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The real tragedy of the security risk matrix is not that it is a bad method of measurement, but that it is bad to pretend that the matrix measures actual risk Unfortunately, most users of the matrix in IT security do not give much thought to the importance of that nuance, and they use the matrix to make risk-based decisions Even considering the hedgers who caveat the matrix with the word qualitative (and then often go on to treat the results as factual), the risk matrix has become the engine behind some of the most common security risk-assessment methodologies today
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It seems that new variations of the matrix are developed every year at significant effort and cost Often these methodologies are used as the organization s formal risk assessment and management methodology, as required by some compliance frameworks In these cases, the matrix does not act as an initial prototype of risk measurement that leads to more questions and metrics, but as the end result of the risk assessment process It is as if an insurance company made underwriting decisions based on the experiences and opinions of a team of actuaries and never bothered to verify whether those opinions were correct before handing out policies I don t advocate abandoning risk matrices as a means to support security decisions, but I do think that these tools should be used for at least two different purposes than they are used today Assessment Prototyping A security risk matrix is, as I mentioned, a good barometer of people s thoughts and perceptions regarding risk And since the methodology expects you to ask risk questions of people who are responsible for the systems under review, knowing what these experts think about the risk levels of the systems they manage can be valuable data Some of the best value comes when we use the matrix as a means of prototyping further risk assessments Too often I see organizations that have undertaken a general risk assessment methodology and accept the results without ever asking the all-important question Why Why is this system so likely to be compromised, and why is the impact so severe compared to the other systems Instead of simply accepting the rating, asking why encourages security managers to think about follow-up questions, which lead to more measurements Asking these questions does not mean you disagree with or challenge the risk rating, but that you need to understand why the claim was made so that you can effectively respond to it As the first step in defining the data we need, the tests we must run, and the metrics we must define to assess our risk, a risk matrix can function quite effectively and not be ruined by expectations that should never have been laid upon it in the first place Measuring Differences in Agreement Another great use for a risk assessment matrix is to compare what different people in the organization think about risk Rather than treating the matrix as a reflection of reality, the scores used to populate the data can be used to identify areas where everyone is in agreement or everyone varies widely in the opinions that they hold This, too, can provide valuable data, particularly if major disagreements exist over the importance of particular systems or how much the organization would be hurt should they be compromised This approach encourages the assessment team to expand the pool of experts from which they collect data You might find, for instance, that the e-mail administrator is far more concerned with a loss of service to users inboxes and rates e-mail storage as a relatively low risk, but the compliance officer responsible for records retention and e-discovery is far more concerned with compromises in the e-mail archiving system As with prototyping, this use of the risk matrix serves primarily as a means to discover where the organization should concentrate its risk assessment efforts, including where to conduct more sophisticated and robust measurement activities
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