Security from a Systems Thinking Perspective - Applying Soft Systems Methodology to the Analysis of an Information Security Incident

Bilal AlSabbagh, Stewart Kowalski


Applying systems theory to information security enables security analysts to consider the socio-technical role of the security system instead of only focusing on the technical part. Systems theory can also equip security analysts with the skills required to have a holistic and an abstract level of understanding of the security problem in their organisations and to proactively define and evaluate existing risks. The Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) developed by Peter Checkland was created in order to deal with unstructured situations where human beings are part of the socio-technical system. In this paper, SSM is applied as a framework to diagnose a real case security incident in an organisation. The purpose of this application is to demonstrate how the methodology can be considered a beneficial tool for security analysts during security incident management and risk analysis. Literature review and experience indicate an existing lack of customisable incident response tools that facilitate communication and elaboration within organizations during incident management. In addition to the fact that these tools are mainly technical and don’t take the human factor into consideration. Using SSM as such, we define the security attack as a human activity transformation system that transforms a security event triggered by an attacker into a security breach that cause damage to the victim organisation. The attack system is then modelled to include a number of dependent activity sub-systems that interact with each other and their environment including the security control activity systems. By having such systemic perception of a security attack, security analysts, we suggest, can have a holistic perception under what conditions a security attack has succeeded and what elements of the socio-technical system and its environment should have been considered in order to mitigate and reduce the risk exposure.


SSM; Socio-Technical Approach; Information Security; Security Approach; Security Incident

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