Mountain climbers call a narrow ridge with steep drops on both sides an “arête.” Crossing one can be one of the trickiest parts of any serious climb. Talking publicly about security is the chief information security officer’s arête. There’s a thin area of even footing to follow in order to be successful, but make one misstep and a slippery slope and catastrophic consequences will follow.
When a CISO discusses security, he or she can’t be too boastful or they paint a target on their company’s back. Many hackers are childish and what they perceive as public bragging is a challenge to them. The CISO cannot disclose too many details about their measures, for that will simply end up providing a blueprint for hackers. Staying silent is not an option either. The media, the public, investors and users demand answers and information about security. Is it possible to portray capability, strength, and confidence without key details? Yes, it is not only possible, it is the only path to cross the security arête.
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First, the CISO must state, and act, on the principle that security is a process. The general public, investors and even board members often see “bottom line” and “deliverables” as finite accomplishments. Security is a constantly evolving, changing action. Security is a verb. Educating the public to this fact is critical to controlling your message. When planning your public security persona, consider what parts will need to be visible as a deterrent as well as a protection and which parts need to be anonymous in order to dissuade interest in attacking.
The message must contain action verbs: “Our firewall scans all inbound and outbound traffic” is a more powerful statement than, “Our firewall has traffic audit features enabled.” The action verbs should speak to real processes, but be cautious. Provide only a vague description of the process.
For example, “We conduct regular internal and external perimeter testing with currently available methodologies” is a good statement. It does not speak to any specifics and yet provides a clear statement that there is an active process. Stating, “We conduct regular internal and external denial of service and port-scan tests” is a poor statement.“ A hacker may know of several other attack vectors which you are not testing for. This is their blueprint for a possible attack.
When considering a public message, consider our most secure US public figure, the President. We know that the President is the most guarded and protected person on the planet. What the Secret Service won’t tell us is how they accomplish this -- and that is by design. Grand visible gestures are a small fraction of the actual security measures in place, yet they serve as a visible and impressive deterrent to foul play. Strong public statements on security without specific details are good. “We employ a myriad of applications, systems and processes to ensure the protection of your personal data” is one such statement.
When making your statements, avoid “naming names.” An executive I know recently made a very public announcement about hiring an “ethical hacker” as a member of his security team. This new team member had recently bragged to other hackers about winning a “black hat” contest. Their name alone became the catalyst for an inbound attack. Remember, as I mentioned, some hacker personalities are childish.
In our Presidential example, we did not discuss what the public doesn’t see. The public does not see the “pre-work” put in before the President lands. This advance preparation is much like the risk assessment and risk mitigation programs which all CISOs should actively run.
For each risk or security situation, you must evaluate the strategic and technical response, and then also prepare a public statement. You may never have to use the public statement for each element of risk or security. However, having the answer ready helps present a calm, powerful, and deterrent public image of security and strength.
Proper planning and knowing where to step, and areas to avoid, is the way to navigate an arête. Similarly, when discussing security publicly, determine your approach, don’t let distractions impede your focus, and stick to your path.