1/13/2014
11:06 AM
Calum MacLeod
Calum MacLeod
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Why IT Security RFPs Are Like Junk Food

Buying the latest security technology won't save you if your company isn't carrying out basic health checks.



As Woody Allen once said, "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens." Sometimes I think the approach of the average board of directors is the same when it comes to investing in information security; they’re worried about being breached and just hope it doesn’t happen while they're in the job. But naturally the question is whether investment is the only course of action.

Like my health, I can either cut down on bad cholesterol or I can spend money on medication that will supposedly do it for me, and allow me to continue my bad habits. But the sad reality is that medication alone is not going to keep me alive and healthy.

The same applies to IT security. Buying the latest technology is not going to save you if you are not carrying out basic health checks in your organization. As an example, in my role at Lieberman Software, when I talk with customers who are concerned about APTs or malware, their response seems to be to buy whatever is touted as the latest and greatest solution.

It's like an obese person drinking only diet beverages while still consuming too much food. Regardless of what technology they buy, the failure to carry out basic internal security checks means they are just as vulnerable. And like the obese person, they know what they need to do but it’s just too hard.

How many IT departments control the passwords being used by administrators and yet fail to do the same for services, scheduled tasks, and other applications that use credentials? Organizations fret about their private keys being stolen and used in malware but then don’t enforce any security policy around the protection of keys. Organizations allow hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of employees to have privileged access to their PCs because it is easier than enforcing a policy that demands permission to install software. Yet how many organizations regularly check the registries of their workstations to see if anything has been added or modified?

The placebo effect
Today, more often than not, security related projects usually start off with a failed audit – the equivalent of a sharp pain in the chest. This is usually a result of bad habits that have developed over the years. You would think that the patient (management) would rush to the hospital to make sure everything is fine. Yes it is inconvenient, but surely you don’t want to take risks?

The reality is different. What management generally does is

  • Call in the consultants who frequently have no practical experience; 
  • Consult industry reports which frequently are not much more than regurgitated marketing material from a variety of vendors.

The result is frequently an RFP that consists of little more than a list of irrelevant questions. This is then sent to a group of vendors who promise to cure all diseases for the lowest possible cost. It's little more than a placebo. Actually I've come to realize more and more that most technology seems to be little more than a placebo -- in other words you will feel better for taking the stuff that you buy, but it probably won't do you much good. You might as well start browsing health websites when you have a heart attack, put together a questionnaire and send it off to several hospitals, and see what they offer as a solution.

Too many organizations have learned through bitter experience that implementing a privileged identity management solution is too important a process to delegate to a rubber-stamp RFP or a battle of vendor checkboxes. If handled correctly your implementation can help you close critical security loopholes; help make staff members accountable for actions that impact IT service and data security; and lower the cost of regulatory compliance.

You'd never choose a doctor based solely on cost, nor would you trust a physician who writes a prescription before taking the time to diagnose your condition, check your medical history, and perhaps run some tests. Maybe the time has come to treat your IT security like your personal health. After all, when you’re in the operating theater it is comforting to know that you're neither the guinea pig for a first-time surgeon, nor the patient keeping them from their next round of golf!

Calum MacLeod has more than 30 years of experience in secure networking technologies and is currently responsible for European business development at privileged identity and security management provider Lieberman Software.

The complexity of enterprise IT systems and processes is growing, as are threats against organizations’ assets. Unfortunately, security budgets are not. Security pros must therefore play a high-stakes game of figuring out which problems to tackle and in what order. In this Dark Reading report, Using Risk Assessment To Prioritize Security Tasks And Processes, we explain how risk assessment techniques can inform the process of prioritizing security tasks and processes, and recommend steps security pros can take to apply data based on their own enterprise's risk profile. (Free registration required.)

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