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10 Steps to Cybersecurity—Understanding Customer Risk and Where Their “Crown Jewels” Are

Having established that you need to shift the conversation from security to risk with your customers (read my previous blog here), the emphasis has to now be on measuring and quantifying that risk. The first step here is to understand the company’s line of business and what exactly the “bad guys” might be after.

Doing this across an entire organization or group is a massive undertaking and can be very hard to quantify, so finding a way to break this into digestible chunks is essential. Here, we can learn a lot from a contact of mine who is a CISO for a large multinational financial institution. In order to manage risk across the entire organization, they work with what they define as their “crown jewels”—their most important assets.

In this particular scenario, one of the criteria for getting on this list is that if compromised, these assets would lose the company $1 billion or more per day. They isolated 20 of these assets across the organization.

At every board meeting, these crown jewels are on the agenda, and the board discusses whether they are sufficiently protected and if the level of risk they face is appropriate to their impact on the business. The board also regularly discusses the organization’s other assets and reviews whether anything else should be included on the list.

Providing concrete security answers

mostvaluable.jpgBy reducing the question to, “can we protect these 20 things?” rather than, “can we protect these 1,000 things?” they have made the question far easier to respond to with concrete answers.

This isn’t saying they are not bothered about protecting anything else in the organization; they naturally have to have robust security to protect all their assets. What they are doing is putting in place a weighted scale of protection, and by defining those assets that potentially have the biggest impact on the company, they are able to quantifiably justify the additional spend required to protect them.

While this is a much more extreme example than the average MSP or security professional is likely to be dealing with on a regular basis (or indeed ever), working with the concept of crown jewels is the basis for providing companies with an actionable security plan.

Defining and protecting your crown jewels

So how do you define crown jewels within an organization?

This can be as simple as what the mission of the organization is. For example, with a hospital, the number one priority is always patient care, and everything else goes around that. In this case, the patient becomes the crown jewel, and the patient data is a target that must be protected. As we have seen with the latest ransomware attacks targeting hospitals, it is critical to protect access to patient data, as it is hugely valuable to cybercriminals and very saleable on the dark web. You need to protect these “crown jewels” better than you protect other things.

One of the big mistakes that security professionals often make is they try to put the same level of security across the whole organization, smattering it across like peanut butter. This is not the right approach. You want to be able to give a higher level of security to your crown jewels. By doing this, you are spending appropriately on what is most important to your company and the most attractive targets for any potential intruders.

Expanding your risk assessment to people 

protectingpeople.jpgIt’s not just about data, it’s also about people. You should have a level of security that also includes crown people; these are the people within your organization that could compromise your business or that have the most impact on your environment. The majority of the time, they have access to the highest value IT assets—your super users and root users. Sometimes it’s the CEO. You need to understand how you protect these people at the same time as protecting systems and data.

In a world where we are constantly striving to make it harder for our cyber-adversaries to achieve their goals, insider threats become very real. We need to be constantly evaluating how we protect crown people, crown apps, and crown systems and put appropriate levels of defences around those things that are the most attractive to adversaries—and can do the most harm to our organizations if compromised.

As an MSP, one of your first conversations needs to be around what your customer’s crown jewels are. This is a very practical conversation, and one that MSPs are in a great position to have. The majority of MSPs have an in-depth understanding of their customers’ businesses, so they can come into it with enough background knowledge to guide their customer to an understanding of what their crown jewels are and what they should be protecting and monitoring on a regular basis. They can help customers see what is an appropriate level of risk for these assets. It’s this that forms the basis of a weighted security plan that has real visibility and benefit for the organization.


In my next blog, I’ll look at implementing and understanding good cyber-hygiene. 


Tim Brown is VP of Security for SolarWinds MSP. He has over 20 years of experience developing and implementing security technology, including identity and access management, vulnerability assessment, security compliance, threat research, vulnerability management, encryption, managed security services, and cloud security. Tim’s experience has made him an in-demand expert on cybersecurity, and has taken him from meeting with members of Congress and the Senate to the Situation Room in the White House. Additionally, Tim has been central in driving advancements in identity frameworks, has worked with the US government on security initiatives, and holds 18 patents on security-related topics. 

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