Everything Is Best When It Comes to Cybersecurity Best Practices

May 2, 2019
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4 min read

Because innovation is moving so rapidly, keeping up with industry best practices can seem like a full-time job on its own. Plus, attackers are constantly evolving their campaigns, often exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities with attacks that have no known signature — allowing them to evade detection from most security tools.

How can security professionals keep up with cybersecurity best practices without taking too much time away from other responsibilities? It starts with understanding and accurately defining “best.”

What Does ‘Best’ Even Mean?

In Paul Reps’ “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,” there is a story of an ancient philosopher named Banzan, who was walking through a market when he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer:

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

For centuries, the idea that everything is best has confounded human beings, but it’s a lesson that has great value for security practitioners.

Cybersecurity best practices are often driven by the vendor community within information security, but they are nothing more than a set of methodologies and processes based on the theory of what will allow a company to stop or contain a breach, according to Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra. The processes may work for one company but might not work for anyone else, and that’s where you can start to see a morsel of truth in the idea that everything is best.

“There should always be room for new thinking and innovation. With new innovation comes new ideas and better ways of performing processes,” Morales said. “Every security expert should be constantly thinking of ways to improve and not just relying on old methods and existing best practices.”

Mark Chaplin, principal at the Information Security Forum (ISF), agreed that the term “best” is frequently used as if it is a magical formula for protecting an organization. With such a vast and expanding threat landscape, though, there is no set of formulas you can apply at the flick of a switch. As a result, the very concept of best security practices can be problematic.

“Business operations, maturity, use of technology and industry sector are just some of the factors that dictate what an organization considers best practice in securing its information and technology,” said Chaplin. “Legal, regulatory and industry obligations also add to the challenge, as they often need to be incorporated into the organization’s security policies, standards and procedures.”

Practices That Transcend Time and Technology

Many organizations leverage more than one standard or framework, such as the ISF’s Standard of Good Practice for Information Security, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) ISO/IEC 27002, or the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework. However, Chaplin pointed out that this approach typically culminates in a hybrid set of policies, standards and procedures that is actually tailored according to the organization’s risk profile.

While change may be the one constant when it comes to security practices, Chris Weber, co-founder of Casaba Security, said, “Well-designed security practices are often simple and timeless; they are general enough to be technology-agnostic and to apply a philosophy that’s as effective 25 years ago as it is today — and as it might be 25 years from now.”

Staying focused on the fundamentals seems to be the single best practice that transcends time and technology. Because there are always new security tools that promise to better protect the enterprise, Nathan Wenzler, senior director of cybersecurity at Moss Adams, noted that patching, application security, asset management, system hardening, event monitoring and all things typically categorized as boring or basic are what consistently need to be done, though they are still not happening in many companies.

Even if some of this is in place, it’s often not executed as well as it could be, and these organizations aren’t getting the biggest bang for their buck in leveraging basic security controls fully, according to Wenzler. “The tools evolve and change, but the best practices around focusing on the fundamentals seldom do,” Wenzler added.

Managing Time in Changing Tides

Cybersecurity best practices are like any other tool used by security professionals to manage information risk: They should only be used when needed. Unfortunately, practitioners can sometimes put too much faith in best practices, which Morales said can come at the cost of delivering the most appropriate security measures for an organization.

“It is important to remain aware of developments that shape the security standards and compliance landscape, and keep in mind the factors that influence how information risk needs to be managed throughout the organization,” said Morales.

When deciding on whether or not to adopt a new standard, security professionals should first assess its suitability:

  • Does it cover all the important issues?
  • Does it include the latest developments in technology?
  • Is it clear and unambiguous?
  • Does it provide sufficient detail to be practical?

Still, the best principles will remain unchanged over the course of time.

“Basically, if I need certain capabilities to do something, I should have those capabilities and only those capabilities — and only over the data or resources that are scoped to my responsibility and only for as long as necessary to perform those operations,” said Dr. John Michener, chief scientist at Casaba Security.

The Value of Keeping up With Cybersecurity Best Practices

Certainly, the resource of time is highly constrained for security professionals, which begs the question of whether time spent on keeping up with changes in security practices actually has value. What’s the return on that investment?

“Putting compliance obligations aside, an effective approach to risk management requires a focus on the most common threats and exposures that lead to the greatest business impacts and financial loss,” Morales said. In making the decision to adopt a particular best practice, it’s important to focus on the goal of improving risk management activities.

According to Weber, meanwhile, Microsoft has spent more than a decade integrating cybersecurity best practices into their software development life cycle (SDLC), and the data indicates that the return on investment far surpasses the alternative of tacking on security at the end.

“The extra time and cost of building a security mindset into the development culture along with technical checkpoints along the way is less than the high cost of responding to security incidents,” Weber said.

As standards and guidelines continue to evolve, most organizations, such as NIST and the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), are reviewing and revising rather than trying to completely redefine cybersecurity best practices. The definition of best will continue to evolve as changes in technology challenge the established baseline of best practices. Rather than rebuild from the ground up, take the Zen approach of realizing that everything is best, rely on a set of core fundamental practices and be open to change.

Kacy Zurkus

Zurkus is an influential writer covering a range of security topics with a focus on mitigating risks to businesses. Her work has been published in a variety ...
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