CISOs, Board Members Have Widely Divergent Views on Cybersecurity

Boards often want a lot more business-relevant reporting than CISOs provide, Focal Point Data Risk study shows.

4 Min Read

For all the talk about cybersecurity needing to be a board-level issue, security executives and corporate directors continue to have very different views on just about every critical aspect of the security function.

Research released this week by Focal Point Data Risk shows that CISOs and board members often have different perspectives on the value of cybersecurity, on how to assess the effectiveness of security programs, and how to measure and express risk.

While C-suite members for example often viewed data and brand protection as the primary value of cybersecurity to the organization, CISOs somewhat surprisingly viewed their primary functions as guiding and enabling the business and in ensuring loss avoidance.

For the report, Focal Point conducted one-on-one interviews with more than 50 CISOs, 25 corporate directors and 10 subject matter experts. The goal was to try and identify how corporate directors and CISOs viewed each other’s roles and responsibilities on the cybersecurity front. Interview questions were open-ended and were conducted by Cyentia Institute, which also wrote the report.

One of the key discoveries was that CISOs—at least those interviewed for the report—generally tended to view the security function as having less to do with data and brand protection than board members.

A lot of that, according to the report, may simply have to do with CISOs trying to position cybersecurity as a business enabler rather than a cost center in meetings with board members. While security executives know that protecting data is one of their primary functions, many feel pressured to demonstrate how that helps the bottom line, the report noted.

Board members and CISOs also had substantially divergent views on the effectiveness of their organization’s security program. While 46% of security executives in the Focal Point study expressed confidence in their security controls, only 5% of board members shared that sentiment. Conversely, 49% of board members expressed a lack of confidence in their organizational security controls compared to 13% of security executives who felt the same way.

“CISOs have a challenging time proving a negative, that if they didn’t exist [it] would result in a material weakness and bad outcome,” says Yong-Gon Chon, CEO of Focal Point Data Risk. The board’s lack of confidence also stems from the continuing habit by security executives to present cyber jargon to board instead of business language, Yong-Gon Chon said. Meetings with security executives often leave board members with the impression that no matter how much they spend, they will still get breached.

Similarly, the metrics that CISOs use to convey the status of the organization’s security program to the board tend to be more operational in nature while board members are far more interested in big picture metrics such as peer benchmarking.

One surprising finding from the report is the relatively low desire among board members to see risk expressed in terms of financial losses over a specific time frame.

“I hear it said a lot that the ‘language of the board is dollars,’ and assumed that meant they’d want to hear cyber risk discussed in those same terms,” says Wade Baker, co-founder of Cyentia Institute. “But I think there’s a lot of skepticism on the ability to accurately measure cyber risk, and so they prefer a clear explanation of where things stand.”

John Pescatore, director of emerging security trends at the SANS Institute says much of the disconnect stems from a failure by CISOs to communicate. “CISOs [are] very good at presenting ‘blood in the streets’ and very bad at presenting strategy on how to avoid it,” Pescatore says. Many are weak at using trend data to give the board confidence that the business could avoid or minimize the risks facing them.

CISOs have to learn to show the connection between security expenditures and business impact. “That doesn’t always mean ROI, but it does mean more than ‘bad things are happening. If we don’t get more people or spend more money, it will happen to us,’” he said.

Framing things in terms of risk and business enablement can help enable a better conversation with the board, adds Christopher Pierson, general counsel and chief security officer at online payment service Viewpost.

“Showing the board a bunch of flowcharts, diagrams, and numbers on how much malware was blocked does not answer or address their fundamental question,” Pierson says. What the board wants to know is how the security organization is mitigating risk and what its directors can do to help.

“A [board member] favors metrics combined with an intuitive story. But it has to be a narrative they can understand,” says Daniel Kennedy, an analyst with 451 Research. “The somewhat difficult, technical problem of security needs to be described in layman terms that go just deep enough for very intelligent people, who happen not to be security experts [to understand],” Kennedy says.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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