Virtual CISO

Are ‘Virtual CISOs’ a Good Idea?

Type “virtual CISO” into Google and you’ll get ~240,000 hits, with the top 10 being mostly vendors who offer this as a service. I have no doubt much of the remaining pages are the same.

In other words, just about every security vendor out there is seeing a need, and they want to be the ones to fill it. As a corollary, if organisations weren’t crying out for the service, no-one would be offering it.

I am no different, in that I too see a massive gap in senior leadership security expertise that no one in-house can fill. Due to price constraints, it is quite often inappropriate to fill such a senior and specialised role on a full-time basis. Where I differ is the length and function of the v-CISO, as I cannot see how an indefinite ‘outsourcing’ is in my client’s best interest.

Let’s face it, once you outsource the function of something, it is a very small step to try and outsource the responsibility for it too. And finally, if you got away with that, an attempt at shirking the accountability is never far behind. This is where both organisations asking for help, and v-CISOs alike, make their biggest mistake.

The v-CISO should never be a long-term proposition, which is why I call my service an ‘Interim Security Chief’. While this may seem like semantics, it’s the difference between doing the work for you, and enabling you to do it for yourselves.

First and foremost, a v-CISO should be a teacher and a mentor, not [necessarily] a ‘doer’. Yes, they can design big-picture processes, from secure architecture to governance charters, but they had better not be expected to own them. A good v-CISO is nothing more than an consultant at the senior management level, and any deliverables must be sustainable long after they have moved on.

That said, I see nothing wrong with a v-CISO remaining part of ‘steering committees’, providing ongoing security awareness training, or even taking part in incident response testing. But, once the CISO functions have been absorbed internally, the v-CISO becomes part of the cycle for continuous improvement only. They stay around to provide strategic input on industry trends and the changing threat landscape, they don’t dictate the enterprise goals.

What You Should  Expect From a v-CISO

These are the three main things you should expect from a v-CISO, take particular note of the transience of each deliverable.

  1. Governance Charter Development – There is no security program without Governance, and there is no better platform onto which the v-CISO can pass on their operational function. This committee can in fact replace the v-CISO in due course, but may bring them back in as a trusted advisor or SME. The members of the governance committee will share the CISO function amongst themselves based on individual capability, and their meetings will bring it all together.
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  2. Policies & Security Awareness Training – Along with governance, policies are intrinsic to a security program, and along with the formation of that committee, represent the most important part of a v-CISO’s role. Unless the polices are in place, and all employees appropriately trained, nothing else they try to do will work effectively.
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  3. Process Development – Security programs consist of a number of critical processes, all of which must be developed, tested, tested again, and take their place in the never-ending cycle of improvement and business as usual. These are the big ones:o
    • Risk Management – Includes the enterprise-wide risk assessment and risk treatment procedures.
    • Vulnerability Management – Keeping up with the threat landscape.
    • Vendor Due Diligence & RFPs – Significant aspects of the security program will likely be outsourced to skilled providers, so the right questions must be asked.
    • Event Management & Incident Response – Bringing all the controls together into a business saving process.
    • Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity – What to do if everything goes completely pear-shaped.

Anything else the v-CISO does will depend on the organisation’s needs and the v-CISO’s skill-set.

But what about Strategic Advice, Board Level Interface, Regulatory Compliance Lead and a whole host of other fancy names / clichés? Yes, these are all important, but are utterly meaningless until the basics are in place.

Any security program put in place by a v-CISO must be in-line with the business’s goals, appropriate to their needs, and sustainable in their absence. So if you’re on the market for a v-CISO, you had better know what you need, or you’ll get what a salesperson thinks you asked for.

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