Information Security – it’s not only about the technical controls!

Security means many different things in different contexts. With Information Security, it should be about protection of an asset from a known threat. But many times there are biases to security solutions based on controls that are predetermined. The most important questions that should be asked before the how part is defined for a security solution are;


  1. Why is there a need to establish security? It’s an important premise that you determine the value of information to your organization and to your adversaries.
  2. Secondly, who are you protecting this information from? If one is to protect something, one has to identify what the threats are, so as to take appropriate steps to mitigate them.
  3. Thirdly, protection or prevention is one aspect of security controls. Considere detective and corrective mitigating controls addition to preventative mechanisms that could fail.

Because of biases in specialty areas, there could be a tendency to emphasize specific technical controls in defining a security solution. This leaves a great deal of ambiguity and more fuel for fear, uncertainty, and doubt that plagues the field of protecting computer information systems. And as Matthew Rosenquist described in one of his blog posts last year when asked for one word to describe the biggest challenge in information security these days, he used the word ambiguity. While many security researchers are trying to find the latest security flaw, other security professionals are trying to determine how the next security tools provide better technical protection capabilities. But it’s important to realize that information security is not only about the technical solution, it should be a business decision first.

Information Security is not only about technical threats and so technical security controls should not be the first consideration for protection. Technology is often among several other countermeasures used to implement a security solution after defining what it is that needs protecting and from whom it needs protection. This is where administrative controls should be considered first so that the definition of what needs to protect can be defined through procedural controls. Some industries have policies, standards and guidelines that must be followed based on the type (classification) of information, but risk should be evaluated based on threats in context of the environment for which the information made available through processes, transferred, stored, or destroyed. A defense-in-depth strategy should be considered during the earliest stages of the development lifecycle  but oftentimes there are changes to the environment that are made well after the deployment of a system or software solution that can introduce risk from new threats or greater exposure to existing ones. Before administrative controls are defined, a risk assessment should be completed to analyze the threats for which any system is vulnerable to.

The real value of a risk assessment is that some systems may process information that is not under industry regulations for protection but still have value to an organization. In many cases an organization will focus on risk from audit failures and apply most of the security dollars to mitigate risks defined by audit report because information classification levels require regulatory protection such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX),  PCI Data Security Standard (DSS), or Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) just to name a few. But information of value does not only fall under classifications that have industry standards for protection levels. The risk assessment is a way to have dialog amongst the team and is helpful to communicate with management across the board for all information protection requirements becuase ultimately it is a business decision to implement security controls. Additionally, security controls can be protective but detective and corrective security controls should always be a consideration for a Defense-In-Depth security strategy. One strategy that is taking a more reasonable approach to increasing the level of information assurance is the focus on the threat rather than the vulnerability through the use of a Threat Agent Risk Assessment methodology developed by Intel. This approach places emphasis on what is reasonably possible from a threat perspective in order to address the most likely events.