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Easing the Burden of Security Self-Assessments

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A web-based platform was developed to support the inter-organisational collaboration between small and medium-sized energy providers. Since critical infrastructures are subject to new security regulations in Germany, the platform particularly serves for the exchange of experience and for mutual support in information security. The focus of this work is the security self-assessment component. In order to ease the burden of going through a long questionnaire we have implemented small, motivating modules that are spread across the platform. The data entered is used for an individual risk assessment but also for a fine granular inter-organisational security benchmarking which builds a common added value for the entire community on the platform and strengthens the community building process. We implemented a prototype of the platform and evaluated the it in a focus group.
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Easing the Burden of Security Self-Assessments
Christopher Schmitz1, André Sekulla2, Sebastian Pape1, Volkmar Pipek2 and
Kai Rannenberg1
1 Goethe University Frankfurt, Chair of Mobile Business & Multilateral
Security, Germany
2 University of Siegen, Institute of Information Systems, Germany
e-mail: {christopher.schmitz; sebastian.pape; kai.rannenberg}@m-chair.de
{andre.sekulla; volkmar.pipek}@uni-siegen.de
Abstract
A web-based platform was developed to support the inter-organisational collaboration
between small and medium-sized energy providers. Since critical infrastructures are subject to
new security regulations in Germany, the platform particularly serves for the exchange of
experience and for mutual support in information security. The focus of this work is the
security self-assessment component. In order to ease the burden of going through a long
questionnaire we have implemented small, motivating modules that are spread across the
platform. The data entered is used for an individual risk assessment but also for a fine granular
inter-organisational security benchmarking which builds a common added value for the entire
community on the platform and strengthens the community building process. We implemented
a prototype of the platform and evaluated the it in a focus group.
Keywords
Security Management, Security Self-Assessment, Collaborative Knowledge
Management
1. Introduction
Gathering information for risk and security self-assessments can be a cumbersome
task. In general, the security managers need to answer an often long collection of
questions built on established standards (e.g. Swanson 2001, ISO/IEC 27019, IEC
62443). For instance, the NIST security self-assessment contains more than 200
questions (Swanson 2001). Self-assessments offer advantages over external security
audits: they are less expensive, they can be implemented in local organisational
routines, and they allow more control on critical information about an organisations’
IT infrastructure. But they are also challenging: the actors’ bias towards the inner-
organisational discourses may leave blind spots. Furthermore, analyses, as well as
decisions for counter-measures, require a continuous improvement of competencies
with regard to existing as well as future IT infrastructures and the related threats.
These challenges are particularly relevant for small and medium-sized enterprises
(SMEs) that provide infrastructural services, and which often do not have the
capacities to run a full-fledged information security department and rely on external
expertise (Dax et al. 2017).
In many areas, individuals and organisations with a local lack of expertise turn to
support communities on the internet. These communities are not only valuable in
offering their members concrete support to solve a specific problem, they also offer
an interaction space to collaboratively consolidate and improve the general
knowledge on the issues at stake, and offer additional problem solving strategies
(e.g. by means of recommender systems, cf. Ackerman et al. 2013). This approach
cannot immediately be transferred to areas with specific vulnerabilities, e.g.
information security in power grid infrastructures. Framing conditions like the high
sensitivity of the infrastructure-related information, legal or regulatory requirements,
and the complexity of dependencies between grid technologies, IT systems
supporting their management, and possible threats require a more cautious approach
to unlock the helpful dynamics of community processes.
We have developed a platform for security managers supporting small and medium-
sized energy providers. The central tool of this platform is a self-assessment
component to support security managers to manage the recent legal requirements to
monitor and improve the information security of their infrastructures. In our
approach, users can model the existing information security measures of their
infrastructure (in terms of security controls
1
following ISO/IEC 27001) using
security maturity levels
2
, which can then be compared and published in an
anonymised way to the results from other participating organisations. The platform
then provides information (in a Q&A section) on improving with regard to specific
controls, as well as a controlled community section in which strategies of
improvement can be discussed with other information security managers. We built
small modules which are shown in other parts of the platform. Those modules allow
the users to answer the questions or update the maturity levels along the way when
interacting with other parts of the platform. By making use of motivational elements
and showing questions one by one in other parts of the platform, we aim to ease the
burden of going through a lengthy list of questions. This is especially the case when
respondents update the answers entered and need to decide if the current answer is
still valid. Lessons from other platforms showed, that structured processes of
information consolidation and improvement through users help the perceived value
of the information provided dramatically.
The remainder of this paper is organised as follows: Section 2 discusses related
work, Section 3 gives an overview of our platform, and Section 4 discusses the
connection of self-assessment with user motivation and community building. Section
5 reports about a brief evaluation. Section 6 concludes and outlines future research.
