As of late I’ve been seeing a lot of grumbling that security return on investment (ROI) is impossible. This is of course nonsense. Understanding your ROI is one of the most important things you can do as a business leader. You have to understand if what you’re doing makes sense. By the very nature of business, some of the things we do have more value than other things. Some things even have negative value. If we don’t know which things are the most important, we’re just doing voodoo security.
H. James Harrington once said
Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.
Anyone paying attention to the current state of security will probably shed a tear over that statement. The foundation of the statement results in this truth: we can’t control or improve the state of security today. As much as we all like to talk about what’s wrong with security and how to fix it. The reality is we don’t really know what’s broken, which of course means we have no idea how to fix anything.
Measuring security isn’t impossible, it’s just really hard today. It’s really hard because we don’t really understand what security is in most instances. Security isn’t one thing, it’s a lot of little things that don’t really have anything to do with each other but we clump them together for some reason. We like to build teams of specialized people and call them the security team. We pretend we’re responsible for a lot of little unrelated activities but we often don’t have any real accountability. The reality is this isn’t a great way to do something that actually works, it’s a great way to have a lot smart people fail to live up to their true potential. The best security teams in the world today aren’t good at security, they’re just really good at marketing themselves so everyone thinks they’re good at security.
Security needs to be a part of everything, not a special team that doesn’t understand what’s happening outside their walls. Think for a minute what an organization would look like if we split groups up by what programming language they knew. Now you have all the python people in one corner and all the C guys in the other corner. They’ll of course have a long list of reasons why they’re smarter and better than the other group (we’ll ignore the perl guys down in the basement). Now if there is a project that needs some C and some python they would have to go to each group and get help. Bless the soul of anyone who needs C and python working together in their project. You know this would just be a massive insane turf war with no winner. It’s quite likely the project would never work because the groups wouldn’t have a huge incentive to work together. I imagine you can see the problem here. You have two groups that need to work together without proper incentive to actually work together.
Security is a lot like this. Does having a special secure development group outside of the development group make sense? Why does it make sense to have a security operations group that isn’t just part of IT? If you’re not part of a group do you have an incentive for the group to succeed? If I can make development’s life so difficult they can’t possibly succeed that’s development’s problem, not yours. You have no incentive to be a reasonable member of the team. The reality is you’re not a member of the team at all. Your incentive is to protect your own turf, not help anyone else.
I’m going to pick on Google’s Project Zero for a minute here. Not because they’re broken, but because they’re really really good at what they do. Project zero does research into how to break things, then they work with the project they broke to make it better. If this was part of a more traditional security thinking group, Project Zero would do research, build patches, then demand everyone uses whatever it is they built and throw a tantrum if they don’t. This would of course be crazy, unwelcome, and a waste of time. Project Zero has a razor focus on research. More importantly though they work with other groups when it’s time to get the final work done. Their razor focus and ability to work with others gives them a pretty clear metric they can see. How many flaws did they find? How many got fixed? How many new attack vectors did they create? This is easy to measure. Of course some groups won’t work with them, but in that case they can publish their advisories and move on. There’s no value in picking long horrible fights.
So here’s the question you have to ask yourself. How much of what you do directly affects the group you’re a part of? I don’t mean things like enforcing compliance, compliance is a cost like paying for electricity, think bigger here about things that generate revenue. If you’re doing a project with development, do your decisions affect them or do they affect you? If your decisions affect development you probably can’t measure what you do. You can really only measure things that affect you directly. Even if you think you can measure someone else, you’ll never be as good as they are. And honestly, who cares what someone else is doing, measure yourself first.
It’s pretty clear we don’t actually understand what we like to call “security” because we have no idea how to measure it. If we did understand it, we could measure it. According to H. James Harrington we can’t fix what we can’t measure it. I think given everything we’ve seen over the past few years, this is quite accurate. We will never fix our security problems without first measuring our security ROI.
I’ll spend some time in the next few posts discussing how to measure what we do with actual examples. It’s not as hard as it sounds.