Thursday, January 16, 2014

Infosec Strategy in 1

Target, Neiman Marcus, Microsoft, and many, many more...

Corporate America has a huge security problem.  And it's not compromises.  It's a lack of strategic vision in cyber security.

With a never-ending litany of massive breaches, organizations are spending so much time trying to put fingers in the dikes, that no-one is stepping back to look at the whole levee.  Websites being compromised?  Buy WAFs.  Point of sale being compromised?  Put more tools on the PCI LAN. China hacking people?  Get a cyber intelligence feed.  PHI/PII being leaked to pastebin?  Get DLP.  No-one stops to ask the question, "Do these fit together?"  And when you don't, your infosec defense looks like this:
Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Before thinking about point solutions, an organization must come up with a strategy.  I would suggest a Strategy Statement such as:
Delay threat actors from realizing risks until they give up or are detected and responded to.  Respond effectively.  Degrade gracefully and remediate effectively when threat actors realize risks.
The above single statement sum up an entire infosec program, laying out specific steps that can be used to plan and measure the program.  Yours doesn't need to be the same, but it needs to be a clear and concise statement you can make measurable progress against.  This one lays out base truths:

  • That the program will be operations driven.
  • That risk is a fundamental element of the security program (You can read some of my views on risk here, here, here, and here.)
  • That the fundamental measurement of effectiveness is Delay vs Detection & Response.
  • That the organization should expect to operate in and recover from a compromised environment.
It also establishes the stages of incident life-cycle that drive the strategy:
  1. Delay
  2. Detect
  3. Respond
  4. Remediate
Calling the first step Delay is meant to be a bit controversial.  I think normally it would be 'deny', 'protect', 'deter', or something else.  However, as a community, we need to get out of the idea that if we just build it secure enough, the threat will go away and never come back.  Obviously, not all threats will stick with their attack, however we need to plan our strategy for the ones that do and those are the cases where all we are doing is delaying.

This is a statement we can easily track progress against in one, easy to read, table:
Infosec Defense Execution Strategy

You can download the Infosec Defense Execution Strategy spreadsheet including an example. We also add reporting and after action review to the stages.  The states can easily be modified to meet an organization's process.  The Defensive Execution Strategy also breaks each step out into discrete levels of completion:

  1. Define (Document what you want to do)
  2. Build (Create anything you need to do it)
  3. Train (Practice doing it)
  4. Grade (Measure how well you do it)
  5. (There is an implicit 5th step that, if you find any deficiencies in your grading you feed the measurement back into improving the step where the deficiency can be rectified.)
Within the levels of completion we define two specific things:  Who and What.  Without who, it is unclear as to who will actually get the work done.  If an organization doesn't know who will get the work done, you can almost guarantee no-one will do it.  A good model to use is RACI: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed.

'What' is also critical to tracking the strategy.  There needs to be deliverables which clearly show that a step has been performed. Managing based on deliverables significantly simplifies tracking of progress.  In the same vain, you need to know what products need to exist prior to starting a step.  If you don't, you have no way of measuring if you are ready to begin or not.  Ultimately the topic of management by deliverables could fill a book.

From this one table of levels of completion above, all information security projects can be planned.  This also helps keep the organization focused on more than just the 'build' step.  

And each stage can be decomposed.  Delay may be broken down into:
  1. Preventing incidents
  2. Operating in a compromised environment
Detection may be broken down into:
  1. Internal awareness
  2. External intelligence
  3. Prioritizing potential malice to investigate
  4. Facilitating correlation of prioritized information
(As an aside, #3 and #4 above are a fundamentally new way of looking at DFIR that is not yet widely adopted and deserves it's own post.)

All projects and all security requirements should be traceable to the Strategy Statement through the Infosec Defense Execution Strategy and the various levels of decomposition.  With this as a starting point, organizations can see how all of their projects and requirements fit together, identify gaps, and form a unified defense that looks less like the first picture and more like this:
Image by Hao Wei, licensed licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


  1. Excellent post! It is important to understand the business, do a thorough risk assessment and have a comprehensive strategy covering people, process and technology solutions.

  2. I didn't mention it in this post, however I know the military has a concept called DOTMLPF ( (I think there is a DOTMLPF-P where the extra P is 'Policy'.) Any organization should be using all of the mitigation options in the DOTMLPF-P list rather than just the M (which is usually the go-to solution).