Are Healthcare CISOs Suffering from Cybersecurity Solution Fatigue? An Expert Probes Some of the Issues

Oct. 5, 2016
A recent Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology report provided some intriguing thoughts about the pressure facing CISOs to keep their organizations secure and how they are combating information and vendor solution overload.

A recent Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology report provided some intriguing thoughts about the pressure facing chief information security officers (CISOs) to keep their organizations secure and how they are combating information and vendor solution overload.

Given the often-reported high value of health data, healthcare organizations are facing ongoing and escalating cyber threats. In fact, media reports about ransomware attacks and data breaches against hospitals, health systems and medical practices seem to be occurring on a weekly basis at this point.

In a recent report, James Scott, a senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), a Washington, D.C.-based cybersecurity think tank, points out that a well-informed CISO can improve the engagement of the C-suite and improve the cyber posture of the organization.

“Due to the plague of APTs, malware, ransomware and other malicious initiatives by invisible adversaries, few C-level executive positions are as critical as the CISO,” Scott writes.

In the report, titled “CISO Solution Fatigue—Overcoming the Challenges of Cybersecurity Solution Overload,” Scott points out that, due to a variety of factors, CISOs combat information overload and vendor solution overload on a daily basis, and he emphasizes that CISOs need to learn how to prioritize and communicate strategically to be effective in their role.

While the report offers a cross-industry perspective of the CISO role and the challenge of vendor solution overload, the report author does spend moments focusing on healthcare organizations, specifically in a section detailing how CISOs can assess the return on investment of cybersecurity solutions.

The report provides an interesting perspective about the need for CISOs to ignore the hype surrounding “silver bullet” solutions in order find the most effective cybersecurity solutions and strategies for their particular organizations, but at the same time, the report author also highlights the part that the vendor community plays in this problem.

But first, the author offers some background on cybersecurity and the increasing importance of the CISO role. In the past five years, 54 percent of organizations have created the role of CISO within their organizational structure, according to the report.

“In many cases, CISOs operate under the unrealistic expectation that they should be able to prevent every breach with a finite budget. They are expected to have enough technical expertise to develop a strategy to protect the business and enough business acumen to convince the board to adopt that strategy because it aligns with the goals of the organization,” he writes. And, he asserts that modern CISOs tend to function more as Chief Information Risk Officers, managing the risk to data and technology.

According to the ICIT report, there is rapid burnout among CISOs, as the average turnover rate is 17 months. The report author credits this rapid burnout to a lack of understanding of the role and unhappiness in the position, as well as solution overload, “which results from the pressure to find comprehensive solutions and the overabundance of vendor solutions.”

Increased awareness of cybersecurity, and the increasing severity of cyber attacks, has driven investors to fund hundreds of new, innovative startups in the cybersecurity space, and many of these startups, Scott writes, “over-promise and under-deliver on their proposal by offering unreliable silver bullet solutions.”

The author also notes, “Aside from a rapid increase in venture funds, the vendor market has bloated due to the availability and affordability of cloud architecture. Software as a service (SaaS) delivery models have a very low barrier to entry. This allowed for cybersecurity startups that promised to solve every problem imaginable or who created new problems to solve.”

This portion of the report struck me, given that the healthcare industry is facing evolving data security threats. It seems, to me, that the role of CISOs to effectively protect an organization’s information assets and systems is daunting enough without adding new problems created by ineffective solutions.

Indeed, the author, Scott, calls out the vendor community when he writes, “Vendor attempts to offer silver bullet solutions undermine the community at large and poisons the vendor-customer relationship. The culture promoting these inadequate solutions distracts CISOs, technical personnel and solution developers from the risks and threats in the threat landscape and it distracts them from designing the right solutions to address the market needs.”

The author asserts that “reliable vendor solutions solve an actual market problem instead of a hypothetical or market-derived problem.”

Beyond calling out the vendor community for contributing to the “solution overload” problem, the ICIT report author also provides strategic recommendations for CISOs to overcome this obstacle.

The problem of “solution overload” can be overcome by altering the business model to value long-term stability over short-term potential gains. Vendor solutions need to be transparent, they need to support growth, and they need to offer layered security. Most importantly, the author writes, they need to perform as promised and address the needs of the organization.

In the report, the author’s strategic recommendations for CISOs as it relates to vendor solutions focus on three key areas—addressing organizational needs, communicating across the organization and return-on-investment (ROI). With regard to addressing organizational needs, the report touches on many solutions that most CISOs may already be aware of—data loss prevention solutions, application and system testing and penetration testing and the use of behavioral analytics systems, to name a few.

It’s been said that calculating the ROI for cybersecurity solutions can be difficult as cybersecurity doesn't contribute to an organization's bottom line. And, it also requires quantifying the financial impact on a hospital or health system’s reputation after a ransomware attack or breach.

In the report, the author offers strategic recommendations for calculating a cybersecurity solution’s ROI and uses a healthcare organization as an example. The ROI of security solutions can be equated to the fiscal component of the impact that the organization would assume if an adversary exploited the vulnerability that the solution addresses, the author writes.

“For example, assume that a hospital was attempting to procure a solution to prevent personnel from clicking on phishing emails because other hospitals had recently fallen victim to ransomware attacks through that vector. The CISO could begin to calculate the ROI by averaging the paid ransom demands or downtime costs (if the system was restored from backup) of other hospitals. The mission of many healthcare organizations is driven by their reputation; as a result, the CISO could calculate the reputational harm caused by a ransomware attack according to the publicity, charity, and other costs assumed to repair the organization’s reputation,” Scott writes.

Any impact on turnover or talent acquisition rates as a result of an attack and the associated costs should be included in the calculation, as well as any fines, breach notification costs, or other expenditures, the author notes.

And, the author contends that the risk assessment should also have predicted the likelihood of each cascading impact. “The probability of the impact should be multiplied by each associated outcome. For example, if an attack has a 10 percent likelihood in resulting in $10 million in reputational harm, then the product would be $1 million. The CISO should then take the aggregate of the probable potential impacts and multiply it by the probability that the organization will suffer an attack that the solution could prevent, within the lifetime of the solution. This number is the assumed cost that the organization faces if it does not adopt a solution,” Scott writes.

The report author sums up that the CISO can present the solution to the board according to the standard ROI model. “If the aggregate cost of the solution is equal to or lesser than the assumed impact, then the organization should adopt the solution because it has a positive or net zero ROI,” Scott writes. “Some organizations may even adopt negative ROI solutions if they are cautious, value public good more than the profit line, or if they expect aggressive changes in the threat landscape,” he notes.

The report concludes with statistics sourced from the Economist Intelligence Unit that indicates proactive CISO-led strategies can cut the success rate of cyber-breaches by more than 50 percent, hacking successes by 60 percent and ransomware infections by 47 percent.

The role of CISOs in healthcare organizations is more vital than ever, and ongoing discussions highlight that CISOS are facing a number of challenges, from all sides.

I found the issues and recommendations in the ICIT report to be insightful and thought-provoking, especialy with regard to communicating strategically across the organization and with the board. And, for all healthcare CISOs, the issues raised in the report are worth pondering as the need for optimal cyber defenses seems only to be intensifying.

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