Risk Acceptance 101: What Happens When Security Needs Go Unfunded?

You’ve been doing all the right things with security. You’ve performed ongoing penetration testing, identified risk and tweaked your systems and processes accordingly. You’ve even reached out to other parts of the organization to ensure security is ingrained into each core business function.

This is the story of many chief information security officers (CISOs) today.

All appears well with security, but things aren’t quite what they seem to be — or (more importantly) what they could be. This gap is often due to a simple lack of funding, which translates to explicit risk acceptance.

Don’t Be Stingy With Security

When running an information security program, there are always more technologies to implement, staffers to hire and expertise to consult. However, security ultimately comes down to other people making decisions on your behalf.

With that in mind, what happens when identified security needs (or even mandates) go unfunded? Do you keep fighting month after month, year after year — or do you change your strategy? Even if you’re doing everything right within your power, you cannot adequately protect your organization if its leadership refuses to fund security efforts adequately.

Quite frankly, it’s not a pretty scenario. An unfunded mandate is not really a mandate — it’s merely a suggestion, wish or desire that’s never fulfilled. This is often referred to as technical debt (or, better yet, security debt). This debt is comprised of liabilities that add up over time and must eventually be paid off, either by performing the hard work required to shore up vulnerable systems or in the form of security incidents and exposures.

There are two different prices tied to security debt: an upfront cost that management knows about (and the business can reasonably handle) and a future price that carries unknown side effects that are exponentially more expensive. We are seeing this manifest in the significant breaches that have made headlines over the past few years, many of which cost affected companies millions to remediate. It’s safe to say proactive vulnerability testing, patch management and user awareness initiatives would have cost much less.

Security leaders have the power to choose whether to take action now or put security needs off indefinitely. Both action and inaction will product results — it just depends on which side of the latest data breach story you want to be on.

As Richard Carlson, author of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” once said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Whether or not an incident or a confirmed breach have hit you, you know it’s merely a numbers game: It’s only a matter of time before your business suffers like so many others.

Don’t Let Limited Resources Translate to Risk Acceptance

Once you’ve identified specific risks, you can’t simply deem them as acceptable and move on.

You have to ask questions:

  • What’s next?
  • Who ultimately decides what’s acceptable?
  • What are the criteria used to make this determination?
  • Is it going to be defensible in a court of law?
  • Are there compensating controls or other alternatives?
  • Assuming there was original budget, are the original dollars reallocated?
  • What about projects that are started but ultimately killed?

Funding security needs can be a lot like investing in the stock market. You never really know what and when the payoff will be. Once security-related risks have been identified, they’re on the books. If they are ignored for long enough — and the organization suffers an impactful security event — it’s going to come out that the known issue was not taken seriously.

In my work as an expert witness, I’ve seen plenty of defendants struggle to make the case that they were performing due care and taking the right steps to address the riskiest issues. Opposing counsel will love this and inevitably hire expert witnesses, forensics investigators and others to show that more could have been done to address security. The only way to address these challenges is to make sure security needs are funded when and where possible, as soon as possible.

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

Kevin Beaver

Independent Information Security Consultant

Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, writer, and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle...