Panic: a sudden overwhelming fear that produces hysterical or irrational behavior and that often spreads quickly through a group.
Puzzle: a thing that is difficult to understand or explain.
A new year always brings with it a round of predictions. A notable one this year is panic about the cybersecurity skills shortage. I expect that some executives are feeling anxious about their security posture, but I doubt that this is going to become overwhelming fear. And unless we start seeing bidding wars, agents, and compensation packages for security talent like those usually associated with professional sports, we are a long way from irrational behavior.
What I do see is a puzzle. The security industry has been telling companies for years (more like decades) about the basics of secure digital systems. Yet, we do not seem to be listening or learning. I still see organizations (or read about breaches) that have weak passwords, default settings on firewalls, anti-virus covering less than half of the endpoints, poor application security, no encryption on sensitive documents, and on and on. To me, this is the irrational behavior. So what should we do?
Admit that you have a problem. The first step is to admit and accept that there is a problem with the current behavior. Without this acceptance, the attitude that security is an annoyance or an impediment to business will resist any changes. Getting acceptance can be tough. I suggest making it personal: Teach your people why and how to protect their data and personal info. Security awareness campaigns are not enough to change behavior. As you do this, you will see which security tasks are tedious (e.g. long random passwords changed every 60 days) and find ways to improve them (e.g. password management tools, multi-factor authentication).
Play strong defense and plan your incident response. Security attacks are a reality so there are only two things to do: Play strong defense to prevent an attack and plan your response to minimize the impact of the inevitable incident.
Reduce your attack surface. Next, look at your attack surface: What are your vulnerabilities? What are credible threats? How would someone disrupt your business or profit from your data? Who are your potential attackers? If you do this thoroughly and objectively, you will probably find more than a few areas at risk that can be made more secure without advanced security skills, such as by updating and patching your systems, adding multi-factor authentication, and encrypting sensitive data. Document what you are doing, what you need to keep doing, and figure out how to automate as much as possible. Not to the point of creating so much red tape that no real work happens, but enough that if a key employee leaves you are not wondering what doors have been left open.
Use metrics to reduce risk. Think hard about how to measure what you are doing, because what gets measured gets done, and how to report on it from the cubicle level to the board level. Cubicle dwellers need to know what is expected of them and what the consequences of resistance or avoidance are. Your operations team needs to know when there is a mismatch between controls and objectives. Management needs to know which processes are leading to weak controls or outright bypass. The board needs to know the current risks, and whether the organization is getting more or less secure.
I am not suggesting that this is simple or easy, but most of it does not require advanced security or hacking skills. In the era of YouTube, SecurityTube, Black Hat (the conference, not the movie), hackerspaces, and so many more online resources, the information that you and your security people need is available. When you do have need for some specific or advanced skills, look to consultants, vendors, or managed service providers for a trusted expert.
Security is a web of dependencies, and you need a holistic approach to make it truly effective. Build a strategy that covers infrastructure, applications, data, people, and incident response. Consider calling some experts before bad things happen. But don’t panic.