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11:35 AM

Security & Trust Ratings Proliferate: Is That a Good Thing?

Phishing ratings, security ratings, human-ness ratings -- we are looking at a future filled with grades of security and trustworthiness. But there is a downside.

Rating systems to help businesses make decisions are everywhere — credit scores determine whether a person can get a loan and at what interest rate, scores on standardized exams can determine what college a student can attend, and a variety of consumer scores can determine a product's success or failure.

The information security world is rapidly gaining its own sets of scoring systems. Last week, NortonLifeLock announced a research project that will score whether Twitter accounts are likely to belong to a human or a bot. Security awareness companies such as KnowBe4 and Infosec assign workers grades for how well they perform on phishing simulations and the risk that they may pose to their employer. And companies such as BitSight and SecurityScorecard rate companies using external indicators of security and potential breaches.

Businesses will increasingly look to scores to evaluate the risk of partnering with another firm or even employing a worker. A business's cyber-insurance security score could determine its cyber-insurance premium or whether a larger client will work with the firm, says Stephen Boyer, CEO at BitSight, a security ratings firm.

"A lot of our customers will not engage with a vendor below a certain threshold because they have a certain risk tolerance," he says. "Business decisions are absolutely being made on this."

As companies search for ways to limit breach risk, security scores that combine many factors and sources into a single score — or set of scores — are increasingly becoming common, not just as a way to track internal security, but as a way to quantify the risk to which third parties may expose a business and to rate the trustworthiness of information found online. Security and trust ratings promise to give people and companies an easy way to quickly gauge the risk or efficacy of just about anything, from products to people and from services to information.

Last week, for example, two researchers from cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock released a tool called BotSight (not to be confused with BitSight) that rates Twitter accounts on whether they are likely to belong to an actual human or are run by an automated program, or bot. A great deal of research went into the best ways to boil down more than 20 different indicators into a single score, says Petros Efstathopoulos, global head of the NortonLifeLock Research Group (NRG).

"We often need to simplify complex data or information, in order to make it accessible to consumers and help them make the right decisions — this is a challenging task," he says. "Simplified metrics and ratings are possible, but one needs to exercise extreme caution in crafting them, so as to avoid misleading and oversimplified statements that will harm — rather than improve — one's overall security posture."

Of course, boiling down a plethora of complex factors to a single number or letter grade can miss significant details. In some cases, the scoring system may not capture the environment in which workers find themselves. In one example, KnowBe4 had a client with one department that always ended up opening malicious attachments. When the company looked at why, it found that the group had lost a handful of people and found themselves understaffed, so it was recruiting. And that meant opening up resume attachments. 

"The worst thing that someone can do is to look at a score … in isolation or in ignorance," says Perry Carpenter, chief evangelist and strategy officer for KnowBe4. "Because one of the interesting things that comes to light when people do what they do, is whether they are placed in a no-win situation."

Other problems may arise as well. Any time something is scored, humans and businesses will attempt to improve their score with as little effort as possible. Numerous courses exist to help college applicants improve their SAT or ACT scores. Makers of graphics chips tweaked their drivers to do better on benchmark tests. And antivirus firms kept old definitions in their products to score well on security benchmark tests. 

The creator of such scoring systems needs to focus on ensuring that higher scores actually mean, for example, better security, says BitSight's Boyer.

"One of the critiques of our space is that companies will spend time on the 50% of security issues that we [BitSight] can see, while the other 50% maybe more critical," he says. "And that's a very fair criticism, which is why we talk about it being a security score, not a risk score, because only they understand the risk."

Such an approach can sometimes plague security teams that address vulnerabilities based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) rank. Depending on the IT asset involved, a high scoring flaw may not be exploitable and a low scoring vulnerability might be a critical weakness.

As long as the user of any particular scoring system takes into account the potential issues with the system, then they can be very beneficial especially as a way to compare relatively improvements in security or emerging weaknesses, says KnowBe4's Carpenter. 

"I do think that scores can be interesting, especially if you use them to see what your averages are across different parts of the organization," he says. "If the marketing team has a consistently higher risk score, for example, than there is a conversation that you probably need to have."

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "The Entertainment Biz Is Changing, but the Cybersecurity Script Is One We've Read Before."


Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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