The key to cost-effective cybersecurity

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Engaging leaders in protecting an organization's cyber, IT and information assets is a critical starting point to effective security. A next logical step for any government or commercial organization is to leverage risk management and analytics to implement a mission-based security program.

As organizations move forward, guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and evolving capabilities in industry are merging to define a path forward for agencies to follow.

Information security and risk management are essential for all public-sector organizations because they depend on information and IT systems to make informed, critical decisions and successfully carry out their missions. And those IT systems and information resources are subject to almost constant threats that can have significant and wide-ranging impacts on operations, compromising the confidentiality, integrity or availability of information for an agency.

Given the significant and growing danger of these threats, leaders must understand their responsibilities for achieving sound information security and for managing IT-related security risks. As we've discussed previously, the Obama administration's Cybersecurity Framework provides a broad road map for government and commercial organizations to get started on this effort. Although the process is complex, several resources allow agencies to enhance such understanding in a public-sector context.

NIST guidance

First, NIST -- in partnership with the Defense Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Committee on National Security Systems -- developed a common information security framework for the federal government and its contractors in order to improve information security and strengthen risk management processes. The six-step Risk Management Framework:

  • Promotes the implementation of robust continuous monitoring processes, enabling near-real-time risk management and ongoing information system authorization.
  • Encourages the use of automation to provide senior leaders with the necessary information to make cost-effective, risk-based decisions.
  • Integrates information security into the enterprise architecture and system development life cycle.
  • Emphasizes the selection, implementation, assessment and monitoring of security controls throughout the system's life cycle.
  • Suggests creating a risk executive -- a senior official dedicated to understanding how risks can affect strategic goals and objectives.
  • Establishes responsibility and accountability for security controls deployed within organizational information systems and inherited by those systems (i.e., common controls).

In addition to the guidance contained in the Risk Management Framework, NIST has published two additional documents -- NIST SP 800-39 and NIST SP 800-30 -- that emphasize the need for integrated organization-wide risk management and risk assessments.

Risk assessment capabilities

Agencies can use the connection between information/IT systems and critical business processes to form a focal point for assessing risk through the threat, vulnerability, and consequence concept. This targeted approach to implementing security controls reduces budget impact while increasing effectiveness. It allows agencies to implement an effective information security program that is framed with three primary goals to promote a holistic approach and an effective information security architecture:

  • Protect data and information systems.
  • Conduct security protection activities with respect to security compliance requirements (security compliance-related vulnerabilities).
  • Analyze cyberthreat data and develop predictive and proactive threat prevention (cyberthreat vulnerabilities independent of compliance).

In addition, agencies can use cyberthreat analysis and security intelligence to address vulnerability management in two critical areas. The first area focuses on understanding and assessing an organization's security compliance profile and using analysis to develop actions that remediate compliance-related vulnerabilities as quickly as possible, through immediate response and the plan of action and milestones process required by law and Office of Management and Budget policy. That compliance profile approach to continuous monitoring creates a continuous improvement capability that enhances situational awareness.

The second area focuses on cyberthreat analysis and security intelligence by aggregating and correlating security threat intelligence data that can create actionable and operationally relevant recommendations. This approach increases awareness of vulnerabilities that might allow an organizational compromise prior to an actual breach or network penetration. This analytics and security intelligence capability can also be framed with risk management to identify insider threat vulnerabilities or compromises.

Taken together, the resources from NIST and growing capabilities for assessing risk and using analytics provide a strong road map for agencies to follow in the continual improvement of their cybersecurity posture.

About the Authors

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

John Lainhart leads IBM's Public Sector Cybersecurity and Privacy Services.


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