[ISN] Book Review: Managing Information Security Risks: The OCTAVE Approach

InfoSec News 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. 
Pages: 471 
Publisher: Addison-Wesley Longman 
Rating: 5 
Reviewer: Jose Nazario 
ISBN: 0321118863 
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 
OCTAVE approach. 

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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