Security Vendor Questionnaire: Too Much or Not Enough?
  • 11 Aug 2023
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Security Vendor Questionnaire: Too Much or Not Enough?

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Thank you to Lee Vorthman for sharing his blog on our site.

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Over the past few years there has been an increasing trend for customers and partners to request security teams to fill out lengthy security questionnaires seeking specific details about the state of their security program. These requests often come as part of routine audits, regulatory requirements or contract negotiations. As someone who has both sent out questionnaires and been a recipient of questionnaires I’m wondering if the industry has gone too far down this trend or if it hasn’t gone far enough? Let me explain…

As a CSO, I want to discover and manage as much risk as possible. This includes conducting business with partners, customers and other companies. I want to understand my supply chain and limit my exposure to any of their security weaknesses that could be used to attack my company. However, I also want to limit the amount of information I disclose about my security program because once I disclose it, I no longer control that information and it could eventually make its way to an adversary if the company I disclosed it to has a breach.

How do we balance these differing requirements and are security questionnaires really the best mechanism for understanding your supply chain?

How Did We Get Here?

Let’s take a step back and consider how we collectively arrived at the need for security questionnaires. There have been several high profile breaches that have set us down this path. The first was the Target breach in 2013 where Target had their point of sale systems compromised as a result of a third party HVAC vendor. The magnitude of this breach along with the realization that Target was compromised via a third party placed a spotlight on supply chain security for the entire industry.

The second high profile breach was the Solar Winds attack in 2020. This attack infiltrated the software supply chain of Solar Winds and placed a backdoor in the product. Given that Solar Winds was used by a huge number of companies this effectively compromised the software supply chain of those companies as well. This attack increased the scrutiny on the supply chain with additional emphasis on software supply chain and even leading to some sectors (like the government) requiring disclosure of a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM).

These notable attacks (among others) have lead to an increase in regulations that force companies to disclose details around security breaches, but also to invest appropriately in security programs. Despite these investments and disclosures, companies can still face steep fines and costly lawsuits for security breaches. New regulations such as the SEC Cyber Risk Management rules and recent White House Executive Orders on Improving Cybersecurity and establishing a National Cybersecurity Strategy have elevated awareness and focus on supply chain security to the national stage.

Cyber Insurance Isn’t Helping

As Cybersecurity insurance premiums become more and more expensive, companies will continue to look for ways to decrease the cost, while still maintaining coverage. One of the most effective ways to do this is to establish and document a mature security program that you review in detail with your insurer to explain your risks and how you are mitigating them with appropriate controls. Questionnaires are one part of a security program that can demonstrate how you are evaluating and managing supply chain risk and hopefully drive down your premiums (for now). The problem is this creates an incentive where it is everyone for themselves in an attempt to lower their own premiums.

Transparency Is Lacking

The biggest issue security questionnaires are attempting to address is lack of transparency into the details of the security programs. In general, large publicly traded companies (particular cloud companies) and security product companies tend to be more transparent about security because it is built into their brand as a selling point to attract customers. However, details about technologies, program structure, response times, etc. generally lack specificity (for good reason) and the security questionnaire is an attempt to uncover those details to understand what risks exist when entering into a relationship with another company.

You might argue that companies should simply be more transparent with details about their security program, but this is not the solution. Companies should cover high level details with some specificity to demonstrate they have a security program and how it is structured. However, giving specific details about processes, response times, technologies, etc. will reveal details that can be used by an adversary for an attack. Additionally, do we really know what is happening with all this data from security questionnaires? It may be protected under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality agreements, but that doesn’t prevent the data from being leaked via an unprotected S3 bucket. It is extremely difficult to change a security program quickly and so it may be in the best interest of the responding company to refuse to answer the questionnaire and instead have an undocumented conversation (depending on your level of paranoia).

Yet More Audit and Regulatory Pressure

On top of all these issues, there are still very real requirements to respond to audits, questions from regulators or to provide these responses to your customers and partners that operate in heavily regulated industries (finance, healthcare, government, etc.). Responding to the questionnaires still takes time and places a burden on your security team and still comes with the risk that the information could be involuntarily disclosed to an adversary.

What’s Really Going On Here?

Responding to regulatory and audit requirements aren’t new requirements for our industry and so answering security questionnaires has been the norm for quite some time. However, I think the use of the security questionnaire has been hijacked by the industry as a catch-all way to accomplish a few things with respect to security:

  1. Assert your security requirements over another company (may work for small companies if they can fund it, but generally doesn’t work for large companies with mature programs).
  2. Minimize risk of doing business with and potentially pass on liability to the recipient company. I.e. “We asked them if they did this thing, but we got breached because of them so they clearly didn’t do that thing so it is their fault.”
  3. Create negotiating points as part of contract negotiations for concessions.

The problem with these is they are attempting to impose a solution or liability on a program they don’t control. As a CSO I can’t agree to these things because being contractually obligated to a specific security solution or SLAs removes my decision making power for how to best manage that risk within my security program. Security programs change and are constantly adapting to stay ahead of threats and risks to the business. Being boxed into a solution contractually can actually create a risk, where there wouldn’t normally be one.

Fatigue Is Real

I genuinely struggle with this problem because security questionnaires have their uses, but are causing real fatigue across the industry. The questions fall into one of two categories: either they are largely the same across customers or they are completely bonkers and don’t justify a response. As both a sender and recipient of questionnaires I can definitely understand both sides of the issue. I want as much information about my supply chain customers, but want to minimize the specifics that I share outside of my control. I want lower cyber insurance premiums and I want to pass all my audits and regulatory inquiries. However, I think the industry has deviated from the original intent of the security questionnaire due to the real fear of being held liable for a failure in their security program, which includes their supply chain.

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