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Marc Wilczek
Marc Wilczek
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CISO Confidence Is Rising, but Issues Remain

New research reveals how global CISOs dealt with COVID-19 and their plans for 2022-2023.

The pandemic has been a "black swan" event. The effects have hammered the global economy, and, on the Internet, allowed cybercriminals to ramp up their dirty work and extort millions of dollars. Today, despite taking measures to prevent them, many organizations around the world still feel vulnerable to online attacks.

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Such are the findings of Proofpoint's survey of some 1,400 CISOs from around the world, revealed in its 2021 "Voice of the CISO" report, which also describes what security leaders did to battle the pandemic and what they're planning for the next two years.

A staggering 64% of the CISOs suspect their firm will be hit by a material cyberattack within the next 12 months. Of these, one in five believes this risk is high. However, there are major regional differences in opinion. CISOs in the UK (81%) and Germany (79%) are most worried about experiencing an attack; their counterparts in in Singapore (44%), Canada (50%), and Spain (50%) are least concerned.

Retail CISOs are particularly worried with eight in 10 (83%) rating the cyberattack risks on their firms as likely, the highest among all surveyed verticals.

CISOs Feel Ill-Prepared to Fend Off an Attack
The report's most worrisome finding is that two-thirds of CISOs believe their organization is unprepared to fend off a cyberattack. Those in the Netherlands (81%) feel least prepared, followed by Germany and Sweden (79%).

Rapidly rolled-out remote environments, users grappling with working at home, the general angst associated with a global pandemic, and hordes of cybercriminals exploiting the situation made sure that that careful planning and deployments were often sacrificed in favor of last-minute Band-Aid measures. This idea is best captured in the belief among a majority of CISOs that, although they did their best to beef up their organizations' cyber resilience, their confidence in these measures and overall peace of mind is worse than it was in 2020. Today, more than half of CISOs are more concerned about the consequences of a cyberattack in 2021 than they were last year. A quarter of them (25%) strongly agree with this statement.

The attacks most causing concern are business email compromise (BEC) (34%) and cloud account compromise (33%), followed by insider threats (31%) and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks (30%).

The Human Factor
A majority of CISOs (58%) say human error is their firm's biggest weak point, which suggests that security strategies based on automation and machine learning are the way to go. However, human error isn't the only source of security concerns. Just under two-thirds of CISOs are less than positive about their organization's ability to detect a cyberattack or data breach. Thus, they feel both unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the modern threat landscape.

The CISO and the Board
Many CISOs feel they lack boardroom support. Fewer than two-thirds of global CISOs surveyed for the report indicated that they agree with their board's approach to cybersecurity. Fifty-seven percent of them indicated that the expectations placed on their role are excessive.

Fifty-nine percent of global CISOs say their reporting line hinders their job effectiveness. This view is most prevalent in the technology sector, where three-quarters of CISOs expressed this sentiment. In the public sector, the issue is less pressing; here, just 38% felt reporting was a burden.

The apparent distance between them and their C-suite colleagues makes many CISOs feel they can't do their jobs to the best of their ability. Nearly half of them don't believe their organization is setting them up to succeed. What's worse, 24% of CISOs strongly agree this is the case.

A Big Leap for Cybersecurity
The CISO's ability to trade off agility and security will be even more critical in the future. Now that more organizations know what remote working brings along in terms of cost-savings and flexibility, it's likely that many will adopt hybrid working models going forward. But CISOs will need to convince their boards that the passable approach they used over the past year won't be enough in the long term. Fortunately, they'll have plenty of evidence to support this claim. An overwhelming 69% of CISOs from large enterprises (5,000+ employees) said their workplace was targeted more frequently after remote working was implemented. The most-affected industries include IT, technology, and telecoms (69%).

The reason why is obvious. More reliance on networks and the availability and integrity of IT equals greater vulnerability to cyberattacks. This explains why 63% of CISOs believe cybercrime will be even more lucrative in the next two years and that those that are victimized by it might suffer even greater consequences. Roughly the same percentage of CISOs suspect that the penalties for security breaches will increase in 2022 and 2023.

A Rosier Outlook for 2022–2023
Although many CISOs say they struggled to maintain organizational security last year, most CISOs are hopeful that things will improve in the years ahead. Still, they continue to feel the pressure of unrealistic expectations. More support from the boardroom and cybersecurity oversight at the board level would help reduce that pressure.

Two in three (65%) CISOs worldwide believe that if they're equipped with appropriate resources and strategies, they'll be better able to battle and recover from cyberattacks by 2022–2023. This optimism is felt more keenly by some certain industry sectors than others. Roughly three-quarters (74%) of CISOs in retail are confident they'll be in a better security position by 2023. CISOs in transport and media (56%) are less hopeful. CISOs in France are the most pessimistic; only 25% of them are optimistic about their organization's medium-term security prospects. CISOs in the UAE (77%), Germany (76%), and the United States (73%) either strongly or somewhat agree that organizations will be better able to resist and recover within two years. Sixty-four percent of CISO respondents predict that public awareness of cybersecurity risks will increase.

Marc Wilczek is a columnist and recognized thought leader, geared toward helping organizations drive their digital agenda and achieve higher levels of innovation and productivity through technology. Over the past 20 years, he has held various senior leadership roles across ... View Full Bio
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