How to protect your mission-critical information

A new report by the Information Security Forum (ISF) outlines the steps you can take to determine your mission-critical information assets &and create customized plans for protecting them.

Given the vast and increasing volumes of data within organizations today, securing your data can seem an insurmountable task. But you can get your arms around it if you assess the value of your data and focus your attention on protecting your mission-critical information assets — the crown jewels.

Yesterday, the nonprofit Information Security Forum (ISF) announced the availability of Protecting the Crown Jewels: How to Secure Mission-Critical Information Assets, the latest in a series of reports geared to helping organizations do just that.

"Businesses must prioritize the protection of mission-critical information assets," says Steve Durbin, managing director of the ISF. "Far too often, organizations consider the value of these assets, but fail to recognize the extent to which they are exposed to global security threats."

Standard security practices won't do

Conventional approaches to deploying security controls rarely provide appropriate or sufficient protection for mission-critical information assets, Durbin says, because they tend to follow a cookie-cutter approach. By understanding the value of all your information assets and which actors might benefit from them, he says, you can prioritize them and provide effective protection customized for each asset.

[ Related: ISF consulting services seek to strengthen cyber resilience ]

The ISF's new report uses the ISF Protection Process, a structured, methodical process for determining the approaches required to deliver comprehensive, balanced protection.

Identify mission-critical information assets

Before you can protect your organization's mission-critical information assets, you need to know what they are.

"Given all this information across your organization, what is it that's actually important to you as an enterprise," Durbin asks. "What is mission critical? How do you identify that? Protect that?"

[ Related: Why (and when) outsourcing security makes sense ]

It's important to note, he adds, that some mission-critical information assets are clear and will always be mission critical. For a company like Heinz, it might be its ketchup recipe. For Apple, the blueprint for an iPhone would be a mission-critical information asset. However, other mission-critical assets may only be important for a period. The marketing plan for a new iPhone may be mission-critical leading up to launch, but the importance of keeping that information secure fades after the launch — it's no longer mission critical.

"Another example is M&A," Durbin says. "In the early stages, as boards talk about an acquisition, it's probably not mission critical. But as you get closer to the deal, there's a lot more information that is probably of interest to a lot more people. Board members are probably going to be holding important papers on their laptops. How do we ring fence that information in a way that's acceptable to the organization, but also to the end user? In this case, it isn't about everybody. It's about you as a board member."

In this step of the ISF Protection Process, you should do the following:

  • Define what constitutes a mission-critical asset.
  • Identify potential mission-critical assets based on their value to the organization and the potential business impact if compromised.
  • Maintain a record of approved mission-critical information assets.

Assess the main adversarial threats

Once you've identified your crown jewels, the next step is to assess the threats to those assets.

"Who would want to get a hold of Apple marketing? Hackers? Competitors? Journalists? Probably not a nation state," Durbin says.

Determining which actors might target your mission-critical information assets will help you determine how best to protect them. Defending against a competitor seeking to steal trade secrets takes a different approach than defending against an extremist group seeking to launch a serious cyber attack.

In this step of the ISF Protection Process, you should strive for the following:

  • Investigate the main adversarial threats to mission-critical information assets.
  • Identify threat events likely to be used to target mission-critical information assets.
  • Evaluate the level of exposure to each mission-critical information asset.

Determine the required protection approaches

Once you understand what your crown jewels are and who might attempt to access them, you can determine what sort of protection approach each asset requires. The security program should relate directly to that asset, but also the people that handle that information at every stage, Durbin says.

In this step of the ISF Protection Process, you should do the following:

  • Understand possible approaches for protecting mission-critical information assets.
  • Define objectives for protecting mission-critical information assets.
  • Select the required approaches to protect mission-critical information assets.
  • Identify the security controls and solutions required to support chosen protection approaches.

Counter the main adversarial threats

After determining the protection approaches required for your assets, it's time to create an active defense.

"Look at how you might counter some of those threats, how you might rearchitect your security architecture and framework," Durbin says. "The key to it is through this identification. That's where a lot of organizations, I think, are beginning to struggle."

In this step of the ISF Protection Process, you deliver the appropriate extra layers of preventative and detective security controls across the five stages of the cyber attack chain:

  • Performing reconnaissance
  • Gaining access
  • Maintaining control
  • Compromising information
  • Exploiting information

Durbin notes that threat-based protection provides an early warning system to inform you of emerging or imminent threat events, enabling a balanced set of end-to-end controls to counter these threats.

Protect the information life cycle

Information has a life cycle of its own. As explicated in Durbin's M&A example, an information asset's criticality can vary along that life cycle. It's essential to understand the life cycles of information assets and to provide the relevant protection and controls at each stage.

In this step of the ISF Protection Process, you apply fundamental, enhanced and specialized controls throughout the information life cycle. Durbin says protecting mission-critical information assets throughout their life cycle reduces potential gaps and underpins comprehensive and end-to-end protection.

Protecting the Crown Jewels is available at no cost to ISF member organizations and for purchase by non-members. It includes a report targeted at CISOs and business leaders that introduces mission-critical information assets and outlines key adversarial threats, and an implementation guide and other supporting materials targeted at information risk specialists and information security professionals that provide practical steps to implement and embed the ISF Protection Process.

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