As a society, we must address cyber-risks from every angle: every technology or Internet user must be educated so they can better secure themselves. As business leaders, we bear this responsibility not only for ourselves, but also for our teams, colleagues, and organizations.
To help get you started, here are some questions I recommend you ask your head of security. I also highly recommend that, regardless of your role on the board, you get to know your security team. Help them understand how board-level oversight of risks works, and meet them with an open, inquisitive mind so they can educate you on security concerns and implications.
1. Does the security team have a full, well-informed view of the organization’s security posture?
One of the most fundamental challenges organizations face when it comes to security is getting full visibility of the technology assets being used across the organization and their associated risks.
You can’t defend something if you don’t know that you have it. Finding that one key weakness that provides the perfect opportunity for an attacker can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
It can also be challenging for security professionals to cut through the noise in the security industry to focus on the most relevant core threats. Doing so will enable them to focus their time, resources, and investments in areas that will have maximum impact for your organization.
Here are some additional questions you can ask:
Which threats are most relevant to the company, and which assets are most vulnerable, and which are most likely to be targets? Ask the security team to explain their answers.
Does the security team share threat information with security teams at other organizations of a similar profile?
Does the security team have full visibility and control of our entire technology environment, including assets we lease rather than own? Does the team have a detailed inventory of key assets, who is using them and how, and what known risks relate to them?
Is the security team part of the procurement process for all technology products and services? Do they vet technology vendors on the security of their products or services? Do they investigate the vendor’s practices for reporting and patching vulnerabilities?
Does the security team know who has access to what applications and services? Have they locked access down as far as possible, so people only have the privileges needed to perform their day-to-day role?
2. Is our organization resilient to attack?
Companies are under attack daily, either from automated, internet-wide attacks, or from more targeted and determined attacks. It is important to ask your security team questions about the security measures they have in place to reduce the likelihood and impact of a breach. There is no such thing as a silver bullet or impenetrable force field that will perfectly protect your organization. The key is to ensure your organization is taking a multi-faceted, layered approach that leverages technology, people, processes, and policies together for maximum effect. Your security team should be focusing their limited resources on actions that most reduce the risk associated with the greatest threats to your organization.
Take this opportunity to have your head of security explain why they made the trade-offs they did, and how those decisions could impact the business. Make sure they are aligning their decision making with overall organizational goals, compliance requirements, and real technical risks.
Is all company and customer data encrypted at rest and in transit? If not, which data is being encrypted and when?
Has the security team segmented the company’s networks to reduce an attacker’s ability to move through the network and reach valuable assets?
Does your organization regularly back everything up to reduce susceptibility to ransomware attacks? Do you run regular backup and restore drills?
Do you know how susceptible our employees are to phishing? Are you investing in education programs to raise security awareness?
Do you have multi-factor authentication in place on all of our technical services and applications?
Does the organization have cyber insurance to help it recoup any costs of a security incident? Which scenarios or factors arenot covered by the insurance?
3. Is the security team confident it can detect and respond quickly to security incidents?
According to the 2017 M-Trends report, it takes an average of 99 days for organizations to discover attackers in their networks. The longer an attack goes undiscovered, the greater the likely harm will be, so it is critical that your organization is able to detect and respond to security incidents quickly. Full visibility across all technical assets, properly stored and analyzed logs, and sufficient manpower to investigate alerts in a timely manner are all essential ingredients for quickly detecting security incidents.
A properly coordinated response will likely involve representatives across the business, so it is important that your board and security team understand what roles each department plays in a response.
Some relevant questions include:
Does the security team map normal behavior (both for human users and machine entities) on the network? Are they able to detect anomalous behavior?
Is the security team able to investigate and verify alerts quickly? Do they have sufficient resources committed to monitoring systems that alert suspicious activity?
How quickly could the security team investigate a potential breach or determine which technology assets and users may have been compromised? Does the security team have sufficient visibility across all technical assets to investigate fully? Does the security team log any information that would be needed to investigate a security incident?
Does the company have an incident response plan in place, with roles clearly defined and understood across the organization (including legal, finance, communications, IT, customer support/engagement etc.)? When was the last time the company ran an exercise to test its preparedness and response? Who is responsible for driving this initiative in the organization?
4. How do you measure the effectiveness of our cybersecurity program and initiatives?
Testing and verifying the effectiveness of your security program and initiatives is part of many industry cybersecurity compliance requirements. It also a pragmatic measure that helps your organization understand where it needs to make investments, and how resilient it really is to attack. A key part of this review is engaging security professionals to penetrate the company’s infrastructure to test for vulnerabilities. This will help you understand the efficacy of your defenses, hopefully uncover the opportunities attackers may spot, and investigate the potential outcomes of an attack.
