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Use the Right Security Metrics in the Right Way

Metrics are an important element of making effective business decisions. When it comes to security, metrics can help you determine the performance of current security tools and processes, and identify weaknesses or areas to be improved. Security metrics can also help you identify and thwart an ongoing attack against your network or data. That assumes, however, that you’re looking at the right metrics and acting on the information appropriately.

Wrong metrics yield wrong results

Consider the Titanic, and let’s assume for a minute that metric data was being collected and reported, ostensibly to ensure the ship safely navigates through a sea of icebergs. How valuable would it be for the captain to receive a report detailing the number of deck chairs on the ship, along with how many of them were damaged and in need of repair? Zero.

Capture and analyze the right information

Organizations need to have tools and processes in place that enable them to capture and analyze the right information. From a security perspective, it helps to work backward. Consider what a successful attack looks like, and the events and activities that lead up to it. That way you can identify the appropriate indicators of compromise that should trigger an immediate response.

Right metrics, wrong process

Let’s go back to our Titanic example. It would obviously have been much more valuable for the captain of the Titanic to receive a report detailing the icebergs that had been identified in the path of the ship, along with a series of recommendations for how to adjust navigation to avoid them. If the captain did not regularly view the metrics reports though, and if there was no process in place to separate important information about icebergs from irrelevant information like the number of deck chairs, the results would be the same.

Separate important information from irrelevant information

Another example of having the right information with the wrong process was the data breach of U.S. retail chain Target in late 2013. A 2014 article explains, “Target confirmed Friday that the hack attack against the retailer's point-of-sale (POS) systems that began in late November triggered alarms, which its information security team evaluated and chose to ignore.”

Differentiate critical alerts from trivial alerts

In other words, Target had the right security in place, and the tools to generate the alerts necessary to make security personnel aware that a critical event was happening, but the process for differentiating critical alerts from trivial alerts and responding appropriately to that information was flawed.

Doing metrics the right way

The Titanic examples illustrate that there is a right way and a wrong way to do metrics. First, you have to be focusing on the right metrics—gathering data that actually matters for the important decisions you need to make. Second, you must be able to separate the signal from the noise and have a process in place to ensure that critical and/or timely information is seen and acted upon appropriately.

Respond appropriately

Not all metrics or the processes for handling them need to be about ongoing attacks or urgent incident response. If the iceberg threat was addressed, the captain of the Titanic might still be interested in the current state of deck chair repairs. Gather and report data on as much as you can. Just make sure you can differentiate trivial data from important data—that you can separate actionable intelligence from general information —and ensure that you have the processes in place to respond appropriately to the metrics that matter most.

More information

Recently, Tenable sponsored publication of the ebook, Using Security Metrics to Drive Action: 33 Experts Share How to Communicate Security Program Effectiveness to business Executives and the Board. The ebook is a compilation of essays by security officers who share their best practices for implementing an effective security metrics program. Download your free copy for a gold mine of advice.