1
A security control describes security requirements that can be fulfilled by performing the
corresponding security measures. A control is associated with one or more security measures.
2
Maturity levels can be used as a measure to quantify a control’s protection level. The higher
a control’s maturity level, the higher is the chance that it is performed in a secure way.
2. Related Work
With the World Wide Web as a breakthrough technology, building knowledge
communities became an actual practice in professional contexts (e.g. Lesser et al.
2000). Although these community platforms intended an open, flexible support for
problem-solving processes, the delicacy of the social and business-related processes
behind the “innocent” knowledge exchange very soon became apparent: Articulating
a problem was often considered as uncovering a personal or organisational deficit,
solutions that were offered came with unclear quality assurances, and the work of
narrowing down a problem as well as developing a solution that would fit all local
needs went far beyond simple “Q&A” patterns (Pipek and Won, 2003).
For platforms hosting knowledge communities, several strategies were developed to
ease these problems. The idea of “FAQ” (Frequently asked questions) developed to
relieve experts from answering the same basic questions over and over. It was
combined with processes to keep them up to date (e.g. the “Answer Garden” system,
Ackerman and McDonald 1996). Pipek and Won (2003) suggested to focus more on
connecting users looking for a problem solution with experts who could help them,
less on making knowledge explicit and store it online. For particularly sensitive
issues, the anonymity of the person asking for help as well as of persons answering is
guaranteed (e.g. patientslikeme.com).
Self-assessment as another technique to counter negative effects of “deficit
disclosure”, and even allows a continuous monitoring and improvement, has become
a heavily discussed approach in learning communities (e.g. Castle and McGuire,
2010). To some extent, self-assessment approaches also help in organisational
learning (e.g. in the general improvement of IT infrastructures, e.g. Curley 2004, in
approaches of quality management, e.g. Saunders and Mann 2005, and with regard
to information security e.g. Swanson 2001). But this was never done in
combination with online support for knowledge communities. There exist the so-
called “Information Sharing Analysis Centres” (ISACs). ISACs are organisations
that gather and analyse security-related information from their members and provide
them with analysis results and reports. In contrast to them our approach addresses the
individual organisation and provides them with individual risk analysis and
benchmarking scores. Furthermore, our platform enables a direct knowledge sharing.
3. The SIDATE Platform
Especially SMEs often struggle to achieve an adequate security level, although some
of them are obliged to get certified against the ISO/IEC 27001. This holds for
instance for energy providers and other critical infrastructures in Germany. A natural
solution to support them is to stimulate collaboration. For this, we have built an
inter-organisational collaboration platform for energy providers. It enables energy
providers to assess their security level and to improve their security also by inter-
organisational discussions. We systematically elicited the requirements in several
workshops (Dax et al. 2016). The platform consists of four main components aiming
to support knowledge sharing between the organisations:
Security measures catalogue: The security measures component is a catalogue
of security measures which is maintained by security experts. Users can
comment on the measures, suggest new measures and rate them according to
their costs, efficacy and usability.
Questions and answers: The Q&A component should support and structure
inter-organisational discussions. Registered users can ask security-related
questions and can finally mark answers as correct. All users can rate questions
and answers and can either sort them by rating or creation date. In order to have
a more structured inter-organisational communication threads can be filtered
according to tags or security controls.
Document sharing: In the document sharing component the participating
organisations can share relevant documents in a structured way, e.g. best
practices or official documents specifying the binding legal requirements.
Security self-assessment: The security self-assessment component constitutes
the core component of the platform. Using this component, organisations can
assess their security risk level in order to better understand their exposure to
relevant security risks. Moreover, they can compare their security status (on
different abstraction level) with that of similar organisations.
In the following, we focus on the self-assessment component which constitutes the
central element of the platform. It consists of the three sections data input,
benchmarking and risk assessment that are complemented by three superordinate
modules being spread across the platform. We describe them below:
3.1 Data Input Section
The first step of the risk assessment process is to gather the required information.
The necessary user data is entered in the data input section (see Fig. 1). The
organisations model the security measures of their infrastructure by assessing the
maturity levels of the implemented security controls (in terms of controls following
the ISO/IEC 27001). Here, the widely known ISO/IEC 27019 security controls
(which are more specific security controls for the energy utility industry) are used as
questionnaire items. Since they equally address technical and organisational aspects
of information security they represent a wide range of security measures that can be
implemented in an organisation. The items are structured in the same categories and
sub-categories the security managers already know from the original standard. The
users are furthermore supported by the feature to show either all controls, only those
controls that are not assessed yet or only those controls that have already been
assessed which makes sense in order to check in a user-friendly way whether all
controls are still up to date.
