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Information Security Methodology

The information security life cycle illustrated in Figure 3-1 offers a broad overview to managing an effective information security program.

Figure 3.1Figure 3-1 The information security life cycle.

The first step is to complete a thorough review of the current state of your information security program, which is referred to as a baseline assessment. This review will assist you in developing the plan for improving your program in the future.

After you have completed the baseline assessment, you are in the position to begin the second step in the process—making improvements. Evaluate the risks that currently exist in your environment and develop remediation plans to address them. You will need to prioritize these risks and address them in a balanced fashion over the course of the year.

Managing your security program is the third step in the process. During normal operations and while you are making strategic improvements to your environment, you will still need to respond to tactical issues. Remember, things change on a daily basis, and you will need to continually reevaluate your priorities for improving the program.

The circular nature of Figure 3-1 corresponds to the need for repeating the process over time. The next section introduces a more detailed methodology for accomplishing this.

Formal Information Security Program

Executives commonly ask, "How well are we protected, and what should we be doing to improve our program?" A recent security-related event inside an organization or a heightened awareness of security in general can prompt this question. Regardless of the reasons for starting a formal program, you should follow a structured methodology to guide your program. Although this is true in any critical business process, it's especially important in information security. By following a structured methodology, you can obtain results that are more predictable.

A structured methodology is similar to a therapy regimen prescribed by your doctor when recovering from an illness or accident. In this case, the illness might be a non-existent or weak information security program, and an accident might equate to an information security incident.

You should first step back and determine the business objectives that you want to support with your information security program. Evaluate the effectiveness of your existing program and determine where you would like it to be in the future. Aligning your security policies closely with your business strategy enables your company to achieve its objectives without hindrance because your staff is less likely to circumvent security measures that seriously impede them from achieving your core business goals.

The next step is the gap analysis—comparing where you are to where you want to be and examining the alternative methods to achieving those objectives. The investment you are willing to make in your program will determine its extent and the time necessary to put it in place. Again, keep in mind that this is a continuous process and you will need to update your information security program as your business environment changes. Figure 3-2 illustrates a high-level methodology for evaluating your information security program.

Figure 3.2Figure 3-2 Information security architecture methodology.

Now we will examine each step in detail.

Step 1

The initial step in the process is determining the future business requirements that the information security strategy will have to support. The majority of this analysis consists of evaluating the three major areas through interviews with key managers within the company.

Strategic Objectives
  • What are the company's long-term strategic goals?

  • What are the major initiatives over the next 12 to 18 months?

  • What are the information security requirements to meet these objectives?

Business Environment
  • What is the company's line of business?

  • What changes are expected in this industry over the next couple of years?

  • What unique information security challenges or opportunities exist?

  • How are other companies in your industry addressing information security, and which strategies have been successful?

Tactical Issues
  • What information security issues currently exist that require immediate action?

  • How do these issues affect the business?

  • When must management address these issues?

Because it is important that your information security program supports rather than hinders your company from achieving its business goals, the results of this step necessarily form the broad boundaries for your program.

Step 2

Next, you evaluate the major components of your information security program to establish its current state and determine your goals for the program in the future. The components fall into three major categories: people, processes, and technology (the basis of your architecture). These are essential ingredients for an effective program (as we discussed in Chapter 2).

When assessing the current information security architecture, the objective is to become familiar with the existing environment, understand the current issues, and plan the future environment. This is not an exhaustive documentation of your existing environment; that level of detail is not required, and frankly, it wastes a lot of time. Some of the questions that you need to answer during this step are as follows:

  • Does my organization have a formal information security strategy?

  • How well has the program protected my company over the past year?

  • Are metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of the program?

  • Has the program undergone an independent review recently?

After establishing the current state of your program, you can begin to evaluate the possibilities for the future security environment, based upon the company's business environment and needs. The initial analysis should be broad and unconstrained because the goal is to define a long-term plan that you can tailor to what your company ultimately decides to invest in this area. Some examples of the future environment include the following:

  • A formalized organization that is responsible for information security

  • Outsourcing selected portions of the program to vendors that specialize in these areas

  • Upgrading your e-commerce presence to address potential security risks

  • A company-wide security-awareness training program

You will use these results (that is, your gap analysis) in the final step to develop your future information security program.

Step 3

The major activities in this final step include the most important step in the process: leveraging the gap analysis between the current and future states of your program that form the foundation for the next steps required to define the roadmap. You need to develop a list of possible investment alternatives, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each one. The gaps that can exist within your program include the following:

  • Your existing information security organization is not capable of managing the program

  • Your company is not in compliance with industry regulations for information security

  • Several high-risk areas exist within critical components of your business

Finally, you will provide the management team with alternative approaches for transforming the information security program. To make your case effectively, you must present these alternatives in business terms and specifically address how they will enable the company to accomplish the following:

  • Increase revenue, improve staff productivity, and improve customer satisfaction

  • Address industry compliance regarding security

  • Protect company image and brand

Be clear regarding the specifics for each alternative you are proposing, how much they will cost, and how long it will take to deliver each recommended alternative. It is a good idea to circulate these alternatives within the management team during the course of your analysis, as opposed to waiting until the end to test their acceptance. Some of the changes you propose might not be readily accepted or might cost more than your company is willing to invest in information security.

