Patch management still big stumbling block in risk management

Everyone talks about 'risk and compliance' in security, but what are the costs?

Everyone talks about "risk and compliance" in security, but what do companies have to do to make it through audits and meet regulations related to information security? And what are the costs?

McAfee asks those questions in its "Risk and Compliance Outlook - 2012" survey of 438 IT professionals in the US as well as Europe and Brazil, Australia and Singapore, finding the main challenge is getting visibility into IT operations. Four out of 5 of those surveyed believe "visibility into the risk posture of their IT environment" is important, and one-quarter estimated they shaved off six to 10 hours per week in IT staff time with good visibility.

But the patching of software remains a chief stumbling block to good risk management, according to the findings.

"Before the advent of numerous regulations and the rise of malicious code targeting known vulnerabilities, patch management was not a top issue for many organizations," states the McAfee report. "Today, patch management must be a top priority to mitigate the continuous threat of malicious code and compliance failure. These concerns have pushed organizations to gain better control and oversight of their information assets. This is seen with nearly half of the surveyed organizations applying patches monthly and near one-third doing so on a weekly basis."

But as they patch away, there's the sense this is a time-intensive process that's costly. The IT professionals surveyed indicated they are tempted to do routine vulnerability patching less in order to save money.

About half of the companies say they are able to pinpoint risks associated with vulnerabilities and threats well, "and 43 percent indicate they over-protect and patch everything they can." This might be substantial indeed, given that the National Vulnerabilities Database reported 3,532 vulnerabilities last year.

But the most disruptive aspect of patching is said to be "out-of-cycle patches" that defy the monotonous, scheduled "Patch Tuesday" of every month led by Microsoft, with other vendors also now releasing patch announcements on that second Tuesday of every month.

Out-of-cycle patches can have critical security importance, and 70 percent of the survey respondents said these events do have an impact, But only 13 percent described this as a "major impact."

The most important regulations that companies have to comply with are the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS), Sarbanes-Oxley, the HIPAA regulations for healthcare, and others, such as the Basel Accords rules for financial. The most popular compliance frameworks are said to be ISO, ITIL and COBIT.

The survey respondents indicated the "most challenging" regulatory mandates revolved around database security, with a focus on access control for the privileged insider, and trying to monitor based on "normal" usage. Other needed controls are encryption of data at rest and establishing separation of duties.

Roughly three-quarters of the companies surveyed said they use database monitoring tools, with 18 percent saying they plan to start using them this year. Some 60 percent use tools to monitor for configuration changes, and 23 percent plan to start doing so this year. In addition, auditing, change-management, configuration assessment, file-integrity monitoring and similar tools are already used by slightly more than 60 percent of the respondents, and an additional quarter of those answering the survey said they plan to implement them later this year.

About 27 percent of IT security budgets are driven by compliance, the McAfee report states, noting this is similar to findings of a 2011 survey. Last year, 85 percent of the organizations went through 10 or fewer compliance audits, but 1 percent endured between 41 to 60 audits, the report says.

The survey says 45 percent of respondents indicated at some time they failed at least one compliance audit, though 37 percent passed the follow-up, and 8 percent ended up paying a fine because they did not meet a government or industry regulation.

The report says audits are expensive, on average costing US$100,000 in 2011 for external audit fees, though 39 percent managed to keep costs between $10,000 to $50,000, while 10 percent actually spent more than $250,000. The good news is organizations seem to have spent less on average last year than they did in 2010, when the average annual costs were $160,000.

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