When is a System Compromised?

In IT security, the question of when a system is considered compromised is all too often not a technical one, but rather a decision based on a risk assessment. This requires careful consideration and the best possible determination of the actual situation. This process goes far beyond the mere identification of technical indicators.

What Needs to be Done?

  1. Fact Finding: First, all available information must be gathered and analyzed. Depending on the system in question, this includes log files, network analyses, and system examinations. These data can provide insights into possible anomalies or irregularities that may indicate a potential compromise.
  2. Evaluation of Indicators: The identified anomalies and irregularities must then be assessed in their respective contexts. Not every incident is security-relevant, and not every security-relevant incident automatically means a compromise. It must be determined whether the indicators are consistent with known patterns of cyberattacks or security breaches. In this context, the experiences of the IT operations team are particularly important.
  3. Risk Assessment: Here, the potential risk of a compromise is weighed against the possible impacts. This assessment takes into account both the likelihood of an actual compromise and the potential consequences for business processes.
  4. Decision Making: Based on the risk assessment, a decision must be made as to whether a system is considered compromised. This decision not only takes into account the findings of the specific incident but must also be aligned with the organization’s risk tolerance.

The decision to consider a system compromised can have enormous implications. For example, if it involves a central directory service, this can have far-reaching consequences for the organization, including financial losses, damage to reputation, and legal consequences.

The compromise of a user client, even if the technical indicators are similar, would have a completely different impact. Therefore, it is crucial to base the decision on as solid a foundation as possible and a comprehensive assessment of all relevant factors.

The determination of a compromise is rarely a question of certainty, but rather a management decision that requires thorough analysis and assessment of all available information, taking into account the potential risks and consequences. This process should therefore not be (completely) delegated to IT operations. The resulting impacts on business processes must be made known to the executive level and ultimately borne by them.

ISMS leaders should keep a cool head and not be irritated by hastily expressed concepts of risk.