Compliant But Not Necessarily Secure? How HR Can Help..

September 25, 2014

As the recent Target breach has shown: being compliant alone does not necessarily mean inherently secure. As a recent analysis of the theft of personal and financial information of 110 million Target customers by the United States Senate illustrates, key warning signals that Target’s network was being infiltrated were missed in the organisation. Both anti-malware and SIEM identified suspicious behaviour on their network, yet two days later the attackers began exporting customer data from their network.

HR - business functions, business operations, business processes

© Rawpixel – Fotolia.com

The fact that Target was certified as being compliant with the PCI DSS standard just two months before the breach took place has certainly caused a lot of debate in the industry. I’ve always argued that simply persuing an annual ‘checkbox exercise’ is not enough: there must be a lasting and on-going cultural awareness with regards to data security.

I’ve also long argued that whilst responsibility and drive for data security lie at board level; the entire business needs to be both aware and on-board too. That’s why HR is vital to achieving the role. KPIs for data security, along with employee training programmes need to enhance the goals of the CISO. Data security KPIs should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-orientated. Across all business units there should be at least annual (and perhaps quarterly, depending upon the nature of the business) employee awareness training programmes.

The KPIs should be pertinent to the area of the business unit they operate in and relevant to the data security standard your organisation is working towards gaining (or maintaining) being compliant with. For PCI DSS, for example, the requirement to ‘Protect Cardholder Data’ clearly has different implications for different business units. For a call centre, for example the requirement should be around not storing PANS in a readable format; not recording CV2 numbers when taken over the phone; not writing cardholder details down on bits of paper for subsequent entry; and the secure physical storage of paper records. For development, this would pertain to: encryption methods used and key storage and protection; how PANs are rendered unreadable electronically and adherence to the standard; how cardholder data is transmitted across networks. For IT support, these could relate to maintaining up to date anti-malware and intrusion prevention systems; hourly monitoring of SIEM information; weekly reports to senior management concerning monitoring status and patch levels.

Whilst line managers are usually responsible for setting KPIs in a business, I strongly believe HR can make a valuable contribution: by enforcing company policy in ensuring all line managers include data security quarterly KPIs in their target setting. A function of HR in a business is to safeguard the reputation of a business, something which is also the function of an information security professional.

A recent study by insurance firm Beazley analysed more than 1,500 data breaches it services between 2013 and 2014, and discovered that employee errors accounted for 55% of them. HR is also about people management and defining the culture of an organisation. Whilst I’m not suggesting that HR take on responsibility for information security, they certainly have a part to play in ensuring that the correct mindset operates across all parts of the business. Changing an organisation’s culture requires a sustained effort from numerous players across the business: and HR is one of the key ones.

Phil Stewart is director of Excelgate Consulting.


The Apple of my i

December 7, 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, inspiration for the way forward in the information security industry is drawn from the past and a man outside of it: Apple’s former CEO – Steve Jobs, who passed away on 5th October, 2011.

Apple: Think different

Apple’s iconic logo is as well known as their products are globally today. Many urban myths have sprung up over the years over the origins of the Apple logo: from the apple of knowledge from the Garden of Eden; that the logo resulted from Steve Jobs having worked in an apple orchard; to the death of the founder of computer science, Alan Turing, by biting an apple laced with cyanide. An interview with the logo designer, Rob Janoff in 2009 revealed that none of these were the inspiration for the bitten apple – it was purely a design decision to give the logo scale and make the apple instantly recognisable as such as compared to other fruit, such as a cherry. This version of the logo was used by Apple from the mid 1970s until 1998; the “Think Different” slogan was retired in 2002.

It was interesting to see the huge number of tributes for Steve Jobs, when he passed away in October this year. Has there ever been such a response for the death of a technologist? Steve Jobs’ death produced tributes from people from every walk of life and all corners of the globe: from Presidents to Prime Ministers; from rock stars to every day users of their products. Steve Jobs was a special person, who instinctively knew what his customers wanted – without asking them. He saw the value of technology as an enabler: in improving people’s lives- but he absolutely understood – that most people are not fascinated by the technology in itself but what it can do for them in their everyday lives (in the same way the motor car was an enabler in the last century: few people are concerned with how they work).  Apple’s products all have an underlying intuitiveness about them that really does allow their users to unplug and use them straight away– without assuming any technical knowledge hitherto.

