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19 Nov 2017

NBlog November 19 - IoD advises members to develop "cyber security strategy"

report for the UK Institute of Directors by Professor Richard Benham encourages IoD members to develop “a formal cyber security strategy”.

As is so often the way, 'cyber' is not explicitly defined by the authors although it is strongly implied that the report concerns the commercial use of IT, the Internet, digital systems and computer data (as opposed to cyberwar perpetrated by well-resourced nation states - a markedly different interpretation of 'cyber' involving substantially greater threats).

A 'formal cyber security strategy' would be context dependent, reflecting the organization's business situation. That broader perspective introduces other aspects of information risk, security, governance and compliance. All relevant aspects need to be considered at the strategic level, including but not just 'cyber security'. 

Counteracting or balancing the desire to lock down information systems and hence data so tightly that its value to the business is squeezed out, 'cyber security strategy' should be closely aligned with, if not an integral part of, information management. For instance it should elaborate on proactively exploiting and maximising the value of information the organization already holds or can obtain or generate, working the asset harder for more productive business purposes. In some circumstances, that means deliberately relaxing the security, consciously accepting the risks in order to gain the rewards. 

I find it ironic that the professor is quoted:
“This issue must stop being treated as the domain of the IT department and be the subject of boardroom policy. Businesses need to develop a cyber security policy, educate their staff, review supplier contracts and think about cyber insurance.”
Does he not appreciate that, in common parlance and understanding of the term, cyber is the geeks' domain, their home turf? Over-use of both 'cyber' and 'security' biases the entire report and perpetuates the issue, unfortunately.

'Information risk management' would be a more appropriate term since it concerns: 
  • 'Information' not just 'data': there's a huge amount of valuable information outside the computer systems and networks, not least in workers' heads. That, too, is a valuable asset which deserves to be nurtured, exploited and protected. No amount of 'cyber security' is going to stop an experienced employee resigning to work for a competitor, taking loads of proprietary information with them, or blabbing about trade secrets on social media, over coffee or down the pub.
  • 'Risk' not just 'security'. Security is not inherently valuable unless it addresses risk ... and security controls are not the only way to address risks. In referring to 'cyber insurance' for instance, the report yet again over-emphasizes IT, whereas insurance plus incident management, business continuity management and other aspects would provide a more rounded, sensible, strategic approach, fundamental to which is an appreciation of the risks.
  • 'Management', as in systematically planning, directing, monitoring and controlling things to achieve business objectives. Fire-and-forget does not apply here: management needs to keep a close eye on developments, especially as the risks are changing rapidly around us. There are governance aspects to it too, including that point about not leaving it to IT!
An 'information risk management strategy', then, has legs. We're getting somewhere!

To be clear, my beef is not just with the semantics. Frequent and widespread reference to 'cyber security' and related neologisms doesn't make it right. It is too specific, too narrow to address the real issues, bordering on being a dangerous diversion. It's a bit like the distinction between 'global warming' and 'climate change'. They are strongly related concepts, of course, but need to be handled differently in practice. There's more to climate change than the Earth warming up a bit.

On a positive note, I’m pleased to see the report state:
"Ensure all your staff have regular cyber awareness training, building it into induction processes and ensure your people are a robust and secure first line of defence."
Personally, I’d have preferred the term “continuous information risk and security awareness” to counteract the obsessive focus on both 'cyber' and 'security', and to draw the distinction between awareness and training. They are complementary approaches with different objectives and methods.  If that's unclear, take a good look at NIST SP800-50 "Building an Information Technology Security Awareness and Training Program" or Rebecca Herold's "Managing an Information Security and Privacy Awareness and Training Program".

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