President Biden’s 2021 executive order on cybersecurity calls on the public sector to work with private companies to create more secure environments and emphasizes the importance of sharing information as a best practice. Many security leaders may see information sharing as a synonym for risk or liability, as information sharing requires a lot of caution. Handled incorrectly, security professionals may increase the exposure of a vulnerability.
Most organizations approach information sharing as a necessity that must be done judiciously. Some work with highly sensitive information on a regular basis and carry responsibilities for the security and risk management practices of corporations. That corporate structure carries a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and any information sharing has to be considered against the risk of violating that responsibility.
Tackling this topic as it relates to the public and private sectors will require much more debate. Instead, it will be beneficial to consider the risks related to information sharing and how CISOs should approach mitigating these concerns.
When information is shared, the responsibility to protect that information is extended or distributed. Like a password accidentally shared in a tweet, once information is out there, it’s no longer under control. Each employee with access to information must be trusted to maintain its confidentiality, even when they might be at their worst.
There’s a well-known bar in Seattle where many security professionals meet weekly to unwind and swap stories. Seattle is a mecca for security professionals, including those focused on the discovery of software and hardware vulnerabilities in cyber solutions. It is a combination made for leaks: free-flowing alcohol and people with highly sensitive information in their heads!
This environment loosens the tongues of employees who were already prone to tell stories they shouldn’t. While sharing information in a more casual setting may seem innocuous at the time, it could result in a larger case of insider threat and potential loss of revenue.
These cases serve as a lesson learned: security professionals should keep their cards close to the vest, lest they risk someone else’s loose lips sharing them with others who might gain advantage from their information.
So we all know there’s plenty of risk when you share, but what’s the risk of not sharing?
The downside is that when we build moats, we make our organizations into islands. The reluctance to connect with peers to seek guidance or to compare notes could be just as damaging as sharing too much with the outside world.
Who do you trust?
When a breach happens, there’s a tendency to want to raise the drawbridge. However, it could be helpful to reach out to peers to see whether they’ve seen a problem, contained one, or are responding to one. Having this additional information early on can significantly help your organization's response to a breach, which corrects potentially damaging missteps.
This is a calculated risk not to be taken lightly. Who can security leaders trust with a two-way avenue of information sharing? Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
- Start with a pre-established set of relationships: an inner circle of trusted people who you’ve known for years and have had time to observe their behavior in previous information sharing scenarios. I regularly meet with security leaders that I’ve known since the start of my career. The long history and shared experience allows for comfortable and relatively safe bi-directional conversations.
- Be familiar with the consortiums or associations that facilitate security information sharing, like the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC) set up for particular industries.
- Find secure messaging systems to start one-on-one or group conversations with an inner circle: I use Signal and Keybase (now acquired by Zoom) for the more sensitive conversations. Slack and any video conferencing solution are used for staying in touch.
- Learn from mistakes and other regrettable disclosures: I have made some disclosure mistakes over my career. In one particular instance, it was with an impressive interview candidate. The risk did not pay off and the mistake almost led to a public disclosure that would have been disruptive to my career.
- Get executive buy-in internally before sharing and problems happen. As a representative of the company with sensitive information, it just makes sense to keep appropriate executives in the loop and get sign-off to operate freely. It doesn’t hurt to inform the legal team so they can provide any legal or regulatory guidelines for what security leaders can and can’t share. If some mistake is made down the road, you are more likely to have support from the company’s leaders rather than get thrown under the bus. Make sure to establish these internal relationships and lines of communication early.
Don’t let fear rule the day
Even aging is a risk in this business. Security leaders naturally get more cautious because of all those valuable “lessons learned.” CISOs need to form a network of trusted peers who understand technology and industry challenges. Security leaders can augment this process with some associations that help with information circulation, but in the end, you really need friends with whom you can discuss the details.
The agile CISO has to somehow get past being overly cautious and act strategically on information sharing. That freedom to talk can make the difference between smart preemptive action that prevents the next crisis and catastrophe.