Most of us, however, do not possess that instinctive insight that Steve Jobs’ had – we have to do our market research with our target audience first. Historically, many information security professionals will not engage with end users at all – since these are the people -they believe – will ask for things they can’t have and do all the things they don’t want them to do.

Some years ago I was brought into an American Investment bank as project manager, on a desktop platform refresh program that had previously failed miserably in its objectives. Successive project managers had come and gone on that project, and it always seemed a case of one step forward and two back previously. Typically – for the IT department – the team were kept out of sight and out of mind in the lower dungeons of the bank: safely away from daylight and customers. There wasn’t even a telephone for the team – all communication had been done via email previously!

I decided that as well as talking to the head of each business unit to determine what was their requirements were, I would also – shock horror!- talk to the end users of each team to determine and capture which applications they used and how they used them in their day to day tasks. I also initiated a series of end user tests, and ensured that a representative from each team came down and tested the applications before the desktop builds were approved and shipped back to the respective end-user desks. When business managers asked why we would be asking for 30mins –of one staff member’s time for testing, I explained to them that this was improving staff productivity, by reducing helpdesk calls and eliminating the need for recalled failed builds. This strategy payed off: not only did we retain this business we went onto to win further rollouts for other parts of the bank.

This year I’ve heard and seen things which beggar belief. A consultant proudly boasting that the organisation he was contracted to work for “deserved data breaches” because “their staff were uneducated” (worse still, he meant this in a generic sense, not specifically to information security best practice education). I’ve also heard all security vendors being branded as “snake oil vendors”. An interesting concept – I don’t think we’d have much of an industry without security vendors, and I’ve come across one or two unscrupulous practitioners in my time who have a scant disregard for data privacy themselves to whom the disingenuous adjective could easily apply.

Whilst there certainly are some security vendors around to whom the adjective “snake oil” can easily be applied to (and a reputable re-seller recently reminded me of one): those that have little respect for their customers’ product feedback; who are in the business purely to make money without advancing genuine information security; and whose products are so desperately clunky to use that they require reams of documentation to use them; that greatly reduce user productivity and encourage their end users to find a workaround, and thus bypass security policy. Equally, however, there are some innovative vendors on the market that are genuinely interested in advancing information security, by helping develop new standards; thinking of helping the SME community by taking away the laborious task of log oversight from them and outsourcing it to specialists; or helping to secure the use of the cloud. I’ve come across all these types of vendors too this year. To label all security vendors in the same fashion is not only disingenuous to all vendors but also rather childish.

Earlier this year when I interviewed the UK’s Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, for the ISSA, he remarked how he felt that end users were just not getting the message regarding data protection.  Too often we see the same old problems: users not being educated, making basic mistakes. Personally, I think we have an industry that’s geared up for messaging aimed mainly at board and manager level and around legal compliance, so is it any wonder? Who is teaching the end users how to handle personal data correctly, and what should and shouldn’t be stored regarding credit cards on a day to day basis in their jobs? Similarly, I’ve always disliked the industry term “evangelist” – widely used in our industry – since that implies preaching! Who on earth likes being preached to? Perhaps that’s why few end users are listening.

We urgently need an approach where information security professionals think about being business enablers, whilst enhancing security, and can talk in a language that their end users understand. For twenty years plus now, we’ve been thinking that all our problems will be solved if only we throw more technology at it. Yet still we see data breaches. Similarly, we need security products that are focused at improving end user productivity, rather than working against the business. Then users might stop looking for workarounds, to both the solutions and hence their security policy.

If only Apple did iSec!

Phil Stewart is Director, Excelgate Consulting  and Secretary and Director, Communications for ISSA UK.


Stemming the Tide of Data Breaches

July 28, 2011

2011 has seen a steady stream of attacks and data breaches at a whole host of well-known, large organisations: Sony, Citibank, RSA, Google, Epsilon Marketing, and more recently, the Pentagon. Why are we seeing such a steady stream of major information security breaches at large organisations? Who can we trust with our data? What can be done to remedy the situation?

