It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup or the Chaos

Well, Richard Smith has “resigned” from Equifax.

The CEO being fired is a rare outcome of a breach, and so I want to discuss what’s going on and put it into context, which includes the failures at DHS, and Deloitte breach. Also, I aim to follow the advice to praise specifically and criticize in general, and break that pattern here because we can learn so much from the specifics of the cases, and in so learning, do better.

Smith was not fired because of the breach. Breaches happen. Executives know this. Boards know this. The breach is outside of their control. Smith was fired because of the post-breach chaos. Systems that didn’t work. Tweeting links to a scam site for two weeks. PINS that were recoverable. Weeks of systems saying “you may have been a victim.” Headlines like “Why the Equifax Breach Stings So Bad” in the NYTimes. Smith was fired in part because of the post-breach chaos, which was something he was supposed to control.

But it wasn’t just the chaos. It was that Equifax displayed so much self-centeredness after the breach. They had the chutzpah to offer up their own product as a remedy. And that self-dealing comes from seeing itself as a victim. From failing to understand how the breach will be seen in the rest of the world. And that’s a very similar motive to the one that leads to coverups.

In The New School Andrew and I discussed how fear of firing was one reason that companies don’t disclose breaches. We also discussed how, once you agree that “security issues” are things which should remain secret or shared with a small group, you can spend all your energy on rules for information sharing, and have no energy left for actual information sharing.

And I think that’s the root cause of “U.S. Tells 21 States That Hackers Targeted Their Voting Systems” a full year after finding out:

The notification came roughly a year after officials with the United States Department of Homeland Security first said states were targeted by hacking efforts possibly connected to Russia.

A year.

A year.

A year after states were first targeted. A year in which “Obama personally warned Mark Zuckerberg to take the threats of fake news ‘seriously.’” (Of course, the two issues may not have been provably linkable at the time.) But. A year.

I do not know what the people responsible for getting that message to the states were doing during that time, but we have every reason to believe that it probably had to do with (and here, I am using not my sarcastic font, but my scornful one) “rules of engagement,” “traffic light protocols,” “sources and methods” and other things which are at odds with addressing the issue. (End scornful font.) I understand the need for these things. I understand protecting sources is a key role of an intelligence service which wants to recruit more sources. And I also believe that there’s a time to risk those things. Or we might end up with a President who has more harsh words for Australia than the Philippines. More time for Russia than Germany.

In part, we have such a President because we value secrecy over disclosure. We accept these delays and view them as reasonable. Of course, the election didn’t turn entirely on these issues, but on our electoral college system, which I discussed at some length, including ways to fix it.

All of which brings me to the Deloitte breach, “Deloitte hit by cyber-attack revealing clients’ secret emails.” Deloitte, along with the others who make up the big four audit firms, gets access to its clients deepest secrets, and so you might expect that the response to the breach would be similar levels of outrage. And I suspect a lot of partners are making a lot of hat-in-hand visits to boardrooms, and contritely trying to answer questions like “what the flock were you people doing?” and “why the flock weren’t we told?” I expect that there’s going to be some very small bonuses this year. But, unlike our relationship with Equifax, boards do not feel powerless in relation to their auditors. They can pick and swap. Boards do not feel that the system is opaque and unfair. (They sometimes feel that the rules are unfair, but that’s a different failing.) The extended reporting time will likely be attributed to the deep analysis that Deloitte did so it could bring facts to its customers, and that might even be reasonable. After all, a breach is tolerable; chaos afterwards may not be.

The two biggest predictors of public outrage are chaos and coverups. No, that’s not quite right. The biggest causes are chaos and coverups. (Those intersect poorly with data brokerages, but are not limited to them.) And both are avoidable.

So what should you do to avoid them? There’s important work in preparing for a breach, and in preventing one.

  • First, run tabletop response exercises to understand what you’d do in various breach scenarios. Then re-run those scenarios with the principals (CEO, General Counsel) so they can practice, too.
  • To reduce the odds of a breach, realize that you need continuous and integrated security as part of your operational cycles. Move from focusing on pen tests, red teams and bug bounties to a focus on threat modeling, so you can find problems systematically and early.

I’d love to hear what other steps you think organizations often miss out on.

Also published on Medium as an experiment.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup or the Chaos”

  1. I think you’re describing the inevitable consequences of a common but misguided strategy. Historically in Information Risk Management, we’ve focused primarily on prevention, with a much lower priority on detection and in most cases, no resources allocated to response. (I distinguish “response” from “reaction”… the former involves planning and preparation, and even, as you’ve suggested, rehearsal.) It’s a Maginot Line mentality that doesn’t play well in today’s threat landscape. To some extent, we must presume that we will be (or have been?) breached, and that means balancing our investment better across prevention, detection and response.

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