RSA 2013 & Risk

Monday, February 25th, I had the opportunity to participate in the Risk Seminar at RSA 2013.

My co-presenters/panelists are pursuing a number of avenues to strengthen not only their own practices, but for all. As I believe, it turns out that plenty of us practitioners have come to understand just how difficult a risk practice is. We work with an absence of hard longitudinal data, with literally thousands of variant scenarios, generally assessing ambiguous situations. Is that hard enough?

Further complicating our picture and methods is the lack of precision when we discuss risk. We all think we know what we mean, but do we? Threats get “prioritized” into risks. Vulnerabilities, taken by themselves with no context whatsoever, are assigned “risk levels”. Vulnerability discovery tools ratings don’t help this discussion.

We all intuitively understand what risk is; we calculate risk every day. We also intuitively understand that risk has a threat component, a vulnerability component, vulnerabilities have to be exploited, threats must have have the capacity and access to exploit. There are mitigation strategies, and risk always involves some sort of  impact or loss. But expressing these relationships is difficult. We want to shorthand all that complexity into simple, easily digestible statements.

Each RSA attendee received a magazine filled with short articles culled from the publisher’s risk archives. Within the first sentences risk was equated to threat (not that the writer bothered to define “threat”), to vulnerability, to exploit. Our risk language is a jumble!

Still, we plod on, doing the best that we can with the tools at hand, mostly our experience, our ability to correlate and analyze, and any wisdom that we may have picked up along the journey.

Doug Graham from EMC is having some success through focusing on business risk (thus bypassing all those arguments about whether that Cross-site Scripting Vulnerability is really, really dangerous). He has developed risk owners throughout his sister organizations much as I’ve used an extended team of security architects successfully at a number of organizations.

Summer Fowler from Carnegie-Mellon reported on basic research being done on just how we make risk decisions and how we can make our decisions more successful and relevant.

All great stuff, I think.

And me? I presented the risk calculation methodology that Vinay Bansal and I developed at Cisco, based on previous, formative work by Catherine Blackadder Nelson and Rakesh Bharania. Hopefully, someday, the SANS Institute will be able to publish the Smart Guide that Vinay and I wrote describing the method?*

That method, named “Just Good Enough Risk Rating” (JGERR) is lightweight and repeatable process through which assessors can generate numbers that are comparable. That is one of the most difficult issues we face today; my risk rating is quite likely to be different than yours.

It’s difficult to get the assessor’s bias out of risk ratings. Part of that work, I would argue, should be done by every assessor. Instead of pretending that one can be completely rational (impossible and actually wrong-headed, since risk always involves value judgements), I call upon us all to do our personal homework by understanding our own, unique risk preferences. At least let your bias be conscious and understood.

Still, JGERR and similar methods (there are similar methods, good ones! I’m not selling anything here) help to isolate assessor bias and at the very least put some rigour into the assessment.

Thanks  to Jack Jones’ FAIR risk methodology, upon which JGERR is partly based, I believe that we can adopt a consistent risk lexicon, developing a more rigorous understand of the relationships between the various components that make up a risk calculation. Thanks, Jack. Sorry that I missed you; you were speaking at the same time that I was in the room next door to mine. Sigh.

As Chris Houlder, CISO of Autodesk, likes to say, “progress, not perfection”. Yeah, I think I see a few interesting paths to follow.



*In order to generate some demand, may I suggest that you contact SANS and tell them that you’d like the guide? The manuscript has been finished and reviewed for more than a year as of this post.

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