Data Stream, Data Breaches, Binary Data

2011 has seen a steady stream of data breaches at large organisations: from Sony to Citibank, to RSA, Google and Epsilon Marketing and the Pentagon. Lockheed Martin also thwarted an intrusion attempt into their network to steal data.
Image: © Junede - Fotolia.com

Lack of Board Engagement

Opinion differs in the industry as to whether the fault lies with the information security industry itself in convincing board level of the need to act; or whether boards are actively engaged with information security professionals in the first place. Harvey Nash’s CIO 2011 Survey published earlier this year generated responses from 2,000 CIOs and industry leaders worldwide. Its findings showed that 50% of respondents sit at the operational management or board level of their organisation – meaning that the other half do not.

When Sony’s breach involving 77m Playstation user details came to light, it was subsequently revealed that Sony did not have a CIO/CISO at the time, and indeed for a number of years preceding the attack. It’s not just sufficient for board visibility of information security but also that the CIO has genuine influence and is able to raise awareness to the board and influence decisions on a regular basis. Good information security awareness starts from the top : you cannot expect your employees to have awareness of an issue that has no visibility at board level.

Taking a Holistic View

It is important for every organisation to take a holistic view of information security (technology, processes, people) and not focus on a sole product, standard or the “next greatest thing” and believe that all will be well. The culture of chasing the current standard or solution, currently in vogue, has been largely vendor-driven, where advice is given with a heavy slant towards their own solutions as the sole solution. I’m keen on vendors and professionals who see the bigger picture beyond their own product or standard or area of expertise and are keen to educate, or in those vendors who, in developing their own solution are keen to help improve upon existing standards. I’ve been particularly impressed with Sophos in this regard, who regularly give out advice via their security blogs on a whole host of issues ranging from Facebook scams, phishing attacks, credit card scams, and botnets. They are to be commended not only for taking a holistic view of the industry but commenting on the various social media scams for which social media users clearly need educating. It also did not surprise me that Sophos won the award for best speaker at the recent ISSA event onboard HMS President.

To illustrate why a holistic approach is important – for years Intrusion Detection & Intrusion Prevention systems for years has been sold as the panacea for detecting all malicious intrusions on your network. Without proper examination and collation of these logs on a regular basis – having IDS / IPS alone is nearly as bad as no IDS/IPS at all. Consider a “go-slow” attack where an attacker tries to gain access using 2 logon attempts per hour. Typically, this would not trip either an account lockout situation or an IPS detection – it needs some intelligence behind it to raise that alarm (be that human or automated – via SIEM ). For a large organisation, do you really expect a human operator to sift through thousand of event logs looking for a needle in an electronic haystack? Are you properly and intelligently monitoring your logs and can you take evasive action quickly should you come under attack? (rather than after the data has bolted, as is frequently the case).

Avoiding the “Checkbox Culture” that Standards Compliance Alone Generates.

There’s too much noise and focus on standards compliance in the industry in the mistaken belief this alone will generate security. It doesn’t: when taken in isolation, it generates a false sense of security. Information security cannot be seen as an annual tick box event, with a string of recommendations and good intentions: to be done at some later date.

Whilst standards compliance is a necessary part of good governance, the industry really should be talking about generating good security cultures. An interesting study would be of those companies mentioned above (and others) which have suffered a breach, the percentage which had recently undertaken compliance with a particular standard, combined with whether they have a CIO/CISO in place and had regular staff training in place. It would make interesting reading.

A security culture is something that starts in an organisation from top-down: the board is updated at regular and frequent intervals about what is being done across the organisation – what business processes need improving and what staff education programmes are in place or are being updated. CIOs / CISO should be constantly improving their skill sets and awareness by attending conferences, reading the latest security articles and being aware of innovative solutions that challenge the established way of thinking in the industry. The human factor – and education of staff is an area that is often overlooked: in the Information Security Breaches Survey of 2010 by PWC, it showed that 80% of large organisations reported an incident caused by staff, yet very rarely do we hear of the need to regularly educate users. It simply isn’t good enough to keep blaming staff if you don’t have a regular training programme in place. It also isn’t good enough to “educate and forget” i.e. only train when a new person joins an organisation and never again – there needs to be a programme in place to educate users at regular intervals – to accommodate new threats, changes to legislation and best working practices.

