Cybersecurity is a hot topic in most boardrooms today. Not a shocking revelation, certainly. But keep in mind that, in many organizations, it has taken a long time for this issue to even become an agenda item for the board. Among them are technology, media and communication companies, which should be helping to set the standard for cybersecurity best practices. Many of these companies are doing that, of course, but others still have a lot of work to do.
While it is good news that more boards of directors are talking about cybersecurity, there is a problem: These discussions are too often prompted by a headline-grabbing data breach or hack that has rattled the business or its peers in the industry. This reactionary approach needs to change if boards and executive management truly want their organizations to be prepared to weather a cyberattack or other disruptive cyber event, and its potential consequences.
Success in a digitized world hinges on effective cybersecurity
Taking a more proactive view toward cybersecurity will also help businesses to succeed in a digitized and hyperconnected Internet of Things (IoT) world. At the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos, Switzerland, this year, cybersecurity experts discussed how this rapidly emerging world will help businesses to reach new heights of productivity — provided they build effective cybersecurity.
This future is not far off, which is why there is an urgent need for boards and executive management to change how they talk about cybersecurity. They need to focus less on worrying about the potential reputational or financial risks of a single embarrassing cyber incident, like a phishing campaign that targets the CEO, and focus more on helping the business define and develop an overarching set of activities that will help it create a stronger, more resilient security environment.
Board engagement as a cybersecurity success factor
For those boards that still view cybersecurity as primarily an “IT problem” — and they are still out there — Protiviti’s 2017 Security and Privacy Survey presents some findings that should help to change at least a few minds. The research found that organizations that are top performers in terms of adhering to security and privacy best practices have two critical success factors present:
- Their boards of directors have a high level of engagement in, and an understanding of, information security risks that the organization faces.
- They have a comprehensive set of information security policies in place, including acceptable use policies, data encryption policies, and social media policies.
One-third of businesses surveyed describe their boards as highly engaged with information security risks. This is a five-point increase from the 2016 survey. Protiviti’s survey report notes that this positive trend “reflects the fact that the [information security] issue is not merely about technology, but rather represents a top strategic risk” for today’s businesses.
Fostering more meaningful discussions
In addition to seeing security as just an IT’s problem, another reason many boards fail to have meaningful cybersecurity discussions is the sheer complexity and tremendous scope of the issue. Technology touches almost every aspect of the business, and cyberthreats that target systems and data are growing in sophistication. IT teams themselves struggle to understand the rapidly evolving cyber risk landscape.
Another problem: Boards are often provided information about cybersecurity risks that is far too technical. Cyber risks and recommended solutions for addressing them are not being described by technology leadership in business terms that the board can swiftly analyze and make decisions on.
In our 2017 Security and Privacy survey report, we recommend that technology leaders take care to clearly communicate relevant security matters to all stakeholder audiences. For boards, in particular, they should provide information in nontechnical terms to the extent possible, and prioritize discussion of issues based on the business risks that each risk poses to the organization.
By the same token, Protiviti’s security experts who authored the survey report advise boards to start “asking more, and more detailed, questions about organizational security efforts.” These questions, which should be posed to business, technology and internal audit leaders alike, should include:
- Do we know how the company’s critical data is collected, stored and analyzed?
- What framework or activities does the business have in place, or is it developing, to help protect our data and our intellectual property?
- How is the success of those activities measured?
- If the organization experiences a significant breach, what is the response plan?
- How are employees trained on cybersecurity issues, how often and by whom?
These are just some examples of baseline questions that can help boards at technology, media and communication companies begin to have more productive and forward-looking conversations about cybersecurity with the business. More important, these questions will help to lay the groundwork for proactive discussions about emerging risks around digitization and the IoT — the next major technological challenges that technology, media and communication businesses must be fully prepared to face if they are to survive.