Clarity in Cybersecurity Board Talks Yields Best Results

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By Joyce E. Cutler

A former Homeland Security chief is advising security professionals to avoid overwhelming organizations’ directors with excessive detail if they want to make strong, compelling cases for improving cybersecurity.

After the Target Corp. payment card data breach, “you begin to see an existential threat to the enterprise with certain kinds of attacks,” Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary under former President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg BNA. The challenge is to make a board pitch “accessible without pulling the board into the weeds,” Chertoff, the founder and executive director of the cybersecurity consulting group that bears his name, said.

Speakers at a Chertoff Group forum in Palo Alto, Calif., told an audience of security professionals that chief information security officers should explain what security risks are realistically threatening, and suggest ways to respond, without alarming board members. Good writers and gardeners know a key to success is cutting what doesn’t help and gets in the way, and the same is true for information officers, they said.

Deborah Guild, PNC Bank N.A. chief security officer, said “it’s a delicate conversation” about safeguarding data using understandable language.

Extraneous information doesn’t help the board make decisions. Clearly and consistently explaining risks of low-medium-high helps, “so that I’m not distracting my board with something they don’t need to be distracted with,” Guild said.

“Slinging around risk terms” will confuse board members, “and you will cry wolf and then you won’t get the attention when you need it,” she said.

Empower Board

Corporate executives may get numb to potential cybersecurity risks because, “They get besieged with so many different problems and products that they throw up their hands in the air and say `I can’t figure it out and I’m just going to pray I get lucky,’” Chertoff said during the panel.

The goal should be to empower the board when faced with cybersecurity risks rather than overload them with information, Chertoff said. The board should have a “reasonable set of expectations” and have the confidence that the process can be managed, he said.

Mark Weatherford, a Chertoff Group senior adviser, said CISOs should keep cybersecurity discussions with the board relevant. They shouldn’t “underestimate the power of stories and cases that can educate the board and bring them along to where you want it to be,” he said.

Risk-based language will play well with the board because “they understand it, and you’re going to get better results,” Weatherford said.

Check Vendors

The landscape is littered with companies providing cybersecurity tools for everything imagined, and 99 percent of vendors at cybersecurity events “are solving the same problem,” Weatherford said.

Brad Hibbert, chief technology officer for BeyondTrust Inc., said that cybersecurity companies must overcome the challenge of proving that their products provide an ample return on investment.

The cybersecurity landscape is changing and so are the vendors, Hibbert said. Picking the right vendors, he said, requires conversations about a company’s needs and, “Are these guys going to be able to do it for me?”

Companies need to have these conversations upfront, and push vendors for the right products, so the business doesn’t end up with “200 different vendors” solving similar issues, Hibbert said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald Aplin at

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