To make it cybersecure, CEOs must truly get to know their business

Understanding your business goals is crucial to identifying the right cybersecurity approach.

Understanding your business goals is crucial to identifying the right cybersecurity approach. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sean Joyce
Principal, Global and US Cybersecurity, Privacy & Forensics Leader, PwC US
Joe Nocera
Cyber and Privacy Innovation Institute Leader, PwC US
Richard Horne
Cyber Security Chair, Risk and Quality Partner , PwC UK
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• With heightened cybercrime during the pandemic, CEOs are wising up to the threat.

• Money is not a panacea for cybersecurity; a considered strategy is.

• Cybersecurity strategies must be based on a clear vision of business goals.

CEOs around the world now understand the severity and magnitude of the threat that cyberattacks pose to their business. This realization comes not a moment too soon: The global cost of cybercrime is said to exceed $1 trillion. At the same time, CEOs are dramatically stepping up their digitization efforts, PwC’s 24th Annual CEO Survey shows: more than 77% of UK CEOs, for example, expected to increase their investments to do so.


This is all good progress – but why has it taken so long to get to this point? And how do companies move more rapidly toward being fully digital while keeping their information, systems and networks safe?

Cyber gets its due

Since 2015, cybercrime has made the list of CEOs’ top concerns in PwC’s Annual CEO Survey. In 2020, cyberthreats rank second – topped only by pandemics and other health crises – after sitting in the number four position the previous year. But in North America and Western Europe, cyber is number one.

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Though COVID-19 upstaged cybercrime in this survey overall, the pandemic’s tie to cyber can’t be denied. CEOs in most of the world are feeling the urgency to address both, as malicious actors continue to take advantage of vulnerabilities created or exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the US, nearly 70% of CEOs said they are “extremely concerned” about cyberattacks. In Asia Pacific and the Middle East, cyber also ranks second on CEOs’ worry list; in Africa, it comes in third.

Cybersecurity is fast rising as a top CEO concern
Cybersecurity is fast rising as a top CEO concern Image: PWC

The only places where cyberthreats do not rank among CEOs’ top concerns are Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Latin America. In both regions, digitization of business processes is still in a fairly early stage.

The prevalance of those who are 'extremely concerned' by cybersecurity threats differs by region
The prevalance of those who are 'extremely concerned' by cybersecurity threats differs by region Image: PwC

Money is not the answer

If the global pandemic has a silver lining, it’s this: in the first three months after the pandemic’s declaration in March 2020, many organizations sped up their digitization. Half of the CEOs said they plan double-digit increases in digitization investments over the coming three years.

But only 31% said their cyber and privacy investments will also rise by double digits. On its face, this might seem to be a concern. After all, the cybercrime economy has flourished just as the digital economy exploded.

Then again, money isn’t the only measure of a cybersecurity program’s effectiveness. More isn’t always better. It’s worse, in fact, if cybersecurity spending is pell-mell and piecemeal without an underlying strategy to guide it.

Following the pandemic, digitization and cybersecurity are high up the business priority list
Following the pandemic, digitization and cybersecurity are high up the business priority list Image: PwC

Business leaders might think the best way to solve the cybersecurity conundrum is to simply throw money at it. Enticed by vendor pitches, they buy one solution after another without any plan. In the process, they may end up with a tangled mess of products and services that don’t work together, or technologies that their staff don’t know how to use effectively.

Many tech and security executives – 53% – say they’re not confident that their cyber budgets mesh with the strategy of the enterprise and its business units, PwC’s 2021 Global Digital Trust Insights survey shows. They also aren’t sure that their organizations’ cyber spending really addresses the risks the company faces and uses solid data as a basis for setting priorities. The good news is this: 44% said they were planning a cyber budget overhaul and improving cyber-risk quantification.

To meet the challenges of 2021 and beyond, you need to work with your chief information security officer (CISO) to ensure that cyber spending falls in line with an overarching strategy – and that your programme is streamlined and as simple as can be. Today’s CISO is part transformational leader and part master tactician, and under your direction, they can guide cross-functional teams to ensure that security solutions and systems work together gracefully and effectively to protect the entire enterprise.

What the CEO can do

How you plan to grow should be the driver for every programme in the organization, including cyber. Cybersecurity strategies work best when the CISOs crafting them fully understand their companies’ goals and plans for achieving these business goals.

With a good understanding of your vision and your company’s business strategy, your CISO can help you fully comprehend and mitigate the cyber-risks your organization faces. And your CISO will be able to strike a better balance between complexity and simplicity.

Here are three examples:

Company A has plans for growth via personalized customer experiences, products and services. Risks to this company might include leaks or breaches of personal data, which could violate privacy laws and diminish consumer trust. However, not collecting and making the best use of customer data poses its own risks; namely, not achieving the growth the CEO envisions. The CISO might prioritize a security strategy centred on consumer identity and access management (CIAM), which uses a suite of solutions to manage business customers’ digital identities securely while enabling the use of data to customize services. The CISO could take advantage of new techniques that enable companies to share consumer and customer data while preserving individual anonymity. Confidential computing, for example, encrypts data not only when it’s at rest or in transit, but also when it’s in use. Differential privacy is another example. It’s a technique to share information about group behaviour while protecting information about individuals. New privacy-friendly marketing approaches will depend on such techniques.

Company B aims to grow through the sales of technology products and services. This organization likely faces risks such as components that contain vulnerabilities or malware via software updates, or breaches of their systems via third-party suppliers or vendors. This organization will want a product-centred security strategy, one that works to secure the software and hardware it manufactures or acquires through its supply chain, as well as zero-trust architectures designed to keep bad actors from gaining access to its products or disrupting its supply chain operations.

Company C aims to grow by developing and offering a variety of cloud products, such as developer tools and data analytics. The risks it faces include misconfigurations that could lead to the installation of malware and ransomware, data theft, data loss and denial of service attacks. This company would most likely focus its cybersecurity programme on cloud security, using a security controls framework, automated controls compliance, DevSecOps and infrastructure-as-code tooling, and other cloud-native strategies.

Challenge your CISO to quantify the cyber-risks to your organization and evaluate them against other enterprise risks. When you know which risks are most urgent and why, as well as what is being done and can be done to mitigate them, you can make business decisions with confidence that you’re helping the enterprise to grow in a way that’s safe and secure. Because, when the rubber meets the road, the CEO owns all the risks the business faces. The CISO may run the cybersecurity office, but the risk-mitigation buck stops with you.


How is the Forum tackling global cybersecurity challenges?

At the same time, dare to ask yourself and your CISO how, and where, you can simplify. In 2020, amid the pandemic and other crises, many CEOs realized the need to streamline every aspect of the business. In the rush to digitize, “more is better” may have seemed like a good idea, but too much complexity just gets in the way: of great customer experiences, innovative ideas, agile market responses, employee satisfaction – and security. If you’re in “simplify” mode, make improved security one of the benchmarks of your success.

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