What business has to learn so that IT can align

26.02.2010 by Martin Kuppinger

We’re talking a lot about the need for IT to align with business. But it’s not about a one way road. There is no doubt that IT has to think much more “business”. Risk focus (here and here), performance management, the understanding of IT as Information Technology instead of Information Technology, the path towards an ERP for IT,… I think that many CIOs and CISOs are well aware of this and many of them are working towards that goal.

However, if I look at the business side, it appears to me that IT still is somewhat ignored when it is about alignment. Two examples out of many from my practice:

  • When talking about GRC initiatives at the IT level, customers frequently complain about risk management initiatives with focus on organizational risks where they are not even able to start a discussion about integration. However, any IT risk is just a risk because its associated with organizational and (sometimes) strategic risk. Thus, you can’t ignore the IT risk perspective from an “Enterprise” GRC perspective (which, by the way, is sort of an arrogant term, ignoring exactly the fact I’m discussing here – “Business GRC” would be much more appropriate). You can’t run a business without IT. It’s part of the operations. And IT risks might have severe impact on your overall business performance – look at fraud in financial institutions, data theft, and so on.
  • When talking with the Business GRC vendors – look at the upper layer here – some of them (not all!!!) show an attitude of “we’re doing the relevant business GRC instead of the irrelevant IT things” and claim that they don’t need to provide integration or to support the IT part of the business.

However, given that IT is an important part of every business (the German Bafin – the government agency responsible of auditing and controlling the financial institutions – explicitly claims that IT is a core part of banking business and has to be understood that way), that means ignoring risks. And, even more, it means ignoring that there are elements in risk management which are provided by IT. You need automated controls besides the manual controls. And all the Business GRC tools are IT tools, by the way.

The problem from my perspective is that as well some vendors as many responsibles in the organizations don’t want to play with the IT guys. However, they could not only do a much better job by better executing their controls but they as well could do their job correctly, by really adressing the whole breadth of (operational and strategic) risks.

That’s just one example where business has to learn to better align with IT – and it’s not the only one. Look at the description of business services. For sure there has to be a translation into IT services at some point of time. But before you can do that, you have to have something which can be translated. And frequently, the problem isn’t the translation but what has to be translated. If the original text isn’t sufficient, the translation result never will be. Everyone dealing with software development probably has made this experience: Many issues in software development are caused by an insufficient descriptions of the requirements.

I think that it is time that not only IT understands that it exists only because it provides value to the business but that businesses rely on IT and thus have to align with IT. And that Business/IT alignment is definitely not only something where IT has to learn a lot. Businesses have to do as well – to understand the operational impact of IT (and IT risks), to describe their service requirements, to accept that the operational risk associated with an IT risk has to be balanced with the opportunities of a business service. Just think about all the insecure applications we have in organizations just because a department required them and IT security concerns have been ignored. That has not only been because IT wasn’t able to translate the IT risk into an operational risk – it has been as well because business didn’t understand IT.

Thus, both have to learn. And sometimes it appears to me that business has to learn even more than IT. Not only the people within organizations, but as well the consultants at the different levels. So if your consultant for risk management hasn’t yet covered the operational impact of IT risks and how to deal with that, you should ask him why – and if he doesn’t provide a valide answer, you should re-think the engagement…


Approaches to secure your data in databases

17.02.2010 by Martin Kuppinger

Last week I had an interesting briefing with IBM regarding their Guardium acquisition. With that acquisition of a company specialized on database security, IBM becomes the second large vendor investing in that area, following Oracle who has Database Security products in its portfolio for some years now. The IBM/Guardium deal fits pretty well in the current time, when looking at the increasing problem of information theft. Besides IBM and Guardium there are some smaller vendors in that market which I will cover in another post near-time.

IBM Guardium, in contrast to the Oracle approach, is not tied to a specific database management system but works as an external solution. There are obviously pros and cons for both approaches. Performance, administration, flexibility regarding the defined policies and other aspects differ significantly. Thus, before choosing solutions, a detailed analysis of these approaches should be performed (and KuppingerCole will provide a market overview for database security around April which might be a good starting point for such an analysis).

The entry of IBM in that market shows an increasing maturity and relevance of this particular IT market segment. And it raises the question of which role database security can play within IT security. From my perspective, it is an interesting area which is mandatory to protect sensitive information. Information in databases is at risk, and cases like BKK or the stolen data from Swiss banks offered to the German government prove that. However, this is just one element within an IT security strategy focusing on authorized access to data. Securing the database with the wrong policies or with giving away privileged accounts to untrustworthy parties won’t help much. Thus, database security projects never ever should be driven by the database guys but must be understood as an element within IT security blueprints. Only a consistent approach to security will really reduce the security risks and thus the related operational risks.

Even more I think that database security always will be somewhat limited in its scope. Once data is outside the database, it doesn’t protect the data anymore. On the long run we might have to fundamentally rethink the concepts of today’s databases and make them “security-aware”. What do I mean by that? Data within databases should be inherently protected. Think about applying concepts we find today in Information Rights Management (IRM) at the document-level at a much more granular level to data within databases, ensuring that any record (or part of a record) can only be accessed according to defined policies. Such an approach would have massive impact on the existing technology. How to index? How to deal with encrypted information? How to define these policies? However, if you look at database security from a very fundamental point-of-view, it becomes obvious that applying database security to existing databases won’t fully solve the problem because it is only about “data at rest”.

