The CISO’s COVID Endgame: Optimization

Sept. 10, 2021
Building a successful security operation remains a challenge as the scale of companies’ security requirements continues to grow

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the U.S., companies took a no-holds-barred approach to maintain their operations. Employees up and down organizational structures were told to work from home, and IT teams were tasked with making that happen. The timeline was short, and approval processes moved quickly, which meant changes to network access and security were made more quickly, and in some cases more haphazardly, than in a “normal” situation.

We did what we needed to do at that moment, each of us scrambling to support our company’s work-from-home needs. But now we’re out of crisis mode. CISOs need to take a deep breath, look around, and evaluate whether their networking and security infrastructures are optimized to support the business in the long run. It’s been a very challenging 18 months, but there’s also never been a better time to optimize.

First, Get Real

The first question the CISO should answer is what the next few years will look like. In their organization, will work-from-home and direct-to-internet processes be permanent changes to corporate workflows? Or are these just fads that will pass once COVID is fully in our rearview mirrors?

When we first moved into the pandemic environment, some naysayers claimed that remote employees couldn’t be productive. What managers have discovered, however, is that many workers are even more productive working from home, buoyed by lifestyle changes that allow for greater flexibility in work styles than even progressive corporate offices can provide. While I don’t have a crystal ball,  I do think that for most companies, anyone who’s betting that the network will eventually revert back to its pre-COVID state is detached from reality. We’re not all “coming back to the office” and I would argue that we should stop calling remote and cloud-based workflows the “new normal.” That makes it feel trendy and perhaps temporary, rather than the reality in which every CISO will have to operate from now on. Security executives should take this moment, as we transition beyond pandemic requirements, to evaluate how their company’s security and data protection can most efficiently and effectively scale to protect the recently reshaped attack surface.

Reducing Friction for End Users

One area CISOs should focus on is end-user experience, which is in dire need of optimization for many businesses. A year ago, rapidly securing the spreading attack surface meant providing VPN access for many more users than before and locking down critical data and applications with multi-factor authentication (MFA). The goal was to make assets as secure as possible. The result was sometimes the opposite.

I know of a healthcare company that introduced MFA for users to connect to Outlook 365. Then, when they wanted to use SharePoint, they had to exit Outlook and go through the MFA process again. Getting back to email would require exiting SharePoint and starting yet another multi-factor authentication. When security creates this much friction, it reduces end users’ productivity—or drives them to find ways around company mandates. If CISOs apply leading-edge tools to all the applications and data we control, but people turn to cloud-based alternatives to get their work done, then our security strategy is not a success. The best security is security that nobody knows they’re using.

Another example is backhauling traffic. Quite a few companies still require users to be on VPN and backhaul all traffic through the data center, even if they are using cloud-destined applications. The problem is that they are relying on equipment they deployed pre-pandemic when only a very small proportion of the workforce was offsite. Their systems are not sized appropriately for this volume of remote work. They might manage this discrepancy by kicking anyone who’s idle off the VPN, but then an employee who steps away to refill a cup of coffee might have to launch a new VPN session. Once again, security is undermining staff productivity, and employees may be tempted to find workarounds. And we have to ask, has this made our security posture better?  We may have inadvertently given more access than required to the assets we are trying to protect.

I am certainly not advocating that we remove all security measures. There is an acceptable level of friction for users, and the right level differs from company to company—there’s no magic formula for friction tolerance. But it’s incumbent on CISOs as we lean forward into our reality to determine how much friction is appropriate for their organization and to start taking steps to manage their friction below that level.

Eliminating Waste

Selecting controls that are both effective and minimally invasive is a key goal of post-COVID security optimization. So is ensuring that IT investments are well-spent.

As public health teams bring the pandemic to a resolute end, security functions are experiencing the re-emergence of budget pressures. CISOs need to evaluate how they are using the tools they currently have in place. They should weed out solutions that are no longer effective in the post-pandemic reality and optimize those that they will continue to use.

Are the tools that worked well two years ago adequate to protect the company’s greatly expanded attack surface, with employees spread all over the place? Answering this question requires mapping corporate security strategy to the specific controls needed to realize that strategy. Then, security teams should evaluate their inventory of solutions against that list of controls.

How is each product or service in the company’s technology supply chain moving the organization forward? The CISO needs to double down on understanding all the connections throughout their environment. This isn’t the kind of task that ends with marks on a compliance checklist. Instead, the CISO should come out of this process with a deep knowledge of the ways in which each solution is valuable to the organization. Those that no longer provide adequate value should be removed.

Scaling up Security

CISOs’ goal should be Zero Trust security throughout the technology architecture, within which the principle of least privilege is a key component. I know easier said than done, but doubling down on this focus will undoubtedly be key to moving the business forward. So for CISOs evaluating the company’s security capabilities, an understanding of which users require access to which resources is crucial. Accomplishing Zero Trust security for all the company’s data and applications at the new scale of business, without impacting user productivity, will be a key CISO challenge moving forward.

Finally, the evaluation of the company’s current solutions will reveal any security gaps that exist. Now we are getting to the business of security, CISOs can consider additional solutions that might be able to fill those gaps, then they can prioritize investments. When doing due diligence on prospective additions to the infrastructure, CISOs must move past the projected outcomes, bells, and whistles listed in marketing materials, which can make every solution seem the same. Instead, product evaluations should focus on the specific capabilities that the solution offers, with the aim of understanding how those capabilities support the organization’s security needs and ability to scale with the organization. CISOs should talk to individuals they trust in peer companies to find out whether each solution does what it says it will do.

Ultimately, building a successful security operation is going to be challenging as the scale of companies’ security requirements continues to grow. But it’s a challenge that CISOs cannot ignore. Attacks accelerated during the pandemic. Risks grew at the same pace. Achieving effective and efficient security that also supports the business and user productivity needs to be the CISO’s COVID endgame.

About the author: Lamont Orange is the CISO at Netskope. He has more than 20 years of experience in the information security industry, having previously served as vice president of enterprise security for Charter Communications (now Spectrum) and as the senior manager for the security and technology services practice at Ernst & Young.

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