What could be possibly wrong with “Best Practices” or “Leading Practices” that your favorite security consultant might be talking about? Or for that matter, how could we go wrong if we used the “leading” security standards or controls frameworks?

It is of course useful to have a benchmark of some sort to compare yourself against your peers. The problem comes up (as it so often does) when we start to take these so called best practices and standards for granted. This often drives us to a state of what I like to call as template mindsets and approaches in security. More often than not in my experience, this leads to us making incorrect security decisions because we didn’t consider all the facts and circumstances that may be unique to each of our settings.

Let me explain with an example.

Let us say that you are using a leading security framework such as the HITRUST CSF for healthcare. To take the example of password controls, Control Reference 01.d on Password Management has a fairly restrictive set of password controls even at Level 1, which is HITRUST CSF’s baseline level of controls. Level 1 includes requirements for password length, complexity, uniqueness of the current password as compared to the last certain number of passwords and so on. However, there is no requirement in Level 1 around the standard to be used for hashing passwords. In fact, there is not a single mention of the words “password hash” or “salt” in over 450 pages of the CSF framework even in its latest 2014 version.

Now, if you are a seasoned and skilled security practitioner, you should know that these Level 1 password controls are mostly meaningless if the password hashes are not strong enough and the password hash file was stolen by some means. It is fairly common for hackers to steal password hash files early and often in their hacking campaigns. Reported breaches at Evernote, LinkedIn and Adobe readily come to mind. We learned about what appears to be this fairly unprecedented scale of stolen passwords just yesterday.

So, if you see a consultant using a so called best practice set of controls or one of the security controls frameworks to perform your risk assessment and he/she doesn’t ask a question on password hashes (or some other control or vulnerability that may truly matter), you should know the likely source of the problem. More than likely, they are simply going through the motions by asking you questions from a controls checklist with little sense of understanding or focus around some of the threats and vulnerabilities that may be truly important in your setting or context. And as we know, any assessment without a clear and contextual consideration for the real world threats and vulnerabilities is not really a risk assessment. You may just have spent a good amount of money on the consultant but probably do not have much to show for it in terms of the only metric that matters in an assessment – the number of “real” risks identified and their relative levels of magnitude –  so you can make intelligent risk management decisions.

In closing, let us not allow ourselves to be blindsided by the so called “Best Practices” and Security Controls Frameworks. Meaningful security risk management requires us to look at the threats and vulnerabilities that are often unique to each of our environments and contexts. What may have been considered a best practice somewhere else or a security framework put out by someone may at best be just a reference source to double-check and make sure we didn’t miss anything. They should never be the sole source for our assessments and certainly not the yardstick for our decision making in security.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Important notes and sources for reference

  • I used HITRUST CSF only for an example. The idea discussed in this post would apply to any set of Best Practices or Security Control Frameworks. After all, no set of Best Practices or Security Controls Frameworks and no matter how good their “quality” may be, they can’t keep up with the speed at which today’s security threats are evolving or new vulnerabilities are discovered.
  • If you are interested in learning some really useful information on password hashing and password management, I would strongly recommend this post (Caution: It is not a quick read;  Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to read and absorb the details especially if you are not a experienced security professional)
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