The Broken Window Theory applied to Information Security

An observer could peer straight through the bu...

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The Broken Window Theory has two popular accepted approaches to it’s application.

The original was an economic theory proposed in the 1850s.  Essentially it stated that even something bad that happens (e.g. the breaking of a window) has a positive effect on the economics of a society (need to create another window and employee someone to install it).

There is a more contemporary theory that is focused on criminology originally proposed in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  It basically states that, if a few broken windows go un-repaired, then from that there is a higher propensity for other windows to be broken.  From that, there is even more chance that other nefarious activities will be more prevalent in that location.

I’m going to take a leap here and compare the second theory with Information Security and reducing risk.

According to the theory, there are three factors that support why the condition of the environment affects crime (and the opportunity for crime):

  • social norms and conformity
  • the presence or lack of monitoring, and
  • social signalling and signal crime

In this first part, I’ll use Information Security examples to explain these factors:

Whether intentionally or not, the policies we create and enforce will affect the social norms of our computing environments.  If you do not enforce the needs of proper patch management or secure coding, you create a social norm where it is implicitly acceptable to not follow those policies.  Social norms tell us that people will do as the group does and will monitor others to make sure they act in the same manner.  If this holds true, then here inlines the answer to many departments problem.  Make sure you have a policy, it’s well enforced and communicated to your end users, and the end users will help expand your monitoring capabilities to ensure they are being followed.  Seems too simple right?

The second factor is the presence of monitoring.  Because of the nature of our environments, it’s not always possible for people to get feedback from those around them and you cannot rely on (or even expect) to have any norms being transmitted from others.  In this case, you turn to your tools.  Even though you may have created and communicated the appropriate policies, now you need some technical controls in place to enforce them.

These technical controls are the third factor (signals) that indicate to the end users that they are (or are not) compliant with their activities.  So add accurate, timely, and visible monitoring to your list.

The other key component to take away from the Broken Window’s theory is that addressing problems when they are small will give you the opportunity for easy, less expensive fixes to problems.  A sound Risk Management methodology would tell you that Addressing issues like patch management, policy violations, secure coding practices earlier, are less costly and less difficult than addressing them after they have been exploited and you are now dealing with a breach or data loss.

Sadly, the early economic theory of Broken Windows would state that all these things are good.  If a breach occurs many people will be employed conducting the investigation and doing research.  I feel I can confidently say that the business we own or work for would not be satisfied with us following that theory.  It would be far more acceptable to accept the social/criminology theory and begin to remediate many of our issues before they become larger problems.

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