Some questions to ask your security team include:
Is the security team proud of the company’s patching program? Do they feel adequately supported by the IT team in their efforts?
Who is responsible in the organization for initiating testing of organization-wide breach readiness?
How frequently does the security team test the company’s defenses for effectiveness? Do they hire external security consultants to try to penetrate the network and facilities?
Is the security team able to track progress over time?
Does the security team have a view of the maturity of its program? Is there a clear roadmap for future progress?
What measures has the security team taken in the past six months to improve security posture? What results have they seen? How will they adjust the program moving forward?
5. Do political or financial considerations impact your ability to protect the organization effectively?
It’s the reality of every business that budgets and other resources are not limitless. Investment must be proportionate to the business growth and context. However, it is also worryingly easy to overlook financial or political constraints that can hamstring your security program. You do not want to become aware of fixable limits on the security program at the point that you are reeling from a security incident.
The challenges of internal politics may also hold your security program back and expose your business to unnecessary risk. Investigate the structure of your security organization, its reporting line, and its standing with key partner departments in the business such as IT, engineering, and legal.
Investigate any barriers that are limiting the effectiveness of the security program now, discuss them in an open environment with the organization’s leadership, and make informed decisions on how to move forward based on a realistic view of your organization’s risk tolerance and budget.
Are there any budgetary or political roadblocks to implementing foundational security controls?
Does the security team have adequate headcount and resources? How is the answer to this question determined? If not, in which areas are we below critical mass?
Does the head of security have the opportunity to be heard among the most senior executives in the organization?
Do the business leaders across the company truly understand the potential costs and implications of the business of being breached? Do they discuss risk tolerance and prioritization payoffs in an open, strategic way? Do they build resilience plans based on these discussions?
Is security considered an audit function, or does the organization strive to build security into its products, services, and operations by design?
Security is complex, constantly evolving, and often unfortunately viewed as a drain on the business. Yet the benefit and necessity should be clear: having an effective and well-managed security program is key to minimizing risk and building resilience for your organization. Every part of the organization must play a role in this, and must understand the security priorities for the organization—and that responsibility extends to the boardroom.
Corey Thomas is CEO, president, and a member of the board of Rapid7.
There are many posts on the NACD Board Leaders’ Blog discussing cybersecurity, but all of them deal with directors’ responsibilities toward the organizations where they are board members. In fact, corporate directors themselves may be targets for hacktivists or cybercriminals and need to make sure they have adequate protection. This protection should include both home and professional office.
Directors obviously will have access to sensitive insider information that many unauthorized parties would like get access to. Many directors will also be targets as high net worth individuals. Cyber criminals always target the weakest link, and as corporate information security improves, they increasingly will target the home networks of key executives and directors.
Breaches such as the one that occurred in the summer of 2017 at Equifax have put so much personal information into the hands of criminals that individuals increasingly will become targets. Directors represent a perfect demographic cross section to be attacked. Attack vectors may include phishing, ransomware, and social media.
Earlier this year, an employee of the National Security Agency was in the news as the hacker apparently stole government secrets from the comfort of his own home network. Directors with access to confidential strategic or financial information should make sure their home networks are protected above and beyond the usual consumer grade defenses. Another attack path may be through tools and services used by directors. In 2010 attacks were reported against a prominent meeting portal for corporate boards. It is not clear if any sensitive information was stolen at that time.
What more should directors do?
First, make sure your home network is built to corporate standards. You need a commercial firewall, not just a consumer router. Most critically, any devices—especially firewalls and routers—should be set to auto-update their security firmware. Auto-update is now included in the Windows 10 operating system, in most smart phones, and in many home network devices, but not in devices more than a few years old. Anything you put on your network will be found to have vulnerabilities, so this software and firmware update feature is critical to keep hackers out.
Password strength and protection represent a second critical area. Many breaches result from theft of user credentials such as username and password. You should use two-factor authentication to log in to sites with your financial or personal information. Two-factor verification utilizes a second security barrier to verify with the application or website that the person logging in is, in fact, you. For instance, applications for your smart phone such as Google Authenticator and Duo Security generate one-time tokens that serve as a second factor. More familiar is the text messaging that many sites still use to send one time codes to users. This process has been deprecated by the Federal government because of potential eavesdropping attacks, so use the dedicated security apps, if possible. Still other financial sites do not yet have any two-factor authentication available. For these, make sure to use strong passwords that contain at least 12 characters, and that preferably can be pronounced. Such complex passwords should be managed using password vaults like LastPass or KeyPass.
