Cybersecurity Budgets: Does More Money Equal More Secure?

I’ve read report after report showing that security budgets were increasing, yet the number of breaches at companies of all sizes also continues to climb. This leads me to believe that somewhere there is a breakdown in how cybersecurity programs are being run — where allocating more spend and focus on cybersecurity oftentimes does NOT actually produce better outcomes.

There is an abundance of information out there that backs this up — this isn’t just me pontificating. Here are some highlights:

On security budgets increasing:

On cybersecurity issues increasing:

I think this can all be summed up best in a report by Morgan Stanley from this summer called Cyber Security: Time for a Paradigm Shift, where they stated:

“Companies are spending more to safeguard their digital assets, but cybercrimes are still growing in frequency and severity. What’s needed now isn’t more security, but better security.”

Now to be clear, this is not meant to serve as a doom and gloom piece. Certainly, there are pockets of goodness here and there and a lot of people are working hard on many good efforts, but holistically, the state of cyber security still has a long road ahead of it. And the question becomes how can we ensure that as we spend more effort and budget on cybersecurity, that we are at the very least impacting the cybersecurity outcome in a similar level of uptick?

I recognize that my own observation is just my perception, which is based on what I personally read and do each day. As such I wanted to get some additional input from my peers, so I did some crowdsourcing through LinkedIn:

We all see the news reports regarding how security budgets are increasing each year but yet for some reason nothing ever seems to get better. Why is that? I have my own specific thoughts on the question but wanted to share and see if anyone had an answer of their own.”

A wide range of opinions followed as to why cybersecurity continues to be a challenge and where we as a community need to focus our efforts.  The responses (summarized and paraphrased) to date have been interesting to say the least:

  • A handful of opinions appeared to point some attribution to cybersecurity vendors. My interpretation of those comments is that the vendor-driven FUD has generated a sense of urgency for organizations to purchase specific solutions and therefore fatten the vendor pockets — or at a minimum create a very complex marketplace which presents a challenge to those trying to navigate it.
  • Several opinions revolved around the idea that although budgets have risen, the volume and sophistication of threats are either out-pacing or out-maneuvering those security professionals who are trying bring more resources to bear.  
  • A handful of opinions appeared to state that security departments are underfunded and have an uphill battle for additional resources as security is generally viewed as a cost center as opposed to a revenue generator. Additionally, one individual stated that a potential area to look at is what budget is being used to cover past investments, therefore allowing fewer resources to be applied to emerging risks and in turn giving the appearance or possibility of a gap.
  • Poor leadership was mentioned several times, with comments stating that there are those that promote waste and will buy any new flashy thing that hits the street and that ensures that investments are not as strategic as touted to be.
  • I also had a few individuals who seem to disagree with the question and stated I was irresponsible or I was performing a disservice for even asking such a thing.  

The crux of all the input, with the exception of few outliers, revolves around a more simplified question of are we allocating “resources” to all the proper areas? Well, I think the answer to this really depends on your reality, which is ultimately your perception based on your experiences.

Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” – Douglas Adams

I raise the perception/reality point to highlight that the responses to my Linkedin question are based on individuals’ experiences. Some folks have worked for or alongside poor leaders, have had poor experiences with vendors, or have had to do the budget defense drills. Some apparently don’t even see an issue and took offense to the question. These perceptions are also what drive a lot of these research reports that I listed above. Many of these are survey-based and while the survey structure and questions I am sure follow best practices for research processes, these surveys are being answered by people whose perceptions are their own reality.

My perception is based on my current role as head of the SurfWatch threat analyst team and from my previous role as CISO for a major transportation authority as well as a similar position for a DoD entity, where I tried to take an outcome-based model as much as reason dictates. Outcomes can be measured, they can be defended, and they can give you insight. Theoretically, if I apply more resources to a given defined problem the outcomes should change in some manner either good or bad. If the outcome does not change after putting more focus on that area, then I am going to start questioning a few things:

  1. Was the problem defined correctly?
  2. Was the problem measured correctly?
  3. Were the resources applied correctly?

Following these three key questions are a few more that hopefully prompt you to think about changing your perception/reality:

Problem Definition: The Art of The Plausible

  1. Do you use some type of analytical process to identify threats to your organization? And I don’t mean you base it off of news chatter, I mean you use a defined set of analytic inputs and analysis to determine what is true and what is not.
  2. If you have, have you analyzed what an actor’s capabilities and intentions are?
  3. If you do know what their capabilities and intentions are, have analyzed their tactics, techniques and procedures?

Problem Measurement: The Art of The Possible

  1. Have you observed using both internal and external data collection efforts any indications of previously defined threats or new undefined threats?
  2. What is your false positive rate for observing defined and undefined threats? Meaning you detected a threat, but investigation determined the threat to be untrue.
  3. What is your false negative rate? Meaning you did not detect a threat and post incident analysis determined the threat to be true.

Resources Applied To The Problem: The Art of Reality

  1. If you lead a cyber program, do you have a list of defined products and services that you deliver to the organization?
  2. Do you know what the exact budget allocation for labor and material is for every single one of those products and services?
  3. Have you defined policy, process and procedures for each one of those products and services?
  4. Can you identify what products and services specifically are applied to a defined threat?

The bottom line here is I believe that security spend is increasing and that many people and organizations are working hard and doing good things. But I also believe that we do not use intelligence enough to help define the problem area. If we can measure the problem, we know what resource to apply to it to change an outcome for the better. Instead, generally speaking we as a community deploy capabilities based on what we perceive to be the problem and hope that the outcome does not change for the worse.

As a former CISO, I have personally used intelligence-driven, analytical processes to identify what is true and then apply resources to address the “known knowns.” It takes diligence and determination, but by leveraging intel to drive our cybersecurity strategy, we can start to see a light at the end of what can be a long, dark tunnel.

Author: Adam Meyer

Adam Meyer has served in leadership positions in the defense, technology, and critical infrastructure sectors for more than 15 years. Prior to joining SurfWatch Labs, Mr. Meyer was the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, one of the largest public transportation systems in the United States. Preceding his role as a CISO, Mr. Meyer served as the Director of Information Assurance and Command IA Program Manager for the Naval Air Warfare Center, Naval Air Systems Command one of the Navy's premier engineering and acquisition commands.

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