Building a Vendor IT Risk Management Program: Program Structure

By Mike Rothman

As we started exploring when we began Building a Vendor IT Risk Management Program, modern integrated business processes have dramatically expanded the attack surface of pretty much every organization. You can no longer ignore the risk presented by vendors or other business partners, even without regulatory bodies pushing for formal risk management of vendors and third parties. As security program fanatics we figure it’s time to start documenting such a program.

Defining a Program

First we have never really defined what we mean by a security program. Our bad. So let’s get that down, and then we can tailor it to vendor IT risk management. The first thing a program needs is to be systematic, which means you don’t do things willy-nilly. You plan the work and then work the plan. The processes involved in the program need to be predictable and repeatable. Well, as predictable as anything in security can be. Here are some other hallmarks of a program:

  • Executive Sponsorship: Our research shows a program has a much higher chance of success if there is an executive (not the CISO) who feels accountable for its success. Inevitably security involves changing processes, and maybe not doing things business or other IT groups want because of excessive risk. Without empowerment to make those decisions and have them stick, most security programs die on the vine. A senior sponsor can break down walls and push through tough decisions, making the difference between success and failure.

  • Funding: Regardless of which aspect of security you are trying to systematize, it costs money. This contributes to another key reason programs fail: lack of resources. We also see a lot of organizations kickstart new programs by just throwing new responsibilities at existing employees, with no additional compensation or backfill for their otherwise overflowing plates. That’s not sustainable, so a key aspect of program establishment is allocating money to the initiative.

  • Governance: Who is responsible for operation of the program? Who makes decisions when it needs to evolve? What is the escalation path when someone doesn’t play nice or meet agreed-upon responsibilities? Without proper definition of responsibilities, and sufficient documentation so revisionist history isn’t a factor, the program won’t be sustainable. These roles need to be defined when the program is being formally established, because it’s much easier to make these decisions and get everyone on board before it goes live. If it does not go well people will runn for cover, and if the program is a success everyone will want credit.

  • Operations: This will vary greatly between different kinds of programs, but you need to define how you will achieve your program goals. This is the ‘how’ of the program, and don’t forget about an ongoing feedback and improvement loop so the program continues to evolve.

  • Success criteria: In security this can be a bit slippery, but it’s hard to claim success without everyone agreeing what success means. Spend some time during program establishment to focus on applicable metrics, and be clear about what success looks like. Of course you can change your definition once you get going and learn what is realistic and necessary, but if you fail to establish it up front, you will have a hard time showing value.

  • Integration points: No program stands alone, so there will be integration points with other groups or functions within the organization. Maybe you need data feeds from the security monitoring group, or entitlements from the identity group. Maybe your program defines actions required from other groups. If the ultimate success of your program depends on other teams or functions within the organization (and it does, because security doesn’t stand alone), then making sure everyone is crystal clear about integration points and responsibilities from the beginning is critical.

The V(IT)RM Program

To tailor the generic structure above to vendor IT risk management you need to go through the list, make some decisions, and get everyone on board. Sounds easy, right? Not so much, but doing this kind of work now will save you from buying Tums by the case as your program goes operational.

We cannot going to tell you exactly what governance and accountability needs to look like for your program because that is heavily dependent on your culture and organization. Just make sure someone is accountable, and operational responsibilities are defined. In some cases this kind of program resides within a business unit managing vendor relationships, other times it’s within a central risk management group, or it could be somewhere else. You need to figure out what will work in your environment.

One thing to pay close attention to, particularly for risk management, is contracts. You enter business agreements with vendors every day, so make sure the contract language reflects your program objectives. If you want to scan vendor environments for vulnerabilities, that needs to be in your contracts. If you want them to do an extensive self-survey or provide a data center tour, that needs to be there. If your contracts don’t include this kind of language, look at adding an addendum or forcing a contract overhaul at some point. That’s a decision for the business people running your vendors.

  • Defining Vendor Risk: The first key requirement of a vendor risk management program is actually defining categories in which to group your vendors. We will dig into this in our next post, but these categories define the basis for your operation of the entire program. You will need to categorize both vendors and the risks they present so you know what actions to take, depending on the importance of the vendor and the type of risk.

  • Operations: How will you evaluate the risk posed by each vendor? Where will you get the information and how will you analyze it? Do you reward organizations for top-tier security? What happens when a vendor is a flaming pile of IT security failure? Will you just talk to them and inform them of the issues? Will you lock them out of your systems? It will be controversial if you take a vendor off-line, so you need to have had all these discussions with all your stakeholders before any action takes place. Which is why we constantly beat the drum for documentation and consensus when establishing a program.

  • Success Criteria/Metrics: There is of course only one metric that is truly important, and that’s whether a breach resulted from a vendor connection. OK, maybe that’s a bit overstated, but that is what the Board of Directors will focus on. Success likely means no breaches due to vendor exposure. Operationally you can set metrics around the number of vendors assessed (100% may not be practical if you have thousands of vendors), or perhaps how many vendors are in each category, and what is the direction of the trend? There is only so much you can do to impact the security posture of your vendors, but you can certainly take action to protect yourself if a vendor is deemed to pose an unacceptable risk.

  • Tuning: In a V(IT)RM program, the most critical information are the categories of importance and risk. So when tuning the program over time, you want to know how many of your vendors were breached and whether any of those breaches resulted in loss to you. If there was a breach, did you identify the risk ahead of time – basically having a good idea that vendor would have an issue? Or was this a surprise? The objectives of tuning are to eliminate surprises and wasted effort.

Of course many aspects of the program, if not all, change over time as technology improves and requirements evolve. That is to be expected, and part of the program has to be a specific set of activities focused around gathering feedback and tuning the program as described above. We also believe strongly that programs need to be documented (yes, written down), so if (or should we say when) something goes south you have documentation that someone else understood the potential issues. Even if you write it in pencil, write it and make sure all of the stakeholders understand what they agreed to.

Our next post will dig into the risk and importance categories, and how to gather that kind of information without totally relying on vendor self-reporting.

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