​A Call to Arms: Audit’s Role in the (Ongoing?) Cyber War

Theresa Grafenstine's background as an auditor, CPA and technology leader gives her a unique perspective in her role as the US Congress' Inspector General. In that role, she takes a risk-based approach to security and there's a heavy focus on cyber risks.

Grafenstine says there needs to be a focus on big picture, strategic risks as well as the minutiae.

"Strategic risk is one of those things that can put you out of business," she says

However, she says there's a disconnect between the risk and audit functions of businesses. Citing data from an IIA survey, it's clear there's a disconnect. The data says close to 80% of compliance plans don't take cyber risks into account. She likens the risks associated with cyber to a crocodile attack. Much of the time, there's only a small level of visibility, so it's ignored. But when the croc is ready to attack, it launches.

She asks "Are we suffering from compliance myopia?". The focus on checklists means we are missing big picture strategic risks.

Grafenstine says there was a huge focus on regulatory compliance prior to the mortgage crisis during the 2007 global financial crisis. While throes checklists covered things like mortgage application forms being filling in correctly, they didn't address systemic issues.

The trouble, says Grafenstine, is audits are often retroactively focused. They need to look ahead at what is emerging, and not what has happened only in the past.

"Cyber is not a phase. This thing is only going to get worse".

The costs and frequency of cyberattacks are increasing. According to US data, the number of attacks has grown from 5,500 in 2006 to over 65,000 in 2014. And the costs of breach range from US$300,000 to over US$50,000,000.

One of the challenges, Grafenstine says, is that attacks are becoming increasingly personal. From the breach of the Office of Personnel Management, where security clearance and fingerprints were stolen, to a breach by terrorists who stole personal data of police officers in New Jersey to target them for attack, it's clear that the value of detailed personal data is increasing in value to terrorists, criminal gangs, agents of industrial espionage and nation-states seeking to access classified data.

Threat actors typically take a "low and slow" approach, says Grafenstine. They don't want to get caught so they work slowly and deliberately to avoid detection.

Nation state attacks, says Grafenstine, are challenging. "Are they an act of war?" she asks.

If troops cross a border it is considered war but we don't have the same view of cyber attacks. Even defining a "cyber act of war" is proving to be difficult.

"The old rules don't apply," she says. "Conventions such as the Geneva Convention don't consider this as we have not had the international dialog".

Grafenstine says regardless of all the technology we use to counter cyber threats, many of the issues start with human error. She says focussing on phishing attacks and keep systems patched.

"Don't click on the link," she implored. "Patch, patch and patch again. Over 99.9% of exploits occurred more than a year after a vulnerability is identified".

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the "huge skills crisis" according to Grafenstine. For example, there are over 4000 banks that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company in the US. That agency has just 60 "Premium IT examiners" looking at cyber threats for all those banks. And that is a situation that is repeated in many of the largest financial regulators.

The good news, says Grafenstine, is there are lots of resources available to support security professionals. And while those resources are very detailed, she says there's no need to take them in their entirety. Choosing the right controls for your company is the key.

The true test of whether cyber risk management is an organisational priority is to look for actual resources allocated. Although there may be lots of words in Board minutes and other documents, the true test is allocation of funds and people she says.

Grafenstine says most companies don't know what their critical systems are. Knowing what you have is important and rarely done.

There's also a need to practice cyber incident response so people don't step over each other when an incident is in progress. This extends to penetration testing, ethical phishing, white-hat hacking, regular training and proactively reviewing plans, tools and best practices.

"Cyber security is a team sport. We all need to work tougher because this is a huge threat that is not going away".