How CISOs can communicate risk to businesses

CISOs have been hearing for some time now that they need to learn how to "speak the language of business" better. It is one way to gain respect and avoid being viewed mainly as a scapegoat.

For those wondering how the heck to do that, Chris Wysopal, cofounder and CTO of Veracode, is glad you asked.

That was the focus of Wysopal's presentation titled, "A CISO's Perspective on Talking to the Board about Cybersecurity," Tuesday morning at RSA 2015 in San Francisco.

The first step, he said, is learning to think like a business leader instead of, "someone who is managing back-office technology."

[ Read all of CSO's coverage of RSA 2015 ]

He acknowledged that, as recently as three or four years ago, that was the CISO's primary role. "But that role is changing in ways that raises its visibility to the board," he said. "Now CISOs are business leaders overseeing lines of business that are spinning up SaaS applications. They have to deal with legal, compliance, public relations and other units."

Meanwhile, "the threat space is changing as well," he said. "There are things out of his control, like the supply chain and service providers. Using technology grows the biz, but also amplifies risks."

And, he said, boards are finally more aware of those risks. So, while the demands and pressure on CISOs have increased, so have the opportunities.

"Breach readiness and breach response are hot topics," he said. "So things like visibility, readiness, and a public relations plan are definitely things that boards are interested in hearing about."

And to make sure they listen, Wysopal offered specific advice, starting with keeping it short, since the reality is that a CISO is likely to get only five to 15 minutes to make a pitch. And that pitch cannot be filled with charts, graphs and techno-speak -- the kinds of things that make non-techies' eyes glaze over.

"These are intelligent people, but they are not technical," he said. "So think of it in terms of talking to your mom."

His short list of communication skills for CISOs includes:

  • Don't use acronyms like DDoS. Say the words, not the letters.
  • Use visuals, not text
  • Use numbers, especially dollars, such as losses from public data breaches, so board members can measure risks against costs.
  • Use analogies.
  • Show how training works. "You can measure the effectiveness of training on spear phishing," he said.
  • Ask board members what they want to get out of their infosec program.
  • Stress that there is no such thing as breach-free org.
  • Stress that cybersecurity has to be companywide: IT, legal, lines of business and public relations must all become involved.
  • Cybersecurity needs to be thought of as long-term strategy of survival for the brand.

Wysopal said CISOs also need to communicate the level of risk in terms that board members can understand. That means talking about breaches in similar industries and how they happened.

It also means explaining who is out to attack your specific company and why. What are they looking to get?

"For retailers, it's pretty clear," he said. It's no surprise that they want credit card information. In health care, they want PII (personally identifiable information).

"So threat model your business. What would an attacker want to monetize?"

Finally, he said the CISO should, "communicate top five risks to their company and the indicators that signal the company's level of exposure to them. They should identify if risk indicators are trending up, down or remaining flat.

"And they should explain how the company is managing those risks and keeping them within acceptable limits."

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