I found myself in a discussion earlier this week that worked its way into return on investment topics. Of course nobody could really agree on what the return was which is sort of how these conversations often work out. It’s really hard to decide what the return on investment is for security features and products. It can be hard to even determine cost sometimes, which should be the easy number to figure out.
All this talk got me thinking about something I’m going to call risk investment. The idea here is that you have a risk, which we’ll think about as the cost. You have an investment of some sort, it could be a product, training, maybe staff. This investment in theory reduces your risk in some measurable way. The reduction of the risk is the return on risk investment. We like to think about these things in the context of money, but risk doesn’t exactly work that way. Risk isn’t something that can often be measured easily. Even incredibly risky behaviors can work out fine, and playing it safe can end horribly. Rather than try to equate everything to money, what if we ignored that for the moment and just worried about risk.
First, how do you measure your risk? There isn’t a nice answer for this. There are plenty of security frameworks you can use. There are plenty of methodologies that exist, threat modeling, attack surface analysis, pen test reports, architecture reviews, automated scanning of products and infrastructure. There’s no single good answer to this question. I can’t tell you what your risk profile is, you have to decide how you’re going to measure this. What are you protecting? If it’s some sort of regulated data, there will be substantial cost in losing it, so this risk measurement is easy. It’s less obvious if you’re not operating in an environment that has direct cost to having an incident. It’s even possible you have systems and applications that pose zero risk (yeah, I said it).
Assuming we have a way to determine risk, now we wonder how do you measure the return on controlling risk? This is possibly more tricky than deciding on how to measure your risk. You can’t prove a negative in many instances, there’s no way to say your investment is preventing something from happening. Rather than measure how many times you didn’t get hacked, the right way to think about this is if you were doing nothing, how would you measure your level of risk? We can refer back to our risk measurement method for that. Now we think about where we do have certain protections in place, what will an incident look like? How much less trouble will there be? If you can’t answer this you’re probably in trouble. This is the important data point though. When there is an incident, how do you think your counter measures will help mitigate damage? What was your investment in the risk?
And now this brings us to our Return on Risk Investment, or RORI as I’ll call it, because I can and who doesn’t like acronyms? Here’s the thing to think about if you’re a security leader. If you have risk, which we all do, you must find some way to measure it. If you can’t measure something you don’t understand it. If you can’t measure your risk, you don’t understand your risk. Once you have your method to understand what’s happening, make note of your risk measurement without any sort of security measures in place, your risk with ideal (not perfect, perfect doesn’t exist) measures in place, and your risk with existing measures in place. That will give you an idea of how effective what you’re doing is. Here’s the thing to watch for. If your existing measures are close to the risk level for no measures, that’s not a positive return. Those are things you either should fix or stop doing. Sometimes it’s OK to stop doing something that doesn’t really work. Cargo Cult security is real, it doesn’t work, and it wastes money. The trick is to find a balance that can show measurable risk reduction without breaking the bank.