The Social Component of Risk Assessment

(This post appeared first on the ESSE project blog.)

Earlier this year Andreas presented at the New Security Paradigms Workshop our paper An Asset to Security Modeling? Analyzing Stakeholder Collaborations Instead of Threats to Assets (DOI: 10.1145/2683467.2683474). During our work with the GESIS Secure Data Center team it emerged that the common way we use to do risk assessment may be flawed. In this paper we discuss what is missing and how to analyze collaboration networks to understand consequences of security incidents.

Risk assessment, as described for example in ISO 31000, is a systematic process that prepares decisions. The goal of this process is to find appropriate risk responses and treatments. A risks can be accepted or even increased (if doing so entails an opportunity); it can be avoided, shared or transferred; or the risk can be mitigated by reducing its likelihood or impact. As a prerequisite for informed decisions one goes through the risk assessment process, during which one identifies, analyzes, and evaluates pertinent risks. The figure below, a more elaborate version of which can be found in ISO 31000, illustrates this process chain.

A 4-step process: (1) risk identification; (2) risk analysis; (3) risk evaluation; (4) risk treatment. Risk assessment comprises steps 1-3.Stakeholders participate in this process as a source of information, knowing their respective business or business function and being able to assess likelihoods and impacts. This standard approach to risk assessment has the premise that risk treatments are variable and the objective is to find optimal values for them.

In our paper we propose a complementary approach. Our premise: Stakeholders collaborate in complicated networks for mutual benefit. Risk and incident responses are to a large degree determined by their collaboration relationships. These pre-determined responses are not to be defined as a result of risk assessment, they rather constitute a factor to be considered in risk analysis and evaluation. The figure below is a simplified version of Figure 8 in our paper:

SDC Stakeholder NetworkThe Secure Data Center serves its users, which are part of a larger research community; the SDC also needs its users as serving them is its pupose. Beyond the individual user, the research community at large benefits from SDC services and influences their acceptance. Primary investigators provide data; they benefit from wider recognition of their work through secondary analyses and fulfil obligations by archiving their data. Survey participants are the source of all data. Everyone wants to preserve their willingness to participate in studies.

The need for an extension of risk assessment methodologies became apparent when we reviewed and discussed with the participants of our study the threat models they had produced. They expressed various concerns about the stakeholders involved and their possible reactions to security incidents. Although traditional approaches to risk assessment include the analysis of consequences, they fail to provide tools for this analysis. In the security domain in particular it is often assumed that consequences can be evlauated by identifying assets and assigning some monetsary value to each of them. According to our experience it’s more complicated.

Read the paper on our website or in the ACM digital library:

Andreas Poller; Sven Türpe; Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda: An Asset to Security Modeling? Analyzing Stakeholder Collaborations Instead of Threats to Assets. New Security Paradigms Workshop (NSPW’14), Victoria, BC, September 15-18, 2014. DOI: 10.1145/2683467.2683474 [BibTeX]