Measure Security Performance, Not Policy Compliance

I started my security (post-sysadmin) career heavily focused on security policy frameworks. It took me down many roads, but everything always came back to a few simple notions, such as that policies were a means of articulating security direction, that you had to prescriptively articulate desired behaviors, and that the more detail you could put into the guidance (such as in standards, baselines, and guidelines), the better off the organization would be. Except, of course, that in the real world nobody ever took time to read the more detailed documents, Ops and Dev teams really didn’t like being told how to do their jobs, and, at the end of the day, I was frequently reminded that publishing a policy document didn’t translate to implementation.

Subsequently, I’ve spent the past 10+ years thinking about better ways to tackle policies, eventually reaching the point where I believe “less is more” and that anything written and published in a place and format that isn’t “work as usual” will rarely, if ever, get implemented without a lot of downward force applied. I’ve seen both good and bad policy frameworks within organizations. Often they cycle around between good and bad. Someone will build a nice policy framework, it’ll get implemented in a number of key places, and then it will languish from neglect and inadequate upkeep until it’s irrelevant and ignored. This is not a recipe for lasting success.

Thinking about it further this week, it occurred to me that part of the problem is thinking in the old “compliance” mindset. Policies are really to blame for driving us down the checkbox-compliance path. Sure, we can easily stand back and try to dictate rules, but without the adequate authority to enforce them, and without the resources needed to continually update them, they’re doomed to obsolescence. Instead, we need to move to that “security as code” mentality and find ways to directly codify requirements in ways that are naturally adapted and maintained.

End Dusty Tomes and (most) Out-of-Band Guidance

The first daunting challenge of security policy framework reform is to throw away the old, broken approach with as much gusto and finality as possible. Yes, there will always be a need for certain formally documented policies, but overall an organization Does. Not. Need. large amounts of dusty tomes providing out-of-band guidance to a non-existent audience.

Now, note a couple things here. First, there is a time and a place for providing out-of-band guidance, such as via direct training programs. However, it should be the minority of guidance, and wherever possible you should seek to codify security requirements directly into systems, applications, and environments. For a significant subset of security practices, it turns out we do not need to repeatedly consider whether or not something should be done, but can instead make the decision once and then roll it out everywhere as necessary and appropriate.

Second, we have to realize and accept that traditional policy (and related) documents only serve a formal purpose, not a practical or pragmatic purpose. Essentially, the reason you put something into writing is because a) you’re required to do so (such as by regulations), or b) you’re driven to do so due to ongoing infractions or the inability to directly codify requirements (for example, requirements on human behavior). What this leaves you with are requirements that can be directly implemented and that are thus easily measurable.

KPIs as Policies (et al.)

If the old ways aren’t working, then it’s time to take a step back and think about why that might be and what might be better going forward. I’m convinced the answer to this query lies in stretching the “security as code” notion a step further by focusing on security performance metrics for everything and everyone instead of security policies. Specifically, if you think of policies as requirements, then you should be able to recast those as metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) that are easily measured, and in turn are easily integrated into dashboards. Moreover, going down this path takes us into a much healthier sense of quantitative reasoning, which can pay dividends for improved information risk awareness, measurement, and management.

Applied, this approach scales very nicely across the organization. Businesses already operate on a KPI model, and converting security requirements (née policies) into specific measurables at various levels of the organization means ditching the ineffective, out-of-band approach previously favored for directly specifying, measuring, and achieving desired performance objectives. Simply put, we no longer have to go out of our way to argue for people to conform to policies, but instead simply start measuring their performance and incentivize them to improve to meet performance objectives. It’s then a short step to integrating security KPIs into all roles, even going so far as to establish departmental, if not whole-business, security performance objectives that are then factored into overall performance evaluations.

Examples of security policies-become-KPIs might include metrics around vulnerability and patch management, code defect reduction and remediation, and possibly even phishing-related metrics that are rolled up to the department or enterprise level. When creating security KPIs, think about the policy requirements as they’re written and take time to truly understand the objectives they’re trying to achieve. Convert those objectives into measurable items, and there you are on the path to KPIs as policies. For more on thoughts on security metrics, I recommend checking out the CIS Benchmarks as a starting point.

Better Reporting and the Path to Accountability

Converting policies into KPIs means that nearly everything is natively built for reporting, which in turn enables executives to have better insight into the security and information risk of the organization. Moreover, shifting the focus to specific measurables means that we get away from the out-of-band dusty tomes, instead moving toward achieving actual results. We can now look at how different teams, projects, applications, platforms, etc., are performing and make better-informed decisions about where to focus investments for improvements.

This notion also potentially sparks an interesting future for current GRC-ish products. If policies go away (mostly), then we don’t really need repositories for them. Instead, GRC products can shift to being true performance monitoring dashboards, allowing those products to broaden their scope while continuing to adapt other capabilities, such as those related to the so-called “SOAR” market (Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response). If GRC products are to survive, I suspect it will be by either heading further down the information risk management path, pulling in security KPIs in lieu of traditional policies and compliance, or it will drive more toward SOAR+dashboards with a more tactical performance focus (or some combination of the two). Suffice to say, I think GRC as it was once known and defined is in its final days of usefulness.

There’s one other potentially interesting tie-in here, and that’s to overall data analytics, which I’ve noticed slowly creeping into organizations. A lot of the focus has been on using data lakes, mining, and analytics in lieu of traditional SIEM and log management, but I think there’s also a potentially interesting confluence with security KPIs, too. In fact, thinking about pulling in SOAR capabilities and other monitoring and assessment capabilities and data, it’s not unreasonable to think that KPIs become the tweakable dials CISOs (and up) use to balance out risk vs reward in helping provide strategic guidance for address information risk within the enterprise. At any rate, this is all very speculative and unclear right now, but something to nonetheless watch. But I have digressed…


The bottom line here is this: traditional policy frameworks have generally outlived their usefulness. We cannot afford to continue writing and publishing security requirements in a format that isn’t easily accessible in a “work as usual” format. In an Agile/DevOps world, “security as code” is imperative, and that includes converting security requirements into KPIs.



*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from The Falcon's View authored by Ben Tomhave. Read the original post at: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/secureconsulting/ujTc/~3/et702HBhrRE/measure-security-performance-n.html