October 17, 2013 — Dark Reading

As IT organizations seek to make better risk-based decisions about security practices, perhaps the No. 1 component for success is the IT risk assessment. However, even when organizations actually conduct a risk assessment, they frequently fall prey to mistakes that can greatly devalue the exercise. Here are some of the most common blunders to avoid.

1. Forgetting To Assess Third-Party Risk
Most IT risk experts agree that most enterprises today simply don’t work to gauge the level of IT risk posed by vendor and other partner infrastructure that touches their most sensitive data.

“One area that many companies are not doing enough on is managing their relationships with third-party vendors they use,” says Brad Johnson, vice president of consultancy SystemExperts. “Often, once the lawyers have finally signed off on an agreement, both parties tend to have a very hands-off approach with each other and forget the details of making sure things are staying on course. ”

When organizations fail to really do their due diligence — both before and after a contract is signed — they’re bound to miss critical details that will drastically change how the real risk exposure looks.

“For example, a client company may not be aware that a vendor is storing their regulated data in a public cloud,” says Natalie Kmit, senior information security adviser for security consultancy Sage Data Security.

2. Making Assessments Too Quantitative
True, analytics and numbers are really important for evaluating risk and how it could materially impact the bottom line. But organizations need to understand that the numbers game doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective, especially when it comes to estimating breach impact.

“Ranges of impact make it easier to get on with the discussion and focus on how you’ll mitigate risk, rather than spending a lot of cycles debating about whether the impact is $20 million or $21 million,” says Dwayne Melancon, CTO of Tripwire. “Once you figure out whether the impact of a realized risk is catastrophic, painful, inconvenient, annoying, or not a big deal, you can have a good conversation about how much you want to spend to mitigate the most serious risks.”

Melancon says that going overboard with analytics, in general, can bog down the assessment process and that organizations should be wary of taking so long on things like classifying risk that they are lengthening the assessment cycle to the point of ineffectiveness.

Besides, says Manny Landron, senior manager of security and compliance at Citrix ShareFile’s SaaS Division, there are also qualitative risk factors that organizations need to find a way to incorporate into the assessment.

“Quantitative assignments should be well-defined, and the cost-benefit assessment should have a qualitative counterpart at each turn,” he says. “Having too narrow a focus, using strictly quantitative measurements, not having a framework to work against, and not having sufficient periodically scheduled risk assessments are all mistakes risk executives should aim to avoid.”

3. Letting Assessment Suffer From Myopic Scope
It’s the rule rather than the exception that most large organizations overlook key assets and indicators in their risk assessments, says Jody Brazil of firewall management firm FireMon.

“Among the most frequent issues are those related to identifying vulnerabilities as ‘risks’ without any greater qualification, such as exposure to available access or exploitation,” he says. “There’s also the labeling of individual threats as ‘risk,’ and the failure to properly assign values to specific assets-most often exemplified by treating all hosts or underlying systems as equal.”

Mike Lloyd, CTO of RedSeal Networks, agrees, stating that most organizations just don’t keep good enough track of their infrastructure assets they own to properly assess them.

“Most organizations have lost track of the assets they own,” he says. “Performing a risk assessment on the asset inventory system can be like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post, even though he dropped them in the alley, because the light is better under the lamp post.”

What’s more, even with complete data sets they’re frequently assessed in separate silos, making it difficult to understand interdependencies.

“Sometimes an assessment focuses on a very specific application, but fails to embrace the entire infrastructure,” says Gregory Blair, senior director of operations for FPX, a company that develops price-quoting software. “For example, the assessment might look only at an application focused on securing a database and misses the general computing controls that are used in a specific industry — things like encryption, firewall, authentication, and authorization.”

4. Assessing Without Context
IT risk assessments are all about context, whether it is systems context as mentioned above or business context. Organizations that fail to put vulnerabilities and threats in context of the information assets and their importance to the business can’t truly develop a good risk assessment or a way to apply it back to IT practices.

