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Risk

6/18/2009
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1 In 5 Companies Cutting IT Security Spending, Our Survey Finds

Budget woes, increased regulation, and new challenges for sensitive data are on the menu for risk managers.

Cutting IT security spending, unthinkable a couple of years ago, is officially on the table. Just a year ago, even with a recession taking hold, only 6% of companies planned to trim security. This year, 19% are cutting, our Strategic Security Survey finds, while only 27% are increasing spending on IT security, down from 40% who were a year ago. (Download the full report).

At the same time, CEOs desperate to make their quarterly numbers may enter new businesses or find ways to trim expenses with less concern for the impact on data security. If you thought you had a handle on your organization's appetite for risk, chances are the economy has changed the dinner portions.

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While it's no surprise that regulatory compliance and budget pressure show up in our annual survey as high-stress items, we were somewhat surprised by the number of respondents struggling to figure out how to assess the risks inherent in the various forms of cloud computing. Because the potential for saving money through the use of cloud services is real, security pros are being pressured to figure out just how risky those services are. Ironically, one of the hardest things to assess about cloud services is their effect on regulatory compliance.

Our survey shows that compliance is the main goal of risk management initiatives, and compliance tied with internal audits as the No. 1 measurement of success. "Compliance is making people do things to stay out of jail, changing security from a 'should' to a 'must,'" says Ira Winkler, CEO of consulting firm ISAG. Winkler laments that highly secure organizations have to spend on compliance testing to prove they're secure. But, he says, "organizations lacking in security are much better off today because of compliance since they have had to establish better practices and processes."

Companies that do security well have the same staffing and funding obstacles as any company, but they focus on managing risk and protecting data. They know their appetite for risk and they manage to it, rather than think of security as a checklist of requirements. They can't secure everything, so they identify their most important assets and the likelihood of loss, and put programs and controls around them for protection.

For example, Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards require that antivirus software be installed on all systems that are "commonly affected by malicious software." So does that mean Apple's Mac OS X is exempt because it's not commonly affected by malicious software? Antivirus software is supposed to detect all known malware, but known malware isn't the problem, now is it?

Simply put, compliance best practices aren't necessarily security best practices. What if a company used a combination of host hardening, remote user access with no clipboard or file sharing between the host and the remote desktop, and segregated networks to put a moat between users and applications in such a way that malware couldn't get to sensitive data? And what if that company could show that its systems were thus well protected against malware? Would that be satisfactory? No, because PCI requirement No. 5 calls for antivirus protection.

chart: Which of these are effective at protecting archived data storage?

Using antivirus software is considered an industry best practice, but "best practices were created by the legal community to defend litigation in court so the organization can say they were following best practices," says John Pironti, president of management consulting firm IP Architects. Both sides bring in expert witnesses, and the most convincing expert wins.

Best practices aren't worthless, but they're not one size fits all, and are too often applied without regard to context. The types of attacks against Heartland Payment Systems, Hannaford Brothers, and TJX took planning and expertise. They weren't conducted by kids downloading pre-compiled tools--the types of attacks that would be stopped by companies that implement the bare minimum "best practices." And that is fundamentally the difference between check-box security and risk management.

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