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Four Government Security Mistakes to Avoid

Michigan CISO Dan Lohrmann discusses security challenges.

by / December 22, 2008

I became the director of Michigan's Office of Enterprise Security almost seven years ago. Looking back, I've learned more from my mistakes than my successes. So I'd like to share four mistakes I've made as a chief information security officer and offer some tips on how to avoid them.

1. Giving up too soon on security improvement ideas. In 2003, we identified the need for agency privacy officers. After fighting for new positions for more than a year, I finally gave up. But recently, these positions were implemented in our customer agencies. Over the years, other great security ideas were offered, but for budget, staffing or other reasons, the improvements were never implemented.

Solution: Never say never on needed security enhancements. My brother Steve, who is a great sales executive, frequently says, "Making a sale takes the right product, at the right price, at the right time, with the right customer [need] and the right salesman." If you're missing one of those components, you probably won't close the deal.

Just because a certain architecture change or other enhancement didn't happen last year, don't give up. Use hot topics like "green IT" to advance cyber-security.

2. Not reading the fine print on contracts. I've lost count of how many security problems we've had with our vendors. From contractor laptops spreading worms on our networks to companies that neglected background checks or inadequate controls built into new computer systems, we've faced dozens of contract-related security issues. A lack of legally binding contract language will definitely lead to costly change orders or weaker security.

Solution: Ensure your boilerplate contract language is up to snuff. A good place to start is the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Computer Security Resource Center. In Michigan, we've also added payment card industry compliance language to relevant contracts, and we include provisions to ensure vendors run background checks on staff.

3. Neglecting the elephant in the room. Most organizations have one or more ongoing "challenges" that never seem to get fixed. Whether it's a security policy that needs to be written, an existing policy that's never enforced or a powerful executive who openly violates the rules, the masses quietly watch as the situation festers.

On one occasion, I was too slow to do the right (but hard) thing when it came to disciplining an employee for unacceptable behavior. Once I acted, many other (seemingly unrelated) security issues were quickly resolved.

On another occasion, I became the elephant when I opposed wireless network projects. Armed with a mountain of data, I seemingly won that battle. But I became isolated and started to lose ground on other security issues as executives started going around me.

Solution: Identify the elephant and correct the situation. Get honest feedback on hot-button security issues. Ask what internal and external customers are complaining about. There are usually no easy fixes, but make incremental progress. Failure to act will undermine your reputation. Today I support "secure wireless."

4. Inattention to detail or identifying the wrong root cause. I once went into an important briefing with a huge amount of data, metrics showing more security attacks and plenty of war stories. However, one executive questioned my metrics, our office's approach and even our progress at resolving various security problems. I became very defensive and went off message. I even questioned the questions.

Solution: Know your audience. Do a dry run before briefings. Let trusted colleagues ask hard questions.

I was overconfident and bigheaded during that briefing. Rather than going on the offensive, I should've been humble and offered to get back to her with answers. I knew the axiom, "the devil is in the details," but I was too quick to assume these new questions were flawed. In reality, I was the one who didn't do my homework.

Getting to root security issues can be difficult. Later I realized that she had many excellent arguments and I apologized. Over time, we developed a positive professional relationship. She even apologized to me for not taking the issues offline. Today she helps our security office in many positive ways.

Henry Ford once said, "Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement." I couldn't agree more.

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Dan Lohrmann Contributing Writer

Building effective virtual government requires new ideas, innovative thinking and hard work. From cybersecurity to cloud computing to mobile devices, Dan discusses what’s hot and what works.

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