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When It Comes to M&A, Security Is a Journey

Shiva Persaud is the director of security engineering for Cisco. His team is responsible for the Cisco Secure Development Lifecycle (CSDL), a set of practices based on a “secure-by-design” philosophy developed to ensure that security and compliance are top-of-mind in every step of a solution’s lifecycle. This blog is the third in a series focused on M&A cybersecurity, following Jason Button’s post on Demonstrating Trust and Transparency in Mergers and Acquisitions.


One of the most important considerations when Cisco acquires a company, is ensuring that the security posture of the acquisition’s solutions and infrastructure meets the enterprise’s security standards. That can be a tricky proposition and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, at Cisco, it only comes about thanks to the efforts of a multitude of people working hard behind the scenes.

“The consistent message is that no matter where a product is in its security journey, from inception to end-of-life activities, there’s still a lot of work that can happen to lead to a better security outcome,” says Persaud.

While Persaud and his team work within Cisco on all the company’s products and solutions, they also play a critical role in maintaining security standards in Cisco’s mergers and acquisitions (M&A) work.

Identifying Risks Takes the Mindset of a Hacker

Simply put, Persaud’s team is tasked with identifying the security risks posed by an acquisition’s technology and helping teams mitigate those risks.

“It starts with a risk assessment where we ask ourselves what an attacker would do to compromise this specific technology,” says Persaud. “What are the industry best practices for securing this type of technology? What do our customers expect this technology to provide from a security perspective? And once we have those risks enumerated, we prioritize them to decide which is the most important to take care of first.”

To anticipate where a hacker might find vulnerabilities and the actions they might take, the CSDL team must put themselves in that attack mindset. Fortunately for Persaud, his interest in computer security started as early as middle school. “It just kind of grew from there,” he says. “For many folks I’ve worked with and hired over the years, it’s a similar situation.”

That lifelong interest and experience work to the team’s advantage. They take a risk-based approach to security, in which they identify all the issues that need to be fixed and then rate them based on the likelihood of occurrence and seriousness of the results of an attack. Those ratings inform their decisions on which issues to fix first.

“We come up with ways to go mitigate those risks and co-author a plan called the Security Readiness Plan, or SRP,” Persaud says. “Then we partner with teams to take that plan and execute it over time.”

Not One-and-Done: Ensuring Security Is a Continual Priority

In alignment with CSDL’s continuous approach to security throughout a solution’s lifecycle, Persaud says that “security is a journey, so the workflow to finish the secure development lifecycle never ends.”

While initial onboarding of an acquired company—including completion of the initial risk assessment and the SRP—typically ends within several months of the acquisition. Persaud adds, “The work continues as the technology is integrated into a larger tech stack or as it’s modified and sold as a standalone offering to our customers.” As the solution or technology evolves and begins to include new features and functionalities, the CSDL work continues to make sure those features are secure as well.

That work can have its obstacles. Persaud says that one of the primary challenges his team deals with is cutting through the flurry of activity and bids for the acquisition’s attention that come pouring in from all sides. It’s a crazy time for both Cisco and the acquisition, with many important tasks at the top of everyone’s to-do lists. “Not just in the security realm,” says Persaud,” but in many other areas, too. So being able to get the acquisition to focus on security in a meaningful way in the context of everything else that’s happening is a major challenge.”

Another challenge is dealing with acquisitions that might not have much security expertise on their original team. That means they’re not able to give Persaud’s team much help in determining where security risks lie and how serious they are—so Cisco’s engineers have a lot more investigative work to do.

3 Ways to Make Security Simpler in M&A

When asked what advice he would give to organizations that want to maintain a good security posture when acquiring another company, Persaud names three key factors.

