Outsourcing security tasks brings controversy

Outsourcing security gives in-house IT staff a chance to be freed up from mundane tasks, but not everyone likes it

Outsourcing security? The idea of handing over control of network security to an outside firm paid to maintain gear, monitor for attacks, perform vulnerability scans, collect logs or update security software for employees is controversial.

When it comes to outsourcing security functions, skepticism still rules the day for many users. The idea of handing over control of network security to an outside firm paid to maintain gear, monitor for attacks, perform scans, collect logs or update security software for employees is, to say the least, controversial.

Security managers are split on the issue, arguing it's either a boon or bane for the company. According to advocates, outsourcing security gives in-house IT staff a chance to be freed up from mundane tasks to deal with more strategic matters without having to take on additional staff. The naysayers worry that outsourcing means losing sight of security risks because outsiders will mechanically follow a contract without thinking critically enough. Whether outsourcing is cost-effective is part of the debate, too, but the central question of control stirs the greater emotion.

Those bullish on security outsourcing say it's a way to move their in-house security specialists, already in short supply, into more strategic jobs while making sure everyday tasks get done.

"We either have to bring in more internal IT people or get other people through outsourcing security services," says Andre Gold, lead, IT risk management in the North American arm of ING, the Holland-based global financial services firm.

Survey shows most opposed to outsourcing security.

Gold says tasks such as patch and vulnerability management tasks or antivirus support are consuming a lot of staff time that might be better used in strategic risk-management operations for online business goals with partners and customers, for instance.

"I'd rather push the ING people up the ladder," Gold says, noting that next month ING expects to select at least one security outsourcing provider — it may be offshore in India or elsewhere — for large, multiyear contracts to handle a wide variety of data and network-security management remotely.

"I call it security right-sourcing," Gold says, adding that ING already outsources some IT maintenance and application development. Consequently, advocating security outsourcing was not a culture shock at the company. Gold says he expects security outsourcing to prove cost-effective over adding in-house staff, but he says in this case, it's not the primary motivator for doing it.

Paul Simmonds, chief information security officer at global chemicals manufacturer ICI, says he's more inclined to stick with in-house staff for security because "when something goes wrong, does that outsourcer really understand how it impacts your business? I'd say, no they probably wouldn't." But on the other hand, Simmonds notes that ICI has benefited from security as a service from providers Qualys, MessageLabs and ScanSafe, which have taken on tasks such from vulnerability scanning to antimalware prevention.

But security outsourcing still tends to elicit negative views.

"My bias is against it," says Jon Gossels, president of consultancy SystemExperts, which advises corporations on security strategy, with a focus on regulatory issues.

Gossels says he could see outsourcing a few "discrete functions," such as log monitoring or penetration testing. "But I've never seen large-scale outsourcing work well," Gossels cautions. "Security is a business enabler, and the decisions you make every day in your IT infrastructure impact the business. I don't see how you can do that in an outsourcing way."

That appears to remain the dominant view.

A survey of 479 security professionals conducted by the Computer Security Institute late last year asked what percentage of computer security functions were outsourced in their organizations. Sixty-one percent of the respondents — who hailed from industries as diverse as finance, transportation, retail, education, telecom as well as government —answered "none" (see chart).

Only 5% had outsourced more than 60% of computer security functions, with 2% in the 81% to 100% range. The CSI survey concluded, "While there's certainly a market for outsourcing some kind of security tasks (security testing of customer-facing Web applications being one such example) where the specialized nature of the work and the ability to segregate the task for access to key enterprise assets make outsourcing more appealing, it doesn't appear that the appetite for such outsourcing is growing overall."

CSI, which conducts an annual security survey, said the results related to the question of outsourcing security haven't changed in the three years since they started asking it.

The skeptics

Kate Mullin, IT systems security manager for the Tampa International Airport, is skeptical about security outsourcing.

There are a few functions outsourced by the airport, such as the IT systems backup. And there's a contract in place to call in support personnel if a situation called for that, she notes. But even though running an airport is a round-the-clock activity, it's the in-house engineering staff who are on duty for network-security monitoring and other tasks because "the decisions we make are based on the systems we use," Mullin says. "If there's a problem we have to react."

The airport recently bought a log and security-event monitoring system called LogRhythm for this purpose.

She says she's skeptical outside personnel or equipment would be able to do the same security monitoring and response as effectively. But she's keeping an open mind about it.

"If I do anything, I'd 'co-source,'" Mullin says. Co-sourcing might mean half the time the security monitoring would be in-house, half of the time outsourced.

At the recent Infosec World Conference in Orlando, a number of security managers offered their opinions about security outsourcing.

"We used to spend multiple millions of dollars per year having our firewalls monitored," said Anish Bhimani, vice president of IT risk management at JPMorgan Chase, which has been shifting away from outsourcing security functions. "What does that get me?"

The firm has brought firewall monitoring, vulnerability assessment and other functions back in-house using purchased tools, which Bhimani said seems to be a less expensive route than outsourcing.

Derek Schatz, lead security architect with Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said security outsourcing wasn't a general practice at his company where the desire to technically verify things directly was very dominant. "You have to take into account the culture," he said.

"On a whole, I'd hesitate," said Mark Grimmelikhuijsen, senior IT security manager at Campbell Soup Company, on security outsourcing.

"You could end up in a situation where you watch the watcher," he said, noting security outsourcing ushers in new uncertainties, such as if there's a dispute, which party is liable.

Outsourcing for efficiency reasons "makes sense," said Kevin McCaffery, senior manager of IT security at Avaya, but added, "You can outsource the functions, but you can't outsource the oversight."

Oversight goes to the heart of any outsourcing arrangement, including security. The underlying outsourcing contract should ensure "you're allowed to audit them," said Kathy Kirk, director of information security at Prudential Financial.

The outsourcing provider has to demonstrate the ability to meet regulatory compliance goals. If your own organization has to meet requirements such as the Payment Card Industry's data-security rules, so will the outsourcing provider you use, she said. She noted it's necessary to have some means to monitor the activities the outsourcing provider is undertaking on your behalf.

Still, some companies say security outsourcing isn't something they've thought about because their internal staff seem able to manage security well enough on their own.

"We outsource a lot at our company but one thing I'd say we don't need to outsource is security," said Greg May, chief technology officer at Paradigm Investment, which owns and operates more than 90 Hardee's restaurants in the South.

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