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Feb 11, 2015

The art of security metrics

A security metrics opinion piece by Elden Nelson in CSO Online identifies and expands on the following four issues:
  1. "Communications problems are due to a tool-centric rather than risk-centric view of security."While I accept that tool-centrism is not good, I disagree with the casual but simplistic implications that 'a tool-centric view of security' is the cause of communications problems, or that a 'risk-centric view of security' is necessarily the alternative. It sems to me there are many problems in communicating security metrics. The security or security reporting tools per se are less of an issue, in my opinion, than factors such as many technologists' fundamental misunderstandings about their own roles in the organization, about business management, strategy, risk and statistics, plus their apalling communications skills. Furthermore, communications problems are surmountable: given enough time and effort, we can get better at communicating things, putting our points across, but what is it that are we trying to communicate? That, to me, is a much more significant issue with metrics. Turning the focus of metrics from tools to risks is an improvement, but is that sufficient? I don't think it goes far enough: risks don't matter so much as risks to, and opportunities for, the organization and achievement of its business objectives. Relevance is an issue.
  2. "The volume of security products in the market make seamless metrics and reporting very difficult."
    Following closely on the heels of the previous one, this issue is a red herring. Managers don't care about 'security products'. For the most part, they don't even merit a second thought, except perhaps when someone comes cap-in-hand for yet another sizeable investment in some perplexing security technology with the strong likelihood of their being nothing concrete to show for it (an inherent problem with security improvements and risk reductions). Technologists are obsessive about their tech tools, whereas managers are obsessive about the business, things such as targets and objectives, risks and opportunities, efficiencies and budgets, effectiveness and outcomes, compliance obligations, and most of all getting the most out of people, organizations and situations. The tools we use along the way are, for the most part, just the means to an end, not ends in themselves. It's not the computer screen, telephone or paper that matters but the information it conveys.
  3. "Aggregate security products for seamless metrics and better communication."
    What is it with 'seamlessness'? I literally don't understand why anyone would consider the 'absense of seams' relevant to metrics, nor why aggregating products is even mentioned, while the author makes no attempt to enlighten us. The third issue falls headlong into the trap we were warned about in issue one: information security metrics aren't about security tools or products. The Mona Lisa is not a globally renowned work of art due to the astounding features of Leonardo da Vinci's palette knife.
  4. "Security has moved to the central business functions—it’s no longer just an IT issue."
    Leaving aside the question of whether it was ever 'just an IT issue', IT security is history: today, enlightened professionals think and speak not in terms of IT security or cybersecurity but information security and information risk. The technology part is incidental, a mere commodity for the most part. Data is 'just ones and zeroes' with negligible inherent value, in direct constrast to the meaning, the knowledge, the intangible information content encoded in the numbers. The canvas beneath the Mona Lisa's image is, after all, just canvas. The paint is just paint. The physical representation of a lady sitting in a chair is largely incidental to the artwork.  Remember Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe"?

Security metrics are more representational than literal. Their purpose includes but extends well beyond the mere communication of facts. PRAGMATIC security metrics encourage their recipients to contemplate the meaning and implications for the business, leading to decisions, attitudinal shifts and (in some cases) changes to behaviours and activities. If you fail to appreciate the difference, and don't make the effort to provide relevant, topical information in a useable, meaningful form, your security metrics are doomed. Don't forget that other business information flowing around the typical corporation is, in effect, competing for the same head-space. Your security metrics need to make an impact - and, no, we're not talking about primary colors and animations, or smacking people in the head, tempting though that may be.