3.2 Benchmarking Section
The benchmarking section (see Fig. 2) enables organisations to compare their
security status with similar organisations. Their maturity levels are juxtaposed (in an
anonymised way) with that of other organisations.
Figure 1: Data Input Section
For each control, the organisation’s maturity level is shown along with the average
maturity level by the other organisations. For a more in-depth analysis, the
distribution of maturity levels per control is also presented as well as a relative
benchmarking score which indicates how well the organisation performs compared
to the others. In this section, one can also re-assess the maturity levels. The
benchmark is shown on different abstraction levels: on a control level and on the
aggregated levels of the control groups and sub-groups of the ISO/IEC 27019. The
groups and sub-groups are presented in the same structure as in the original
standards, like in the data input section.
3.3 Risk Assessment Section
In the risk assessment section a scenario-based risk analysis is conducted to calculate
the organisation’s security risk score as well as the risk for a collection of relevant
attack scenarios. This supports the security managers in identifying the most critical
risks they are exposed to. Describing the risk assessment framework and the other
data sources would go beyond the scope of this work.
3.4 Superordinate Modules
Additionally, we have implemented three superordinate modules directly supporting
the self-assessment component. The modules are displayed in other components of
the platform aiming to connect the different parts of the platform in order to
stimulate the users to frequently assess respectively to re-assess security controls.
Figure 2: Benchmarking Section
Figures 3 and 4 show their graphical use interfaces. By requesting to keep the data
complete and up-to-date we try to keep the entire data on a representative level.
1.) A control that has already been evaluated may have an obsolete maturity level
and should be updated to obtain a more representative status. Therefore, the first
module (see Fig. 3) requests the user to update resp. to re-assess a security control at
regular intervals. This is also important from the perspective of information security
management systems, since they require constant and iterative handling of
information security measures.
2.) In case of missing maturity levels the second module requests the user to evaluate
the security controls that have not been evaluated yet. In particular, the aim is to
ensure that the data is complete. The more controls have been evaluated, the better
the outcomes of the risk assessment and the better they can be compared with other
results. The presented controls are further prioritized with regard to their information
value for the risk assessment, e.g. to enable a new attack scenario in the risk
assessment. The module also indicates such information.
3.) The third module, shown in Figure 4, is positioned in the security measures
catalogue. While a user is viewing such a measure in detail, he or she gets asked to
evaluate the respective security control for the self-assessment component. Again,
this should improve the data completeness and up-to-dateness.
4. Usability Aspects
To improve interaction and activity in the SIDATE platform, the interaction between
users need to be carefully planned. Looking at the individual user, a good usability
and interesting collaboration anchors need to be provided. But it is also important to
have the further development of the associated community in mind.
4.1. Motivating Updates and Additional Input
One way to increase activity on the online platform is to keep the entry barriers as
low as possible (Girgensohn and Lee, 2002). The self-assessment tool serves as a
guided entry to model the maturity level of an organisations IT security. Later
changes can be easily made as soon as a user is logged in on the platform without the
questionnaire. He can easily add further data and information to his information
security status without having to navigate directly into the associated self-assessment
module in order to additionally reach the subordinate category in such a way that he
can evaluate the corresponding control.
Section 3 described the self-assessment component in more detail. The component
does not include any community functions itself. Since this component may contain
sensitive data, functions for exchange and interaction between users could be
counterproductive. They could lead to falsified data or no input of the requested data
being carried out. The modules presented below are primarily intended to ensure that
the dataset entered is complete and up-to-date. This enables the self-assessment and
the benchmarking to work properly on these data and make meaningful comparisons.
Only after the own data has been entered, the other users' ratings become visible as a
direct comparison. This should again increase the motivation to enter complete data.
The asses control module (Fig. 4) indicates that when the corresponding control is
evaluated, a new attack scenario is activated within the risk analysis of the self-
assessment module. This should increase the motivation to enter complete ratings
and unlock a kind of success because “individuals are more likely to gain self-based
Figure 3: Update Control Module
achievement rather than enjoyment in the process of sharing knowledge” (Yang and
Lai, 2010). Hence, while users are viewing such a measure in detail they get asked to
evaluate the respective security control for the self-assessment module and the
benchmarking process. Again, this should improve the up-to-dateness and data
completeness and is implemented through the related control module.
