Spend Your Infosec Dollars on the Things that Work Best First

If your organization is like most of the ones we deal with every day, you have a lot of information security controls that you are being pressed to implement, but you only have a limited budget to implement them with. How are you supposed to decide where those very scarce dollars go? I recommend implementing those controls that have proven their worth through time and trial first.

Just about nine years ago, early in the Obama administration, there was a big push to improve information cybersecurity across the board. Infosec experts from all disciplines shared ideas and information, debated strategies and mechanisms, and developed what was then called the Consensus Audit Guidelines. Around this same time Brent Huston and the MSI team developed our 80/20 Rule for Information Security. The goal of both of these endeavors was the same: rank infosec controls hierarchically according to necessity and effectiveness. This is, of course, an ongoing process subject to disagreement and periodic changes in thinking. But here are some of the primary controls that we champion.

Inventories of hardware and software assets. You can’t protect your network if you don’t know what is on it. Ensuring that your organization has mechanisms and processes in place to constantly monitor network inventories is well worth the cost. We also recommend that organizations leverage inventory processes to map data flows and trust relationships among network entities. This information can help you spot weak points in your security posture and is very useful in business continuity planning.

Configuration control and security maintenance. I can’t tell you how many network compromises that I have seen that were the result of systems that were misconfigured, or that were missing security updates. All network entities should be fully “hardened” and included in the security maintenance program. Configuration and security maintenance processes should be fully documented, maintained and overseen. Forgetting to change one default administrator password or to apply one security patch can mean the difference between security and compromise. Although these processes are labor-intensive, there are devices and applications available that can help your personnel to keep on top of them.

Vulnerability and security assessment processes. Humans are fallible. Even if you have good configuration and maintenance processes in place, you still need to check and make sure that nothing has fallen through the cracks. You also need to see if there are any access control problems, miscoding in applications or other vulnerabilities on your networks. This means regular vulnerability assessments of networks and applications. If your budget allows it, assessments such as penetration testing and social engineering exercises can also be very illuminating.

Privileged access control and monitoring. Attaining administrative-level access is the Holy Grail of cyber criminals. If you can achieve domain admin access privileges, you pretty much have the keys to the kingdom. So, ensure that privileged access is fully controlled and monitored on your network. Admins should use separate passwords for admin duties and simple network access, and adding/changing admin accounts or out-of-bounds admin activities should create alerts on the system. This is inexpensive to implement, and more than worth the effort.

Security monitoring and egress filtering. One of the processes that everyone seems to have trouble doing well is security monitoring. This is probably because it is at once a daunting and boring task. However, security monitoring is essential. It also demands a good deal of human participation. Although we strongly advocate using tools to help aggregate, parse and supply basic analysis of log data, only humans are fit to do the final analysis. One very effective part of this task is egress filtering. Egress filtering is the practice of monitoring and restricting the flow of information outbound from the network. This control is relatively easy to implement and can save the day by stopping large-scale exfiltration of data from your network in the event other security controls have been circumvented.

Security training and awareness mechanisms. It should always be remembered that information security is a human problem, not a technological problem. Because of this, your own personnel can either be your greatest security threat or your greatest security asset. Security training (accompanied by employee buy-in to the security program) can help assure that your employees are security assets. Security training should be provided to new hires and all employees on a recurrent basis. Awareness reminders should reflect real-world threats and should be provided on an as-needed basis. In addition, we recommend high-risk job titles such as system admins and code developers should be provided with security gap training to help ensure that they have all the skills needed to prevent and detect security incidents in your environment.

The controls mentioned above are certainly not all that are needed for a well-balanced information security program, but they do carry a lot of bang for the buck. So, make sure you have these primary controls in place before you waste your security dollar on flashier, but less effective mechanisms.