The last factor to consider is encryption. Never store any sensitive data online without encrypting it and protecting it using a password known only to you. It is true that collaboration sites like Dropbox do encrypt the data saved there, but the companies still have the encryption keys and can view the data. These keys can be hacked or stolen by a disgruntled employee. That level of encryption is fine for 99 percent of the information you store online. But for the other, essential 1 percent of information—especially personal or corporate sensitive material—only you should have the encryption key. Applications like Boxcryptor integrate with Dropbox and enable you to further protect your information.
These three security precautions will help you keep your personal and professional information secure. Since threats and vulnerabilities are constantly changing, you should keep up to date using the NACD Cyber-Risk Resource Center and other sources of information on this topic. Also consider attending the NACD Global Cyber Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, April 17–18, 2018. You’ll hear from leading international directors, executives, and security professionals on how to protect sensitive corporate information.
Frederick Scholl is president of Monarch Information Networks, and is adjunct professor of computer science at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. All thoughts expressed here are his own.
Information security should be one of the most important risk areas of focus for boards. However, according to the 2017–2018 NACD Public Company Governance Survey, 88 percent of surveyed directors indicated that they had only some or little knowledge about how to navigate cyber risk. It’s clear that too few directors feel qualified to have this conversation in any degree of depth.
When I joined Amazon.com in 1998, Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO and chair, viewed security as the most threatening, potentially company-ending risk that the company faced. Since then, many companies have elevated security risk to their technology, the infrastructure on which they depend, as the greatest existential threat to their enterprise. Yet boards struggle to quantify these risks, to determine their tolerance for security risks, and to assess the company’s security program.
In their discussions of security risk, security leaders and board members are constrained by time, frame of reference, shared vocabulary, experience, and understanding of the adversary. Board members could use some help.
I propose ten simple questions that could enable discussion, provide board members with a lens through which they can broadly view the company’s security program and posture, and prompt security leaders to build a shared understanding of the company’s risk profile, threat landscape, and most important security initiatives.
1. Who is in charge?
It is critical for the board to identify the most senior information security leader in the company. This should be a person explicitly designated to lead the program, with the requisite skills, resources, and authority to execute it. This person commonly goes by a title such as chief information security officer (CISO), chief security officer, or head of security, among other titles. Sometimes, companies will take a tiered approach to security. In such cases, the leader of the security team plays a pivotal role, and the board needs to be comfortable that their position and authority is consistent with the importance that the board places on security.
If you identify someone who has security as one responsibility among a portfolio of others, it’s necessary to determine who has single-threaded focus on information security. Once that person is identified, you can discuss whether they have the proper ownership and resources to go with the responsibility, their reporting chain, the support that they receive from the rest of the company, and their relationship with the board. Regardless of who they directly report to, this person should be accountable to the board.
2. How do we assess risk?
Security is about risk management. It’s critical for directors to understand the process of identifying and analyzing security risks, how their likelihood and impact are estimated, how the appropriate controls are prioritized and implemented, how their efficacy is tested, and how results are monitored. Some potential security events are low probability and extremely high impact, making it more difficult to compare them to other risks. Nevertheless, it’s critical to go through the exercise of determining risk appetite, assessing and qualifying risk, quantifying overall exposure, and placing it within the company’s overall risk management framework. Finally, it’s important to be candid about your confidence in the risk assessment.
3. Are we focused on attacks?
It’s important to focus on managing the most critical threats and on breaking the attack kill chain—the structure of an intrusion—rather than to engage in “security theater,” or activities that give the appearance of competence while lacking in substance. Budgets are limited and security talent is in very short supply, so resources should be focused on establishing an architecture that has sufficient defense in depth, resilience, and intelligence to survive modern attack types.
Traditional approaches to defensive security that were dependent on protecting the perimeter of the enterprise continue to prove insufficient. Today, defenders must understand the adversary’s attack mechanisms, work backwards from the path of the attack, layer defensive measures throughout the enterprise, intervene before the attacker can extract sensitive data, and teach employees and customers to play their crucial part.
4. What’s our most important asset?
This question shouldn’t take long to answer. It should drive a discussion between the board and the security leader about how data and services are classified, the policies that are established for their defense, and the required and recommended controls for each class. When a new service is established, this classification framework in combination with the new service’s threat model should make it relatively easy to decide who is responsible for mitigating threats and what controls should be put in place.
