An Agile Security Program? I Don’t Think So.

In my vast experience of the Agile Methodology (just over a month now), I have managed to go from a proponent (as in Running PCI as an Agile Project?) to someone who is rather more circumspect when the objective in question falls outside the realm of a short-term project. An easily defined short-term project at that.

In other words, NOT a soup-to-nuts security program.

The overused adage; “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” is particularly relevant here, as Agile proponents have actually gone looking for nails to the point where some security ‘professionals’ are designing their entire program around this single tool! Being generous, this shows a spectacular naiveté,  at worst, it shows a complete ignorance of what constitutes a sustainable and effective security program.

And to be clear; Agile is a tool, nothing more. It is not a philosophy, it’s not even a framework, it is used for very specific requirements at very specific times for an easily quantifiable result; like a new user interface, a segmentation project, or even the installation of a centralised logging technology. Where it make absolutely NO sense is the exact place a good security program starts; with the culture.

The implementation of a good security program has always been, and will always be, more art than science, and completely dependent on the prevailing culture, a culture defined by the CEO’s attitude towards it. In other words, trying to implement a security program AND instill a culture at the same time with nothing more than a single tool, is no different from trying to build an entire house with just a hammer. It simply does not work that way.

Also, those focusing on Agile tend to come from a highly technical background and therefore focus on technology over process, which just compounds the problem to the point where any short-term gains will be built on nothing but air (like my sandcastle ‘metaphor’). Technology is critical for the automation of KNOWN-good processes, it can never be the solution in and of itself.

In one of my first blogs I posited that there are only Four Foundation of Security:

  1. Management Buy-In / Culture
  2. Policies & Procedures
  3. Governance
  4. Education & Training

…I would now actually add a fifth; Vision (or perhaps just include it in the first one), as it’s the CEO’s vision for the organisation that will drive the development of an appropriate security program.

Assuming you agree with the Foundations, perhaps you can now see how using Agile for any one of them is utterly meaningless. Implementing two week sprints and daily stand-ups to ask whether or not the CEO has signed-off on the security policy framework, or if all relevant staff have taken their annual awareness training, makes no sense whatsoever.

In the development of a security program, a competent security practitioner at the CSO / CISO level would usually follow these steps (gross oversimplification):

  1. Get the CEO to agree to take an active role in the program’s implementation / socialisation. Get this in writing.
  2. Define the governance framework to get all relevant senior stakeholders to the table. Have the CEO ratify it.
  3. Draft Information Security Policy Framework for the policy committee’s review and approval. Have the CEO sign it.
  4. Distribute the relevant policies to the right people as part of the socialisation and initial training exercise. Have the CEO visibly endorse it.
  5. Implement an ongoing awareness program to solidify the culture changes. Have the CEO evangelise it.

If you can’t even get the first step in place, you needn’t bother with the rest, as no matter what you do your security program will collapse under the weight of indifference.

No tool is going to fix this, certainly not Agile.

2 thoughts on “An Agile Security Program? I Don’t Think So.

  1. Great article as usual. We all have different experiences of course, and i certainly don’t see this – “those focusing on Agile tend to come from a highly technical background”. What i do see is zealot-like focus on Agile from Project Managers (oh no! Did i just call an Agile ‘SME’ a PM! strike me down) who struggle to find business relevance and are really just looking for some new words to slow down existing processes.

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