Risk management circa 2018

Risk management circa 2018

This past Tuesday, I was out at Eastern Michigan University speaking with information assurance students. The prof invited me to visit his Risk-Vulnerability Analysis class and asked that I give my Practical Risk Management talk.

Practical Risk Management was a talk I had given widely in 2007-2008, describing my efforts to stand up a risk management practice for a financial services firm. The case study covers aspects that I found went surprisingly well, and aspects that I found were surprisingly hard. Since five or six years had passed, I had expected to have to significantly revise the slide deck. Clearly, lots has changed, right?

Surprisingly, no.

The areas we wrestled with last decade remain challenging for clients and organizations today. I found little had changed. On the bright side, that fact simplified my revisions to the slide deck for Eastern Michigan University. On the down side, of course, that means we continue to struggle.

Why? In part, it is because of the seductive simplicity of the Risk = Asset * Vulnerability * Threat formula. Find the values, plug them in, multiply, and prioritize. Easy, right?

Easy, except asset management and valuation is tricky. Few organizations have a reliable hardware and software inventory. Fewer still have automated audits and the ability to see, immediately, when the inventory changes. This matters as such changes are often an indicator of compromise. Few organizations, too, can tie assets to business processes and provide financial valuation on impact. The question of what we have and why it matters is elusive.

And vulnerability management? Putting the dependency on an accurate asset inventory aside, vulnerability management is not quite a slam dunk either. True, software such as Qualys takes the grunt work out of the process. Automation can also shift from annual assessments to continuous vulnerability assessments. Yet the real difficulty in vulnerability management continues to be driving the remediation efforts. Thus we see many vulnerability management programs with tens of thousands of open vulnerabilities.

Threat management has made some progress. In 2008, my chief concern was a lack of threat intelligence and information on what actual attackers were using to achieve actual objectives. Today, we have better information sharing (ISACs, CERTs). We also have services like Risk I/O that map vulnerabilities to threat intel feeds. Tighter integration goes a long way towards prioritizing on realistic risks. Nevertheless, as evidenced by penetration test results, the gaps in asset and vulnerability management, combined with control weaknesses and architectural security concerns, offer the motivated threat actor a variety of ways to compromise an organization.

Five years of time, with not much progress to show for it. This has me saving a copy of my slide deck to give again in 2018.

What changes can we make to obsolete my Practical Risk Management talk? Simple. We can beef up and automate asset management. We can shift from the technical aspects of vulnerability management to the social aspects, facilitating remediation efforts with other departments. Finally, we can more tightly integrate threat intel with vulnerability management and begin doing regular red team assessments to identify architectural and control concerns. In three broad strokes, we can make a dent technical aspects of risk management and enable us to get out of the weeds.

Asset management. Vulnerability management. Threat management. Three areas, three programs, three ways to make a significant difference between now and 2018. The clock is ticking. Let’s get this done.

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