Imagine you're the chief information security officer (CISO) of a big bank. You've just implemented a new cybersecurity program and you want to see how your metrics stack up against those of your peers. It should be easy, right? It's not.
Unfortunately, there is no standardized process for measuring and reporting on cybersecurity metrics that all organizations can access. I can give my firsthand experience, or they can hire one of the big consultancies. Even then, the available data sets are too small and in different formats.
The NIST Cybersecurity Famework — put forward by the US Department of Commerce and widely adopted by businesses and government agencies — is the ideal mechanism for setting these standards. That's why I was glad to see the Department's updated draft — which was released earlier this year, and for which comments were due in April — even added a section on metrics and measurement. But the National Institute of Standards and Technology doesn't go far enough. It should use its convening power to bring together stakeholders across industries and develop a set of common metrics, authorize and approve third parties to audit them, and develop ways to share this information.
This is not unprecedented.
Take the energy sector. Business owners are constantly looking for ways to make their buildings run more efficiently. But for a long time, they had no way of knowing how their energy use stacked up against building owners of a similar size and region. The Energy Department put forth a solution: a national database of anonymized real-life buildings and their energy data, to which any organization can submit their building portfolio's data, and which anyone can access to analyze and compare data from a similar subset of buildings (say, in their region). This allows users of the data to gain a better understanding of trends and market conditions. Equipped with this information, they can make more-informed investment decisions.
NIST can do the same for cybersecurity metrics. They should coordinate with the Homeland Security Department, which has done some preliminary work in this area.
Of course, this is no easy task. The sensitivity of cybersecurity data adds a number of complexities that must be addressed, but the immense value this would provide would be worth the effort. It would allow everyone from CISOs to policymakers to cyber insurance companies to inform their decisions with real-world data. There's a path forward, but it will require a concerted effort by government, cybersecurity vendors, and businesses.
First, NIST must put forth a core set of common metrics that all organizations should strive toward knowing about their IT and cybersecurity capabilities. These don't need to be exhaustive or mandatory. But they should cover the basic and most meaningful components of cyber hygiene, such as the ratio of managed to unmanaged assets, the mean time to remediate an incident, and the mean time to implement a patch across an organization's network. NIST should engage industry and government to develop and agree on these metrics.
Second, NIST should develop standardized criteria for third-party auditors to verify organizations' cybersecurity metrics. Rather than acting as an auditor itself, NIST could certify third-party auditors and give them the federal government's stamp of approval, creating a system that could work at a national scale.
Third, NIST, working with Congress and industry, should develop the necessary market and legal incentives and infrastructure – such as a publicly accessible database managed by NIST or a nonprofit organization and accessible to industry — for organizations to share these metrics. Any data that private organizations choose to submit to the database must be done so voluntarily, and must be cleansed and anonymized. Businesses should receive full certainty that they will never be legally punished for submitting data.
If implemented correctly, these efforts could spur an entirely new approach to cybersecurity — one that's market-driven and data-backed.
CISOs would have not only consistent metrics to measure performance but also an industry standard to strive toward. Just as some utilities now include on your energy bill data about your neighbors' energy usage, CISOs would know the average time to patch their systems, based on organizations of similar size and sector.
Policymakers would have hard data to shape cybersecurity policies. Currently, they're forced to rely on meetings with vendors, who might tell them a dozen different indicators they should focus on. This solution would fix that, helping create policy supported by real-world evidence of what constitutes best-in-class, and what's no longer acceptable in today's threat environment.
The fast-growing cyber-insurance market would also benefit. With a standardized framework and metrics for measuring cybersecurity, insurers could better assess organizations' risk and develop standard report procedures, like a 10-K report businesses submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Of course, for this approach to work, organizations must first be able to access these key metrics about their networks and do so in a timely and accurate manner. Although many organizations are certainly making progress in this regard, many will have to adopt software solutions to enable them to collect this data.
As breaches abound, it's become all too clear our current approach to cybersecurity is failing. Instead of more regulations, what we need is more data, better access to that data, and a framework by which to collect it and compare it across companies and industries. If we do that, we will go a long way toward securing the devices and networks on which our economy relies.