ efks

There’s a lot of talk about aligning security programs and business or functional goals, but in practice, that’s much easier “powerpointed” than done.  Business consequences of security decisions, and security consequences of business decisions in the broader context are all too often missed or ignored, sometimes even deliberately.   As Obi-Wan said to Luke, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view”.

Let me share a couple of examples to frame this conversation.

Security ignoring functionality.  The TSA is studying reducing security at smaller airports to refocus the spend at larger facilities.  The plan would be to do minimal screening initially, then rescreen passengers when they arrive at a larger airport.  Critics and defenders jumped into the fray – critics that there’s a reduction in security for part of the system, and that attackers would then simply target those facilities, and defenders that this is a reasonable cost tradeoff given limited resources.

The problem is that both of those people are viewing this within a narrow security-only view and miss the broader impact:  it would require massive infrastructure investment at airports and break the business model of most of the major airlines.  Rescreening passengers from feeder airports would require all connections to extend by another hour, raising operating costs, and the airports would have to be reconfigured to add internal screening checkpoints.  The total economic cost would far exceed the projected $115M in TSA budget savings.

Functionality ignoring security.  Let’s look at autonomous vehicles.  Don’t get me wrong, the folks developing those system do have an awareness of some the security risks, but they’re again, focused within the system (preventing the vehicle from being hacked).  Yet they ignore the risks of the vehicles being used exactly as intended.  Just one example:  a terrorist loads explosives on a vehicle, and then programs it to drive a route, with a GPS trigger that sets off the bomb, while they’ve already flown out of the country.  That’s not a hack, it’s building a smart bomb with the self-driving software as the navigation unit.  There’s no security measure in the autonomous vehicle that can prevent that misuse case from happening.

In both cases, this is due to the scope of vision.  Within each individual team, the approach and decisions are valid, but when taken in the larger context, they no longer are.   That’s driven by cultural and budget divisions:  the TSA doesn’t own a budget for the entire air transit system, and the autonomous vehicle company doesn’t own the societal impact of the invention.  Risk adjusted total economic cost is something that entrenched interests rarely address because doing so with intellectual honesty requires facing answers that are at odds with their worldview.

To be fair, those are both extreme examples to illustrate the point, yet the same thing occurs within our organizations on a smaller scale.  I’ve written before that the business stakeholder is the only one that can make the final tradeoff decision between security and functionality.  In most cases, neither the reporting structure or culture support a true peer conversation.  If the CISO (security) reports to the CIO (functionality) are you getting the full, uncolored view of both sides?  That’s why I’m seeing a growing trend to move the CISO out from IT and into either a full peer role, or under the CRO (Risk Officer) so the tradeoff decisions are presented to stakeholders from equal peers.

Culture is much harder to change, and we’re always going to have bias in these decisions.  The TSA has a culture (understandably) of being unwilling to step back on current measures for fear of blame if something later happens.  Autonomous vehicle developers are unwilling to slow down for fear that a competitor will get their first.  Apple appears unwilling to admit that sometimes thicker, heavier, and having ports and buttons is more secure and more usable for fear of…well, I’m not sure what (losing dongle profits?), but you get the point.

Right now, we can at least get the organizational structure out of the way and give both risk and function equal voices so our business stakeholders can make fully informed decisions.

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