Intel CISO:Biggest security threat is not understanding risk

Overestimating or underestimating risk is often the weakest part of the armor of information security, said Malcolm Harkins

What is the most significant vulnerability that information security faces today and in the future? According to Malcolm Harkins, CISO of Intel, the biggest threat facing infosec is the misperception of risk.

Harkins spoke Thursday at the Forrester Security Forum 2010 in Boston and asked infosec professionals who attended to first ponder what they thought was the biggest risk they are facing within their own organizations. Several people had answers: Insider threats and people were suggested by some. Harkin agreed that it is indeed people, but not perhaps for the reasons participants had in mind. Instead, he argued, both exaggeration and underestimation of risk in the human mind is what leaves us most vulnerable to danger.

There are two things that drive misperception: economics and psychology, said Harkin. When it comes to economics, choices are made by decision makers as they are affected by incentive and resources.

"As a security professional, I've started thinking about the fact that we are choice architects. We are trying to get people to think about things and make decisions," he said.

For more about risk, psychology and security, see Understanding risk, post-Katrina and Should surveillance cameras detect criminals or deter crime?

From a psychology perspective, the greater people perceive a benefit, the greater the tolerance of risk. Some examples of this include organizational adoptions of technologies such as cloud computing, virtualization, and social media. All present great advantages to business, so the security risk they present are acceptable, noted Harkins.

But where things get complex is in how people perceive the risk of these technologies. An underestimation means your organization may not be accurately prepared for some kind of security incident. And overestimation of risk means an organization may be giving too much attention to one area and neglecting another.

"How many of us get e-mails from managers who want to know what we're doing about something they saw in the paper--the 'risk du jour'?" asked Harkins "That kind of exaggeration can be as frustrating as underestimation."

What is necessary for security to balance these two extremes and mitigate the vulnerability of misperceiving risk is objectivity, agility and influence, he said. He laid out four important components to implementing these characteristics into daily work as a security professional. They are:

* Prediction: Using proactive measures to identify attackers and their motives and methods.

* Persistence: Having the means and stamina to sustain the engagement with other decision makers in the organization.

* Patience: Conducting the persistence with patience. Don't be the alarmist, said Harkin. Calmly wait until the opportunity arises again to make the case.

* Preparedness: Being ready to rapidly respond to an event or to face a vulnerability.

"If you do this right, you will continue to gain influence in your business. They will see you as that business partner helping them to protect," noted Harkins. "Don't take of victim's approach to managing information risk and security."

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Joan Goodchild

CSO (US)
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