Can Risk Truly Be Measured?
  • 23 Aug 2023
  • 5 Minutes to read
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Can Risk Truly Be Measured?

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Thank you to Lee Vorthman for sharing his blogs in our knowledge base.

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As a CSO, everything you do needs to be evaluated in terms of risk to the business. When you build a security program, prioritize objectives or respond to incidents all of your decisions will take into consideration risk and how to effectively manage it. Which begs the question: Can Risk Truly Be Measured?

The Problem With Risk

The problem with risk is that it is subjective. Everyone views risk, and the behaviors that contribute to risk, differently. Trying to measure a subjective concept can lead to inconsistencies, fluctuations or even conscious and subconscious influencing of the outcome. Even worse, as you engage in behavior that involves risk, your risk tolerance will adapt over time to accept the risk as normal. For the security space, this is the equivalent of failing to implement a specific security control and yet avoiding a breach or incident. As a result the business may try to rationalize that you don’t need to implement the control because you haven’t suffered the consequences of a breach. How do you consistently and objectively measure risk for yourself, your team or your business if it is subjective?

Objectivity Leads to Consistency

Risk can be measured, but it requires you to apply an objective and consistent process to gain consensus and get consistent results. There are several methods for obtaining consistent results when dealing with a subjective concept. In Operations Research there is a process known as the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP), which attempts to achieve a mathematical decision for a subjective concept (like deciding which house to buy). Similarly, when attempting to decide between different subjective concepts you can use simple mechanisms like pairwise comparisons or a triangle distribution to express the decision mathematically.

Here are two examples:

Pairwise comparison: This comparison is useful for comparing two things to determine which one is more important. Example: Patching our publicly facing systems with critical vulnerabilities is ten times more important than patching our systems with critical vulnerabilities that are only internally accessible.

Triangle Distribution: This distribution is useful when attempting to distill a decision down to a value when you may only know two data points, such as the extremes. Or, if two people offer different opinions for the value of something you can use the triangle distribution to find a compromise in the middle. Example: Manager 1 – The impact of this event is a 2 out of 5 (5 being highest). Manager 2 – The impact of this event is a 4 out of 5. Using a triangle distribution we decide the impact of this event is a 3.

Either of these methods can be used to determine the likelihood and impact for a specific security control in an industry standard security framework like NIST or CIS.

There are other objective methods for assessing and assigning risk. I’ve discussed the CIS Risk Assessment Method (RAM) in detail in my blog post about Building A Strategic Plan. The advantage of this method is you can apply a consistent process to assign and measure risk for every single CIS control and sub-control. This allows you to measure how you well you are managing risk over the lifetime of your security program in a repeatable way.

When Things Go Wrong

Following an objective process to measure risk requires you to take the time to methodically apply the process to each decision or control you need to asses. This can be time consuming at first, but once the initial baseline is set it is easy to update and maintain. However, it is easy to mess this process up. Here are a few things I don’t recommend:

  1. Don’t make up your own security control framework– There are industry standard security frameworks for a reason. The standard frameworks are comprehensive and have clear criteria for how to apply and asses the effectiveness of a control. The worst “frameworks” I have seen are typically made up by someone in the security team that things they know better. These “frameworks” are subjective, inconsistent, contradictory, redundant or unclear about how to apply specific controls. On top of that these “frameworks” require someone to update them, maintain them and communicate them to the rest of the org. Why duplicate work when you don’t have to?

  2. Failing to apply a consistent process – Failing to apply a consistent process for measuring and assessing risk means you will fail to get a consistent and objective result. This means you will have an inaccurate measurement of risk or the risk will fluctuate with each measurement, which will render it useless. Also in this category is allowing different teams within your company to use different processes for assessing risk. This means you will not be able to consistently compare the risk of different security controls across the business, which can lead to gaps or overconfidence.

  3. Failing to validate the result – This may be obvious, but each of your measurements should be backed up by evidence. Don’t assume your inventory is correct. Don’t assume your IDS is working and don’t assuming your DDoS protection will work properly. Test these things, audit them and spot check them periodically. Risk doesn’t always have to move in one direction. Controls can regress, postures can change and threats are constantly evolving. Validate your results on a regular basis to make sure you are getting the most accurate picture possible.

So Can You Really Measure Risk?

I believe you can measure risk and develop an accurate risk profile for your company. Despite the subjective nature of risk, you can reach an objective result by using simply mathematical principles and by using an consistent objective process. When applying these methods to an industry standard control framework, you can obtain an objective result that will accurately measure your risk for a single decision, or an entire control framework. Once you have an accurate risk profile you can use the risk to make prioritized decisions to manage risk for your business.

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