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4 security metrics that matter

Fahmida Y. Rashid | Aug. 27, 2015
Today, management demands metrics to get a clearer view of security. Here are four metrics that deliver actionable insight -- and a few others with less value

4 security metrics that matter

As security gains greater visibility in boardrooms and C-suites, security professionals are increasingly asked to provide metrics to track the current state of a company's defenses. But which numbers really matter?

More often than not, senior management doesn't know what kind of questions it should be asking -- and may concentrate too much on prevention and too little on mitigation. Metrics like the mean cost to respond to an incident or the number of attacks stopped by the firewall seem reasonable to a nonsecurity person, but they don't really advance an organization's security program.

Instead, experts recommend focusing on metrics that influence behavior or change strategy.

"What would you do differently now that you have this metric?" asks Caroline Wong, security initiative director at Cigital, a security software and consulting firm. Metrics like mean cost to mitigate vulnerabilities and mean time to patch are helpful if the organization has mature and highly optimized processes, but that doesn't apply to 95 percent of organizations today, she said.

Metrics that measure participation, effectiveness, and window of exposure, however, offer information the organization can use to make plans and improve programs.

Security metric No. 1: Program participation levels

Participation metrics look at coverage within the organization. They may measure how many business units regularly conduct penetration testing or how many endpoints are currently being updated by automated patching systems. According to Wong, this basic information helps organizations assess security control adoption levels and identify potential gaps.

For example, while it would be nice to be able to say an organization has 100 percent of its systems patched within a month of new updates being available, that isn't a realistic goal because patching may introduce operational risk to some systems. Looking at participation helps exclude systems that don't fall under the normal patching rules -- and focuses attention on those that should be patched.

Security metric No. 2: Duration of attack

Dwell time, or how long an attacker is in the network, also delivers valuable insight. Attack duration information helps security pros prepare for, contain, and control threats, as well as minimize damage.

Surveys have shown attackers spend several months on average inside a company's network before being discovered. They spend the time learning the infrastructure, performing reconnaissance activities, moving around the network, and stealing information.

The goal should be to reduce dwell time as much as possible, so the attacker has less opportunity to achieve lateral movement and remove critical data, Douglas said. Knowing dwell time helps security teams figure out how to handle vulnerability mitigation and incident response.

"The longer attackers are in your network, the more information they can obtain, and the more damage they can inflict," Douglas said.


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