Benchmarking the State of the CISO in 2020

Driving digital transformation initiatives while safeguarding the enterprise is a mammoth task. In some aspects, it might even sound counter-intuitive when it comes to opening up IT infrastructure, or converging IT and OT networks to allow external parties such as partners and customers to closely interact with the organization to embrace new business models and collaboration (think cloud applications, APIs, sensors, mobile devices, etc.).

Although new technology is being adopted quickly, especially web frontends, applications and APIs, much of the underlying IT infrastructure as well as the supporting processes and governance models are somewhat legacy, and struggle to keep up.

For its 2020 CISO Benchmark Report, Cisco surveyed some 2,800 CISOs and other IT decision-makers from 13 countries, how they cope with that, and they came up with a number of interesting findings.

Cyber-threats are a global business risk

The World Economic Forum says business leaders view cyber-attacks as the #2 global risk to business in advanced economies, taking a back seat only to financial crises. Not surprisingly,89 percent of the respondents in the Cisco study say their executives still view security as a high priority, but this number is down by 7 percent from previous years.

Nine out of ten respondents felt their company executives had solid measures for gauging the effectiveness of their security programs. This is encouraging, as clear metrics are key to a security framework, and it’s often difficult to get diverse executives and security players to agree on how to measure operational improvement and security results.

Leadership matters

The share of companies that have clarified the security roles and responsibilities on the executive team has risen and fallen in recent years, but it settled at 89 percent in 2020. Given that cyber-security is being taken more seriously and there is a major need for security leaders at top levels, the need to continue clarifying roles and responsibilities will remain critical.

The frequency with which companies are building cyber-risk assessments into their overall risk assessment strategies has shrunk by five percent from last year. Still, 91 percent of the survey respondents reported that they’re doing it. Similarly, 90 percent of executive teams are setting clear metrics to assess the effectiveness of their security programs, although this figure too is down by six percent from last year.  

Cloud protection is not solid

It’s almost impossible for a company to go digital without turning to the cloud. The Cisco report found that in 2020, over 83 percent of organizations will be managing (internally or externally) more than 20 percent of their IT infrastructure in the cloud. But protecting off-premises assets remains a challenge.

A hefty 41percent of the surveyed organizations say their data centers are very or extremely difficult to defend from attacks. Thirty-nine percent report that they struggle to keep applications secure. Similarly, private cloud infrastructure is a major security issue for organizations; half of the respondents said it was very or extremely difficult to defend.

The most problematic data of all is data stored in the public cloud. Just over half (52 percent) of the respondents find it very or extremely challenging to secure.Another 41 percent of organizations find network infrastructure very or extremely challenging to defend.

Time-to-remediate scores most important

The Cisco study enquired about the after-effects of breaches using measures such as downtime, records, and finances. How much and how often are companies suffering from downtime? It turns out that organizations across the board issued similar answers. Large enterprises (10,000 or more employees) are more likely to have less downtime (between zero and four hours) because they typically have more technology, money, and people available to help respond and recover from the threats. Small to mid-sized organizations made up most of the five- to 16-hour recovery timespans. Potentially business-killing downtimes of 17-48 hours were infrequent among companies of all sizes.

After a security incident, rapid recovery is critical to keeping disruption and damages to a minimum. As a result, of all the metrics, time-to-remediate (also known as “time-to-mitigate”) scores are the ones most important when reporting to the C-suite or the company’s board of directors, the study concludes.

Automating security is not optional – it’s mandatory

The total number of daily security alerts that organizations are faced with is constantly growing. Three years ago, half of organizations had 5,000 or fewer alerts per day. Today, that number is only 36 percent. The number of companies that receive 100,000 or more alerts per day has risen to 17 percent this year, from 11 percent in 2017. Due to the greater alert volumes and the considerable resources needed to process them, investigation of alerts is at a four-year low: just under 48 percent of companies say they can keep up. That number was 56 percent in 2017, and it’s been shrinking every year since. The rate of legitimate incidents (26 percent) has remained more or less constant, which suggests that a lot of investigations are coming up with false positives.

Perhaps the biggest side-effect of this never-ending alert activity is cyber-security fatigue. Of the companies that report that it exists among their ranks, 93 percent of them receive more than 5,000 security warnings every day.

A sizeable majority (77 percent) of Cisco’s survey respondents expect to implement more automated security solutions to simplify and accelerate their threat response times. No surprise here. These days, they basically have no choice but to automate.

Vigilance pays dividends

Organizations that had 100,000 or more records affected by their worst security incident increased to 19 percent this year, up four percent from 2019. The study also found that a major breach can impact nine critical areas of a company, including operations and brand reputation, finances, intellectual property, and customer retention.

Three years ago, 26 percent of the respondents said their brand reputation had taken a hit from a security incident; this year, 33 percent said the same. This is why, to help minimize damages and recover fast, it’s key to incorporate crisis communications planning into the company’s broader incidence response strategy.

Finally, the share of survey respondents that reported that they voluntarily disclosed a breach last year (61 percent) is the highest in four years.The upshot is that overall, companies are actively reporting breaches. This may be due to new privacy legislation (GDPR and others), or because they want to maintain the trust and confidence of their customers. In all likelihood, it’s both.

In conclusion, the CISO Benchmark report shows a balance of positives and negatives. Organizations are looking to automate security processes to accelerate response times, security leadership is strengthening and setting metrics to improve overall protection, and more breaches are being identified and reported.  But there’s still work to be done to embed security into everything organizations do as they evolve their business.

About the author: Marc Wilczek is Chief Operating Officer at Link11, an IT security provider specializing in DDoS protection, and has more than 20 years of experience within the information and communication technology (ICT) space.

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