Home > Articles

Making sense of Risk Management Security Metrics In the IT Security Field, Part IV

IT Security Professionals and CISSP exam candidates find the field of Risk Management and Security Metrics tough to navigate. What we have in the world of risk management in the IT and security world today is a bit of a mess. Read what world renown Security and CISSP expert Shon Harris has to say about risk management in the fourth of an eight part article series. This article discusses the importance of understanding the need to develop or select metrics and their implementation. While metrics is not the sexiest part of security, it is one of the most important if we really want to understand where we are, where we need to go, and how to get there.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

The development or selection of currently developed metrics and their implementation can be extremely helpful or end up in a mess. Just like everything else in security, if we don’t create an architecture to work from that makes sense, then our efforts may be made with the best intentions and the worst results.

Defining useful metrics is not for the weak at heart. It can be time consuming and tedious. It requires a structured approach to security objectives and a discipline to follow through. Metrics is not the sexiest part of security, but it is one of the most important if we really want to understand where we are, where we need to go, and how we will get there.

Many times people create metrics and formulas, and then when it gets time for implementation, they realize they have slightly—or totally—missed the mark in the data that really needs to be collected. We need to figure out what we want to measure and why before churning out formulas and questionnaires.

The main goal of using metrics is to help us better understand the environment, so that we can make more effective decisions. Metrics should be used to provide relevant performance trends and indicate improvement actions that should take place. They should allow us to prioritize the items that need to be addressed and provide substantial evidence as to why those items need allocated funds and resources. Metrics can be very useful to support business cases that management uses to justify the investments necessary to secure the environment.

While the collected data at some point may be illustrated in charts and presentations in a more general or abstract way (red green/yellow or high/medium/low), it is important that real numbers support these illustration. We have to move from a gut feeling of how vulnerable a system might be to quantifiable data (integer values, percentages, averages).

In this series I will focus on metrics that indicate the level of compliancy with an organization’s policies and standards, and the associated impact values that correlate with non-compliance. I am not going to lay out metrics that helps ensure specific regulatory requirements (PCI, HIPAA, GLBA, etc.), but help indicate the level of security that is truly being practiced. We all know that there is commonly a difference between being compliant with some regulation and being secure—they are not always the same. While these metrics can help you ensure that you are compliant with some regulations, they have a focus on true security implementation. The metrics will be system-level and program-level values. We ultimately need to understand the overall health of the security program, but also have to have the capability to drill down into specific aspects of the program.

Two critical components must be in place before real metrics can be created: relevant policies and standards. These will help us determine our performance goals and help us use the same points of reference. Many companies have some policies and standards that were created from boiler templates or someone pulling policies off the Internet and changing out the company name. Many technology-oriented people have a visceral reaction to documentation, and others find policies and standards boring and maybe even useless. We need to create a symbiotic relationship between policies, standards, and metrics. Metrics should indicate our compliance with our policies and standards, but also the metrics should be used to improve our policies and standards. Feedback loops should be constructed so that continuous improvement can be facilitated.

Now I don’t walk into every one of my customers’ environments and start demanding that everything should get measured. The maturity of the security program will help indicate what type of metric data can be gathered and how much weight can be assigned to the specific data sets. Metrics must have evidence data, and the processes that create this type of data must be repeatable. A mature security program will have detailed and well-documented policies and standards, and its processes will be standardized and repeatable. In this situation, organizations will be able to gather not only a larger quantity of data, but also data of better quality. An immature security program does not usually have well-defined ways of gathering data, and their processes are more ad hoc in nature. Many times I find that immature security programs must be stabilized and predictable before measurements of activities can be introduced.

An organization with a mature security program commonly has ways of gathering data through automation versus manual data collection. Manual data collection requires surveys and questionnaires to be created and interviews to be conducted. As the program matures, there are more data inputs that can come from automated tools, which allow for not only more data to be gathered but much of the subjectivity to be subtracted.

When I first start working with a customer, I find out if we can even identify the controls that are or are not in place. Sadly, I find that many organizations do not even know what they have in servers, workstations, or products, so we have to back way up and get asset management setup and matured. Once an organization knows what it has (devices, software, and applications), it can move forward to understand and document the controls that are in place. Once the controls are understood, performance metrics can be set for them. Once performance metrics are set, data gathering techniques can be defined and implemented. The metrics will mature with the security program. The initial metrics need to track what is and is not in place, and then they will mature so that the effectiveness and efficiency of the controls can be understood. You cannot jump into trying to figure out how well your controls are working if you don’t know what controls you have in place.

Controls are obviously not just technical. We also have administrative controls (policies, employee management, training, etc.) and physical controls (security guards, fences, locked doors, etc.). Metrics will need to be defined for these also and they run into the same maturity issues as technical controls. For example, you cannot track the effectiveness of employee training unless it is in place.

So when starting to define metrics for your environment, make sure you are realistic and are gathering the most relevant types of data at the right time. A mature environment might be able to provide correlated data feeds from a security information and event management (SIEM) product. This type of environment might also have continuous monitoring taking place, which will allow you to collect nearly real time incident and response metrics. In this situation configuration, vulnerability and asset management are usually understood and automated. As we will see, the metrics that can be defined in these environment types are much more sophisticated and detailed, compared to environments that do not have automated and centralized processes.

So how do you know the maturity of your security program? You can use a Capability Maturity Model (CMM) such as the one below to understand where the program is today and the incremental steps necessary to move forward. If your program is a Level 1 or 2 of a CMM, your metrics should be basic in nature. As your program matures, the data that support the metrics will improve, which means that your metrics can mature.

What is the danger of creating the wrong metrics for your environment? Gathering data is time consuming, so you can waste resources. The metrics might only show part of the story instead of providing a holistic view of the environment. But here is what I find most common and disturbing: incorrect data that provides a false sense of security. All organizations have lovely pie charts and colorful graphs that indicate various risks and their severity levels, but what data is supporting them? Peek under the covers and many times the data that was gathered to generate the graphs are sparse and far too often just does not make any sense.

Stay tuned for Part V, where we will dive into the types of metrics we need to develop and why.

Pearson IT Certification Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Pearson IT Certification and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Pearson IT Certification products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.pearsonitcertification.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020