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May 22, 2015

CISO Corner: Barry Caplin, VP, Chief Information Security Official, Fairview Health Services

I spoke with Barry Caplain, VP, Chief Information Security Official, Fairview Health Services, at legnth regarding his security philosophy and the changing role of the CISO. Our conversation can be found here:

Who were some of the early influencers in your career?

Barry: "I've worked under some great leaders, yet I don't think there is any single person who significantly shaped my career. My views on security and the role of the CISO have evolved over time, so my influencers are varied. I continue to listen to Bruce Schneier as I find his views on security valuable."

What drew you to security and ultimately the role of CISO?

Barry: "Most CISOs come from a technical background, and so do I. I was a math major in college and became a software developer right out of school. That's where my focus was early in my career, and that is where my perspectives on security grew. In the early days of the web, I worked with a group of people to create essentially an Internet Service Provider, before such a thing really existed. We built the servers and custom code by hand right in my basement. Early in that process, I realized that the growth of the web was going to make security essential. Even if a company isn't dealing with personally identifiable information, enterprises have plenty of other information they need to protect, and baking that into our product was a differentiator for us. That's when I really started getting into security and my career as a CISO stemmed from that."

How do you think the role of the CISO within the organization has changed over the past 10 years?

Barry: "The role is changing, but it is passing a lot of people by because it is changing faster than the people are changing. In the early days, it was a technical role where the main concern was managing firewalls and endpoint security. Security was the department of "no." Back then, security was the priority, above other business initiatives, and so security was at odds with the business. That is the old-school way of thinking about security, and that is the way many CISOs still think.

As a result, security was, and in many cases still is, seen as cost center - a necessary evil, something we have to deal with. That is the worst thing for our industry, as it keeps us from being true business partners.

This is my second go-around as a CISO, and in both roles I was the first CISO the organization ever had. What's great about being in that position is you get a chance to start over and do things differently. I learned from the choices I made my first time around. For the first quarter in my new role, I was rarely in my office. I was at site meetings, talking to the leaders of the organization. My goal was to better understand their needs so that we could become partners. My job is to make it easier for people to do their job, while still appropriately handling risk.

If I don't think of security this way, and, like many in the security field, allow myself to become the Chief No Officer, employees will spend valuable thought cycles figuring out ways to get around security controls. And in the end, strict rules won't actually reduce risk."

What is your relationship with the board?

Barry: "I have a good relationship with the board and other senior managers at my organization. I typically meet with the board twice per quarter and various senior executive teams another several times per quarter. What I as a CISO need to avoid is talking to the board and other senior executives like they are tech people. Many CISOs walk into board meetings and start spouting technical metrics such as how many new firewalls they deployed, and how many new security rules they put in place. What ends up happening is the audience tunes out.

CISOs need to think about what the board cares about and then talk about how security supports those areas. How are we going to avoid being the next Target? How do we reduce risk? Risk reduction is a language boards and senior executives understand. If you talk about balancing the impact of an incident with the chances of the incident happening, and bringing that back to real dollars, then as a CISO you will have more buy-in from your board.

I've occasionally gotten too granular and lost the room, so it is a learning process."

What's more important for a CISO: Leading by vision or example?

Barry: "The answer varies depending on audience. For the board, it starts with the vision. I have a five-year strategic plan, three-year tactical, KPIs, vision, roadmap, etc. Having the vision and executing is what is going to get their attention. For the board, it is about leading with a vision, though they sometimes want more tactical information. With business and IT staff, you primarily have to lead by example. But they also need see that there is a vision. That's why it is hard. We have to do both. In the middle of this, we have virus attacks and incidents and breaches. We have to lead by example by leading through the incident."

For you, what's the highest-priority security task in the organization?

Barry: "There is a lot of distraction out there. The media focuses on cyberwar and potential attacks on the energy grid and APT. But when someone says they were breached and it was "a really sophisticated attack," that is typically code for someone clicked on a phishing email.

As human beings, we are programmed to pay attention to the sensational. It is how we survived in the ancient world, because things that were sensational were typically a real threat. But in this modern sedentary world, things that are sensational are often distractions. However, we are still programmed to react. Now we have all these big, branded vulnerabilities with names and logos, and it is in our DNA to react.

The most important thing CISOs can do is to get the mundane and the foundational security stuff right. If you can't patch your systems, then you don't need to be focused on a nation-state attacker. You need to focus on the day-to-day blocking and tackling – the non-sexy. Once you have that down, you can go further and go after the other areas."

How do you handle the fact people love sensational?

Barry: "Well, hopefully you have done the groundwork. I always say it isn't if, but when you will be breached. CISOs need to get their boards and executives comfortable with that mindset. And then, have a plan for how to respond. Take a risk-based approach that balances the likelihood of something happening with the impact the event will have. Sometimes the risks are blown out of proportion. For example, take air travel safety. The outcome of a plane crash is sensational and devastating, which is why some people are afraid to fly. But the perspective changes when you break down the statistics about the likelihood of a crash. That's what CISOs can do to manage expectations around sensational security events. Create threat models that show the likelihood of a problem, and make your decisions on how to respond from there. It is our job as a CISO to explain what is likely and the impact, and if the business makes a different decision about how to react, they do it with eyes wide open."

Have new challenges in IT security changed your mandate as CISO?

Barry: "Employees' expectations have changed. And our employees are also consumers. They can do many things on their iPads easily and expect the same from enterprise IT and security. So, security teams have to adapt, and we have to realize this promise of BYOD is really about capabilities as much as the app. We have to leverage cloud, ask if it is really cost effective to run our own datacenters? We have to share control, and as painful as it is, we have to manage more and more of our risk through assessments, contractual agreements and audit of third-party vendors. And from a mobile perspective, take a look at what we can control and can't, articulate the issues and risks, and let the business make the choice."

For more information about the changing role of the CISO, read the Forrester Report: "Evolve To Become the 2018 CISO or Face Extinction."

Jessica is part of the content team at Veracode. In this role she strives to create and promote content that will engage, educate and inspire security professionals around the topic of application security. Jessica’s involvement with the security industry goes back more than a decade at companies like Astaro, and Sophos where she held roles in corporate communication and marketing.

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