How Much Security Is Enough? Practitioners Weigh In

Most IT and security pros surveyed say they could afford some, but not all, of the minimum security needed to protect themselves.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

October 22, 2019

6 Min Read

How much security do you need to effectively protect your organization's infrastructure? Most (84% of) IT decision-makers say they can't afford the minimum amount, according to new study from Cisco.

Researchers with Cisco surveyed 80 IT decision-makers on security budgeting and planning and found that more than half (56%) had experienced a significant security event - a breach, intrusion, or malware infection - in the past year, and 94% admit they have further to go to implement effective security practices.

There is a silver lining in that most companies know where they need help: 95% of respondents say they can identify which data and systems in the business require the most protection. The problem is that it's not just money holding them back. Expertise, capability, and influence, along with budget, all play a role in security, says Wendy Nather, Cisco's head of advisory CISOs.

Some organizations have a lot of money and expertise, so they know what they need to do. Some have the influence to communicate their security needs to vendors, partners, and other third parties who can fulfill their requests. But budget, expertise, and influence don't guarantee capability if the organization operates in a heavily regulated industry, for example, she adds.

"It's not that they're incapable, but they have constraints in that environment they might not be able to get around," she says. An airplane manufacturer has influence, Nather continues, but new technology will have to be carefully tested, in one airplane at a time, before it's rolled out. In the public sector, it's difficult to justify upgrading equipment when everything works fine. Public sector technology is designed to maximize taxpayer's dollars, not keep up with security.

"Because there are four factors, if you don't have any one of them, that can really hamper your program," she says. Influence, for one, can make a big difference: 86% of organizations with 10,000+ employees learn of security vulnerabilities and incidents that affect them from affected vendors or partners, compared with just 60% of businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees.

Breaking Down Budgets

Among mid-market organizations (250-999 employees), 46% spend under $250,000 on security each year and 43% spend $250,000 to $999,999. Among enterprise organizations (1,000-9,999 employees), 57% spend between $250,000 and $999,999, 23% spend less than $250,000, and 20% spend at least $1 million. Half of large enterprises (more than 10,000 employees) spend $1 million or more on security each year and 43% spend between $250,000 and $999,999.

To an extent, more money drives confidence: 27% of organizations spending at least $1 million on security say they can afford the minimum level of protection they need, compared with only nine percent of those spending $250,000 to $999,999. However, the smallest organizations reported greater confidence in their security measures than midmarket firms spending more.

"What interests me is the midrange organizations – not so much in how much they're spending, but what effect that spending has or doesn't have," says Nather. "They most often reported feelings of not doing enough … most often the ones to say they couldn't spend as much as they needed." Nineteen percent of the smallest businesses said they could afford the minimum amount of security they needed, compared with seven percent of midmarket organizations.

Could it be that smaller companies don't perceive themselves as targets and aren't as worried? Possibly, Nather notes, but organizations of all sizes can appear on attackers' radar because of their operation or business function; not necessarily for their size. If a business swaps to a new ecommerce platform known to be vulnerable, attackers can take aim no matter how big it is.

Seeking Security Skills

Budget isn't the only factor challenging midrange organizations, Cisco researchers report. Among organizations with 1,000-9,999 employees, only 23% rely most heavily on internal staff for security expertise, compared with 37% of respondents overall. And while it's good businesses feel they can use external resources for help, they should be able to use internal staff for help with critical topics like user experience, process design, risk analysis, and incident response.

"Security talent, especially senior talent, is very hard to find," Nather says. "Unfortunately, a lot of organizations are in the position of competing with security vendors for that talent."

The percentage of those depending on external resources could be admitting there is a limit to how much an organization can know about security, she explains. After all, a business with the expertise to know what it needs to do for security may not have the talent to execute on it. Many companies outsource responsibilities that are hard to hire for, and hard to sustain with skilled workers: security operations monitoring is one example; incident response is another.

Even outsourcing has its limitations, Nather points out. "There won't be anything you can completely outsource because your outsourcer will come back to you and say, 'we don't know what this means,' and 'we need to talk to someone internally who can take care of this.'"

Security Tech: What Do You Really Need?

The report lists 15 different security technologies used among respondents. Some organizations listed four tools they rely on, Nather says, while others listed more than 30 products. On the final list, firewalls and security policy management fall into first place, followed by email security and network malware protection. Of course, not every organization can afford all 15 tools, let alone the expertise needed to configure, maintain, and monitor all of them.

"Whether you have what you need, and whether you're using it right, that's the other big thing to remember," she continues. "You might have a firewall, but if you're letting everything in, it's not a very useful firewall."

Are there technologies an organization must have to achieve strong security? There is no standard blueprint, Nather says, as each business has different needs and different resources. CISOs don't have a one-size-fits-all answer for the type of technologies they need; right now, the closest they have are compliance standards for tightly scoped risk cases like PCI-DSS.

"If we as professionals can't agree on what organizations need, how are they supposed to know?" Nather asks. When you don't know the risks you're trying to manage, it's tough to come up with a specific shopping list. Businesses may need to conduct extensive research and perform a security audit to determine exactly what they need and can afford.

"They should look at where they have better capabilities, and where they have lesser capabilities, and design security accordingly," Nather advises.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Sheridan

Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Kelly Sheridan was formerly a Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focused on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial services. Sheridan earned her BA in English at Villanova University. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymsheridan.

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