Verizon 2010 Data Breach Investigations Report Key takeaways for Security Assessors and Auditors

The Verizon 2010 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) released last week has some interesting findings, just as it did last year. What makes it special this year is that Verizon partnered with the United States Secret Service in developing this report. I don’t intend to discuss all the statistics in this blog (will do so in another upcoming blog) but as you will see explained in the report, the Secret Service’s involvement has thrown new light into some of the findings.

My intention here is to highlight the significance of such a report to security and audit practitioners with the objective of improving the quality of their risk assessments or audits and more importantly, help make the right recommendations to management.  From my experience as a security practitioner and an occasional auditor, I can tell that we may not always be using all the available information to help improve the quality of our risk assessments or audits. And, I think reports such as the Verizon DBIR can provide some valuable help from that standpoint.

Let me explain what I mean… Deliverables for any risk assessment or audit typically include a list of findings and for each finding, we provide an explanation of the risk, the risk severity  (High, Medium, Low) and suitable recommendations for risk mitigation or remediation.  The management would then proceed to remediate various gaps in priority based on our risk rankings. Considering that risk is a product of likelihood and impact (I like the OWASP risk rating methodology, so will use it here), it is important that we get the impact and likelihood right.  Impact is largely a function of the organization’s characteristics including various technical and business factors seen in the methodology. On the other hand, likelihood is a function of threats and vulnerabilities.  I think the DBIR can be a useful reference in estimating the likelihood.

For example, the DBIR says that external agents were responsible for about 78% of the breaches whereas about 48% were caused by insiders. These numbers can be used to arrive at a better objective estimate  of the likelihood that these threat agents may cause any harm. Similarly, the DBIR also says that  48% of the breaches involved privilege misuse, 40% resulted from hacking  and 38% utilized malware. These numbers can be used for objective estimation of the likelihood that associated vulnerabilities could be exploited. The OWASP methodology has an illustration for such objective risk estimation.

These are but a couple of examples. The DBIR has a wealth of information that can be useful to auditors and security practitioners alike, both in improving the quality of their work as well as in being able to defend their risk rankings. We all realize that risk rankings almost always have a level of subjectivity in them but I think reports like the DBIR can be leveraged to make them as objective as possible. A very good example is the risk level one might normally assign to a case of unpatched vulnerability versus a configuration issue.  It may not be readily obvious that one might need to be assigned a higher risk level over another until you read the DBIR. The DBIR tells us that the likelihood of exploitation of an unpatched  vulnerability is far less as compared to a vulnerability caused by a configuration issue. If we didn’t leverage the DBIR (and assuming both issues had equal impacts), we might assign equal risk levels to both the findings or worse, we might assign the unpatched vulnerability a higher risk level.

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to be blogging with a detailed commentary on some of the findings in the report including a special post on how the report can be leveraged to enhance the effectiveness of PCI DSS programs.

Hope this is useful! As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments.


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Kamal Govindaswamy

Posted on

August 03, 2010