Why a Business-Focused Approach to Security Assurance Should Be an Ongoing Investment

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Steve Durbin

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How secure is your organization’s information? At any given moment, can a security leader look an executive in the eye and tell them how well business processes, projects and supporting assets are protected?   

Security assurance should provide relevant stakeholders with a clear, objective picture of the effectiveness of information security controls. However, in a fast-moving, interconnected world where the threat landscape is constantly evolving, many security assurance programs are unable to keep pace. Ineffective programs that do not focus sufficiently on the needs of the business can provide a false level of confidence.  

A Business-Focused Approach

Many organizations aspire to an approach that directly links security assurance with the needs of the business, demonstrating the level of value that security provides. Unfortunately, there is often a significant gap between aspiration and reality.

Improvement requires time and patience, but organizations do not need to start at the beginning. Most already have the basics of security assurance in place, meeting compliance obligations by evaluating the extent to which required controls have been implemented and identifying gaps or weaknesses. 

Taking a business-focused approach to security assurance is an evolution. It means going a step further and demonstrating how well business processes, projects and supporting assets are really protected, by focusing on how effective controls are. It requires a broader view, considering the needs of multiple stakeholders within the organization.

Business-focused security assurance programs can build on current compliance-based approaches by:

  • Identifying the specific needs of different business stakeholders
  • Testing and verifying the effectiveness of controls, rather than focusing purely on whether the right ones are in place
  • Reporting on security in a business context
  • Leveraging skills, expertise and technology from within and outside the organization

A successful business-focused security assurance program requires positive, collaborative working relationships throughout the organization. Security, business and IT leaders should energetically engage with each other to make sure that requirements are realistic and expectations are understood by all.

A Change Will Do You Good

The purpose of security assurance is to provide business leaders with an accurate and realistic level of confidence in the protection of ‘target environments’ for which they are responsible. This involves presenting relevant stakeholders with evidence regarding the effectiveness of controls. However, common organizational approaches to security assurance do not always provide an accurate or realistic level of confidence, nor focus on the needs of the business.

Security assurance programs seldom provide reliable assurance in a dynamic technical environment, which is subject to a rapidly changing threat landscape. Business stakeholders often lack confidence in the accuracy of security assurance findings for a variety of reasons.

Common security assurance activities and reporting practices only provide a snapshot view, which can quickly become out of date: new threats emerge or existing ones evolve soon after results are reported. Activities such as security audits and control gap assessments typically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of controls at a single point in time. While these types of assurance activities can be helpful in identifying trends and patterns, reports provided on a six-monthly or annual basis are unlikely to present an accurate, up-to-date picture of the effectiveness of controls. More regular reporting is required to keep pace with new threats.

Applying a Repeatable Process

Organizations should follow a clearly defined and approved process for performing security assurance in target environments. The process should be repeatable for any target environment, fulfilling specific business-defined requirements.

The security assurance process comprises five steps, which can be adopted or tailored to meet the needs of any organization. During each step of the process a variety of individuals, including representatives from operational and business support functions throughout the organization, might need to be involved.

The extent to which individuals and functions are involved during each step will differ between organizations. A relatively small security assurance function, for example, may need to acquire external expertise or additional specialists from the broader information security or IT functions to conduct specific types of technical testing. However, in every organization:

  • Business stakeholders should influence and approve the objectives and scope of security assurance assessments
  • The security assurance function should analyze results from security assurance assessments to measure performance and report the main findings

Organizations should:

  • Prioritize and select the target environments in which security assurance activities will be performed
  • Apply the security assurance process to selected target environments
  • Consolidate results from assessments of multiple target environments to provide a wider picture of the effectiveness of security controls
  • Make improvements to the security assurance program over time

An Ongoing Investment

In a fast-moving business environment filled with constantly evolving cyber threats, leaders want confidence that their business processes, projects and supporting assets are well protected. An independent and objective security assurance function should provide business stakeholders with the right level of confidence in controls – complacency can have disastrous consequences.

Security assurance activities should demonstrate how effective controls really are – not just determine whether they have been implemented or not. Focusing on what business stakeholders need to know about the specific target environments for which they have responsibility will enable the security assurance function to report in terms that resonate. Delivering assurance that critical business processes and projects are not exposed to financial loss, do not leak sensitive information, are resilient and meet legal, regulatory and compliance requirements, will help to demonstrate the value of security to the business.

In most cases, new approaches to security assurance should be more of an evolution than a revolution. Organizations can build on existing compliance-based approaches rather than replace them, taking small steps to see what works and what doesn’t.

Establishing a business-focused security assurance program is a long-term, ongoing investment.

About the author: Steve Durbin is Managing Director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). His main areas of focus include strategy, information technology, cyber security and the emerging security threat landscape across both the corporate and personal environments. Previously, he was senior vice president at Gartner.

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