Outsourcing Information Security

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Outsourcing Information Security is required reading for anyone considering outsourcing information security functionality. 

When it comes to the outsourcing of information security functions specifically, the situation is even worse. Far too few organizations know the inherent risks involved with outsourcing security, and don't properly investigate what they are getting into. The same company that makes it nearly impossible for an employee to enter the office supply closet to get much needed toner cartridge will outsource their intrusion detection, email and firewall systems without a blink. 

One of the many reasons companies turn to security outsourcing and managed security services providers (MSSP) is to use their limited internal security staff for more interesting areas such as web development, VPN and e-commerce applications. They will then outsource the boring activities such as firewall and IDS monitoring and maintenance to a MSSP. 

Given that activities such as firewall monitoring and administering an IDS in large enterprise requires 24/7 support, it is not unusual for a company to want to outsource such activities; monitoring and administering are not core functions of most organizations. 

The trouble comes from the lack of due care often given to choosing a MSSP. With that, Outsourcing Information Security is a long-overdue book that asks the questions that are necessary before an organization decides to outsource any information security function. 

The author's general tone is against the outsourcing of information security; but provides readers with the various benefits and risks involved in outsourcing security, and let's them ultimate decide if outsourcing security is right for their organization. It is the reader who must define, evaluate and manage those risks and determine if outsourcing is a viable solution. These include technology, business and legal risks. 

The book comprises nine chapters and three appendices totaling a bit fewer than 250 pages. The first two chapters provide a good introduction and overview of outsourcing and information security, and the associated security risks. 

Chapter 3 details various reasons why outsourcing information security makes sense. The chapter includes various tables and references to the many reasons why a company would want to outsource security. 

Chapter 4 takes the other side and analyzes the risks of outsourcing. The chapter details the traditional risks, in addition to other factors such as hidden costs, broken promises, phantom benefits and more. The book shows that while many organizations hand over information security responsibility to their MSSP, when things go wrong, they can't effectively blame the MSSP. When things go wrong -- and they will -- all of the fingers in the world can be pointed at the MSSP, but the ultimate responsibility falls on the organization itself. With outsourced security, if something goes wrong, those fingers will point back to the company's security manager, not the incompetent firewall administrator in Bangalore. 

The chapter provides a balanced look at the risk of outsourcing, and while calm in its overall approach, the chapter should at least make the person considering outsourcing information security think twice. In fact, the author concludes the chapter by stating "when all of the risks of outsourcing are considered, one wonders how anyone ever makes the decision to use a third party." Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence that many security activities are indeed outsourced to MSSP, and are often satisfactory from both the buyer's and seller's perspective. 

Chapters 5 and 6 provide a thorough summary of the costs and benefits of outsourcing, and provides a method with which to categorize them. The chapter is well suited for a CFO with its discussion of direct vs. indirect costs, controllable vs. non-controllable costs, and much more. These two chapters show that creating meaningful financial numbers to see if outsourcing makes financial sense is not such an easy task. It is important to understand that outsourcing sometimes makes financial sense, but certainly not all the time. For those organizations that don't crunch the numbers seriously at the beginning, these costs can later come back to haunt them in a big way. 

Chapters 7 and 8 detail the processes involved in commencing an outsourcing project, from requirements gathering to placing policy against the outsourced company. A mistake many organizations make is failure to ensure that the MSSP is abiding by the client's information security policies, rather than their own. 

Similarly, one of the most overlooked areas of outsourcing information security functionality is regulation. A U.S. company may be under numerous regulations, from HIPAA to Sarbanes-Oxley, GLBA, SEC and more; when they outsource their security functionality, the remote technician may not be under the jurisdiction of the SEC; but the corporate data still must be protected according to those regulations. 

The main part of the book concludes with chapter 9, which provides a 20-step process to determine if an outsourced security solution is appropriate. In seven pages, the author specifies the various events, tasks and steps that make up the typical outsourcing project. 

Appendix A provides a breakdown of the various services that can be outsourced, with Appendices B & C providing brief histories of IT Outsourcing and Information Security. 

The only downside to the book is its $85.00 price, which is at the high-end for technology and business books. While the price is high, the book is a huge value for anyone considering outsourcing security. The book asks the questions that are often never asked, and details how the outsourcing of information security is not the slam-dunk that the MSSPs often portray it to be. 

For those who know what their security issues are and look to outsource their security functionality to a trusted MSSP, Outsourcing Information Security shows how it can be done. On the other side, for those who are drunk with the panacea that outsourcing security is supposed to provide, Outsourcing Information Security will be a sobering wake-up call.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Blogs posted to the RSAConference.com website are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the blog author individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of RSA Conference™, or any other co-sponsors. RSA Conference does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this blog.

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