“When assessing risks, many times CISOs lack the context to the business. In other words, they need to ask, “What’s being assessed and how does it affect the business?'” says Amad Fida, CEO of big data risk analysis firm Brinqa. “Results that are analyzed without business context provide a ‘technology’ view but not a ‘business-plus technology’ view.”

5. Failing To Fold IT Risk Assessment Into Enterprise Assessments
Similarly, businesses want to understand how IT risks interplay with all of the other risks set in front of other business units. More often than not, organizations treat IT risks as their own category without considering their broader impact.

“More risk-aware organizations recognize that IT is an integral part of their business success and work to make sure IT is engaged in the business risk conversation,” SystemExperts’ Johnson says. “A number of organizations I work with have cross-functional teams that look at risk holistically to better understand dependencies, and these teams make recommendations about which risks the company should focus on from a business perspective.”

6. Failing-To-Assess-And-Forget Syndrome
Organizations today simply do not do risk assessments often enough, experts warn. It’s the only way to keep up with the changing threat landscape, says Luke Klink security consultant for Rook Consulting.

“Executing regular risk assessments enables business executives to put their security budgets to efficient use,” he says. “With some investment of work upfront by performing detailed risk assessments, no longer will we have to rely on the ‘spray-and-pray’ protection approach, but execute true management of risk in a tactical and surgical manner.”

According to Torsten George, vice president of marketing and products for integrated risk management vendor Agiliance, the most progressive organizations are following NIST guidelines for continuous monitoring to inform better situational awareness and improved assessment intervals.

“This approach provides increased risk posture visibility, improved response readiness, and minimizes overall risk,” George says. “In reality, security risk assessments should be conducted continuously and even embedded into an organization’s incident response management process, whereby each incident triggers an automatic high-level risk assessment. If a highly critical risk is discovered, a more detailed risk assessment can be conducted.”

7. Relying Too Heavily On Assessment Tools
But automated tools that help enable continuous monitoring of IT assets shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all of risk assessment. Some risks simply can’t be identified without more in-depth digging offered by manual penetration testing, says Benjamin Caudill, co-founder and principal consultant at Rhino Security Labs.

“Often the most vital risks are those which can only be found through dedicated, manual analysis,” he says, pointing to logic flaws in websites as a solid example. “The reason this should be on the radar of CISOs and other executives is the concept of exclusively tool-based risk assessments give management a false sense of security and can’t identify a number of vulnerabilities.”

8. Conducting Vulnerability-Centric Assessments
As organizations assess the technological vulnerabilities that contribute to risk, they often fail to keep in mind that it is the security or insecurity of the data itself that is the risk factor rather than the system holding the data.

“[Risk assessment] is often vulnerability-centric, rather than data-centric,” says Barry Shteiman, director of security strategy for Imperva. “Often IT will choose to protect platforms that contain data, without actually understanding which kind of data is in the systems and who is accessing or have access to this data.”

Enterprises should keep in mind that a vulnerability risk factor on a piece of internal network infrastructure may not have the same impact as the risk posed by a user accessing IP and compromising it.

9. Forgetting To Gauge The Human Risks
Similarly, organizations must also remember that systems and software vulnerabilities are only one component of a risk assessment, says Joseph Steinberg, CEO of Green Armor Solutions.

“Concerns about social engineering or the increased likelihood of human error when complex technologies are used in an organization often take a back seat to technological risks when assessments are performed,” he says.

Failing to account for behavior patterns within the organization can actually lead to invalid assumptions in the final assessment.

“For example, the assessment may verify that only the correct people have access to sensitive data,” says Chris Baker, owner of CMB Computers, a technology consultancy. “However, the assessment may not verify training of employees to protect data.”

10. Leaving Out Facilities
As enterprises run their assessments, one big point that often falls off the radar is physical security. Quite often the security of facilities will directly impact the technology assets contained within, says Jim Mapes, CSO of BestIT, stating it goes beyond simply locking down data centers and server rooms.

“Physical is not only a potential risk for the safety of employees and the loss of equipment or hardcopy data assets, but may also be used to plant clandestine devices to allow for follow-on attacks launched from a remote location,” Mapes says.