4.2. Supporting the Community Building Process
The activity of the users of a platform is an important aspect of the community
building process. Beside the user activity, another goal of an online platform for
cooperation is the creation of added value for all parties involved. Girgensohn and
Lee (2002) describe the so-called socio-technical-capital as a resource produced as
a side effect of technology-mediated social interaction. Resnick (2001) notes that it
can be accumulated and made available to create value for people. It should
influence the users among themselves in such a way that they interact more with
each other. To encourage users to participate further, it is recommended to repeat
social interaction (Kollock, 1996) which is implemented in particular with the help
of additional modules directly related to the presented self-assessment module. It is
intended to encourage users to constantly interact with the platform. The self-
assessment itself has no functions for direct interaction between the users but the
small modules have indirect effects on further interactions on the entire platform, as
they allow for an anonymous comparison with the results others have provided.
If there is a need for an improvement in their own information security landscape,
users can start to enter and participate in online discussions that are specific to the
controls where deficits may be rooted in. It is not necessary to disclose that there are
deficits in a user’s own organisation but the discussions can aim for a general
optimization with regard to that control. It remains (formally) open whether a
participant is looking for or providing expertise this positioning is left to the
discourse itself. The aim is to awake the interest to exchange ideas with other users
of the platform in order to learn from their experiences and to profit from the
resulting social-technical-capital. Thus, with the help of the self-assessment module
and the associated superordinate modules, a community building process is initiated
that increases the activity of all interaction methods integrated on the platform.
5. Evaluating the Platform in a Focus Group
To evaluate the platform, we have conducted a workshop with ten experts from eight
small or medium-sized energy providers. Due to the legal requirements, the majority
of the organisations were certified against ISO/IEC 27001 so they successfully went
through all the necessary processes. Therefore, most of the participants had good
security know-how. One of them was a trainer for ISO/IEC 27001 security auditors.
We have presented the most relevant platform features in a live demo. The attendees
could always interrupt the presentation and ask questions to make sure they
understood everything. Afterwards, the experts were invited to discuss the platform
in a moderated discussion. We asked them for general feedback and for suggestions
for improvement based on their own experiences. We also stimulated discussions
among the experts and moderated it in the way to work out the most relevant aspects.
The participants emphasised the simple structure and the user-friendly design of the
platform. Their comments and the way they discussed the platform and its functions
also clearly demonstrated they understood the purpose of the different functions and
how to use them. Apart from those usability aspects, many of the comments were
addressing the ISO/IEC 27001 certification. There was consensus among the experts
that the platform was helpful for an internal pre-audit before the official ISO/IEC
27001 audit starts. They argued for instance that the organisations have to conduct a
risk analysis prior to the official audit anyway, and such a self-assessment would be
very helpful for SMEs who often struggle to identify and assess the risks they are
exposed to. The experts also agreed that the approach to go through the ISO/IEC
27019 controls makes a lot of sense because this is what the auditor finally checks.
The users’ positive evaluations on both the platform’s usability and its general ideas
have a positive effect on the users’ activity and it strengthens the community
building process which helps the entire community. To further improve the platform
the experts suggested integrating a recommender feature that derives optimal security
measures and recommends a list of actions to the security team. According to the
benchmarking component, it would be useful to have a benchmarking with
companies already certified against ISO/IEC 27001.
6. Conclusion and Future Work
Security self-assessment frameworks support security managers to assess their
organisation’s security level. Applying those frameworks can be a cumbersome task
since many of them are based on long questionnaires. Apart from that, additional
information and inter-organisational discussions, e.g. with regard to the selection of
security measures, can often be helpful especially for SMEs who often do not have
the capacities to run a full-fledged security department. In order to address these
issues, a web-based collaboration platform for security management was developed,
supporting energy providers. The security self-assessment component constitutes the
central feature of the platform. It helps security managers to identify relevant attack
scenarios and allows them to benchmark their security status with that of similar
organisations. Complementarily, small modules were implemented that are spread
across the platform. They allow the users to complete or update the data needed for
the self-assessment along the way when interacting with other parts of the platform.
By making use of motivational elements and showing questions one by one in other
parts of the platform, we aim to ease the burden of security self-assessments (e.g.
going through a long questionnaire).
Furthermore, we have implemented a prototype of the platform and have evaluated it
in a focus group, concentrating on usability aspects but also on the conceptual ideas
of the platform. The next steps are to address the experts’ feedback and to work on a
recommender function for security measures based on the results of the security risk
analysis. Another open task is to analyse how to design the inter-organisational
sharing of recommended measures in a privacy preserving way.
7. Acknowledgement
This research was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and
Research (grant numbers: 16KIS0239K, 16KIS0240). We thank Leon Alexander
Herrmann and David Bug for their contribution to the prototype implementation.
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Managing information technology for business value: practical strategies for IT and business managers (IT best practices series)
  • M G Curley
Curley, M. G. (2004), Managing information technology for business value: practical strategies for IT and business managers (IT best practices series), Intel press.