From: InfoSec News <alerts_at_private>
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 2010 00:49:09 -0600 (CST)
Forwarded from Lennon, Elizabeth B. <elizabeth.lennon (at) nist.gov> 	



Shirley Radack, Editor
Computer Security Division
Information Technology Laboratory
National Institute of Standards and Technology
U.S. Department of Commerce

More than 100 years ago, Lord Kelvin (William Thomson, lst Baron 
Kelvin), the distinguished British mathematical physicist and engineer, 
observed that measurement is vital to knowledge and to continued 
progress in physical science. Lord Kelvin stated that:  "To measure is 
to know," and "If you can not measure it, you can not improve it."

These observations on measurements are relevant to our use of 
information technology (IT). Organizations rely on IT to carry out their 
daily operations and to deliver products and services to the public. 
Managers are challenged to use IT effectively and to protect their 
systems and information from security threats and risks. There have been 
many past efforts to develop security measurements that could help 
organizations make informed decisions about the design of systems, the 
selection of controls, and the efficiency of security operations. But 
the development of standardized measurements for IT has been a difficult 
challenge, and past efforts have been only partly successful.

Security metrics are needed to provide a quantitative and objective 
basis for security operations. Metrics support decision making, quality 
assurance of software, and the reliable maintenance of security 
operations. To address this need for more precise measurement of 
security technology, the Information Technology Laboratory of the 
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently published 
a report that examines past efforts to develop security metrics and 
points to possible areas of future research that could lead to improved 

National Institute of Standards and Technology Interagency Report 
(NISTIR) 7564, Directions in Security Metrics Research

Written by Wayne Jansen of NIST, Directions in Security Metrics Research 
provides background information on the various meanings and 
interpretations that have been applied to the term .security metrics.. 
The report examines critical aspects of security measurement as 
identified by past efforts and highlights the factors that are relevant 
to security metrics research. It then focuses on research efforts that 
are needed to advance the development of effective security metrics. An 
extensive reference list includes books, papers, and publications on 
security metrics.

NISTIR 7564, which is summarized in this bulletin, is available at the 
NIST Web page


What are Security Metrics

In general, a metric implies a system of measurement that is based on 
quantifiable measures. A method of measurement used to determine the 
unit of a quantity could be a measuring instrument, a reference 
material, or a measuring system. The measurement of an information 
system for security involves the application of a method of measurement 
to one or more parts of the system that have an assessable security 
property in order to obtain a measured value. The goal is to enable an 
organization to evaluate how well it is meeting its security objectives.

The method of measurement that is employed should be reproducible, and 
should achieve the same result when performed independently by different 
competent evaluators. Also, the result should be repeatable, so that a 
second assessment by the original team of evaluators produces the same 
result. All results of measurements should be timely and relevant to the 

Many of the traditional concepts in metrology that are used in the 
physical sciences, such as the use of fundamental units, scales, and 
uncertainty, either have not been applied to IT or have been applied 
less rigorously than in the physical sciences. Available quantitative 
metrics for IT system security generally reflect an evaluator.s reasoned 
estimates of security. These measures of information system security 
properties, which are often based on the evaluator.s expertise, 
intuition, and insight, may be subjective and non-repeatable.

Issues in Developing Security Metrics

Past efforts to develop security metrics include the Trusted Computer 
System Evaluation Criteria of the Department of Defense; the Information 
Technology Security Evaluation Criteria of the European Communities; the 
Systems Security Engineering Capability Maturity Model of the 
International Systems Security Engineering Association; and the 
international Common Criteria. These arrangements have had only limited 
success. A review of them suggests some essential factors that need to 
be addressed by researchers.

* System security is dependent on measurement of both correctness and 
  effectiveness.  Correctness is the assurance that the security 
  components of a system have been implemented correctly and that they 
  do what they are intended to do. Effectiveness is the assurance that 
  the security components meet their stated security objectives, and 
  that they do not do anything other than the intended tasks.

Correctness is evaluated by examining the ability of the 
security-enforcing mechanisms to carry out their tasks precisely to the 
specifications. Correctness can be assessed during the development and 
operations processes by determining how well the system meets it stated 
objectives. Effectiveness is evaluated by assessing the strength of the 
security-enforcing mechanisms to withstand attacks in carrying out their 
function. This assessment determines how well the security-enforcing 
components are integrated and work together, the consequences of any 
known or discovered vulnerabilities, and the usability of the system.

Security evaluations of correctness and effectiveness are done largely 
through reasoning rather than direct measurement of actual hardware and 
software components. Evaluators may make assumptions, and results may 
not be timely and reproducible. Organizations frequently require the use 
of standardized procedures and criteria, and conduct evaluator training 
classes to help eliminate some of the subjective practices. However, 
more automated methods for evaluating correctness and effectiveness 
would be useful.