Security Evaluation Framework

"How effective is our information security program?" is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Each business will judge success upon different criteria, depending on its industry and goals. A small mining company that only conducts business domestically and has few automated processes will require a different information security program from a large financial services organization that is heavily regulated and that conducts a considerable amount of business on the Internet. When evaluating these organizations, you must take into account the unique considerations of each business and industry best practices for information security.

The security evaluation framework outlined in this book includes 50 industry best practices for information security that were culled from multiple sources and presents you with a consistent methodology for grading your program. These best practices include people, processes, and technology categories. Scorecards have been developed to evaluate this component of your program. You can grade each practice area using three-tiered scoring as follows:

  • "0" indicating the practice is not being followed at the company

  • "1" for partial implementation of a best practice

  • "2" for full implementation

The total possible score is 100 for a company that has fully implemented all 50 of the best practices. Use the results of your scores to pinpoint areas for improvement in your information security program. Identifying these areas is essential for developing your two-year improvement plan and is more important than the absolute score.

Unique company and industry characteristics are also important when evaluating your information security program because companies will vary considerably in their reliance upon security. The small mining company mentioned previously would have a low dependency upon information security, whereas security would be critical for a financial services company's operations.

The business dependency matrix (Table 3-1), which appears later in this chapter, identifies 12 critical characteristics for rating your company's dependency upon information security. By rating each characteristic as high, medium, or low importance, you can develop an understanding of how important an effective information security program is for your company.

Finally, by comparing the results of your program evaluation with your company's dependency upon information security, you can obtain a general idea of the effectiveness of your program. High-level guidelines are provided that you can use when determining the appropriate level of funding for your security program.

Conducting the Baseline Evaluation

The guidelines in this chapter offer a top-level view of the process that you should follow when evaluating your existing information security program or planning your future program. If you have not conducted an assessment in the past, you might consider bringing in an experienced third party to assist in this process. A third party will have methodologies to support evaluation and can train your staff to conduct future baselines. You should require that a third party uses industry standards rather than proprietary methodologies so that your organization can use the work it completes in the future.

Remember that this is just the first step in the process and that you need to move to your remediation step quickly to improve your security profile. Security programs can take considerable time to implement; for this reason, you should complete the evaluation as quickly as possible. You should be able to complete the methodology outlined in this book in 90 days.

Pulling It All Together

You will summarize the results of your analysis in a strategic plan that you will use as the roadmap for the next two years. Normally, one or more of the major program areas will have serious issues that you must address. It is important to start with high-level diagrams to convey your ideas and follow those with additional levels of detail. You'll find this is easier and more effective when you are presenting the plan to key individuals within the company.

You must provide management with a list of alternatives for migrating to the future information security environment along with the costs, timeframes, and benefits of each. Remember to present the recommendations in business terms and address how the program will affect revenue, staff productivity, and customer satisfaction. You'll need to test your recommendations to determine management acceptance during this timeframe.

The information security architecture document should contain the following information:

  • Summary of the process used to develop the architecture

  • Alternative solutions and recommendations

  • Roadmap for implementation

Guidelines for developing the document include the following:

  • Highly graphical

  • Executive summary of 1–2 pages

  • Main body of document that is 25 pages or less

  • Bold recommendations because this is a great opportunity to make sweeping changes

The final information security architecture must address critical business objectives and be understandable to non-technical management. An effective approach is to find the optimal balance of addressing pressing tactical issues while also achieving the long-term strategies for the program.

Critical Success Factors

Management involvement during this process is important; management must consider information security a component of the overall business strategy for it to be effective. Otherwise, security will become just another initiative that is competing for management's attention and for limited company resources. Implementing an effective information security program will change how the company conducts business in the future, so clear communication of the process is critical. Employees need to understand these changes and the importance of information security in their organization's operations.

Another point to consider when developing your information security architecture is to set realistic expectations and not to over-commit. The costs associated with your recommendations could be significant and might require board of director approval. You must set goals that you are able to accomplish in an aggressive but achievable timeframe.

Information Security Methodology Wrap-Up

In 90 days, you can evaluate your organization's information security program and set the company on course for implementing future improvements. This requires a careful balancing act between addressing pressing tactical issues and making progress toward accomplishing strategic goals. By following a consistent methodology, you can clearly communicate to the organization the process that you will follow, get things on track, and start making visible progress.

It is important to follow a consistent methodology when establishing your information security program. The natural tendency is to look for immediate improvements when something goes wrong. However, this is a tactical rather than strategic approach, which isn't viable for establishing an effective information security program.

The methodology presented here provides an effective framework that you can easily scale according to the size and complexity of your business. The remaining portion of this chapter will cover the initial step of this methodology in more detail and provide examples of how you can use it at your company.

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