Sunday, May 3, 2009

The $28,000 Question: Project vs. Production Risk

The average cost of an American wedding in 2007 was $28,000. Jeremiah Grossman recently posted that for the same money you could fix the critical vulnerabilities lurking at your website.

In his experience the average number of serious flaws per website is 7, each of which will take an average of 40 hours to fix - confirmed by 1000-strong Twitter poll. Then assuming a programming cost of $100/hour you arrive at the figure of

$28,000 = 7 x 40 x $100

in “outstanding insecure software debt” per website. Of course there will be sites that are in much worse shape. As Grossman observes, this figure is not very high, and he asks whether this estimate really supports the implementation of a costly secure software development life cycle ?

I think that the key point here is to distinguish between project risks and production risks. A project manager (PM) is concerned naturally with project risks, whose impact can be broadly classified as increased costs, delivery delays and reduced functionality. If we express a risk as a threat, vulnerability and an impact, then for the PM impacts reduce to cost overruns, time overruns and functionality “underruns” (plus combinations thereof). In general, expending time and resources to identify and fix potential security vulnerabilities is not effective in the PM’s risk model, since the vulnerabilities are unlikely to impact required functionality. Software with significant security vulnerabilities may function perfectly well, right up to, and including, the point of exploitation. As such, security vulnerabilities are not high on the risk radar of the PM.

When we move to the production risk model then potential impacts change dramatically, which for web applications, Grossman lists as

… down time, financial fraud, loss of visitor traffic and sales when search engines blacklist the site, recovery efforts, increased support call volume, FTC and payment card industry fines, headlines tarnishing trust in the brand, and so on are typical. Of course this assumes the organization survives at all, which has not always been the case.

The “meaningful” impact costs are therefore situated in the production risk model rather than the project risk model. A source of misunderstanding (and possibly friction) between security and project people is the difference in risk models or outlooks, since most security people assume the view of production risks – it is their role in fact. When Marcus Ranum recently remarked

I don’t know a single senior security practitioner who has not, at some point or other, had to defend an estimated likelihood of a bad thing happening against an estimated business benefit.

I believe that he was talking about the dichotomy between project and production risk. So returning the Grossman’s original issue, the $28,000 to fix web vulnerabilities does not support the deployment of a secure SDL in the project risk model, but it makes much better sense in the production risk model.

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