The five most common IT security missteps

Sponsored By: Optiv

By Cheryl McGrath, Area Vice President and Country General Manager, Canada, Optiv

All too often, enterprises get caught in the familiar cycle of deploying an endless stream of the latest and greatest security products and assuming this will successfully mitigate risk. More often than not, though, this creates a complex and wasteful technology sprawl and an incomplete view of the full cyber security portfolio. So, it’s not surprising that when a data breach occurs, companies again must revert to reactive mode and spend time and resources searching for the root cause – whether it’s a misconfigured device, an unpatched application, an employee falling for a phishing attack or some other reason. But this approach often “misses the forest for the trees” since most breaches are not the result of these moment-in-time errors. Instead, they are almost always caused by decisions made well before the breach ever occurs.

By taking more time to build a risk-centric foundation that includes making better decisions relating to security funding and operations, enterprises in Canada and beyond can dramatically reduce the likelihood of a breach months or even years down the road. Here’s my list of the top five areas where IT security typically breaks down and can cause enterprises to increase the risk of a breach.

Misstep 1: Underestimating the need for professional services to optimize technology investments
Most of us who wish to stay healthy understand the value of visiting the doctor at regular intervals for checkups. If we were all experts on physical fitness and diet, we wouldn’t need doctors. Unfortunately, many enterprises do not adapt this recipe for personal health to their security environments. This manifests itself in their budgets – they budget for product/maintenance renewals, but not for professional services to determine if their products are performing the way they should.

This “set it and forget it” mentality has led to an epidemic of sub-optimally configured and deployed security tools that create significant gaps in defenses. This is why so many enterprises today find themselves with massively complex, disparate and expensive-to-manage security infrastructures that, when all is said and done, are largely ineffective against modern adversaries.

One other thing to consider: Many organizations assume that security OEMs are the best resource for deploying and optimizing their security environments. The reality is, OEMs are manufacturers, not security services integrators (SSIs), and their expertise is often limited to their own technology suite. To truly understand one’s infrastructure, it’s critical to have assessments conducted by technology-neutral professional services organizations that can provide strategic guidance on infrastructure rationalization and optimization.

Misstep 2: Relying on a DIY approach to technology implementation
Many organizations take a “do it yourself” (DIY) approach to security technology implementation. Security skillsets are more readily available today on the employee market than ever before, and it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to save money by using internal staff to deploy new technologies. Not surprisingly, this can lead to problems ranging from configuration issues to suboptimal use of product features. In fact, DIY deployments are one of the most common sources of vulnerability causing data breaches. Recent statistics confirm that a majority of breaches have occurred within companies that only use DIY resources.

While it’s understandable that many IT and security personnel want to take on product deployment in-house – largely due to budget constraints – it often results in one of two undesirable scenarios:

  • The person responsible for implementation is not an expert on the product or service, so the technology is incorrectly configured.
  • The department in charge is resource-constrained, so they rush to deploy the product or service without understanding its capabilities and enabling its advanced features. Replacing a simple port-based firewall with a next-generation firewall and migrating legacy rule sets simply ensures the same problems as before – with more expense.

The first problem opens organizations up to security and compliance risks, while the latter prevents them from optimizing their technology investments.

Misstep 3: Over-complicating technology deployments at the expense of effectiveness
When you buy a new car, it’s all too easy to get caught up in fancy bells and whistles, rather than focusing on what really matters – like driver position and the comfort of using gas and brake pedals. Similarly, some IT and security teams have a tendency to over-configure new technology with endless custom rules designed to send alerts on every possible scenario – largely because they think this strategy will help them justify their investment to c-suite and board members.

However, configuring too many rules can prevent the security operations team from seeing the forest through the trees. Rather than alerting you to real anomalous events, suspicious activity and potential threats, it can bombard you with an oppressive number of security alerts that turn out to be redundant or false-positives. Devoting so much time to benign alerts causes organizations to waste enormous resources and severely compromises security effectiveness.

Misstep 4: Failure to gain visibility into the complete technology environment
Most security organizations don’t have a complete understanding of the products and services in their IT environments. Rogue IT business units pop up everywhere, introducing complexity and risk for security operations teams. This is dangerous, because you can’t protect systems, services and other assets if you don’t even know you have them. On top of this, many security organizations don’t fully understand how the technologies in their security environments can potentially integrate together to make life easier on their security operations teams. Once the inventory is done, then security teams can capitalize on the myriad of orchestration and automation options on the market to make them more efficient. Additionally, there is a burgeoning shelfware problem in security, where organizations purchase the latest “check list” of security tools but then never get around to deploying them.

It is critical for security organizations to take a step back and understand their complete inventory of security tools and services, as well as the IT assets they are supposed to protect. If nothing else, get help discovering and learning what is in the environment before adding more complexity. Once this is done, it becomes possible to rationalize the security infrastructure into a more manageable and cohesive framework that maps to the organization’s IT infrastructure and business objectives.

Misstep 5: Setting unrealistic expectations for security projects
Many security practitioners view their jobs in a vacuum, and fail to realize that their company is unable to move as quickly as they would like. Security projects often affect business users, requiring them to dedicate time in requirements gathering or to test applications following a cutover. Fairly frequently, we see clients building project timelines for security projects that are simply unreasonable given the size and complexity of the business.

When planning out any security project, it is vital to understand the capabilities of the internal staff to get high-quality work done in a reasonable time frame. It isn’t realistic to assign overly demanding timelines to overworked or under-skilled staff, because they will make mistakes and, ultimately, miss their deadlines (and miss them badly). It is far better to assign achievable timelines that account for individual workloads and skill sets – this will result in fewer errors and delays.

Overcoming the five missteps: Putting your security program on sure footing
Companies impacted by any one of these missteps face increased security and compliance risks. In addition, they likely aren’t getting the full value out of their technology investments, which can be a major problem when it is time to explain to executives how budget dollars are translating into improved security posture.

When it comes to avoiding these potential pitfalls, awareness is half the battle. The other half is translating this knowledge into sound decision-making on security investments, operations and strategies. The only way to truly reduce the risk of data breaches, compliance violations and wasted resources is to abandon the age-old, reactive “outside in” approach to security (where decisions are based on the latest threats, regulations and other external forces). Instead, security professionals should take the opposite approach to security: inside-out, where security strategy starts with a core understanding of enterprise needs, strategy and risk profile. This enables organizations to rationalize their infrastructure and optimize operations so everything maps to the enterprise risk model, rather than the latest headline-grabbing threat. As the saying goes, “The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Get professional help. Security systems integrators have the advantage of working with many clients and pattern-matching what works and what doesn’t. This knowledge dramatically increases the likelihood that companies will achieve enterprise security that is radically stronger, simpler, less costly and more accountable…with far fewer missteps!


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Sponsored By: Optiv