‘In our last post in this series we introduced some of the key reasons web application security is typically underfunded in most organizations. The reality is that it’s often difficult to convince management why they need additional protections for an application that seems to be up and running just fine. Or to change a development process the developers themselves are happy with. While building a full business justification model for web application security is beyond the scope of this post (and worthy of its own series), we can’t talk about building a program without providing at least some basic tools to determine how much you should invest, and how to convince management to support you. The following list isn’t a comprehensive business justification model, but provides typical drivers we commonly see used to justify web application security investments:

Compliance – Like it or not, sometimes security controls are mandated by government regulation, industry standards/requirements, or contractual agreements. We like to break compliance into three separate justifications- mandated controls (PCI web application security requirements), non-mandated controls that avoid other compliance violations (data protection to avoid a breach disclosure), and investments to reduce the costs of compliance (lower audit costs or TCO). The average organization uses all three factors to determine web application security investments.

Fraud Reduction – Depending on your ability to accurately measure fraud, it can be a powerful driver of, and justification for, security investments. In some cases you can directly measure fraud rates and show how they can be reduced with specific security investments. Keep in mind that you may not have the right infrastructure to detect and measure this fraud in the first place, which could provide sufficient justification by itself. Penetration tests are also useful is justifying investments to reduce fraud- a test may show previously unknown avenues for exploitation that could be under active attack, or open the door to future attack. You can use this to estimate potential fraud and map that to security controls to reduce losses to acceptable levels.

Cost Savings – As we mentioned in the compliance section, some web application security controls can reduce your cost of compliance (especially audit costs), but there are additional opportunities for savings. Web application security tools and processes during the development and maintenance stages of the application can reduce costs of manual processes or controls and/or costs associated with software defects/flaws, and may cause general efficiency improvements. We can also include cost savings from incident reduction- including incident response and recovery costs.

Availability – When dealing with web applications, we look at both total availability (direct uptime), and service availability (loss of part of the application due to attack or to repair a defect). For example, while it’s somewhat rare to see a complete site outage due to a web application security issue (although it definitely happens), it’s not all that rare to see an outage of a payment system or other functionality. We also see cases where, due to active attack, a site needs to shut down some of its own services to protect users, even if the attack didn’t break the services directly.

User Protection – While this isn’t quantifiable with a dollar amount, a major justification for investment in web security is to protect users from being compromised by their trust in you (yes, this has reputation implications, but not ones we can precisely measure). Attackers frequently compromise trusted sites not to steal from that site, but to use it to attack the site’s users. Even if you aren’t concerned with fraud resulting in direct losses to your organization, it’s a problem if your web application is used to defraud your users.

Reputation Protection – While many models attempt to quantify a company’s reputation and potential losses due to reputation damage, the reality is all those models are bunk- there is no accurate way to measure the potential losses associated with a successful attack. Despite surveys indicating users will switch to competitors if you lose their information, or that you’ll lose future business, real world stats show that user behavior rarely aligns with survey responses. For example, TJX was the largest retail breach notification in history, yet sales went up after the incident. But just because we can’t quantify reputation damage doesn’t mean it isn’t an important factor in justifying web application security. Just ask yourself (or management) how important that application is to the public image of your organization, and how willing you or they are to accept the risk of losses ranging from defacement, to lost customer information, to downtime.

Breach Notification Costs – Aside from fraud, we also have direct losses associated with breach notifications (if sensitive information is involved). Ignore all the fluffy reputation/lost business/market value estimates and focus on the hard dollar costs of making a list, sending a notification, and manning the call center for customer inquiries. You might also factor in the cost of credit monitoring, if you’d offer that to your customers.

You’ll know which combination of these will work best for you based on your own organizational needs and management priorities, but the key takeaway should be that you likely need to mix quantitative and qualitative assessments to prioritize your investments. If you’re dealing with private information (financial/retail/healthcare), compliance drivers and breach notification mixed with cost savings are your best option. For general web services, user protection & reputation, fraud reduction, and availability are likely at the top of your list. And let’s not forget many of these justifications are just as relevant for internal applications.

Whatever your application, there is no shortage of business (not technical) reasons to invest in web application security.