What happened to integrity in cybersecurity? I don't mean integrity in terms of a company's missteps in disclosing a data breach, nor around the ethics of sketchy security "research" practices. I'm talking about integrity as a foundational approach in protecting valuable data and systems. Compared to its siblings, confidentiality and availability, integrity tends to take a back seat. But in this world of ubiquitous cyber threats, it's integrity's time to shine.
Established as part of the CIA (confidentiality, integrity, and availability) triad, integrity certainly is not new to the cybersecurity vocabulary — however, its exact meaning can seem elusive. To begin explaining what I mean by integrity, we can start with the SANS Institute. It defines integrity as protecting data from modification or deletion by external sources and the ability to undo any damage done.
If you take a cursory look at information security budgets, you'll find they lean toward confidentiality (protecting data from external forces by initiating access levels) and availability (allowing access to data and applications when needed). Integrity is mostly treated as a proxy term for encryption, and it's exclusively focused on data. This approach stays true to the definition of CIA as stated but leaves room for plenty of other uncontrolled risk.
It's time to look at integrity as the core concept for a more holistic approach to information security. At its heart, integrity is about maintaining a desired state. Applying this concept to data is a given, but integrity can also be applied more broadly, to systems. In this sense, all information security can be viewed through a lens of integrity. That shift in thinking drives activities like defining desired states, measuring systems against those desired states, and monitoring for changes that cause deviation from the desired state.
Those changes, importantly, aren't limited to intentional, internal changes. A broad definition of change encompasses external changes in the threat environment as well. For example, the discovery of a new vulnerability is a change that affects integrity. Changes in exploit activity would be included as well. All of these changes should be evaluated for how they might cause deviation from your desired state. If remediation is necessary, it's focused on returning to that desired state.
We don't have to look too far back to find clear examples of how a broader approach to integrity management could have averted a number of high-profile breaches in one form or another. For example, WannaCry, arguably one of the most devastating ransomware attacks to hit last year, happened because there were known, unpatched vulnerabilities on the systems. The changes that led up to this incident included the discovery of those vulnerabilities, a deviation from a desired vulnerability state for those assets.
During the incident, ransomware caused numerous changes on systems, but these depended on the initial change that made organizations vulnerable. There are also multiple examples of misconfigured Amazon S3 storage buckets exposing sensitive data. Here, there are a few possibilities. Either the desired state wasn't defined, or it was defined but not measured. Or it was defined and measured, but no change detection was in place to identify deviation after initial deployment. The lens of integrity drives a structured root cause analysis, and change detection drives early identification and remediation.
There's a clear sense in the industry that the stakes are being pushed even higher, and security professionals must assume that the attackers are already within the vicinity. The portrayal of growing threat re-enforces the need for a broad, inclusive framework to address security. A focus on integrity management delivers just that. Not only will flaws be detected more effectively but also fixed quickly before anything becomes exposed or compromised. Integrity management drives greater visibility and control. After all, if you know what you have and you know what's changed, you significantly improve your ability to recognize and react to security threats.
Not Your Grand-CISO's Integrity
The world of cybersecurity continues to evolve, and so should our thinking around and application of the concept of integrity. Today's integrity should encompass the maintenance and assurance of the accuracy and consistency of the entire system — including data over its entire life cycle. By approaching cybersecurity from the perspective of ensuring system integrity, security professionals can employ well-known, established best practices more effectively, and evaluate new technologies more accurately.
Integrity management gives CISOs the clarity and ammunition they need to make the switch from a limited approach to a security strategy layered by foundational controls, which, according to the IT Process Institute, has been proven to prevent and detect 90% of all breaches.
Fortunately, the process of managing integrity is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
Organizations can deploy integrity management solutions and processes in small steps. For example, one way to get started is to embed information security into the foundational change management process and then strongly enforce that process. It will require a shift in the way many approach security management but represents one of the most promising approaches to effective enterprise security, both now and in the future.