Security ROI: Fact or Fiction?

Bruce Schneier says ROI is a big deal in business, but it's a misnomer in security. Make sure your financial calculations are based on good data and sound methodologies.

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

The Data Imperative

The key to making this work is good data; the term of art is "actuarial tail." If you're doing an ALE analysis of a security camera at a convenience store, you need to know the crime rate in the store's neighborhood and maybe have some idea of how much cameras improve the odds of convincing criminals to rob another store instead. You need to know how much a robbery costs: in merchandise, in time and annoyance, in lost sales due to spooked patrons, in employee morale. You need to know how much not having the cameras costs in terms of employee morale; maybe you're having trouble hiring salespeople to work the night shift. With all that data, you can figure out if the cost of the camera is cheaper than the loss of revenue if you close the store at night-assuming that the closed store won't get robbed as well. And then you can decide whether to install one.

Cybersecurity is considerably harder, because there just isn't enough good data. There aren't good crime rates for cyberspace, and we have a lot less data about how individual security countermeasures-or specific configurations of countermeasures-mitigate those risks. We don't even have data on incident costs.

One problem is that the threat moves too quickly. The characteristics of the things we're trying to prevent change so quickly that we can't accumulate data fast enough. By the time we get some data, there's a new threat model for which we don't have enough data. So we can't create ALE models.

But there's another problem, and it's that the math quickly falls apart when it comes to rare and expensive events. Imagine you calculate the cost-reputational costs, loss of customers, etc.-of having your company's name in the newspaper after an embarrassing cybersecurity event to be $20 million. Also assume that the odds are 1 in 10,000 of that happening in any one year. ALE says you should spend no more than $2,000 mitigating that risk.

So far, so good. But maybe your CFO thinks an incident would cost only $10 million. You can't argue, since we're just estimating. But he just cut your security budget in half. A vendor trying to sell you a product finds a Web analysis claiming that the odds of this happening are actually 1 in 1,000. Accept this new number, and suddenly a product costing 10 times as much is still a good investment.

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