Your guide to KPIs & metrics in Cybersecurity

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As businesses now rely on technology more than ever, the benefits of technology to support dynamic business models are apparent. Unfortunately, technology is also a commonly abused hunting ground for hackers, where vulnerabilities can potentially be exploited to impact the continuity of business operations. 

Cybersecurity metrics and KPIs are crucial indicators that help security teams analyze how their security controls function over time. This article discusses the importance of metrics and KPIs for administering robust security programs while learning various key metrics for cybersecurity benchmarking.

What Are Cybersecurity KPIs

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in cybersecurity offer valuable insights that showcase the success of security management while helping make important decisions to improve the organization’s cybersecurity strategy. KPIs are crucial to cyber security operations as they offer valuable insights to help the organization achieve its long-term objectives effectively. 

KPIs offer a broader business context of how the security program works, what has been implemented correctly, and which areas need attention, allowing security teams to continuously fine-tune their systems and controls. As security threats constantly evolve, cyber security management is a continuous undertaking that relies on KPIs to measure performance and drive security decisions.

Why is it essential for organizations to set KPIs?

Cybersecurity has become a cornerstone of every modern business strategy, with key stakeholders looking for a justification of security costs and the benefit of security investments. For any organization to track, assess and improve security, they need to measure the changing threat pattern by analyzing their cybersecurity KPIs. 

KPIs allow cyber security teams to measure the security efforts, facilitating the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to leverage these KPIs to demonstrate the returns on investment towards security spending. KPIs are also commonly used to raise security awareness across cross-functional teams and vendors. Including KPIs in cybersecurity awareness training results in a comprehensive understanding of security threats and the roles of various business units in safeguarding infrastructure and data within the corporate network.

What is a Cybersecurity Metric?

Cyber security metrics offer quantitative values that highlight the level of protection and impenetrability achieved by the organization’s security controls. Though such metrics vary with use cases, these are mostly defined considering various security factors such as the number of incidents reported, incident identification time, incident resolving time, fluctuations in the number of incidents, implications (cost, reputation, etc.) of an attack, etc. With cybersecurity metrics in place, the security department can efficiently track and assess the progress toward goals set out in the organization’s overall cybersecurity program.

Cybersecurity priorities have long shifted from avoiding risky outcomes to achieving Consistent, Adequate, Reasonable, and Effective (CARE) security performance for credibility. Security metrics are commonly categorized into four operational categories based on the following pillars:

  • Consistency – Assess whether the security controls are effective over time
  • Adequacy – Determine whether the security program satisfies stakeholder expectations and business objectives
  • Reasonableness – Used to observe whether the security controls are fair, appropriate, and moderate, based on customer impact and operational conflicts they cause
  • Effectiveness – Assess whether security resources produce the desired outcome

Most Used Cybersecurity KPI Examples

Choosing cybersecurity KPIs for an organization depends on its use case, regulation ambit, and risk appetite. However, it is recommended for organizations to select KPIs that are understandable and meaningful to everyone, including customers and non-technical associates.

Some of the most common KPIs and metrics used to assess cyber security performance include:

Mean Time to Detect (MTTD), Mean Time To Resolve (MTTR), and Mean Time to Contain (MTTC)

Considered the most critical KPI metrics in cybersecurity, these metrics help define how quickly a cybersecurity breach is detected and remediated. 

  • MTTD describes the average time cybersecurity incidents go unnoticed, which quantifies the security team’s knowledge of security risk indicators. 
  • MTTR describes how quickly, on average, the intrusion detection system can accurately neutralize the detected security threats. The MTTR metric also helps determine the time the security department takes to respond to an attack and roll back the system to its acceptable operation status.
  • MTTC defines the time to resolve an attack and patch up vulnerable points that facilitated the attack.

Unidentified Devices on the Internal Network

Searching and tagging unidentified devices within the organization’s internal network is one of the commonly adopted cybersecurity KPI. External devices integrated into an organization’s network present an enormous risk as they can potentially introduce malware and other security threats to the corporate network. Tagging all devices connected to the network, including the unidentified ones, help security teams fine-tune their intrusion detection and vulnerability scanning to maintain a robust security posture.