Taking Professionalism Seriously

It’s long past time that our industry took professionalism seriously. Think of a visit to a doctor or a surgeon performing an operation. Would you let a surgeon operate on you who hadn’t bothered to attend medical school or didn’t think the exams were “really that important or necessary”? There certainly are some bad doctors out there, but the reverse argument of not bothering with professional qualifications to practice in the medical profession doesn’t hold water. Yet that is exactly what a small portion of our industry is doing!

As if to illustrate the point, last week I heard a hilarious story from a journalist who told me how he had uncovered someone who had been blagging their way around the industry as a “security consultant” (incidentally the journalist has given permission for me to repeat this, and the information was obtained via publishable sources and not via phone blagging or phone hacking!). Not only did the ‘consultant’ have no information security qualifications or certifications, but he had previously been working in… the hair products industry!  After containing our laughter in the restaurant, I remarked: “Securing hair braids yesterday, securing data tomorrow!” It would be a funnier joke if it wasn’t happening in our industry.

Would the medical profession allowed unqualified staff?

“Don’t worry sir, I’m fully unqualified! I’m good with people though and ...... I used to cut hair for a living, so you have nothing to fear. How hard can this medical thing be?”
Image: © Joel Calheiros - Fotolia.com

The industry needs to think about standardising on acceptable criteria for practicing in this field. I would propose that people wanting to employ someone in our industry insists on a CISSP certification as a minimum benchmark certification, as it demonstrates many of the areas previously discussed – such as taking a holistic view, relevant experience, and it encourages and requires constant improvement and education. It also demonstrates a commitment to the industry. Getting information security wrong can have a really serious impact on your business, and it certainly isn’t about just selling security solutions as a quick ‘fix’. I would also urge organisations to ensure that people at all levels are qualified – from CISO/ CIO & CTO down: it’s not good enough to ensure your junior staff are qualified whilst your security leaders are not – lead by example.

Changes to Legislation Are Required

I both welcome and support a change in the law to include mandatory breach notification for the UK – as is already the case in US states such as California. I would like to see also as part of filing a company’s annual accounts or statutory annual return a list of security measures they are taking / will be undertaking to safeguard personal data in their organisation. If there’s a statutory requirement to report annual financial accounts, why not something (albeit more sophisticated) in place for information security as well? If people have to sign off on security measures that subsequently turn out to be false or inadequate (and face subsequent prosecution), it may just make boards wake up that inaction is not an option and that people’s data and privacy is something we value as a society. Granted, this alone isn’t going to be a panacea or an easy thing to legislate (a one size fits all policy for all organisations is not appropriate in terms of their obligations – but then we already accommodate different annual accounting requirements with the Companies Act of 2006 for different sized organisations).

Without enforcement, legislation alone is unlikely to succeed in changing culture. I would also like to see stiffer penalties for breaches of section 55 of the Data Protection Act enforced in the UK. In May 2006, the Information Commissioner in the UK published a report “What Price Privacy?” which uncovered the illegal trade in personal information, with a follow-up report published 6 months later. The act of blagging, (which has been the root of all the problems with the phone hacking scandal) is a criminal offence under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. Currently, however, it carries a fine of up to £5,000 in a Magistrate’s Court but does not include a custodial sentence. Whilst Section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (CJIA) subsequently included provision for a custodial sentence of up to two years, this provision cannot come into effect until the Secretary of State makes a relevant order. Whilst the recent phone hacking scandal has focused on some journalists using blagging to obtain personal information, the “What Price Privacy?” report of 2006 showed the practice is far from confined to the journalism sector – this is just the visible tip of a much bigger iceberg lurking below – and I urge people to read that report from the ICO.

To conclude, whilst I don’t share the pessimism of some in the industry by the same token I’m not complacent either in thinking that there isn’t much still to be done: both in changing and enforcing the law, educating both board members and employees and ensuring the industry thinks holistically as individuals and organisations.

Phil Stewart is Director of Excelgate Consulting and Director of External Communications, ISSA UK