The Road To Breach Hell Is Paved With Accepted Risks

As the story about Sony Picture Entertainment continues to unfold, and we learn disturbing details, like the now infamous “password” directory, I am reminded of a problem I commonly see: assessing and accepting risks in isolation and those accepted risks materially contributing to a breach.

Organizations accept risk every day. It’s a normal part of existing. However, a fundamental requirement of accepting risk is understanding the risk, at least to some level. In many other aspects of business operations, risks are relatively clear cut: we might lose our investment in a new product if it flops, or we may have to lay off newly hired employees if an expected contract falls through. IT risk is a bit more complex, because the thing at risk is not well defined. The apparent downside to a given IT tradeoff might appear low, however in the larger context of other risks and fundamental attributes of the organization’s IT environment, the risk could be much more significant.

Nearly all major man-made disasters are the result of a chain of problems that line up in such a way that allows or enables the disaster and not the result of a single bad decision or bad stroke of luck. The most significant breaches I’ve witnessed had a similar set of weaknesses that lined up just so. Almost every time, at least some of the weaknesses were consciously accepted by management. However, managers would almost certainly not have made such tradeoff decisions if they understood that their decision could have lead to such a costly breach.

The problem is compounded when multiple tradeoffs are made that have no apparent relationship with each other, yet are related.

The message here is pretty simple: we need to do a better job of conveying the real risks of a given tradeoff, without overstating them, so that better risk decisions can be made. This is HARD. But it is necessary.

I’m not proposing that organizations stop accepting risk, but rather that they do a better job of understanding what risks they are actually accepting, so management is not left saying: “I would not have made that decision if I knew it would result in this significant of a breach.”

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