A Few Good Information Security Metrics
Andrew Jaquith says information security metrics don't have to rely on heavy-duty math to be effective, but they also don't have to be dumbed down to red, yellow, green. Here are five smart measurements--and effective ways to present them.
July 01, 2005 — CSO —
Information security metrics have a bad rep. Mention metrics to a CISO and immediately his thoughts may well turn to sigmas, standard deviations and, probably, probability. To many, metrics equals statistics.
There's no denying that proven economic principles can, and should, be applied to information security investments. At the same time, a bumper crop of valuable metrics exist that don't require classes on Nobel Prize-winning theories or a working knowledge of the Greek alphabet. You've actually already sowed the seeds of these less dense but equally valuable metrics. They're sitting in your log files, on your network, in the brains of your business unit managers, just waiting to be harvested. You won't need computational prowess to exploit this crop's value, just some legwork and—this is key—the most effective presentation tools.
See the best of CSO's security metrics coverage in our Security metrics: Critical issues updated roundup
Here we discuss five such metrics, along with some ways to present them visually, as imagined by Andrew Jaquith. Jaquith is a cofounder of the consultancy @stake (which was bought in 2004 by Symantec) and a protege of infosecurity guru Dan Geer. At @stake he invented a popular analytic methodology that is used to evaluate a client's risk in its application portfolio. He's since left Symantec and joined The Yankee Group. More recently he started Securitymetrics.org, a website open to all security professionals for sharing, contributing and advancing the use of metrics in information security. He has also written a book, Security Metrics: Replacing Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, due out later this year.
Jaquith has sharp, sometimes contrarian opinions on what makes a good metric and what makes for good presentation of metrics. For example, he thinks annual loss expectancy (ALE), a tool used to measure potential losses against probability of losses occurring over time, is useless, because in infosecurity, the L and the E in ALE are wild guesses. Quoting Geer, he says, "The numbers are too poor even to lie with."
He also thinks CISOs are too apt to dumb down visual representations of metrics for their executive counterparts, mistaking simplicity for clarity. He holds a particular grudge against the overuse of the "red, yellow, green" representation of metrics to signify high, medium and low numbers. "A CEO's favorite visualization of metrics is a stock chart, a 1-inch square that contains a month's worth of opening and closing prices, a trend line and several other indicators. Maybe 50 or more data points right there. Don't tell me they can't handle complex data. They can, as long as it's presented well."
By no means does Jaquith (or CSO for that matter) think these five metrics are the final word on infosecurity. Quite the contrary, they're a starting point, relatively easy to ascertain and hopefully smart enough to get CISOs thinking about finding other metrics like these, out in the vast fields of data, waiting to be reaped.
Metric 1: Baseline Defenses Coverage (Antivirus, Antispyware, Firewall, and so on)
This is a measurement of how well you are protecting your enterprise against the most basic information security threats. Your coverage of devices by these security tools should be in the range of 94 percent to 98 percent. Less than 90 percent coverage may be cause for concern. You can repeat the network scan at regular intervals to see if coverage is slipping or holding steady. If in one quarter you've got 96 percent antivirus coverage, and it's 91 percent two quarters later, you may need more formalized protocols for introducing devices to the network or a better way to introduce defenses to devices. In some cases, a drop may stir you to think about working with IT to centralize and unify the process by which devices and security software are introduced to the network. An added benefit: By looking at security coverage, you're also auditing your network and most likely discovering devices the network doesn't know about. "At any given time, your network management software doesn't know about 30 percent of the IP addresses on your network," says Jaquith, because either they were brought online ad hoc or they're transient.
How to get it: Run network scans and canvass departments to find as many devices and their network IP addresses as you can. Then check those devices' IP addresses against the IP addresses in the log files of your antivirus, antispyware, IDS, firewall and other security products to find out how many IP addresses aren't covered by your basic defenses.
Expressed as: Usually a percentage. (For example, 88 percent coverage of devices by antivirus software, 71 percent coverage of devices by antispyware and so forth.)
Not good for: Shouldn't be used for answering the question "How secure am I?" Maximum coverage, while an important baseline, is too narrow in scope to give any sort of overall idea of your security profile. Also, probably not yet ready to include cell phones, BlackBerrys and other personal devices, because those devices are often transient and not always the property of the company, even if they connect to the company.
Try these advanced versions: You can parse coverage percentages according to several secondary variables. For example, percentage coverage by class of device (for instance, 98 percent antivirus coverage of desktops, 87 percent of servers) or by business unit or geography (for instance, 92 percent antispyware coverage of desktops in operations, 83 percent of desktops in marketing) will help uncover tendencies of certain types of infrastructure, people or offices to miss security coverage. In addition, it's a good idea to add a time variable: Average age of antivirus definitions (or antispyware or firewall rules and so on). That is, 98 percent antivirus coverage of manufacturing servers is useless if the average age of the virus definitions on manufacturing's servers is 335 days. A star company, Jaquith says, will have 95 percent of their desktops covered by antivirus software with virus definitions less than three days old.
One possible visualization: Baseline defenses can be effectively presented with a "you are here" (YAH) graphic. A YAH needs a benchmark—in this case it's the company's overall coverage. After that, a business unit, geography or other variable can be plotted against the benchmark. This creates an easy-to-see graph of who or what is close to "normal" and will suggest where most attention needs to go. YAHs are an essential benchmarking tool. The word "you" should appear many times on one graphic. Remember, executives aren't scared of complexity as long as it's clear. Here's an example: plotting the percentages of five business units' antivirus and antispyware coverage and the time of their last update against a companywide benchmark.(continued)