Monday, September 21, 2009

Using SWOT to Evaluate Your Security Posture

Because the value of security is based on what is prevented, or doesn’t happen, it can be difficult to quantify. One simple way to evaluate your security needs can be with a SWOT analysis modified for security. Almost all of us are familiar with the SWOT analysis- it is business 101. For those who are not, it as an analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. When you are trying to get buy in and the resulting budget for security initiatives, the SWOT analysis lets you speak in the language that executives understand.

The exercise is most effective when combined with the systems approach. Without getting into the details, basically you need to clearly define the security objectives before completing the SWOT analysis.
Objectives can be anything from supporting the organization’s financial goals to protecting client information. If you can put dollar amounts to the categories, you are a step ahead.

It is helpful to start with the good. What are the organizations security strengths? For smaller organizations, a strength may be the very fact that they are small, and thus fairly easy to secure. Maybe the organization already has a “security culture” with security embedded. Often, an organization’s strengths present an easy opportunity to increase security. By building on or positively modifying existing controls, security can usually be increased.

Weakness can be broad or specific. A general lack of a security program or culture is a weakness, but is not defined enough to guide action. Look for specific areas. For example, not having a patch management program in place is a definite weakness. But organizations lacking a robust patch management process have a great opportunity to increase security. We see organizations fall prey to vulnerabilities that would not have been able to be exploited if they had a proper patch management program. Implementing a patch management program may involve spending some money, but it is a small price compared to remediating damage caused by an exploited vulnerability.

Many weaknesses are highly technical in nature. Lack of logging or change management are weaknesses that likely will take significant effort to fix. Articulating the weakness presented by not having systems like this in place and the strengths from implementing them is important to get management to approve the effort. Once again, putting dollar amounts on the costs of a successful exploitation of a vulnerability is paramount.

Another weakness that is especially common in today’s economy is a lack of funds. It can be tough to get buy in for initiatives without ample funding, but for organizations with cash flow problems, the expenses resulting from a security breach may be enough to put them out of business for good. That is a point that if properly articulated, should sway even the most security adverse executive.

Opportunities are generally fairly distinct. Does the organization have funds for security allocated, but not spent? Are logging systems in place, but not used? Do robust security policies exist, but have never been distributed? Think of driving around without buckling the seatbelt. Simply buckling your seatbelt costs nothing, doesn’t take much effort, and instantly and vastly improves safety. Opportunities are low hanging fruit that you can’t afford not to take advantage of. The best part is that taking advantage of most opportunities doesn’t require management approval or any significant spending.

Many threats, especially from a security perspective, are fairly easy to delineate. If the organization is subject regulations such as PCI DSS, HIPAA or SOX, the cost of non compliance can be astronomical. The costs of reputational damage often far outweigh the fines for non compliance. And the fines for non compliance are stiff.

How do I get started?
A good template in MS Word format for a SWOT analysis can be found here:

The best place to start is with an assessment. Many times organizations have trouble assessing their own security because they are too close to it, or lack the time or expertise. An experienced outside assessor will have seen countless situations and levels of security, and will be able to help with all four areas of the SWOT analysis.

If an assessment is not possible, a brainstorming session can be good for getting most of the fields started. The more people you can involve in the brainstorming sessions the better, and be sure to include front line employees if possible. They are often aware of the issues that exist in an organization, but lack the proper channels of communication to get to executives.

This is definitely an exercise worth your time and effort. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can approach executive management and get started on increasing security.

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