Research Papers

Security Benchmarking: Going Beyond Metrics

By Mike Rothman

How do you answer the inevitable question “Are we good at security?” If you are like most organizations, you stutter quite a bit and then fall back to either irrelevant numbers (like AV or patch coverage) or a qualitative assessment – “We had 2 incidents last month, down from 5 the prior month prior”. Either way, the answer isn’t what management needs, or deserves.

In this paper we focus on security metrics as the foundation, but more importantly on how to leverage a security benchmark to provide a useful basis for comparison. A brief excerpt from the Executive Summary makes the distinction clear:

A key aspect of maturing our security programs must be the collection of security metrics and their use to improve operational processes. Even those with broad security metrics programs still have trouble communicating the relative effectiveness of their efforts – largely because they have no point of comparison. Thus when talking about the success/failure of any security program, without an objective reference point senior management has no idea if your results are good. Or bad.

Enter the Security Benchmark, which involves comparing your security metrics to a peer group of similar companies. If you can get a fairly broad set of consistent data (both quantitative and qualitative), then compare your numbers to that dataset, you can get a feel for relative performance. Obviously this is very sensitive data, so due care must be exercised when sharing it, but the ability to transcend the current and arbitrary identification of problem areas as ‘red’ (bad), ‘yellow’ (not so bad), or ‘green’ (a bit better) enables us to finally have some clarity on the effectiveness of our security programs. Additionally, the metrics and benchmark data can be harnessed internally to provide objectives and illuminate trends to improve key security operations.

Those of you who embrace quantification gain an objective method for making decisions about your security program. This paper makes a case for why and how this should be done.

We would like to thank nCircle for sponsoring the research.

Download: Security Benchmarking: Going Beyond Metrics (PDF)