Philip Cao

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Integrated Content Libraries – What You Should Know and Questions to Ask

7 min read


Having worked for most of the “Big Four” as well as several boutique consultancies, I have witnessed a well-marketed shift and the birth of a new industry as it pertains to integrated regulatory content. When I refer to integrated regulatory content, I mean taking statements from individual sources and mapping those to a single control statement. For example, PCI 3.2, Requirement 2.1 states that default account passwords for accounts shipped with a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) product should be changed.

Similarly, supplemental guidance from control enhancement 5, of the SA-4 control family of NIST SP 800-53r4, mentions very similar control language. In an integrated framework, one would have a single control named something such as “Access Management – Password Management – Default Accounts,” and both the language from NIST 800-53r4 and PCI would be mapped to that single integrated requirement as opposed to managing similar requirements independently across frameworks. This mapping would ostensibly allow one to create controls and control procedures that could reduce testing and compliance efforts within most organizations.

What used to exist in separate, industry-centric silos has now been ported into frameworks with the promise of “test once and satisfy many.” Every risk consulting firm I worked for had a matrix that we tried to leverage to help our customers consolidate controls and testing efforts. I once worked for a small consultancy that charged tens of thousands of dollars per year for regulatory content subscriptions to their uniquely mapped library of content! Now, we have companies such as the HITRUST Alliance and the Unified Compliance Framework that base their entire business off the integrated content they produce.

We also have consortiums of volunteers such as those that support the Cloud Security Alliance’s Common Controls Matrix. Integrated content is generating tens of millions of dollars a year in content and professional services work, but for 95 percent of the regulatory content out there, it is free to use.

Companies now exist with business based solely upon integrated framework content. As I look at the landscape, there are many attributes of content libraries that one should question before investing in an integrated content library. The list I have generated is as follows:

Who Mapped This? You want mappings to be done by people that know IT risk, security and controls. Having credible personnel can reduce mismappings and reduce potential doubt as your integrated library further permeates your organization.
Are there proprietary sources in use? If so, do you have the proper licensing with the source bodies? I have worked for multiple firms that baked ISO, COBIT 5 and other proprietary frameworks into their source content. Companies need to ensure they have more than a single purchased license of documents that are to be purchased on an individual basis. Ask the question so there are no surprises or lawsuits as you move forward.
Are there other integrated source libraries mapped? HITRUST and the CSA CCM are already integrated , so effectively mapping those frameworks to another integrated framework is not feasible. Be wary of anyone that is mapping already integrated frameworks into a proprietary framework as they likely do not understand the impact of issues to the data model.
How does content get updated? Will you receive an email? Will you receive the update in XML or CSV? Is it a feed or manually provided? Will you have to have someone take the data and apply it to your GRC environment and then perform testing to ensure it was applied correctly?
How frequent are updates implemented? Some content providers do not provide updates. Any upkeep is the responsibility of the client. Others provide quarterly updates and some use an ad-hoc schedule. If you have to be PCI compliant and need that mapped into your framework by a specific timeline, you need to have a good understanding of the timing for when the PCI update will hit your framework or you may have to map manually.
What is your QA process? What tools and techniques are used to ensure that mappings are comprehensive? What personnel do you have who are qualified to perform content-specific mapping quality assurance? Do you look for issues in copy and paste translations, or do you search for syntax errors? Do you embed HTML in your mapping content? All of these are questions to ask about the quality of what you get from a library.
How many customers do you have in my industry? Many libraries are heavy on financial services content because they are one of the most highly regulated industries. If you are a healthcare entity or industrial power supply organization, ask how many other peer companies use their content and request to speak with representatives of those companies to help reduce headaches down the road.
I do not use 70 percent of the mappings in your library, so why am I paying for them? Often, I have seen companies paying for a library of 200 sources, but they really only use 30 of those. Ask what the cost is if you just pay for the 30 that you need, as you should not be held to paying for a universe of content that does not apply to your company. Also, I have seen companies using sliding pricing models based upon the company size. A Fortune 50 company may be paying 100 percent more than a smaller entity in some cases. This is another area where speaking with a broad swath of the customer base before you buy can be critical.

Aside from cost, also inquire about how to reduce the noise of the library. Most robust sources have hundreds or thousands of regulatory sources mapped to them. It is likely your organization only needs a percentage of those, so ask how you can ensure that unnecessarily mapped content does not show up in your content universe.

How do new sources get vetted for evaluation into your framework? Gaining an understanding of the evaluation and mapping process for new sources is important. Often, it’s critical mass that drives a mapping priority, but sometimes it is a high-profile client of the integrated library content provider that gets mapping moved up on the docket. Know the process that applies to your library and get an understanding of what you may need to make your requirements a priority.
What is the data model as it pertains to sources, source sections and control statements? Understand the relationships that are in place among the decomposed layers of the content library. Some content providers try to differentiate on their library content data model. Getting perspective from a technical resource that understands database relationships can be very useful in this scenario, as they can help to analyze and validate the layout of the content from a relational perspective. This can be important if the data model is overly complex.
What if any subjective work has been performed on the content that is not germane to the content itself? The question likely does not make sense upon first reading it, but knowing the answer can be impactful. Once you buy content and begin to integrate it, if you learn facts about the content along the way, it may be too difficult to turn back. For example, some content libraries provide subjective key and non-key control delineations for integrated requirements out of the box. If one begins to implement using those delineations without any rationalization for the control based upon the environment or the system at hand, those definitions could impact testing cycles and associated level of effort. Ask your provider if they have subjectively done anything to their library that may impact your organization’s implementation of the content.
How searchable and filterable is the content? Get clarity on how the content is presented for consumption and analysis. UCF has a very nice front end that they use to create cuts of library content and produce filterable results. Most libraries I have seen in the past exist in large Excel files where filtering and reporting is limited to Excel’s capabilities. To make effective use of the content, you will likely need to port it into a GRC tool or a database. Make sure to gain perspective on searching and filtering as content is extended to the user.
What are the licensing terms? If you are paying more than US $10,000 a year in content that is largely free, you are getting taken. When feasible, do not sign up for multi-year agreements, especially initially. Take your first year and learn how the content will impact your organization. Ask if you can try the content for a period of time before purchasing. This gives you time to investigate and perform due diligence.
Will the content stand up in a court of law? I have spoken to peers who believe that integrated regulatory content, especially from those one-off sources, may have trouble being defended in a court of law should due diligence, due care and compliance questions come into play. Many of my peers feel that in a court system, only those well-respected and industry-vetted sources would be resolute enough to endure scrutiny, so ask your content provider if they have perspective to share on that topic.

Mapping can be difficult and time-intensive. Companies are fearful of a mismapping or a missed mapping, which could call their libraries into question from completeness and accuracy perspectives. Before purchasing integrated content, ask to speak with current customers of the content and dig into the details. You may be surprised at what you find.

AJ Armour, CISM, CGEIT, CRISC, CISSP, CEH, Archer Certified Professional, Approva Certified Professional Director of Security Services, The Mako Group LLC

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