23
Nov
14

Face It, You Are A Poor Judge Of Risk

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” HP Lovecraft

We have a pop quiz today.

  1. Are you more likely to die from an alligator attack or a shark attack?
  2. Are you more likely to win the PowerBall lottery jackpot or become a movie star?
  3. Are you more likely to die in a vending machine accident or from a lightning strike?
  4. Are you more likely to be elected President of the United States or to date a supermodel?
  5. Are you more likely to die from influenza or from drowning?
  6. Are you more likely to catch influenza or Ebola?

The purpose of this pop quiz is to demonstrate how poorly we humans evaluate and understand risks. I have to admit I got caught on a couple of these as I did the research.

If anything, the Ebola discussion has brought this issue of risk judgment to the forefront given the unfounded fear people have of Ebola. As a mathematician by schooling it has fascinated me as I watch the media reports and government officials cave into the spread of fear over something very highly unlikely to occur to anyone in the general population.

Do not get me wrong. If I were a health care worker anywhere in the world, I would have concerns about my risk of catching Ebola. After all, they are on the front line and Ebola has around a 50% fatality rate. Add into that the informative, but frightening, video that Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN did on the difficulty of removing a containment suit without potentially infecting yourself, and it confirms the threat a health care worker should be feeling if confronted with a potential Ebola patient that is symptomatic.

But for anyone outside of health care, there should be little if any reason to be concerned. Yet a good percentage of the public is irrational when it comes to Ebola regardless of the fact that it requires contact with a symptomatic person’s bodily fluids in order to be infected. But unlike a person with influenza, an Ebola infected person that is contagious does not have the mobility required to have contact with people unless those people come to them. As a result, all of these mental gymnastics that people go through about the possibility that an infection could occur on a bus or the subway are silly because the person with Ebola when they are contagious would look worse than a zombie off of ‘The Walking Dead’, assuming they could even walk at that point.

I am sure you are all saying that this is all good and well, but what is the point here in regards to PCI?

Glad you asked. I bring this up because the PCI DSS is heading more and more to be driven by risk and the assessment of that risk. Yet as I have hopefully shown by my quiz questions, people and their organizations are poor at understanding and determining risks. So organizations need to get much better at performing risk assessments (if they are performed at all) so that they can truly understand and manage risks. That said, a risk assessment does not have to be, nor should it be, a huge “death march” of a project. A proper risk assessment should answer the following questions.

  • What are the risks to the organization? This does not have to be an exhaustive, all inclusive list as you find in the various risk assessment methodology frameworks. But should include all of the most likely risks. For PCI compliance, this risk assessment only needs to address the risks to those things that are in-scope for the assessment. However, most organizations need the risk assessment for other reasons, so it often contains all risks, not just PCI risks. If it does contain risks outside of PCI, you should add columns for your other requirements so you can filter out just the PCI, HIPAA, GLBA, FISMA and any other risk frameworks.
  • What is the likelihood of the risk occurring? Typically, I use a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is it occurs infrequently and 5 represents that it occurs often. If something never occurs, then it should be removed from the list.
  • If the risk occurs, what is the impact on the organization? Here I use a scale of 1 to 3 where 1 is low, 2 is moderate and 3 is high.
  • Multiply the likelihood with the impact and you get the risk rating.
  • Sort the risk ratings from highest to lowest and you have your risk assessment rating completed.

But hold on, you are not done just yet. Now you need to set your organization’s risk threshold. This will likely be a very contentious discussion as you will find that people within the organization have widely differing views on the level of risk they are willing to accept. However, it is important to capture the highlights of this discussion so that you have documentation for future discussions as you discuss future risk assessment results and reset the organization’s risk threshold.

Risks that fall below a certain risk rating are accepted and management formally agrees to accept them. Those above that level you develop methods of mitigating and managing those risks. Under my rating system, the lowest score that can be achieved is 1 and the highest score is 15. A lot of organizations might say that a total score of below 4 is to be accepted. For some organizations a better approach to accepting risk is sometimes to only accept those risks that have an impact of ‘Low’ (i.e., equal to 1). Therefore, all moderate and high impact risks are mitigated and managed.

Once you have your analysis done you will have a list of risks that require mitigation and management through monitoring and other methods.

Answers

  1. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, between 1948 and 2005 there were 391 alligator attacks resulting in 18 fatalities whereas there were 592 shark attacks with 9 fatalities. That makes the alligator fatality rate almost three times as high as the shark fatality rate.
  2. The odds of winning the PowerBall are around one in 175M. While still incredibly long, the odds of becoming a movie star are significantly lower at one in 1.5M.
  3. Lightning is more deadly but do not underestimate that vending machine. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the odds of being hit by lightning in the US are one in 1.9M. According to the US National Safety Council, there is a one in 112M chance of dying in a vending machine accident.
  4. The odds are in your favor if you are interested in dating a supermodel. Even better than becoming a movie star. You have a one in 88K chance of dating a supermodel according to Ask the Odds. The odds of being elected President are slim at one in 10M.
  5. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that the odds of drowning are one in 31.4. The CDC estimates that the odds of dying from influenza are around one in 345K.
  6. The CDC estimates that one in eight people will catch the flu in any given year and as seen in a previous answer, there is a one in 345K chance that a person will die as a result. Given the population of the US is around 315M and only four people have actually caught the Ebola virus in the US, there is around a one in 78M chance of catching Ebola in the US but that could change slightly if more infected people enter the US.
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2 Responses to “Face It, You Are A Poor Judge Of Risk”


  1. 1 David McLean
    June 2, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    Hi,

    remove risks that are not going to happen? just to be pedantic here – if you thought of it and discarded it I think its still worth keeping it on the list as a Zero to at least record the act of discarding it

    D

    • June 2, 2015 at 1:58 PM

      Do whatever you think right. A lot of organizations keep that in a separate list so as to not clutter up the “real” list of risks.


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