* Security metrics could lead to better assessments of the leading, 
  coincident, or lagging indicators of the actual security state of the 
  system. Leading and lagging indicators reflect security conditions 
  that exist before or after a shift in security. Coincident indicators 
  reflect security conditions that are happening concurrently with a 
  shift in security. If a lagging indicator is treated as a leading or 
  coincident indicator, the consequences due to misinterpretation and 
  reaction can lead to serious problems.

Simple counts, when used as a security measure, can be especially hard 
to classify and interpret. An increase in the number of viruses detected 
by antivirus software could be a leading indicator, because the 
increased activity indicates an elevated threat level; but the count 
could also be a lagging indicator, because an efficient antivirus 
mechanism has been implemented. Also, decreased activity could indicate 
that the antivirus mechanism is losing its effectiveness, other 
security-enforcing mechanisms are increasingly successful, or the system 
is simply not being subjected to many attacks.

Many security measures can be viewed as lagging indicators. Over time, 
better understanding of a system and its weaknesses may lead to system 
security assessments that reflect a lower security standing and higher 
associated risk. This is often based on successful attacks on the system 
or other similar systems that reveal unexpected avenues of attack. 
Frequent repairs to systems make them more complicated to track. No 
metrics are available to measure the total state of security of a 

* Organizational security objectives vary because organizations have 
  different purposes, hold different assets, have different exposure to 
  the public, face different threats, and have different tolerances to 
  risk. Also, most organizations do not have sufficient funds to protect 
  all computational resources and assets at the highest degree possible 
  and must prioritize based on criticality and sensitivity.

Security metrics, which organizations use to determine how well they are 
meeting their security objectives, must meet the needs of different 
organizations. Since risks and policies are different, it is difficult 
to establish security metrics that could be used for system comparisons 
between organizations. There are similarities in high-level security 
objectives of organizations performing similar work. Security profiles 
of organizational security requirements and criteria can be used to 
standardize common sets of core requirements of such organizations for 
use in comparisons. However, these solutions have limitations insofar as 
only a portion of needed processes may be covered.

* Measurements of the qualitative and quantitative properties of 
  software have been difficult to achieve. Many desired properties such 
  as complexity, usability, and scalability are qualities that can be 
  expressed in general terms, but are difficult to define in objective, 
  useful terms.

Quantitative measures of security properties can be represented by terms 
such as low, medium, and high. Often, numeric values are used to 
represent rankings that are qualitative, such as, 1, 2, and 3, instead 
of low, medium, and high. The numeric difference between ranked values 
may be significant for some metrics, but may not be significant for 
security metrics. Quantitative valuations of several security properties 
may also be weighted and combined to derive a composite value, but these 
values can be misleading.

Qualitative properties may be intangible and cannot be captured via 
direct measurement. In cases where no quality can be clearly identified, 
such as the taste of wine, either a panel of experts rates various 
qualities using a blind rating or some measurable characteristics that 
are believed to correlate well with the quality in question are 
assessed.  Developing techniques such as these could improve software 
security assessments.

* The security measurements of small components of a system do not 
  necessarily indicate the security of the larger system. Security 
  measurements have been more successful when the target of assessment 
  is small and simple rather than large and complex. An evaluation, 
  which focuses exclusively on cryptographic modules, generally requires 
  less cost and time than an evaluation of a product that incorporates 
  such modules. Larger systems generally have greater complexity and 
  functionality, and the number of possible interactions increases as 
  the number of components in a system increases, requiring more 
  scrutiny and greater cost to evaluate.

Two systems, both of which are considered to be secure, can be connected 
together resulting in a composite system that is not secure. 
Composability is a property that would lead to better security 
measurements; composability would allow the security measurements of 
small systems to contribute directly to the measurement of the larger 
systems of which they are a part.

Areas of Research to Improve Security Metrics

Research efforts are needed to address these aspects of security 

* Determine good estimators of system security.

* Reduce reliance on the human element in measurement and inherent 

* Offer a more systematic and speedy means to obtain meaningful 

* Provide understanding and insight into the composition of security 

NISTIR 7564 identifies the following areas of research, which pose 
difficult and multifaceted problems for researchers. While these 
problems may not be solved completely and quickly, work toward the goals 
stated above could lead to the development of improved security metrics.

* Formal Models of Security Measurement and Metrics. Security 
  measurements that are conceived at a high level of abstraction and 
  formalism are often difficult to interpret and apply in practice, such 
  as when software patches, version updates, and configuration setting 
  changes take place in operational environments. Formal models that 
  depict security properties of operational IT systems and incorporate 
  relevant objects of significance to system security measurement are 

The research goal is to establish formal models with a level of detail 
that is sufficient to enable realistic predictions of operational system 
behavior and portray security measurements accurately. Attack surface 
metrics, which uses a formal model defined from an intuitive notion of a 
system.s attack surface (i.e., the ways in which the system can be 
entered and successfully attacked), is an example of the type of work 
envisioned. The formal model is characterized in terms of certain system 
resources.those methods, channels, and data items that an attacker can 
use to cause damage to the system. The surface measurement model can 
then be applied to compare attack surface measurements of systems along 
each of the three dimensions.

