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Deepwater Horizon Lessons Parallel IT Risk Management

Set aside the magnitude of the loss of life, and the extraordinary costs of the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe to the Gulf coast region to the wildlife and the livelihood of millions. Individual IT disasters rarely would have such horrendous reach and impact. However, there are a number of eerie similarities between the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and the failures within IT risk management we see all too often.
Set aside the magnitude of the loss of life, and the extraordinary costs of the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe to the Gulf coast region to the wildlife and the livelihood of millions. Individual IT disasters rarely would have such horrendous reach and impact. However, there are a number of eerie similarities between the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and the failures within IT risk management we see all too often.When organizations roll out new IT initiatives, there is always present the pressure to develop fast, add more features and to simply get, it, out, the door. And all too often the security and associated risks are considered (if they are taken into account at all) as an afterthought. As more information becomes available on the genesis of BP Deepwater incident, it seems that was the case here, too. While the official reports that will detail what went wrong at the oil rig may be months, probably years, away, at least one independent researcher, Dr. Robert Bea, engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley and co-founder of that university's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, has identified a number of potential reasons in his preliminary report. The report lists what Bea believes are seven "Steps Leading to Containment Failure," also known as "blowout," including:

*improper well design

*improper cement design

*early warning signs not properly detected, analyzed or corrected

*removing the pressure barrier -- displacing drilling mud with sea water 8,000 feet below the drill deck

*flawed design and maintenance of the final line of defense - the blowout preventer

That list closely resembles many of the efforts one would find when evaluating software applications, operating systems, and entire IT infrastructures that lack adequate levels of security: improper design, failure to detect and analyze flaws, and lack of proper maintenance.

They aren't the only similarities between the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and large IT security breaches. The company has also tried, repeatedly, to minimize the impact of the incident. From Tony Hayward, BP CEO on the impact of the oil leak on May 18th:

"I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest."

That's minimizing of the event sounds all too familiar to the initial reaction we hear from companies right after they suffer a serious data breach. We hear minimizing such as "There hasn't been any evidence that the data was abused," or "The breach seems to have been a human mistake, rather than technical," or "The amount of data compromised represents a small fraction of all of our customers." As if any of that matters to those who have their personal information now in the wrong hands.

Since April 20 (when BP stock closed at $60.48) the stock has lost a mind-blowing $70-some billion in market capitalization. And estimates of the cleanup costs are now at the tens of millions per day. How much would it have cost BP to study and invest in the appropriate technology and processes that would have either prevented the disaster, or significantly mitigated the damage? I've no idea, but I do know it would have been magnitudes less expensive than the final costs of this leak.

And that's a valuable lesson for technologists, CTOs, CIOs, and CEOs everywhere: it's never advisable to only focus on the potential profit or savings potential of a new initiative: one also wants to take a close look at the costs should things go terribly wrong.

For my security and technology observations throughout the day, find me on Twitter @georgevhulme.

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