Thursday, June 18, 2009

Check, Please!

One of the most intriguing stories in the security world today is the lawsuit Merrick v. SAVVIS in which Merrick stipulates that SAVVIS is liable for lack of diligence on an audit of CardSystems, on which Merrick relied. This groundbreaking lawsuit could change the liability landscape, allowing assessors to be sued by indirect third parties. Prior to the more formal PCI DSS program, there were many suspicions of rubber stamp audits occurring. But even today, we see organizations pushing for the cheapest audit they can do and still get the passing “check” mark. It’s this minimum approach to security we’ve often called “malicious compliance” that leads to a lack of quality and a greater risk of breach.

Just for some more background, SAVVIS had certified CardSystems Solutions as compliant under the VISA CISP program (predecessor to PCI DSS). During a breach of CardSystems, approximately 40 million cardholder data records were compromised. At that time, this was one of the biggest breaches recorded. The forensics investigation concluded that the CardSystems firewall was not compliant and that records were not being encrypted as they should be. The big debate at this point will be to determine if SAVVIS did enough due diligence at the time or if CardSystems possibly withheld any information from the auditor.

I think that last sentence is really what irks me about the relationship between an auditor and an organization. I completely understand and agree for the need of ethical independence between both parties. But I am frustrated when it creates such a wall and lack of collaboration that the auditor just becomes someone to fill in check boxes. Then the organization takes an adversarial approach in which they ‘speak only when spoken to’ and hope the auditor doesn’t uncover the dirty little secrets of what isn’t working. It’s when something isn’t working right that a breach occurs.

So when looking for an auditor, I think it’s important that organizations make a conscious, formal decision on what they are looking for. It’s the old Chinese proverb, “Be careful what you wish for since you might just get it”. If it’s a check mark approach, then understand that may be all you are getting. You aren’t getting a consultant or an advisor. On the other hand, if you are looking for a auditor who isn’t just working off a checklist but is truly interested in your organization’s risk, then you can end up with a partner that can provide a whole lot of value, not just for compliance but also for security, since the two aren’t the same.

I guess the whole point of this exercise is to step back and take a look at your organization’s approach to the quality of the security program. The most common approach is following the “Plan, Do, Act, Check” lifecycle. As a pure security assessment firm, we feel very strongly that there needs to be a big emphasis on the “Check” step, so much that we put it first. No matter what step you are performing, you need to do it well if you want quality improvement. Security is not a very forgiving practice as a misstep in quality can quickly lead to incidents, then the blame game, then someone’s job. That’s not to say that quality is costly. But cheap certainly is. So the next time you place an ‘order’ for an auditor, think twice when you ask for the check.

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