Research into formal models could also benefit the design of decision 
support systems that manage security infrastructure risks by using 
security metrics to determine security investments. Decision support 
models that incorporate technical and organizational aspects of a system 
and also quantify the utility of a security investment based on 
established principles could be valuable.

* Historical Data Collection and Analysis. Predictive estimates of the 
  security of software components and applications under consideration 
  should be extractable from historical data collected about the 
  characteristics of other similar types of software and their 
  vulnerabilities. Organizations could gain insight into security 
  measurements by analyzing historical data collections to identify 
  trends and correlations, and to discover unexpected relationships and 

The research goal is to identify characteristics of software components 
and applications that can be extracted and used to predict the security 
condition of other software. Available open source software repositories 
could serve as a starting point for the data collection, but this 
approach will require additional effort to incorporate vulnerability 
information and to identify the points at which the known 
vulnerabilities first appeared in the code set.

A historical data collection could also be the basis for confirming the 
validity of independently proposed security measurements and methods of 
measurement, identifying whether measures are leading, lagging, or 
coincident indicators, and establishing estimates of latency and 
uncertainty for identified indicators. The data collection could also 
help in investigating new methods of detecting expected and unexpected 
relationships for use as estimators, and in developing mathematical and 
computational methodologies to improve analysis of the data collection. 
A subset of the historical data collection could also be used as 
reference materials for training or rating the proficiency of security 

* Artificial Intelligence Assessment Techniques. Artificial Intelligence 
  (AI) involves the design and implementation of systems that exhibit 
  capabilities of the human mind, such as reasoning, knowledge, 
  perception, planning, learning, and communication. AI encompasses a 
  number of subdisciplines including machine learning, constraint 
  satisfaction, search, agents and multi-agent systems, reasoning, and 
  natural language engineering and processing. The application of AI to 
  security metrics could lead to ways to reduce subjectivity and human 
  involvement in performing security assessments.

The research goal is to identify areas of security evaluations that 
could be performed using AI or AI-assisted techniques and to demonstrate 
their use. Dealing with uncertainty and inconsistency has been a part of 
AI from its origins. Recently, AI systems have been used to 
independently formulate, refine, and test hypotheses from observed data 
to uncover fundamental properties, and to manage uncertainty and 
inconsistencies. The expectation is that AI technologies can play a 
similar role in the context of security assessments.

* Practicable Concrete Measurement Methods. The current practice of 
  security assessment puts more emphasis on the soundness of the 
  evaluation evidence of the design and the process used in developing a 
  product than on the soundness of the product implementation. The 
  rationale is that without a correct and effective design and 
  development process, a correct and effective implementation is not 
  possible. The emphasis on design and process evidence versus actual 
  product software largely overshadows practical security concerns 
  involving the implementation and deployment of operational systems.

The research goal is to devise methods of measurement that address 
vulnerabilities occurring in implementation and deployment, and 
complementing existing security assessment practices that emphasize 
design and development process evidence. Various forms of black box 
security testing offer an example of a possible type of concrete 
measurement method. For example, fuzzing is a type of fault injection 
technique that involves sending various types of pseudorandom data to 
available interfaces to discover unknown flaws present in programs and 
systems. Fuzzing techniques have been shown to be an effective means for 
detecting security vulnerabilities that otherwise might escape 

* Intrinsically Measurable Components. Development of computing 
  components that are inherently attuned to measurement and that clearly 
  exhibit security properties would be a significant improvement in the 
  state of the art of security metrics. The research goal is to identify 
  issues of mechanism and component design that facilitate or promote 
  security measurement. Some potential methods include preparing 
  strength of mechanism arguments in conjunction with the design and 
  development of a security-enforcing component; establishing lower and 
  upper bounds on mechanism strength, similar to the way performance 
  bounds are calculated for sorting, matching, and other essential 
  algorithms used in computing; and applying evaluation criteria during 
  the system design process to establish component properties.

Research results are available for cryptographic mechanisms that would 
allow bounds on the effort required to breach components to be 
determined, similar to metrics used to evaluate and identify weaknesses 
leading to failure in the physical security of storage safes and vaults. 
Extending this type of analysis to trust mechanisms is a more 
challenging problem, but not without promise. For example, components 
that rely on certain surety mechanisms, such as authentication modules 
designed for passwords or biometric modules for fingerprints, lend 
themselves to certain types of strength analysis.

Information on NIST Security-Related Publications

For information about NIST standards, guidelines, and other 
security-related publications, see 


Any mention of commercial products or reference to commercial 
organizations is for information only; it does not imply recommendation 
or endorsement by NIST nor does it imply that the products mentioned are 
necessarily the best available for the purpose.

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Received on Wed Feb 03 2010 - 22:49:09 PST

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