What do we do about Cybersecurity? Part 2

Data center - where is your critical data located?

Do you know where your critical data is?

You can’t protect your crown jewels if you don’t know what you need to protect, where it is located, have a good strategy for protecting it, and have good execution of your strategy.

In part 1 of the blog series “What do we do about Cybersecurity?“, I identified the best way to get started with improvement is to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment of your organization using the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), along with several key problems with implementing it.

I found this nice overview for small & medium sized businesses cybersecurity overview (not tied to any framework), “The SMB Cyber Security Survival Guide” at the We Live Security blog.

In this part of the blog series, let’s look at how to identify and prioritize your assets and threats, the first two steps in the CFS process.

Identify (part 2)

Step 1, Data Classification

There are only 2 kinds of data:

  1. What somebody wants to steal
  2. Everything else

Attackers are after the data you have.  Most organizations have not thought much about what data is critical to their business or sensitive to their customers, thus, data is strewn across the entirety of the organization’s computer systems: email, file shares, laptops, mobile devices, databases, etc.  This is equivalent to a bank having their employees store all of the bank’s money in their desk drawers and filing cabinets.

Microsoft just published a very good blog post “Protect your highly sensitive information”.

You can’t protect your crown jewels if you don’t know what you need to protect, where it is located, have a good strategy for protecting it, and have good execution of your strategy.

Best practice recommends only 3 data classifications, unless required by regulation.  The terminology may vary from organization to organization:

Radio Active, Toxic, and Unclassified data classification values

Sensitivity Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
High Radio Active Confidential Restricted
Moderate Toxic For Internal Use Only Sensitive
Low Unclassified Public Unrestricted

A few resources for data classification are:

The kinds of information that you need to protect for your business survival:

  • Intellectual Property. What would you lose if your competition obtained your trade secret, proprietary process, key personnel, product plans, etc?  How much worse would it be for a foreign competitor, with lower labor rates, to easily reach parity with you, or surpass you?
  • Organizational operations including mission, functions, image, reputation / brand, personnel, contractors, organizational assets.
  • Customer data including identity, location, financial, medical, history, and trends.
  • Other organizations, contractors, working relationships, non-disclosure information, etc.

Remember that “60% of small businesses close within six months of experiencing a data breach”. Your Brand is your company.  Lose customer trust in your brand, you may lose your company.

Next, identify your critical systems by data classification level:

  • Applications that process each classification type. Is it encrypted in transit?
  • Data storage location (system and location).  Is it encrypted?
  • Credentials allowed access, and access type.
  • Access Path(s) to the storage and processing systems.

By limiting the number of systems and access paths to those systems processing or storing critical data, you can prioritize the security focus, protections, and effort towards the most important assets.

Step 3, Threats

Identifying and prioritizing threats and vulnerabilities is a process whereby you analyze the possible actors and their motivations, and your vulnerabilities that would lead them to interfere with what you have.

If the level of value a threat actor would receive from a successful attack is greater than the cost (including effort and negative repercussions) of performing the attack, then there is motivation to proceed.  The greater the net value is, the more motivated and persistent the threat actor will be in executing the attack.

The threats are various: Malicious actors, Criminals, Economic Adversaries, Nation state adversaries, disgruntled organization personnel, disgruntled nation state, etc.  There are many known and unknown reasons someone may attack you.  Don’t forget about the natural threats including natural disasters, civil disruptions, and other non-IT specific threats.  Threats should include all possibilities so that their associated risk may be determined.

The most common motivations for a cyber attack you might consider are:

  • Financial gain (direct, or indirect), such as Identity Theft, or tamper with financial transactions
  • Obtain proprietary / internal information (Intellectual Property)
  • Disrupt or disable targets capability
  • Ransom / Terrorism against a person, organization or state
  • Revenge (sense of revenge, righting a wrong, etc.)
  • Hijacking your infrastructure for their own purposes
  • Because they can – joy or prestige associated with overcoming a challenge, i.e., they break in and leave their mark to show they’ve been there

The value to the threat actor for some of these motivations are easier to quantify than others.  If someone wants to attack you because of revenge, how do you estimate the threat actor’s motivation level?  Doing so is highly dependent upon your organizations specific ever-changing business and threat environments.

Then analyze your weaknesses, which may include the lack of technical people, lack of budget, lack of processes, infrastructure configuration, tools, technology, etc.  It is important to evaluate this analysis regarding your business environment and agree on a risk tolerance level, as depicted in the following diagram.

