Sunday, May 22, 2011

Get Out of Jail Free

Would you like a "get out of jail free card" for security professionals? It is called the risk acceptance document.

The responsibility for the protection of enterprise assets lies with line management, not with the security staff. This is essential. The discretion to allocate and use a resource comes with the responsibility to protect it. The result is that line managers have the responsibility, not to mention the budget, but the security staff may have the knowledge.

When inevitably they disagree, the line manager usually does, and ought to, win. When inevitably things go wrong, the security professional takes the blame. The risk acceptance process establishes a more appropriate balance of power.

Additionally, security managers often complain that they are unable to get management to focus on what they consider to be critical issues. Sometimes, not to say, often, it is because the security staff has not yet articulated the options in a way that management can appreciate.

The risk acceptance process is a method to get the necessary focus. In it we simply ask management to "accept the risk," to sign a document that says that the staff has presented them with the risk and that they have elected to accept it rather than to mitigate it.

The security staff gets to write, or at least negotiate, the content and language of a
risk acceptance document. They describe the exposure, i.e., the threat, the vulnerability, and the consequences. They describe all the alternatives that were considered, including the one that they recommend, and that of doing nothing, i.e., accepting the risk. Management either mitigates or accepts. The line manager or executive gets to make the decision but also has to accept the responsibility. The process and the document ensure that the decision is memorialized.

Doing nothing, that is, accepting the risk, is only one of the alternatives. In many cases, after reading the risk acceptance document, the business executive will elect to accept the recommendation of the security staff instead of signing the document.

One effect of doing the necessary work to write the document is to ensure that the security staff has really considered all of the significant alternatives. Another is to focus the attention of the executive on the decision that only he can make.

When is a risk acceptance indicated? One answer is any time the security staff wants line management to make a decision. However, risk acceptances may arise in the context of a change in threat, a new technology, or a new application. For example, the enterprise wants to bring a new application on line in order to exploit a new technology or business opportunity. The developer and the security staff disagree on the quantity or quality of testing.

Another context in which risk acceptance may arise is that of a decision to deviate from regulations, policy, standards, or guidelines. To some extent regulations and policy, but particularly standards and guidelines are made to be broken. However, whenever for business reasons, a decision is made not to conform, the decision should be memorialized in a risk acceptance.

Finally, risk acceptance should be used to document residual risk. Since security is never perfect, there will be breaches and losses. For example, there is the risk that a user will take bait and contaminate the network, that a privileged user will go rogue or be suborned, or that the maximum number of simultaneous component failures will be exceeded. All of these should be documented If only to protect the management of fhe application and the security staff from charges of imprudence, residual risk must be documented.

Risk acceptances should be done before, rather than after, the auditors come. Auditors tend to treat any and all variances as of equal severity. Moreover, audits are as of a point in time. Once the auditors show up, it is too late to get out of jail free.

Recently, after mentioning risk acceptance as an essential security practice, I was challenged by a professional to give examples of language for describing the risk. After agreeing to try to provide examples in this week's talk, I realized that the language is the language of risk analysis or business impact analysis, language that we should all already be skilled in using.

The expression of the risk to be accepted is that of the relative risk between the recommendation and that of doing nothing, for example, between implementing early with one level of testing and cost and implementing late with more testing and other cost.

Of course, part of the cost in both cases, is the cost of losses. As always, these costs are difficult to predict with any precision. However, executives are accustomed to making decisions with imprecise data. Doing so is a necessary skill of all executives. When doing so, it helps to know how good or bad the data is.

What the executive asks of us is to carefully document our assumptions. Of course they want an annualized loss expectancy (ALE), but they also want to see the underlying assumptions about threat rate, vulnerability, and consequences. They understand that these numbers are difficult to arrive at but they can work with them as long as they understand how you got to them.

A risk acceptance has a limited life. It dies either with the expiration of one year, the tenure of the signing executive, or some agreed to but shorter period of time. At the end of a year, the decision must be revisited. If the signing executive moves on, all of the risks that he accepted must be submitted to his successor. The new executive may follow the lead of his predecessor or may not. Often, the risk may be accepted only for the period of time required to implement an alternative.

It is not always clear which executive should sign the risk acceptance. To some extent this is a matter of enterprise policy or culture. For example, some mature enterprises have strict limits of financial discretion assigned to levels of management. In others, the discretion of a manager may be established by his budget. In some, a manager may sign anything that she is willing to take the responsibility for. I recommend that a risk can only be accepted by an executive that has the authority, discretion, and resources to implement the alternative, that is to say yes, as well as no, to your recommendation.

Said another way, a manager may not accept a risk simply because he has no other choice. By definition, he who has no other option is not the right manager..

Note that this is just the way that staff works. No one has to authorize staff to present alternatives to management; that is what they are paid to do. They do not need any special authority to ask an executive to acknowledge that they have done so. Every now and then, an executive may simply refuse to sign the document. It really does not make any difference. One simply notes when and what options were presented to whom and puts the record in the file. If he does not mitigate, by definition, he has accepted.

This brings up the idea of "completed staff work." This is the idea that says decisions are presented to executives in a document that is so complete as to be self-implementing. The alternatives are so well described that when the executive signs it, without any further staff work, everyone knows what they are expected to do.

Writing risk acceptances is difficult. If often involves negotiation to arrive at language that all can agree fairly describes the choices and their associated risk. It may involve compromises to decide who should sign. That is why we are called professionals and are paid the big bucks.

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