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CSOs At A Crossroads

The chief information security officer job is morphing into more than just security technician-in-chief
A sign of the times for the chief information security officer (CSO): In some organizations, CSOs now report either directly to the CEO, board of directors, chief financial officer, or legal and risk assessment groups.

It should come as no surprise that the CSO's job description is changing as security has gradually gained a higher profile on the business side -- mostly thanks to well-publicized and massive data breaches on brand names during the past two years and related regulatory pressures. Technical acumen is now just one skill requirement for the CSO, and he or she is no longer a part of only the IT department reporting to the chief information officer (CIO).

Take Experian CSO Stephen Scharf, who reports to his company's global general counsel. In his previous stint as CSO at Bloomberg, his direct report line was to the chairman of the board. "As the role has evolved, the reporting line is moving away from CIO. I have seen other companies with CEO, CFO, and COO reporting lines," says Scharf, 38, who was not speaking on behalf of Experian. "The baseline skill set was technical only" when the CSO position first emerged, he says. "Now I feel that it's the minimum requirement, but still necessary. There's a lot more required on the risk management side, the compliance aspect, government affairs, and legal. I see information security as just being a silo now that it is going to migrate to a larger risk management framework."

Scharf, along with CSOs from Kaiser Permanente and Royal Ahold, will speak during a professional development seminar at the upcoming RSA Conference that will include a look at the issues facing the CSO, as well as the CSO's future job description. "The concept that 'I'm a CSSP and therefore must be qualified'" for a CSO position is no longer valid, says Lee Kushner, president of LJ Kushner & Associates, who will discuss the CSO's new job description during the seminar.

"A lot of organizations are retooling the infosec function, and it's becoming more of the business side," he says. "They want folks [for the CSO position] who play well with the boardroom, inspire confidence, and can effect organizational change."

That means understanding the business operations and risks. At organizations where the CSO job is maturing and evolving, being a technologist isn't enough, Experian's Scharf says. It helps to be able summarize the threats, interact at different levels of the organization, and serve as a "security champion," he says. "The business acumen side is changing. In the past, there was not much focus on that. It was a technology solution," Scharf adds.

Even so, the CSO still remains more of a "C minor" than a "C major" position, he notes.

And it's not that technical know-how is unnecessary for a CSO position anymore. Evan Lesser, managing director and founder of ClearanceJobs.com, an online career site for jobs that require federal security clearance, says federal contractors and intelligence agencies searching for CSOs want a person who is knowledgeable about the newest threats and vulnerabilities. "He or she can't rely on a team to be coming to him or her and bringing that information," Lesser says. "CSOs are not immune to ongoing [security] training and certifications." CISSP and DoD 8570 standards, for example, are required in most cases, he says.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges will be for the business-savvy CSO to retain the respect of his or her fellow security geeks while deftly drawing their operations more in line with the goals and risk requirements of the business itself. Kushner describes that skill this way: "Being able to garner respect from your team and, at the same time, lead them in the right direction and think about the more conceptual big picture, as opposed to just bits and bytes."

One current online ad for a CSO position illustrates the shift in the position's duties. The job description included establishing relationships "for protecting the business and each operating unit with the appropriate security function, providing the risk assessment, policy, and supporting infrastructure," as well as forging relationships with industry, government, and law enforcement.

Working closer with fellow industry members and CSO counterparts -- and, in some cases, law enforcement -- was one side effect of the rash of sophisticated, targeted attacks in the past year -- namely Operation Aurora out of China that hit Google, Adobe, Intel, and other U.S. companies, and Stuxnet, aimed at disrupting Iran's nuclear facilities by sabotaging its PLC equipment. The exposure and publicity surrounding both attacks served as a wake-up call for businesses in denial about persistent targeted attacks and cyberespionage.

The attacks also forced some CSOs to reach out to peers at other organizations and share attack and forensics information as a way to better fight the attackers.

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