While I know that some practitioners are going to scoff when I ask the question “What is enterprise security?,” I’m going to ask it anyway.
You see, great leaps forward very often start with questioned assumptions. Ptolemy assumed (based on a set of perfectly logical assumptions) that the sun rotated around the earth. It was only when subsequent thinkers questioned his universally held theory (in many cases at great personal cost to themselves) that a cataclysmic advance in humankind’s understanding of the solar system became possible.
The point is, if we don’t stop every once in a while to question what we believe, we can hold on to outmoded assumptions way past their “sell by” date. And when it comes to the security of the information we steward in our organizations, outmoded assumptions create risk. In other words, if you assume things about your environment that (maybe) were true once – but aren’t now – you put yourself in a situation where conclusions you base on those assumptions may very well be false.
Take an assumption like this one: “Two devices on the same isolated network segment communicate more-or-less privately.” Maybe that’s true. But if you’re wrong – like if the segment doesn’t stay isolated or someone moves one of the devices off that segment? Risk.
The answer to the question “What is enterprise security?” is neither static nor a given. And while many organizations on the edge of change are rethinking and embracing what “enterprise security” means and adjusting accordingly, just as many are clinging to outmoded definitions about what’s “inside” vs. “outside” the enterprise and what’s “security’s job” vs. not. These boundaries just aren’t as meaningful as they used to be.
“Enterprise” and “security” are borderless
First, it’s important for security practitioners in today’s IT shops to realize that the definition of “enterprise” is changing. A few years ago we in security talked casually about the “disappearing perimeter” (remember that?), but for today’s security practitioner an appropriate question might be, “What perimeter?”
If it wasn’t true before, it’s certainly true now: Enterprise security and location of resources are unrelated. From a location-of-access standpoint, take the trend of mobility to its ultimate conclusion: Users employ an array of mobile platforms to send email, modify documents and close deals – or they access critical applications from home machines not provisioned by the organization. But the data we hold needs to be protected just the same. Just because devices accessing critical resources aren’t coming from some arbitrarily drawn geographical border doesn’t mean that the security of those resources is any less relevant.
On the other hand, “enterprise” isn’t defined by location of computing resources either. This time, take cloud to its conclusion: Critical business applications sit on dormant virtual machine images in redundant, geographically distributed data centers. These images and are spun-up on demand in response to user requests, live just long enough to service the request, and then are spun down to conserve energy, bandwidth and CPU cycles. Enterprises reallocate storage and processor resources on the fly across the globe in response to user demand, business volume, time of day or any number of other factors specific to their business. Are you free from the need to care about security because your data is hosted outside your data centers? No.
In both cases, security is still a critical factor of supporting the organizational mission. But the temptation – particularly when we’re strapped for resources or under the gun to deliver a critical task – can be to draw a line in the sand and decide that certain technologies are outside the boundary of our security plan because they’re implemented by a vendor or because they leverage devices we didn’t provision. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this just makes security more important rather than less.
“Enterprise” is defined by data; “security” by relationship
So if geographic location doesn’t define what’s in the enterprise, what does? In my opinion, it has to be the data. When geographical boundaries no longer define what’s “inside” vs. “outside” and security isn’t tethered to particular systems or applications, the answer has to be to focus on what we’re ultimately trying to protect: the mission of the organization. And the embodiment of the organizational mission is the data the organization creates, processes and stores.
Said another way, information systems used by an organization process and store data for a particular purpose; so the data those systems operate on are the raw materials that the organization uses to complete that purpose. Everything that goes into the processing and storage of that data – no matter where it’s located or at what third party – is in scope from a security standpoint and therefore must be included “enterprise security.”
This is true even when the data is outside of your organization’s direct control. Say for example your hospital outsources storage of your medical records. If your medical records get exposed inappropriately, do you honestly care whether it was the hospital that accidentally lost them or whether it was a service provider? I don’t. I have a relationship with the entity that I trusted with my data. And I trust them to only share that data with trustworthy organizations. So when someone violates that trust and puts users at risk, users are going to hold accountable the entity they trusted in the first place.
Just like the data defines what the enterprise is, so also is “security” defined by the chain of relationships along which that data travels. If the data is compromised, the responsibility for failure to protect that data rests with the organization with the relationship to the data owner. If confidentiality, integrity or availability of that data are keys to supporting the organizational mission, the organization is the one that takes the hit. If the organization is acting as a steward of that data on behalf of someone else, they are the ones with the relationship to the data owner and are therefore the one to take the hit when security fails to protect it.
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Ed Moyle is senior security strategist at CenturyLink.