Top-down support for and commitment to security

To succeed in M&A security, it’s critical that the organization’s board of directors, CEO, and all subsequent levels of management support and be committed to meeting a high level of security standards and outcomes. The remaining management of the acquisition also needs to be on board with the security commitment, and both organizations should make sure that all employees recognize that commitment and support. If management support is not there, the work ultimately won’t get done. It can be difficult and time-consuming and without companywide recognition of its key importance, it won’t get prioritized, and it will get lost in the myriad of other things that all the teams have to do.

Align to industry standards and best practices

The issue of security can get really complicated, very quickly. Persaud says it’s smart to find industry standards and best practices that already exist and are available to everyone, “so you’re not reinventing the wheel—or more concerning, reinventing the wheel poorly.”

Where to look for those industry standards will vary, depending on the technology stack that needs to be secured. “If you are interested in securing a web application,” says Persaud, “then starting with the OWASP Top Ten list is a good place to start. If you are selling a cloud offer or cloud service, then look at the Cloud Security Alliance’s Cloud Controls Matrix (CCM) or the Cisco Cloud Controls Framework.”

One way to think of it, Persaud says, is that there are a variety of security frameworks certain customers will need a company to adhere to before they can use their solutions. Think frameworks like FedRAMP, SOC-2, Common Criteria, or FIPS.

“You can align your product security work to those frameworks as a baseline and then build on top of them to make technology more resilient.” It’s a great place to start.

Decide on very focused outcomes that facilitate improvement over time

It’s essential that an organization be very clear on what it wants to accomplish when it comes to ensuring security of an acquisition’s solutions and infrastructure. This will help it avoid “trying to boil the whole ocean,” says Persaud.

Persaud and his team talk about working up to security fitness the way a runner would start with a 5K and work up to an Ironman competition. “You take progressive steps towards improving,” he says. “You’re very explicit about what milestones of improvement you’ll encounter on your journey of good security.”

3 Ways Cisco Can Help

Persaud says Cisco is uniquely positioned to help organizations maintain security standards when acquiring other companies. He points to three critical differentiators.

Companywide commitment to security

“The level of visibility and support that we have for security at Cisco, starts with our board of directors and our CEO, and then throughout the organization,” says Persaud.  “This is a very special and unique situation that allows us to do a lot of impactful work from a security perspective,”

Cisco has long been adamant about security that’s built in from the ground up and not bolted on as an afterthought. It’s the reason the CSDL exists, as well as the Cisco Security & Trust Organization and the many, many teams that work every day to infuse security and privacy awareness into every product, service, and solution—including the technology and infrastructure of newly acquired companies.

Robust set of building blocks to enable secure outcomes

Once Persaud’s team has identified and assessed the security risks of an acquisition, his and other teams go about helping the acquisition address and mitigate those risks. Cisco provides a set of common building blocks or tools that teams can use to improve the security posture of an acquisition.

“We have secure libraries that teams can integrate into their code base to help them do certain things securely, so that the individual teams don’t have to implement that security functionality from scratch,” says Persaud. “And Cisco produces certain pieces of hardware that can be leveraged across our product lines, such as secure boot and secure storage.”

“Cisco’s operations stack also has various services acquisitions can use,” says Persaud. “An example of this comes from our Security Vulnerability and Incident Command team (SVIC). They provide logging capabilities that cloud offers at Cisco can leverage to do centralized logging, and then monitor those logs. SVIC also offers a security vulnerability scanning service so individual teams don’t have to do it independently.”

Another critical building block is Persaud’s team and their expertise. They act as a valuable resource that teams can consult when they want to build a new feature securely or improve the security of an existing feature.

Strong security community intent on providing solutions

Persaud concludes, “Cisco has an extremely strong and active security community where teams can ask questions, gain insights, give guidance, troubleshoot issues, share ideas and technology, and discuss emerging security topics. The community is committed to helping others instead of competing against each other. Members have the mindset of enriching the overall approach to security at Cisco and learning from any source they can to make things continually better.

Related Blogs

Managing Cybersecurity Risk in M&A

Demonstrating Trust and Transparency in Mergers and Acquisitions

 


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