Do Business Leaders Listen to Their Own Security Professionals?

Survey Shows a Disconnect Between Business Leaders and Security Professionals

A new research report published this week claims, “A disconnect about cybersecurity is causing tension among leaders in the C-suite — and may be leaving companies vulnerable to breaches as a result.”

The specific disconnect is over the relative importance between anti-malware and identity control — but it masks a more persistent issue: do business leaders even listen to their own security professionals?

The basis for this assertion comes from two sources: the Verizon 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), and the report’s own research. DBIR states, “81% of hacking-related breaches leveraged either stolen and/or weak passwords.” The new research (PDF), conducted by Centrify and Dow Jones Customer Intelligence shows that companies’ security officers agree with the view, while their CEOs do not. Centrify surveyed 800 senior executives in November 2017.

According to the new research, 62% of CEOs consider malware to be the primary threat to cybersecurity, while only 35% of their technical officers agree. The technical officers agree with the DBIR that most breaches come through failures in identity and access control. “More than two-thirds (68%) of executives from companies that experienced at least one breach with serious consequences say it would most likely have been prevented by either privileged user identity and access management or user identity assurance. That compares with only 8% who point to anti-malware endpoint controls.”

The report, published by Centrify (a firm that delivers Zero Trust Security through what it calls ‘Next-Gen Access’), found this to be perhaps the most disturbing of a series of mismatches between the views of technical officers and their CEOs. Another example concerns strategy accountability: 81% of CEOs say they are most accountable for the company’s security strategy; while 78% of the technical officers believe it is they who are most accountable.

These figures raise two questions: firstly, are the technical officers correct in their assertion that identity control is more important than anti-malware, or are CEOs correct in their insistence on anti-malware; and secondly, if the technical officers are correct, why do they fail to adequately communicate their views to senior management?

There is no simple answer. Not all practitioners accept the survey results. Steve Lentz, CSO and director of information security at Samsung Research America, doesn’t automatically accept that identity is a bigger problem than malware. “I really believe it’s the unknown malware that is on many employee PCs that leak info.” He quoted an example of two employees visiting from abroad and connecting to his network. “Our network defenses immediately alerted my security team and quarantined the two PCs.” One had a keylogger while the other had a password stealer. The implication is that since it is impossible to control all identities all the time it is necessary to have adequate anti-malware.

Martin Zinaich, information security leader at the City of Tampa, FL, believes the problem may stem from different priorities between Business and Security. Business leaders often have “a low user-friction tolerance combined with a high-risk appetite.” At the same time, questioning whether malware or identity is the biggest problem is a mistake. “Wasn’t last year’s big breach at Equifax due to an unpatched Apache Struts vulnerability? Too often for security professionals it is the basics that get missed.”

To a degree, the malware/identity issue is a chicken and egg problem. Drew Koenig, security solutions architect at Magenic, takes one view. If “you look at incidents in their entirety, malware is the result of identity security failures.” While phishing and poor security behavior is one problem, poor password construction, account sharing, and over-privileged accounts are another. Compromised accounts are the delivery mechanism, he suggests, for the malware that accesses databases and steals sensitive data.

But Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at Thycotic, warns that attackers use social engineering to bypass initial identity controls. “One single click on a malicious link, can download malware onto your computer that can immediately lock up data in a ‘ransomware’ attack.” In this scenario, identity controls won’t protect you from the effects of malware.

Boris Vaynberg, co-founder and CEO at Solebit agrees. “Most attacks start with an attacker penetrating into the organization. These attackers use various techniques, most of them including use of malware to secure initial control inside the organization. Once the attacker gets control, the second step is lateral movement. Attackers will then attempt to secure the credentials they are seeking in order to obtain an organization’s sensitive data.”

Brian Kelly, chief information security leader at Quinnipiac University, accepts that malware may be the vector used to compromise the identity, but adds, “I really keep coming back to the idea that identity is the new perimeter. In a world full of clouds and ubiquitous mobile access, identity is the only thing between you and your data.”

The implication is that identity control cannot stop malware. But since we know that anti-malware also cannot guarantee to stop all malware, identity and credential control becomes essential to prevent lateral movement and privilege escalation.

“It’s overly simplistic to think that if the organization addresses one specific attack vector, it will prevent all major breaches,” warns Lenny Zeltser, VP of products at Minerva Labs. “Attackers can follow different pathways to achieve their objectives. They can steal credentials, elevate access, and cause damage even if the company has strong identity management practices. Identity security is important, so is endpoint defense, so are network safeguards, etc. We cannot focus on a single security layer and neglect the others.”

The second implication from the Centrify survey is that either security professionals are failing to deliver their message to business leaders, or business leaders are refusing to listen to their security professionals. Again, there is no simple answer. 

Mike Weber, VP at Coalfire Labs, believes there is a business reason for business leaders to be reluctant to listen to their security professionals. “The security landscape changes constantly, and those dynamic changes rarely align with fiscal year planning cycles. To be able to quickly react to the latest threats, a CISO may need to resort to ‘overselling’ a particular need.” The problem here is that business leaders face ‘oversells’ all the time, and are well-versed in ignoring them.

Brian Kelly suggests the basic problem comes from multiple sources of threat information. “The feeling that malware is the greatest risk may be driven more by media reports than the security team’s failure to deliver the correct message. Information Security teams are competing for the CEO’s attention, but are also struggling to craft a message that makes sense in context.”

Perhaps one of the problems is a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of ‘security’. Mike Smart, security strategist at Forcepoint, believes security is like the brake on a car. Business leaders think its purpose is to slow down the car; that is, security slows down business. “Innovators will tell you the opposite,” he says. “It’s there to give the driver the confidence to go as fast as possible.” In this view, security is the enabler of agile business — but the implication is that security leaders have failed to adequately explain this function to the business leaders.

Dr. Bret Fund, founder and CEO at SecureSet, suggests that most companies have failed to yet establish the partnership between business and security that is necessary for an agile but secure business. “Security managers need to do a better job understanding the business constraints and how, as a security team, they can provide meaningful solutions inside of those realities. Business managers need to do a better job of understanding that security is everyone’s responsibility and NOT just the security teams.”

There is little disagreement over a disconnect between business leaders and security professionals. Bridging that disconnect is the problem. Koenig believes that the security team needs to own the problem. “In security,” he says, “you have to assume everyone outside your team distrusts you. That’s an unfortunate reality. So, to improve your delivery, educate instead of present. Put context around what you are reporting. Help them understand that malware is a valid risk, but most breaches are the result of poor identity controls that allows for the delivery of malware. Ultimately for every security report that is delivered you have to answer the hardest question from a business, ‘So What?’. Don’t tell, explain.”

Centrify’s survey demonstrates this mismatch in cyber threat understanding between business leaders and security professionals. The report shows that most security professionals believe that ‘identity’ is the number one control, while business leaders concentrate on malware. It’s a nuanced issue. Identity and credential control, such as that provided by Centrify, won’t stop all malware — but it may prevent a malware incident developing into a major breach. How to get business leaders to listen to security professionals remains a continuing problem.

Related: Is Your Identity and Access Management Out of Control? 

Related: Is Your Identity and Access Management Out of Control? (Part 2) 

Related: Security Awareness Training Top Priority for CISOs: Report 

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.

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