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10 Dec 2013

SMotW #83: information asset values

Security Metric of the Week #83: total value of information assets owned by each Information Asset Owner

This week's metric presumes two key things.  

First, it presumes that the organization has Information Asset Owners (IAOs). While the terms vary, IAOs are generally the people who are expected to protect and and exploit the information assets in their remit or nominally assigned to them, both the organization's own information asset and those placed in its care by other organizations or individuals (its clients and employees for instance). Someone senior such as the Human Resources Director would typically be the IAO for the HR system, while lesser databases, systems and paperbases might be allotted to mid-level managers. By holding IAOs personally accountable for valuable information, management puts them under pressure to assess and treat the associated risks sensibly, and ideally to enhance the value of the assets by using them well.

Second, the metric presumes that there is some way to value the information assets - easier said than done, but valuation has several benefits so it is worth some effort. In fact, it is hard to envisage rational corporate management without this information, and yet curiously enough in many organizations asset valuation is merely an accountancy exercise, one that is largely restricted to tangible assets (book values) and certain financial/investment instruments (off-balance-sheet).

ACME managers rated the metric at 51%:


If you look up example metric 7.6 in chapter 7 of our book, you'll discover that we deliberately omitted the scoring rationale for this metric in order to emphasize keeping notes about the PRAGMATIC process. If the only record that remains is the table of ratings, or even worse just the overall PRAGMATIC score, it's hard to recall the discussion and the reasoning behind the metric ... but let's give it a go now and see how we get on.

Overall, the 51% PRAGMATIC score tells us that management was not very impressed with the metric: in their estimation, it should not be dismissed out of hand but it is unlikely to feature highly on anyone's security metrics wish-list.  [OK, but we really need to know why. What was it about the metric that slightly interested and slightly concerned them?]

The high spots in the scoring table were the metric's Meaningfulness and Actionability. Looking at the sample graphic above, it's obvious at a glance that three IAOs (Fred, Alan and Sarah) own just over half of the information assets by value between them, with the remainder divided between seven other IAOs. That in turn implies that Fred, Alan and Sarah are shouldering heavier information security burdens than the other seven, so perhaps some reallocation of information assets is in order? It's hard to tell with so little information to go on. With hindsight, the Meaningfulness and Actionability ratings were both quite generous, but it could well be that we are interpreting the metric quite differently now than when it was originally considered. 

The metric's low spots were its Independence and Cost-effectiveness. The 22% rating for Independence suggests that perhaps management believed the IAOs with most to gain or lose from the metric would be largely responsible for taking and reporting the measurements, a potential conflict of interest. The poor rating on Cost-effectiveness gives the impression that this is a metric with limited value and high costs.

Now pick any other PRAGMATIC criterion and try to figure out why it was rated as it was. It's even harder to reconstruct the arguments here! Maybe the ACME managers who were involved in the original discussion will remember what was said, although if that was many months ago, things will have moved on - ACME's security metrics program will have matured somewhat, and the business context is different.

So, the main take-home message from this week's example is to keep decent notes as you work through the PRAGMATIC process. It is appropriate, indeed necessary to review and revisit the organization's choice of information security metrics from time to time (perhaps every year or so). Trust us, it will be much easier to pick up the threads of previous discussions by referring to your scoring notes than to start from scratch.

There's one final point before we end. The metric was originally proposed, described, discussed and scored in words and numbers - no pictures. We prepared the simple pie chart graphic above for this blog, later, using some made-up data in MS Excel, but visualizing metrics like this turns out to be a powerful way to help us imagine and think through how they might actually work out in practice. It's also a potential source of bias, however, since we have undoubtedly framed the discussion in a certain way with that particular illustration (we have interpreted it as a pie chart, a proportional representation for starters). If we had illustrated this same piece with the bar chart below instead of the pie chart above, what effect might that have had on your thoughts concerning this metric?  Think on.

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