Risk Profile Heat Map, indicating threat probability versus impact.

A couple of resources for risk management are:

In next part of this blog series, I’ll go through the creation of a current CSF profile and conducting a Risk Assessment.



What do we do about Cybersecurity?

An illustration of the Target credit card data breach

An illustration of the Target credit card data breach

We all know that our computer systems are not really secure, especially when connected to the Internet.  So much is being written about the need to improve and guides to get started (i.e., DHS, FCC, SBA, Stop Think Connect, etc.).  Most of these programs inform you of what needs to be done, but not how to do it.

What I want to do is to identify some specific steps and considerations for “how to do it”.  Since the “how to’s” for cybersecurity improvement can’t be condensed down into a single blog post, it looks like this will become a series.  The best thing to do is to get started!

Start (part 1)

The use of a Risk Management approach is an excellent way to measure and manage cybersecurity risk in harmony with your other business risks.  The place to start is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), here is the link to the PDF.  I used the Cybersecurity Framework when it was first published in February 2014 to start a discussion with our CEO and Board of Directors. It was the first time that they understood, more than superficially, why cybersecurity is important to our company and what it meant to provide cybersecurity protection.  In fact the ensuing discussion about what were our critical assets (data), what were the threats, and what our strategy should be for protecting our critical information transformed our approach to business.  The following is a nice summary video “NIST Cybersecurity Framework Explained” from rapid7.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework suggests the following steps to create or improve a cybersecurity program:

  1. Identify and prioritize your critical assets (data), and the systems that process it.
  2. Identify and prioritize threats to your critical assets and systems.
  3. Create a current Framework Profile – which Category and Subcategory outcomes are currently being achieved.
  4. Risk assessment – analyze operational environment to discern likelihood and impact of cybersecurity events.
  5. Create Target Framework Profile – describing the organization’s desired cybersecurity outcomes.
  6. Determine, Analyze, and Prioritize Gaps.
  7. Implement Action Plan.

While these steps sound easy, there are challenges with differing terminology, definitions, value assessment, expectations, and lack of measures and metrics that are identified in trying to create your CSF Profile.  We have found that as discussions proceed, clarity and consistency improvements spread through the organization.  This clarification activity alone will contribute to improved cybersecurity posture.

Once this baseline is established, part of the implementation should be the defining and collection of metrics that will be used by the organization to re-assess their cybersecurity risk by repeating the steps with updated metric and changing business and threat environment information.

There are several key problems in actually implementing the Framework:

  1. Most organizations have not identified and prioritized their critical assets, thus the data is strewn across the organizations infrastructure.  This is like using a bank in which their employees store all of the bank’s money in their desk drawers and filing cabinets. It’s distributed, but not very accessible or secure, and you have to secure everything at a high level, which is not cost effective.
  2. Most small and medium sized businesses think they are too small, or don’t have anything of interest.  Wrong – every organization is a target to someone.
  3. Risk assessments may not be typically expressed in terms of dollars.
    • What are the costs to your business if the threats were successful in obtaining your critical assets?  Could you stay in business?
    • How much is the business willing to spend to prevent the Cybersecurity Risks?  In other words, how much are you willing to spend in prevention, or risk transfer, while retaining a viable business model?  This may set the upper limit for your cybersecurity budget, including cybersecurity insurance.
  4. How do you measure the effectiveness of the cybersecurity program or outcomes (steps 3 and 5)?
    • If you can’t measure, how do you know if you improve or not?
    • How do you know if you are measuring the right things?
    • Who knows of any consensus standard metrics?
  5. How do you respond to all of the alerts and indicators you receive from the array of security tools that have been deployed in your organization?  For almost every breach documented, there were indicators that the organization missed.

In the next few posts, I’ll share some “how to’s” for identifying and prioritizing your assets and threats, creation of your current profile and risk assessment, creation of your target profile, gap assessment, and action plan.  I’ll conclude this series with how to tie all of this up into an integrated operational process, with automated support solutions, and how to take the subsequent steps towards continuous cybersecurity improvement.

In a preview of the solution, Rofori is a real-time collaborative continuous Situational Awareness (SA) process management system for cybersecurity. Rofori provides real-time continuous management and assessment against the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, thus providing organizations insight into their cybersecurity posture based on continuous monitoring activity across time and in turn, measure cybersecurity improvement.

Rofori Brings  Process Control to Continuous Monitoring within the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Rofori Brings Process Control to Continuous Monitoring within the NIST Cybersecurity Framework