Vulnerabilities / Threats
8/29/2013
03:22 PM
Mike Rothman
Mike Rothman
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Talking Threats With Senior Management

Every so often, you get lucky and a senior executives asks you about security. You have some choices as to how to answer the question. Choose wisely

Have you ever walked into your office after a nice, relaxing weekend to find an article ripped out of an airline magazine sitting on your chair? You know, the article that talks about small-business fraud and how it's now an epidemic. A few vendors are quoted in there fanning the flames of FUD, talking about how vulnerable business are, and an analyst or two appear in their Chicken Little suits. Yeah, that's a lot of fun -- but it gets better. Then you read the sticky note on it that says: "Hey, saw this on my flight. What are we doing about this? Let's talk. Signed, CEO."

Awesome. So you dial up the CEO's admin and schedule a time to chat. The CEO has a 15-minute opening two days from now -- will that work? Yup, and that means you have two days to figure out what you're going to say. Of course, you present to the board once a quarter and have breakouts with the audit committee. But they want to know about the security program, the latest incidents, and the upcoming compliance audit.

Basically, at the board level they are worried about covering their behinds and tend to focus your 15 minutes around that. For those presentations, you get to figure out what's important for them to hear and how you want to position the message. The airline magazine situation is different. The CEO is worked up because a bunch of other firms have lost significant money from computer attacks. She read all the FUD in the article and needs to understand whether these attacks could impact results or an upcoming deal that she can't tell you about.

You have a few choices. You could revisit your board presentation and reiterate what the program is about, your successes, and why you have a handle on the situation. You want to seem in control and make it clear you aren't concerned about some mass-market nonsense on security published in an airline magazine. You could take a different approach and go through all of your operational metrics to provide substantiation that you don't think there has been a big data loss and that you have controls in place to deal with the attacks mentioned in the magazine.

Or you could go for the throat. A third option is to walk in and thank the CEO for finally paying attention to what you've been saying for years. That your team is underfunded, under-resourced, and the adversaries are getting much better. You could admit that you go into work every day wondering if today is the day you get popped. You worry that the decisions you made to protect certain resources to the exclusion of the others may have been wrong. And then you could ask for more funding and more resources.

Basically, your third option is to tell the CEO the truth.

Here's the deal: The CEO doesn't want to know the truth. The CEO probably can't handle the truth. I mean, the CEO needs to know a portion of the truth, but he doesn't need to know how the sausage is made. If there are significant control deficiencies, you need to mention those, especially if they relate to the stuff in the airline magazine. But don't make your points from the standpoint of fear or worry. The CEO doesn't want to see the security person blink. Even if you need toothpicks to keep your eyes open after staying up all night dealing with the latest incident.

What you want to find is the middle ground. You can't shy away from your concerns. But you don't want to pull the fire alarm until you really need to. Start the discussion by addressing the issues presented in the magazine first, and be very candid about what you can block and what you can't, and why those decisions were made. Then you should take the opportunity to reiterate what you can do with your current level of funding and resources.

Then make the case for increased funding from the standpoint of a business decision. Remember, the CEO makes resource allocations every day. She needs to decide whether to upgrade your perimeter defenses, deploy an anti-malware box, or build a new factory in Eastern Europe. So you need to talk in business terms, make the case for how increased security spend can impact corporate results, and be very specific about what you would do with the additional funding.

To be clear, your bosses may not be ecstatic that you're going directly to the CEO with this kind of information. Understand they may have pet projects they've been pushing, and you could put a wrench in their plans, especially if you make a good case. Of course, the CEO asked, so you had to answer, right? You had to tell the CEO what you thought, right? That should provide some air cover.

Ultimately, you have very limited opportunities to educate senior management about security and the threats your organization face. When they do you a favor and ask the question, you should answer it. So you have two days to get ready. Get to work.

Mike Rothman is President of Securosis and author of the Pragmatic CSO. Mike's bold perspectives and irreverent style are invaluable as companies determine effective strategies to grapple with the dynamic security threatscape. Mike specializes in the sexy aspects of security, like protecting networks and endpoints, security management, and ... View Full Bio

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