Metrics: Your Security Yardstick – Part 2 – Defining Metrics

After a number of questions on the topic, I have decided to follow up on my earlier security metrics blog with a bit more information regarding metrics development. The diagram below outlines the metrics development process.

Security Metrics Development Process

1. Identify Controls to Measure – This is pretty self-explanatory: which controls do you want to evaluate? In very mature security programs, metrics may be gathered on numerous controls across multiple control areas. However, if you’re just starting out, you likely would not realize significant value from such detailed metrics at this time and would benefit more from monitoring key indicators of security health such as security spending, vulnerability management status, and patch compliance. In general, controls to be evaluated should be mapped from external and internal requirements. In this fashion, the impact of controls on compliance can be determined once metrics become available. Conversely, metrics can be designed to measure controls that target key compliance requirements. For this blog, I will focus on metrics related to vulnerability management.

2. Identify Available Sources of Data – This step is established in order to identify all viable sources of data which may be presented singularly or combined with others to create more comprehensive security metrics. Sources of data for metrics will vary based on what sort of controls are being measured. However, it is important that data sources be reliable and objective. Some examples of metrics that can be gathered from a single source (in this case, a vulnerability management tool) are listed in the table below.

Number of systems scanned within a time periodEffort
Number of new vulnerabilities discovered within a time periodEffort
Number of new vulnerabilities remediated within a time periodResult
Number of new systems discovered within a time periodEnvironment
List of current vulnerabilities w/ages (days)Result
List of current exploitable vulnerabilities w/ages (days)Result
Number of OS vulnerabilitiesEnvironment
Number of third-party vulnerabilitiesEnvironment
List of configured networksEffort
Total number of systems discovered / configuredEffort

3. Define Security Metrics – Decide which metrics accurately represent a measurement of controls implemented by your organization. Begin by developing low-level metrics and then combine to create high level-metrics that provide deeper insight.

a. Low-Level Metrics
Low-level metrics are measurements of aspects of information security within a single area.Each metric may not be sufficient in conveying a complete picture but may be used in context with different metric types.Each metric should attempt to adhere to the following criteria:

  • Consistently measured
  • Inexpensive to gather
  • Expressed as a cardinal number or a percentage
  • Expressed as a unit of measure

Low-level metrics should be identified to focus on key aspects of the information security program.The goal should be to identify as many measurements as possible without concern for how comprehensive each measurement may be.The following are examples of low-level metrics:

  • Hosts not patched (Result)
  • Hosts fully patched (Result)
  • Number of patches applied (Effort)
  • Unapplied patches (Environment)
  • Time to apply critical patch (Result)
  • Time to apply non-critical patch (Result)
  • New patches available (Environment)
  • Hours spent patching (Effort)
  • Hosts scanned (Effort)

b. High-Level Metrics
High-level metrics should be comprised of multiple low-level metrics in order to provide a comprehensive measure of effectiveness.The following are examples of such metrics:

  • Unapplied patch ratio
  • Unapplied critical patch trend
  • Unapplied non-critical patch trend
  • Applied / new patch ratio
  • Hosts patched / not patched ratio

4. Collect Baseline Metric Data – A timeframe should be established that is sufficient for creating an initial snapshot, as well as basic trending. It is important that you allow enough time to collect a good baseline sample, as data can easily be skewed as you’re working out little bugs in the collection process.

5. Review Effectiveness of Metrics – Review the baseline data collected and determine whether it is effective in representing the success factors of specific controls. If some metrics fall short of the overall goal, another iteration of the metric development process will be necessary.

6. Publish Security Metrics – Begin publishing security metrics in accordance with pre-defined criteria.

As noted above, well-designed metrics must be objective and be based upon reliable data. However, data sources are not always fully understood when selected and, as a result, metrics may end up being less effective than when they were initially designed.

After metrics have been implemented, a suitable timeframe for collecting baseline data should be permitted. Once this has been done, metrics should be reevaluated in order to determine whether or not they provide the requisite information.Some metrics may fall short in this regard; if this is the case, another iteration of the metric development process will be necessary. Ultimately, metrics are intended to provide insight into the performance of a security program and its controls. If the chosen metrics do not do this effectively, or answer the questions that your organization is asking, then the metrics must be redesigned prior to being published and used for the purposes of decision making.