SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
I had someone ask me about my thoughts on this sort of analysis of the PCI DSS. While these comments are PCI focused, I found that they actually apply to all security frameworks.
The biggest strength in any security framework, PCI DSS included, is they are all based on the “best practices” from a wide variety of leading experts and organizations. Essentially, security frameworks are the shared knowledge base of what it takes to have basic security. We talk today about sharing breach information better and potentially in near real time, but security frameworks are the original method of sharing such information.
Unfortunately, I see a number of weaknesses with security frameworks.
The largest weakness with security frameworks I see is that most people, including a lot of security professionals, seem to believe that complying with the framework is all it takes to be secure. With the PCI DSS a lot of this misinformation can be laid at the feet of the card brands. It was the card brands that originally marketed the PCI DSS as the “be all, to end all” for securing the payment process.
The unfortunate fact of life for security frameworks is that they only minimize and manage security risks, they rarely ever eliminate them. Therefore, even following the PCI DSS to the letter is no guarantee that an organization could not be breached. Yet this concept of risk minimization, risk management and the fact that security is not perfect consistently gets missed by executives. So when the inevitable breach occurs, executives go after the security people for supposedly misleading them.
Another area of weakness is the time with which it takes to make an update to the framework. In October 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued a bulletin on secure sockets layer (SSL) indicating that they had found a flaw in the protocol and that they no longer found the protocol secure. A few weeks later the Internet was introduced to POODLE and SSL was declared insecure. It took a few months for the PCI SSC to react to this and officially declare SSL was no longer to be relied upon for secure communications. It took vulnerability scanners almost a month to begin flagging SSL implementations as high vulnerabilities as the CVE had not yet been updated. And we were recently informed that it will be April at the earliest before we will get the latest version of the PCI DSS. In the meantime, all of this administrivia did not stop attackers from using POODLE to their advantage.
The final weakness I see with security frameworks is that organizations find it impossible to execute them consistently at near 100%, 24×7. In theory the PCI DSS will provide reasonable security for all but the most dedicated attacks such as with advanced persistent threat (APT). For an organization to achieve basic security, they would have to execute the requirements of the PCI DSS at least at 95%+ and would have to remediate any issues within a few days. Unfortunately as we have seen in the recently released Merchant Acquirer Committee study, merchants are typically only compliant with the PCI DSS between 39% and 64% of the time – far from 95%+. Verizon’s recently released PCI report backs this up with their findings. The bottom line is that most organizations lack the discipline to execute any security framework consistently enough to achieve basic information security.
The biggest opportunity I see for the PCI DSS is it gives organizations the impetus to simplify their environments. The biggest reason for the failure to execute the PCI DSS consistently is because a lot of organizations have technology environments that mimic a Rube Goldberg cartoon. Only by simplifying that environment will an organization have a reasonable chance of securing it.
Another opportunity this gives organizations is a reason to enhance their security operations. Most organizations run bare bones security operations no different than other areas. However, what PCI compliance assessments typically point out is that those security operations are grossly understaffed and not capable of ensuring an organization maintains its compliance at that 95%+ level.
Related to these two opportunities is what the PCI SSC calls business as usual (BAU). BAU is the embedding of the relevant PCI requirements into an organization’s business processes to make it easier to identify non-compliance as soon as possible so that the non-compliance situation can be rectified. BAU is primarily designed to address the execution weakness but can also have a significant effect on the other weaknesses.
Finally, the last opportunity is to address the failings of an organization’s security awareness program. Organizations finally come to the realization that all it takes to defeat all of their expensive security technology is human error. The only way to address human error is extensive security awareness training. No one likes this, but in the end it is the only thing that remains when you have implemented all of the requisite security technology.
The obvious threat that will never go away is the attackers. As long as we have our interconnected and networked world, attackers will continue their attacks.
The final threat is complacency. A lot of organizations think that once they achieve PCI compliance that their work is done and that could not be further from the truth. Security is a journey not something you achieve and then move on to the next issue. The reason is that no organization is static. Therefore security must constantly evolve and change to address organizational change.
There are likely even more items that could be added to each of these categories. However, in my humble opinion, these are the key points.