IBM Profiles The New CSO, Security Exec

Infosec leaders say their role in the business is maturing, with roughly three-fourths now doing more than just responding to breaches and handling compliance, a new survey reveals

CSOs and other senior information security executives have earned a higher profile in the business, but not all infosec leader positions are created equal, according to a new report released yesterday by IBM's Center for Applied Insights.

The IBM survey of corporate security executives paints a picture of the evolution of the role of the chief information security officer (CSO) and other information security leaders in the enterprise: One-fourth serve as a key player and influencer on the business side, about half operate as more of a protector, and the rest serve mostly as a responder to security incidents.

It isn't necessarily large organizations where security execs are considered business "influencers," however, says David Jarvis, senior consultant at the IBM Center for Applied Insights and author of the report. The report coined the three categories as influencer, protector, and responder.

"There was no direct correlation between the company's size" and their clout within the business, Jarvis says. "That was surprising."

CSOs over the past two or more years have seen security -- and their profile -- rise in the organization, as highly publicized data breaches and targeted attacks by nation-state actors have hit the mainstream news and finally grabbed the attention of the executive suite. IBM says it found that close to two-thirds of infosec leaders say their senior management is focusing more on security now than two years ago, mostly due to media reports.

CSOs have gradually been morphing from security technicians-in-chief to a key player on the business side of the business. Some now report directly to the CEO and CFO or the legal and risk assessment groups. Experian CSO Stephen Scharf, for example, reports to his company's global general counsel. In an interview with Dark Reading last year, Scharf said technology is just one requirement for the job, while risk management, compliance, and legal are becoming more crucial job skills for a CSO.

With the tide shifting, a new challenge for the now more business-savvy CSO is to retain the respect of his or her fellow security geeks while deftly drawing the operations more in line with the goals and risk requirements of the business itself.

But that doesn't mean senior-level security execs no longer need technology prowess. One of the biggest challenges to the ones with newfound business pull is properly balancing their dual areas of expertise. "Just as you have to understand the organization's mission and how to communicate with senior leadership, you must possess technical skills as you will be interacting with technical operations throughout the IT environment," says Terrell Herzig, CISO at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Health System. "I manage the daily technical security implementations and the strategic operations. Keeping up with the changing technology, threat environment, strategic mission, and daily operations keeps me hopping."

[ Targeted attacks out of China against Google and other U.S. firms have forced some chief information security officers to reach out to their counterparts in other organizations and share attack, forensics information. See 'Operation Aurora' Changing The Role Of The CISO. ]

Only half of the 168 organizations surveyed and interviewed by IBM have actual CSOs. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the respondents say they expect to see budget increases for security this year, with one in 10 expecting double-digit increased security spending.

The biggest security challenge faced by infosec leaders: external threats, and mobile security is on top of their to-do list. More than 50 percent say mobile security will be their biggest technology challenge over the next two years, according to the report. Nearly 20 percent of the respondents lead information security in enterprises with more than 10,000 employees; 55 percent are in enterprises with 1,000 to 9,999 employees.

Marc van Zadelhoff, vice president of worldwide strategy and product management for IBM Security Systems, says 2011's "Year of the Breach" had a lot to do with security execs worrying most about external threats. "The external threat was by 10 percent one of the top challenges organizations were citing. If you had asked that question five years ago, the focus would have been on the insider threat," van Zadelhoff says.

Influencer vs. Responder
So what exactly is an "influencer?" These are the infosec leaders who say their security organizations are mature and progressive, and who have a voice on the business side.

A "protector," meanwhile, understands how security should be a priority within an enterprise, but doesn't have "the measurement insight and the necessary budget authority to fully transform their enterprises' security approach," according to the IBM report. A "responder" is focused on protection and compliance, and may not have the clout or resources to have a say on the business side.

According to IBM's findings, influencers are twice as likely to track their organizations' security progress than responders. "The influencer group used metrics on a more frequent basis than the other two groups. That's extremely important because they need to back that up with hard-data facts and to be able to translate and communicate it to business leaders," IBM's Jarvis says.

Overall, infosec leaders are moving toward a more holistic, integrated approach to security. "They are moving to more of a risk-based approach," he says. "One of the key findings was that influencers focus on education and security awareness, not just educating execs on the impact of a security breach, but educating employees and end users on what they need to better secure themselves and their practices."

Lee Kushner president of LJ Kushner and Associates, an infosec recruiting firm, says a company that has suffered a widely publicized breach, like a TJX or Sony, would most likely be in the "influencer" category. "I bet after those breaches happen, infosec becomes more of an influencer than a responder," Kushner says. "Sometimes it depends on where people are in the cycle. After a company has gone through some sort of incident or event ... they build a more influential infosec program."

As Kushner puts it, most people start locking the barn doors only after the horses are stolen.

UAB Health's Herzig, who considers his role as an influencer in IBM's parlance, says infosec leaders must be able to provide the proper security that supports the business mission while reducing risk. "Information security officers are often viewed as the 'no' folks: Ask them a question if the response you want is a negative one. It is a mark of maturity when the security officer can say, 'Let's see how we can provide a service in a secure manner,'" Herzig says.

IBM's report, "Finding a strategic voice: Insights from the 2012 IBM Chief Information Security Officer Assessment," is available for download here.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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