Information security programs are often measured by the number of things that happened or did not happen. There are metrics for network attacks, malware, cloud security and so on. That’s all well and good because, as Peter Drucker said, “What’s measured gets improved.” However, there’s no ready-made metric for security culture.

A large part of running a successful security shop is implementing the proper systems, measuring effectiveness and then doing what’s necessary to get better over time. Still, when you see all these big breaches that are impacting enormous corporations, government agencies and other organizations you assume would have their security in order, it begs the question: What’s going on?

The Problem With Security Culture

I don’t think it’s a lack of technical controls. Most of the big breaches that we’re hearing about take place in organizations that have spent untold dollars building out their security infrastructure. They have the most advanced perimeter controls, mobile security, cloud, you name it — it was budgeted, the money was spent and yet bad things still happen.

I don’t think it’s due to lack of expertise, either. I’m humbled every time I talk to IT or security professionals working for my clients or elsewhere in industry. I’m constantly reminded of just how little I know and how smart so many people in this industry really are.

So if it’s not technology and it’s not people, what is it? I’m convinced that the problem has to do with a lack of security culture. I’ve seen this at a relatively small level with many of my midsize enterprise clients. I’ve worked with many of them from the very beginning, and I’ve seen how their management’s interest in security can, over time, help build out a remarkably robust security program. Contrast that with other, larger organizations where I’m often brought in after the security program has already been established, and it’s night and day. The former is a model example of a thriving security culture, while the latter is an example of what not to do.

Culture Trumps Technology, People and Strategy

These challenges are pervasive across so many organizations and government agencies. When it comes to security culture, larger enterprises tend to be either:

  1. Set in their ways — focused on the business rather than embracing modern IT and security initiatives; or
  2. So rife with politics and bureaucracy that nothing can possibly get done, regardless of how much money is thrown at the problem.

Sometimes, a lack of security culture is a result of both of these afflictions. As hard as it is to define and measure, culture will determine how successful your security program is — whether or not management likes it or wants to see it that way.

Culture is more important than technology, the people you have working on your security team and the paperwork many organizations require to create the facade of security. Culture goes beyond the day-to-day tactical work that you’re doing. It even trumps strategy: You can have a mission statement and well-written goals, but what counts the most is what leadership does and reflects upon its employees.

Don’t Let Poor Security Culture Cause the Next Big Breach

If you go back and do a root cause analysis on most of the big breaches that have occurred, you’ll find that many of them stemmed from a culture working against the best interests of security. I have friends who currently work with or have worked with some of the very organizations that made headlines for suffering security incidents. I’m hearing from these people firsthand just how bad the culture is and how many hurdles they have to jump through to get anything done in terms of security. It’s a wonder that even more security breaches aren’t occurring, given all of the nonsense that’s going on.

Executives should make sure that their IT and security teams are addressing the basics and staying on top of security testing, remediation and oversight. Beyond that, security is ultimately up to you. Make it known that you take security seriously and hold people accountable when needed. Unless and until they see that you buy into the security culture and walk your talk, none of the paper pushed, processes implemented or money spent in the name of security really matters.

Listen to the podcast series: A CISO’s Guide to Obtaining Budget

More from CISO

Bridging the 3.4 Million Workforce Gap in Cybersecurity

As new cybersecurity threats continue to loom, the industry is running short of workers to face them. The 2022 (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study identified a 3.4 million worldwide cybersecurity worker gap; the total existing workforce is estimated at 4.7 million. Yet despite adding workers this past year, that gap continued to widen.Nearly 12,000 participants in that study felt that additional staff would have a hugely positive impact on their ability to perform their duties. More hires would boost proper risk…

CEO, CIO or CFO: Who Should Your CISO Report To?

As we move deeper into a digitally dependent future, the growing concern of data breaches and other cyber threats has led to the rise of the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). This position is essential in almost every company that relies on digital information. They are responsible for developing and implementing strategies to harden the organization's defenses against cyberattacks. However, while many organizations don't question the value of a CISO, there should be more debate over who this important role…

Everyone Wants to Build a Cyber Range: Should You?

In the last few years, IBM X-Force has seen an unprecedented increase in requests to build cyber ranges. By cyber ranges, we mean facilities or online spaces that enable team training and exercises of cyberattack responses. Companies understand the need to drill their plans based on real-world conditions and using real tools, attacks and procedures. What’s driving this increased demand? The increase in remote and hybrid work models emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the priority to collaborate and…

Why Quantum Computing Capabilities Are Creating Security Vulnerabilities Today

Quantum computing capabilities are already impacting your organization. While data encryption and operational disruption have long troubled Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs), the threat posed by emerging quantum computing capabilities is far more profound and immediate. Indeed, quantum computing poses an existential risk to the classical encryption protocols that enable virtually all digital transactions. Over the next several years, widespread data encryption mechanisms, such as public-key cryptography (PKC), could become vulnerable. Any classically encrypted communication could be wiretapped and is…