Nevertheless I think that any organization has to think about implementing database security in the meantime, until we have better solutions sometimes in the far future – I’d expect fundamental changes to database technology to take at least 10-15 years to become ready for mass adoption. It might take even a little longer. To cite John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist who focused on theories with a short-term view when being critized for not looking at long-term evolutions: “On the long term we are all dead”. Given that, short-term we should evaluate and implement existing database security approaches, rethink the authentication and authorization approaches within databases (using the GRANT statement a little bit more detailed…) and integrate this with our overall IT security and governance approaches (and especially IAM). In the meantime, the vendors have to think about how to do the next fundamental step to make DBMS inherently security-aware.


What you could do with stolen data – a squib

17.02.2010 by Martin Kuppinger

Last week, the German health insurance company BKK had to unveil a severe information leak. The company has become blackmailed because someone had stolen masses of sensitive patient records. Besides the fact, that the way that this happened shows an astonishing carelessness when dealing with IT security and privacy at the BKK and raises many questions (see below), there are some interesting new options for the German government to work with this data.

You could for example take such patient records and combine them with the recently acquired stolen data from Switzerland about potential tax fraud. If you take for example people who recently showed insomnia or started bed-wetting, that should be fully sufficient for an initial suspicion by the attorneys. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other interesting opportunities of combining patient records with other types of information… Thus the thief probably should have approached the German government instead of the BKK. They are always willing to buy stolen things and to make use of that, like they have proven recently.

Some words about the BKK case itself: The BKK had outsourced some tasks to a call center. There hasn’t been an auditing about the privacy, IT security, or data protection approaches of that outsourcer. In fact, it appears that there have been other outsourcers and freelancers involved. Besides this, there was an IT company involved which did the support for the outsourced call center. The employees of that IT company had some privileged accounts with access to massive amounts of sensitive patient records.

Overall, there has obviously been a lack of understanding of IT security and privacy issues I seldomly have seen before, at least not in the healthcare and finance industry. No valid concept for differentiated access controls, no privileged access management, no data leakage prevention, nothing. Incredible – but true.


Posted in Privacy, Security | Comments Off

Simplifying or over-simplifying authentication?

10.02.2010 by Martin Kuppinger

My colleague Jörg Resch recently blogged a lot about approaches for “lightweight” authentication and the risks associated with them. There are many companies out there with new or claimed-to-be-new approaches on more or less strong and more or less valid authentication. Whether that’s the approach of isec, of GrIDsure, of Yubikey or one of the many other vendors out there, I doubt that there is the holy grail of authentication amongst. Some of them are definitely interesting, some of them not.  Many of them are interesting as one element in an authentication strategy – like GrIDsure, which is OEMed by other vendors as part of their solutions. There is no doubt that many of these solutions can provide value in specific use cases – Multifactor Corp. provides something for and from the cloud, Yubikey is lightweight, GrIDsure as well. There are other approaches where I doubt that they really provide the required usability. I’m not a friend of approaches where you have to recognize pictures or faces, but they appear to have their market as well.

However, what’s really important around all these approaches for strong authentication are two other aspects:

  1. How do they integrate and work together?
  2. Are they adequate to protect the transactions and interactions within a specific use case?

My point is: It is not about choosing the authentication mechanism but it is about choosing the best mix of few mechanisms, depending on your use cases. That requires an authentication (and authorization) strategy. That requires platforms for versatile authentication like the ones offered by vendors like ActivIdentity, Entrust, Oracle, and others. That requires a clear understanding of the risk and thus the security requirements of different use cases. Than it is about choosing the appropriate mechanism or a mix of them, to use step-up authentication if required and so on.

The biggest risk is that authentication is either not usable or to simple. That might happen when relying on a single mechanism. By mixing several ones, things become muh easier.

To learn more about that, you definitely should visit the European Identity Conference in Munich, May 4th to 7th. And there will be a market overview on the strong authentication market by KuppingerCole within the next few days – have a look at www.kuppingercole.com/reports.


Posted in Security, Strong authentication | Comments Off

How much security do we need?

04.02.2010 by Martin Kuppinger

My colleague Jörg Resch blogged today about the ignorance regarding layered security approaches. Yes, there is no absolute security. Security is something which is tightly related to risk. Given that we can’t have the perfect security, especially not with people using systems, it’s always about the balance between the security-imposed risk and the cost of risk mitigation.

That’s a very simple balance: The higher the risks are the more you can and should spend on risk mitigation – as long as risk mitigation is feasible (which is not always the case – a life insurance doesn’t help you mitigating the risk of dying…). I thoughtfully used the term “security-imposed risk”. It is NOT about security risks, but about the consequences of security-related incidents. Stolen data and their abuse, illegal transactions, customer loss due to a decrease in credibility,… – that’s what it is about.

But that doesn’t change the fundamental: When thinking about security we have to think about risks. I’ve blogged about Risk Management before. What we have to understand is that there is not THE information or system which has to be protected. We have different types of systems, information, and transactions which are at different risk. And we have to apply security (technology and organization) according to the risk associated with these different systems, information, and transactions.

There is not THE level of security you need. You need appropriate security for different types of transactions and interaction (and the related systems). Using risk as the main criteria in decisions about security investments helps to optimize what is done in IT security. And focusing on few consistent approaches at different levels (for example few different types of authentication with step-up features and so on, based on a versatile authentication platform; for example a consistent authorization strategy with few consistent levels of management and protection) will be much cheaper than spending too much money for point solutions like many (not all) of the DLP tools out there.

Understanding that different types of interactions and transactions have to be protected differently is the key to succesful IT security concepts. Risk is the core criteria to do that. Interestingly, that is not really new. What governmental and military organizations are doing in “information classification” (having started long before the invention of the computer) is nothing else than using risk as a criteria and definining different levels of protection for different interactions and transactions. Such concepts don’t have to be extremly complex. But a differentiated view has to be the guideline for everything which is done in IT security.

To learn more about this and to discuss this with your peers, have a look at our upcoming virtual conferences and our European Identity Conference 2010.


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