By the way, it's not just security where we have crisis communications issues. There are all sorts of examples from real life, the most recent being a certain congressman with a proclivity to take photos of soft targets and send them to co-eds via Twitter (talk about a DM fail). Or a home-run hitter who liked certain creams, and not just for their moisturizing benefits. Folks do jail time -- not necessarily for the action, but for the cover-up. Remember Martha Stewart's excellent stock-trading adventure? These folks feel compelled to obfuscate the facts and inevitably realize the act of lying to the authorities, customers, and/or public is far worse than whatever they did in the first place. By then it's too late.
We are seeing more of this in the security space, as well. Our first case is the folks at Sony. They company has been owned and traded more often than a set of Pokemon cards. There are attacker groups fighting over who can compromise more Sony data. I'd say it was kind of comical if it wasn't so sad. Yet Sony still has not come clean about what is happening and why. You see, to err is human. To lie about it is sin. And that's what we as an industry continue to do.
My first Hacked Off column ("RSA Breach Disclosure: It's Not About You") made the case that RSA had no responsibility to tell the general public what was taken and how. I hold to that position. But in the wake of the compromised SecurID intellectual property being used in an attempted breach, it's time to come clean. Fully clean. RSA has made some concessions, offering to replace tokens and/or provide risk-based authentication to address the security issue.
Yet it is missing what Oprah would call a "teaching moment." We have some details about the breach and how it was detected. Now the company has an opportunity to take it to the next step and discuss exactly how to layer defenses so that one control is not a single point of compromise in any environment. If anything, it's in RSA's best interest to do that, given a big part of any solution is full packet capture, which RSA just acquired with NetWitness.
The most critical thing right now for both organizations is to start rebuilding customer trust. Every day these companies dance around the issue of what happened is a day their customers (and potential customers) lose faith in their ability to protect their information. Do I think there will be a run on the bank in either case? Nope -- though I do believe Sony is more at risk since the switching costs are much less in the consumer space, given the number of good alternatives for online gaming.
So when this happens to you (notice I said when, not if), what do you do? Tell the truth. Not a half truth. Not a version of the truth that leaves out details. If there is clear negligence or malicious intent from an insider, own it. If you were had by an innovative attack, or you just suffered from simple human error, face the music. Again, to err is human. Customers can forgive that. To lie about it is a lot harder to get past. Trust customers to make their own risk management decisions, but understand they can't do that without the full story.
To be clear, your legal representation will not appreciate this position. They will push you to say nothing, admit nothing, and accept no liability for anything. That's their job, but they are wrong. The truth will come out at some point, and your organization will pay -- usually a lot less if you are controlling the story and making a reasonable offer to customers to compensate them for whatever was breached. If your proverbial weiner shows up on TMZ.com, it will cost you a lot more in the long run.
Now there is a caveat to this. It's when law enforcement is involved, which I suspect is the case with RSA. I don't know this to be a fact, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn a gag order is in place that forced its hands relative to both the public statements and requiring the NDA for customers. In this case, your hands are tied. Regardless of the risk of alienating customers and becoming a punching bag in the media, you don't want to get on the bad side of law enforcement.
Don't fret if you aren't very good at security. Maybe you have a future in crisis communications. It's not like we should be expecting fewer breaches during the next few years, eh?
Mike Rothman is president of Securosis and author of the Pragmatic CSO