[ISN] Book Review: Managing Information Security Risks: The OCTAVE
isn at c4i.org
Tue Feb 22 09:13:26 EST 2005
[http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0321118863/c4iorg - WK]
Author: Christopher Alberts and Audrey Dorofee.
Publisher: Addison-Wesley Longman
Reviewer: Jose Nazario
Summary: An introduction to information security risk management using
the OCTAVE method
Authors Alberts and Dorofee are the principal developers of OCTAVE and
are staff members at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where CERT has offices. As such,
they're the right people to describe OCTAVE. The CERT OCTAVE website
area explains the process in more detail. Needless to say, OCTAVE is a
very large, complex, heavy process for an organization to go through,
with some arguable benefits. Very few organizations have done so to
the best of my knowledge -- most of them are scared off by the
complexity of the whole undertaking.
This brings up a very important point. It's important to state the
difference between a critique of the OCTAVE method and the book
itself. OCTAVE is interesting in that it's an attempt to formalize the
complex process of information security evaluations. Despite its
shortcomings and turnoffs, it has a purpose, and I wont dispute it for
the most part. The book, instead, covers an abbreviated format of
OCTAVE. It's important to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the
book and not the topic.
The books is organized into three main parts. Part 1 (covering
chapters 1 and 2) is an introduction to the principles being discussed
in the book. The method itself, and therefore these chapters, focus on
a formal evaluation of information security risks and how to manage
them. The principles focus on enumeration of assets, their threats and
vulnerabilities, and then remediation of the threats to minimize the
risk. The section introduces the core concepts to this philosophy.
Part 2 of the book, covering chapters 3 through 11, server two main
purposes, preparation and then execution of the method. Chapter 3
introduces the fundamentals of the OCTAVE method, specifically how the
three phases (asset-based threat profiles, vulnerability
identification, and security strategy planning) fit together. The
inputs of the method and its outputs are then described; you'll be
using them in later chapters. Chapter 4 helps you prepare for the
approach in your organization, including how important it is to get
management buy-in, who will participate, and how to organize the
evaluation. Project managers will adore this chapter.
The next few chapters cover the meat of the OCTAVE method. Chapter 5
covers processes 1 to 3, where assets are enumerated and the current
state of the security profile is captured, as well. This step is
crucial for building a baseline and knowing what you'll have to cover.
Chapter 6 leads you through the threat profile, where you examine
assets that you've identified as critical and the security
requirements for them. And finally, in Chapter 7, the basic
identification steps are done as you identify critical infrastructure
components to examine later on. This is done so that you can work
efficiently, as opposed to studying every asset in depth. By studying
classes of assets you can (hopefully) achieve the same coverage
without spending valuable time repeating the process.
Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the commonly understood parts, the actual
vulnerability and risk analysis. Chapter 8 discusses vulnerability
assessment tools and some basic questions to ask about them, but
leaves the actual evaluation of those tools up to another text.
Chapter 9 then helps you undertake the actual risk analysis, such as
the impact of any threat being realized or the probability that one
would be encountered. This is what most people think of when they
think of an information security audit.
This gets to what is perhaps my biggest complaint about the book. It
doesn't teach you how to think creatively about threats to information
security. Instead, you're told to enumerate assets and threats against
them via brainstorming, as though you'll somehow "get it" the first
time (or every time). For someone new to the field, this can be hard,
because not all assets are obvious -- and not all threats are
understood. It's a hard skillset to teach, but it should have been
attempted with more gusto.
Chapters 10 and 11 close the big circle of an information security
audit, by developing an information security protection strategy. It's
basically a series of outlines of meetings and their agendas as you
present the findings of the evaluation but are (obviously) vague in
the absence of any concrete findings.
This is probably a good time to raise another objection to this book.
My second biggest complaint is that the authors never cut to the heart
of what the OCTAVE method is trying to do. Sure, the book covers a
stripped-down version of OCTAVE, but it doesn't ever get at how you
can really adapt this to your organization. Instead, it's a series of
rigid steps in the OCTAVE method. If you attempt to do something
different for whatever reason, you're on your own. Again, an attempt
to work in some flexibility beyond what is present in Chapter 12 (An
Introduction to Tailoring OCTAVE, the start of part 3) would have been
welcome. This chapter just keeps you inside the narrow confines of the
Chapter 13 attempts to bring this home by discussing the practical
applications for an organization. They attempt to discuss how a small
company would utilize OCTAVE, but to be honest it's so heavy and
time-consuming it's hard to see how they would employ anything but the
barest of concepts to their workflow. Three other examples are given:
a very large distributed organization, an integrated Web portal
service provider (which faces unique threats), and large and small
organizations. Again, while this chapter attempts to show how to
tailor OCTAVE to anything but the largest and most diligently staffed
of organizations, it falls to get to the salient points of the method.
Instead, it tries to foist the process on them.
Finally, chapter 14 tries to bring it all home and discuss the
information security life cycle of analysis, monitoring, control, and
implementation (not in that order). They hope that OCTAVE has become a
part of this process and show how it complements and matures this
process. Instead, I wonder if an organization will think about the
effort they just expended and be reluctant to do this again. The
appendices are piles of worksheets, charts and workflows to go through
with OCTAVE. You can make photocopies and use them if you implement
the OCTAVE approach. It's very hard to take consider these methods
strong enough when you read about the report card government agencies
received for information security. While they may have not been
following OCTAVE, it's hard to see how a book that so superficially
treats the subject matter can help anyone do better. Almost everything
is just a high-level line-item risk-and-mitigation strategy. Things
like "Our organization cannot deliver effective or efficient health
care without PIDS" and an impact of "High" are, to put it mildly,
interesting in their superficiality. So many things are simply glossed
over, yet so many worksheets remain. On the other hand, if a fair
treatment of threats, assets, and the like were fully discussed the
book would be many more volumes, a significantly more tedious tome,
and too sensitive to the shifting sands of time.
Overall the book does a decent job of covering OCTAVE's core premises,
but doesn't really provide much beyond that. It's a complex process
that doesn't work well for a number of organizations. Instead of
helping organizations see how to use it, the authors simply keep
presenting OCTAVE for what it is, which makes me question the value of
this book beyond someone who has already decided to implement OCTAVE.
It doesn't seem like it has a lot to offer anyone who doesn't have a
large body of knowledge in information security management and a staff
to deploy with worksheets in hand. The book simply fails to contribute
greatly beyond the very narrow specifics of OCTAVE.
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