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Why Security People View Transparency as a Bad Thing

Wikipedia defines transparency as “operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. It has been defined simply as ‘the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender.’” For example, after a point of sale transaction, a cashier practices transparency by offering a receipt for the items purchased and by counting out the customer's change on the counter.

On the surface, Wikipedia makes it sound like transparency is a very good thing when you can operate with information that is reliable and clear. So why do we have such a difficult time when it comes to transparency in the security field? If you look back at the shared assessment model that the BITS organization has been advocating for over 10 years, you will find that while there has been some adoption, the model has not lived up to expectations. As more companies depend on their business partners, why is transparency such a difficult issue? Why do we continue to struggle in this area? It’s not a case of people not recognizing the value of transparency; it’s an overall reluctance to provide broadly disseminated information.

It’s obvious that a number of companies were breached not because of transparency but because there was no transparency

Many security professionals will tell you that we can’t have transparency in security because that would give the bad guys opportunities to target their actions against us. But the bad guys already know your environment, they have a pretty good idea of the tools that you have deployed, and they have a pretty reliable approach to getting into your organization. They know the tools’ level of protection and they know how to easily infiltrate most organizations. So what are we protecting? During the past year we’ve seen an unprecedented number of breaches affecting significant numbers of individuals. It’s obvious that a number of companies were breached not because of transparency but because there was no transparency.

Transparency is a good thing

Transparency is something that every security professional should be advocating and implementing. It’s just too important not to implement. For example, think about transparency in terms of your company’s financials. Every public company has financial reporting requirements that they must adhere to. The intent is to make sure that people doing business with these companies or looking to invest in these companies have a very clear understanding of their financial status and how business decisions are impacting the companies’ short-term and long-term financial health. There’s probably nothing more sensitive in a company than their financial records, and yet this is something that we all agree should be very transparent to everyone involved. So why not security?

Transparency is something that every security professional should be advocating and implementing

There is a mantra throughout the security community that we should be both flexible and risk-based. And if we adhere to those two principles, no two programs are going to look exactly the same; consequently, it is difficult to evaluate two different security programs in the same industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason that many security professionals advocate this viewpoint is because they can’t compare their program to a competitor’s program when no two companies are alike. But this stance is just another dose of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). In reality, companies make risk decisions about security and fund security based on a number of different factors, so what’s so wrong about the decision making and funding processes being transparent? It’s the “Emperor has no clothes” mentality. In private, companies want to assume more security risk than they are willing to admit. And additionally, many companies continue to shortchange their security programs from the funding and strong governance role that they need to be successful. Consequently, you have security personnel who are trying to do the right thing and implement controls to protect the company even though they know that it’s a losing battle given their funding and governance. So the security or chief information security officers have to put on brave faces and make it appear that their organizations are carrying out the guidance provided by the senior team when they know they are in a losing battle. Many security professionals are reluctant to challenge their organizations on decisions, and in many cases their boards are simply not engaged. The security staff is in an untenable position, worried that if the real security posture of the company is known they will get fired, or if there is a breach they will end up being the scapegoat and still get fired.

Are you practicing security transparency?

How many breaches have we witnessed where the person who cut the security budget or accepted more risk on behalf of the corporation was fired? Does your company have formal documented processes for the board to determine the risk tolerance of the organization? Does your organization have formal processes naming the position that can assume security risk on behalf of the board? If you can’t answer these questions, your organization probably isn’t practicing security transparency and you should take a hard look at your security posture. Don’t be the next breach victim.