Chief Incident Scapegoat Officer (CISO)?
  • 10 Nov 2023
  • 5 Minutes to read
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Chief Incident Scapegoat Officer (CISO)?

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Chief Incident Scapegoat Officer (CISO)?


Last week the SEC filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York charging SolarWinds and specifically its CISO, Timothy Brown, with fraud. According to the compliant, the SEC alleges the company and Brown made false statements about its security posture to investors. Along with the Uber CISO, Joseph Sullivan, this is the second CISO in the past year to be specifically charged for failing to do their job. In my opinion, these court cases are going to negatively impact the CISO role and make security less transparent to investors. Let’s dive in.

What About The Other C-Levels?

Both cases are unique, however the first thing that stands out to me is only the CISOs are being named and charged. I find this odd because in an ideal organization the CISO still has to partner closely with the other C-Level execs to achieve security objectives. Things like external messaging to customers, SEC filings, etc. all require the coordination and knowledge of other C-Level execs like the CFO, Legal, Marketing and even the CEO. Why aren’t these individuals being named and charged for also contributing to the fraud?

In the worst case scenario, a CISO is poorly supported and struggles to get any of their security objectives funded or implemented. Is the CISO to blame in this scenario? What about the CEO and CFO who withheld funding? How about the Engineering leader who failed to prioritize the security recommendations of the CISO? The point is, I have never found a situation where a CISO is able to operate in a vacuum and so the other C-Level execs also have a responsibility to make sure the company is making true statements and not perpetrating fraud. They should all be held equally accountable.

Responsibility Without Authority

The CISO role has had a lot of press and a surge in visibility over the past few years, but the role still has a long way to go to be on par with other C-Level roles. It is common for the CISO role to report to the CTO, CIO or Chief Legal Counsel. It is uncommon for the CISO role to have a direct reporting line to the CEO. We can discuss who the CISO should report to, but in my opinion, the CISO role still needs to mature compared to the other legacy C-Level roles. The position is currently not on the same level as a CTO or CIO role and this impacts the scope and authority of the role.

Additionally, most CISOs don’t actually own the things they are trying to improve the security posture of. There is always a business or engineering owner that is actually responsible for building and operating the systems that make the company money. As a result, the CISO role typically ends of with all of the responsibility for security, but none of the authority. If the CISO makes a recommendation to fix something and the engineering leader rejects it, who is held accountable for that decision?

Chilling Effect On Open Discussion

My biggest concern with the SEC complaint is the reference to emails that are pointing out the known security issues with the Orion system. Matt Levine wrote a great article in Bloomberg questioning the SEC’s logic and I agree with his assessments. I have never read an SEC filing or investment statement expecting the company to highlight their massive security investments. In fact, I would question if a company should disclose that in a filing at all (unless it is material) because you may inadvertently provide information to attackers that could be used to hack the company.

Additionally, most security teams openly discuss security issues via chat or email. I find these discussions are almost always expressing frustration with current situations with the goal of gaining support for investment to remedy the issue. However, discussions via chat and email also happen to be legally discoverable forms of communication. This means every single email about how much your security sucks will be taken out of context by lawyers and used against you. The obvious solution is to never put your current security failings in writing, which means you can never create a presentation to convince the company to invest in improving security. Or alternatively, if you do place things in writing you frame them in a way that they are asking for legal advice so they can be protected by legal privilege.

Predictions For the CISO Role

I wrote a blog post after the Uber verdict, but both the Uber and SolarWinds cases have caused significant anxiety within the CISO community, which I think will impact the CISO in the following ways going forward:

  1. New CISOs hiring into a role will require companies to list them on their Directors and Officers (D&O) Liability Policy. Also, based on this Bloomberg Law Article about FTX, I recommend making sure the D&O policy specifies how much you will get if all the executives are trying to use the policy at the same time for legal fees.
  2. It will become standard for companies to cover the costs for legal counsel specified by the CISO, should they be individually named in a lawsuit.
  3. As these cases become more common, CISOs will demand higher compensation and protect themselves contractually to minimize their personal risk.
  4. Companies will (hopefully) prioritize security investments to minimize the risk of lawsuits, regulatory actions or security incidents.
  5. Costs for companies to employ and retain a CISO will go up over time.
  6. In extreme cases, the CISO role may shift from a salaried employee to a consultant (I-9) to offload the accountability for security to the company and protect themselves.

Final Thoughts

I can’t recall the last time I saw a CTO or CIO charged with investor fraud for making false statements about their products or enterprise environment. Yet, the CISO role has been getting a lot of scrutiny from regulators recently. I’m all for holding people accountable, but the CISO role doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as the CTO or CIO. The role still struggles with gaining support and funding to place security first. If a company culture is weak or the other executives minimize security, then the CISO will fail to make any meaningful progress. In my opinion, if the CISO of the company is named, then all the officers should be named to drive home the message that they are all accountable for the security of the company.

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