When asked to rank their biggest cybersecurity fears, 41 percent of directors said they are most worried about brand damage. While customer trust is the key asset in many businesses, it’s important to identify the specifics of what would be the most devastating loss for the company. It’s only then that a thorough, qualitative assessment of the most critical components of the security program can occur.
5. How do we protect our most important asset?
Board members can calibrate the overall risk profile of a security program once they understand how the most precious asset is protected. The answer to this question should discuss the high-level threat model for that most important asset and, in the context of modern attack patterns, the mechanisms used to defend it. The answer should reflect that this is a journey on terrain that is shifting. There should be an iterative process of quantifying the risks of different threats, and of mitigating the most significant ones.
6. What’s our biggest threat?
This question forms the heartbeat of the conversation between the board and the security leader. It provides an opportunity to describe the company’s current security posture and its target state, and to refresh the board on the evolving threat landscape, the lessons to learn from emerging attacks, and the measures that the company is taking to mitigate the threats. For many companies, security risk is sufficiently important to warrant a discuss of this question at every board meeting, perhaps with a summary of the threat models for any major new products or services, and a review of the most significant risks at any recently acquired companies. When board members hear grandiose plans to address the biggest threat, but the deliverables are more than 18 months away, they may wish to ask for approaches to improve today’s posture without necessarily derailing the long-term solution. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.
7. What do we control?
The board should assess the degree to which the company’s security policy and practices are explicit and prescriptive. Board members should be very suspicious of a security leader who claims to have complete control of the technology platform and the tools that employees use. Full control is usually a dangerous illusion, and any autocratic attempt to achieve it can lead to inflexibility and to employees working against or around the security program. Security should be viewed as a collective responsibility, rather than as a fixed constraint. Boards spend time assessing internal controls that for example provide confidence in custody over sensitive data and in the accuracy of financial reporting. Effective security leaders will distinguish between controls and control, and will strive towards “getting to ‘yes,’” rather than being the one who always says no. Getting to yes is easier if employees buy into a decision and if the path of least resistance is for them to do the right thing by default.
8. Are incident response and recovery plans tested?
This is one of those questions to which the answer can be “no” at most once. In the common case this question will lead to a review of responses and recovery from real incidents, in addition to a summary of simulated attack exercises, consideration of the fidelity of such exercises, and lessons learned. It provides the board with a view of the company’s capabilities in communication, response planning, incident analysis, risk mitigation under duress, and leadership.
9. Would we know if we’d been compromised?
Security technology vendors may tout breakthroughs that provide the ability to identify and prevent attempted compromises with perfect precision and recall. An effective conversation between a security leader and a board will take as a given that all attacks can’t be identified and prevented, and that compromises may already lurk undetected. This should lead to a discussion of actions to make prevention as strong as possible, to improve the probability of detecting lurking intruders, and to reduce the likelihood that they reach critical assets and extract them.
In a world where the edge of the company’s technology footprint is increasingly blurred, where the sophistication of attacks outpaces security awareness, and where advanced persistent threats are used by adversaries, it’s inevitable that the answer to this question will be nuanced.
10. Who would be told, and how do we expect them to respond?
Communication is a key part of a successful incident response plan. Each person, including the board, needs to know his or her role in communicating about incidents internally and externally. The question goes beyond incident handling to include recovery processes and the proactive management of any reputation impact that may arise from the incident.
As a board member, it’s worth thinking about two questions that I used back in 1998 to get Bezos thinking about his role in incident response:
In the event of a high-severity security incident, do you think you’d be told?
Would you like to be told?
Response and recovery go hand in hand. It’s tempting to avoid putting significant effort into planning for recovery from a major security incident, and while everyone would prefer to focus on prevention efforts with a goal of zero incidents, the reality is that there’s no such thing as perfect security. The recovery plan is part of responding to the incident, learning from it, managing communications, and getting the company back in business. A well-executed recovery plan has the potential to limit the reputation damage caused by the event, and to help management and other stakeholders to move beyond it.
Finally, a bonus credit question: Do you have the team and the budget that you need to be successful in managing the company’s security risk?
These 10 questions are a starting point for a longer conversation. Directors and the security leader should regularly employee a more thorough framework, such as the NIST Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, to begin building a deeper understanding of their company’s security posture. While the NIST framework goes to considerably more depth, these 10 questions are intended to get to the essence of what is most important for a board to periodically review.
Tom Killalea (@tomk_) is a director of Capital One Financial Corp., MongoDB, Carbon Black, and Orreco. From 1998–2014 he served in various leadership roles at Amazon.com, including vice president of technology and CISO. All opinions expressed here are his own.