Patching Cadence

Patch cadence is the measure of mitigating known vulnerabilities in the organization’s internal system, along with the list of critical vulnerabilities yet to be patched. As hackers tend to exploit the time lag between a patch release and implementation, patching cadence is a crucial KPI to monitor. It enables cybersecurity teams to adopt security controls with the changing cyber security threat landscape. The mechanism also helps assess how frequently the organization reviews its internal systems and ships updates to address cyber threats.

Security Rating

A security rating measures the organization’s security posture rated by an independent ranking authority. The security rating is an objective, data-driven evaluation of the organization’s vulnerabilities, threat indicators, and security issues. The rating is calculated based on extensive security questionnaires, penetration tests, on-site visits, and externally verifiable information supplied by the organization.

Security ratings are easy to comprehend and offer a near-exact state of security measures; these are among the most commonly used KPIs. The metric also helps compare the organization’s rating with the average industry security rating to help contextualize cybersecurity performance. These ratings often form the input for a more profound cybersecurity risk assessment process and highlight the security issues requiring immediate attention. 

Phishing Test Success Rate

The phishing test success rate metric is often used to quantify the success rate of cybersecurity awareness training initiatives. Using targeted phishing tests, security professionals can gauge how many of the organization’s employees understand the significance of social engineering attacks and their role in protecting critical systems. This metric is vital in assessing the effectiveness of user-related cybersecurity efforts, given the rise of phishing attacks as a way to gain unauthorized access to modern applications.

Intrusion Attempts and Responses

This metric offers visibility into the existing vulnerabilities and preparedness of various security measures and response teams. Many intrusion attempts typically indicate a large attack surface since attackers prefer to leverage existing vulnerabilities as an entry point. Teams can monitor firewall and access logs to determine the number of times adversaries have tried to attack the systems, the number of successful attacks, and the origin of each attack. The attack threats and frequency data also help security teams make informed decisions regarding intrusion detection systems and security hardening procedures. 

Number of Known Vulnerabilities Within Internal Systems

Identifying vulnerabilities and vulnerable assets within the organization’s environment is one of the key cybersecurity metrics in identifying imminent threats the organization may face. The metric is referenced as a guide for security priorities, including the number of exposed assets, vulnerable targets, and compromised users. Penetration tests and automated vulnerability scans can be used to determine the number of threat vectors within the system. An efficient vulnerability management system for managing patches and updates across the organization’s vulnerable assets is recommended to prevent exploitable loopholes in the organization’s environment. 

Third-Party Risk

Third-party risk metrics provide an insight into the potential threats presented to internal systems from various external entities such as third-party vendor apps, APIs, etc. While these entities offer crucial services for customer data management, financial information processing, and business operations, they often have privileged access to common application resources. A third-party risk metric offers an evaluation of the vulnerabilities introduced by such entities and the consequences of a cybersecurity breach based on these vulnerabilities.

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What is the difference between a cybersecurity metric vs. KPI?

Although both are useful in quantifying cybersecurity posture, metrics provide a measure of overall security health, while KPIs indicate progress toward defined security program goals. 

Cybersecurity KPIs drive the organization towards specific long-term objectives, which are used to gauge crucial security initiatives and demonstrate how the organization will benefit from a security investment. 

On the other hand, metrics are data-driven, objective values loosely tied to any specific objective. They do not represent critical data but are still valuable for the business. Cybersecurity metrics quantify an organization’s security posture against a set benchmark of security performance measures.

What are the steps to achieve a comprehensive security metrics program?

A precisely designed security metrics program is grounded on existing process improvement within the organization. Regardless of the framework in use, the key steps to guide the establishment of a security metrics program involve:

  • Defining the goals and objectives of the metrics program
  • Deciding the type of metrics to generate
  • Developing the methods to generate selected metrics
  • Establishing cybersecurity benchmarks
  • Determining the alerting and reporting mechanisms for the mechanisms
  • Developing the metric plan and applying it within the organization
  • Establish a formal cycle for the review and updating of the program

How do CISOs choose the most appropriate KPIs for organizational use-cases?

Choosing suitable KPIs for the security department and other business units accurately helps assess organization-wide security performance. Some critical aspects to consider when defining cyber-security KPIs include:

  • KPIs must be simple to define and understand
  • KPIs should be actionable and goal-oriented
  • Each KPI should be planned and thoroughly reviewed
  • Each KPI must produce data to be used for decision-making
  • Every defined KPI must be relevant to business and cybersecurity objectives

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