What is the Difference Between a CIO and a Chief Information Security Officer?

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CIO vs Chief Information Security Officer: What is the Difference?

The Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), the latter of which is also known as a Chief Security Officer (CSO), are two very important C-level, executive roles within an organization with a focus on the strategic use, planning, management, implementation, protection and securing of an enterprise’s data and Information Technology (IT) infrastructure. As C-level, executive roles, both the CIO and CISO focus largely on strategic planning, technology innovation, business, finance, etc., along with leadership and management. Both roles have been evolving within the global ecosystem of modern businesses for decades, such that defining each with a simple list of responsibilities is often difficult and counterintuitive. However, there are some very critical differences between a CIO and CISO. While a CIO focuses on the overall, broader strategic use and management of an organization’s IT infrastructure – in conjunction with defining the roadmap/blueprint for the implementation and utilization of IT systems and components – the CISO strategizes the securing of all company data and systems, while aligning the security policies and practices with the company’s goals and risk tolerances.

Both the CIO and CISO work to strategically manage an enterprise’s IT systems in order to meet the goals and overarching model of the organization. The CIO works to strategize and tactically utilize the enterprise’s IT systems to meet company goals, along with managing IT systems for the analysis of company data, and optimizing internal workflows, processes and operations via the IT infrastructure. Contrasting this, the CISO solely focuses on securing and protecting the digital assets, IT infrastructure, information and data of an organization by mitigating cybersecurity risks, threats, and vulnerabilities.

As has been noted, both roles have been evolving over time. Previously, the CISO would often report to a CIO, who was regarded as the core C-level executive responsible for the overall management and overseeing of an enterprise’s information technology systems and their security. Because the CIO traditionally has been in charge of all aspects of an enterprise’s IT infrastructure, the CIO has often taken the fall when security breaches have occurred at major companies. However, the CISO has risen into a prominent role, though most reportedly do not sit on the executive board. According to a study by K logix, and as noted by Security Intelligence, over 50 percent of CISOs report to the Chief Information Officer, withapproximately 15 percent reporting directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Others may report to the Chief Operating Officer (COO), or to other executives. However, a sizable number of CISOs, according to the study, felt that they would soon report to the CEO, revealing that information security has become one of the top priorities of many enterprises. As was clearly shown with the Home Depot and Target security breaches, cybercrime has become one of the most significant threats – if not the most critical threat – to the posture of enterprises worldwide.

The CIO will typically be a skilled person with a significant background in Information Technology, with an additional understanding of enterprise business functions. While a skilled CIO may sometimes hold a security certification, the CISO will often have several (e.g., Security+, Network Security, CISA, CFE, OCSP, CISSP and CISM certifications) in order to utilize a more direct, hands-on approach associated with managing IT security governance, compliance and risk. Both roles, however, require extensive communication skills, leadership qualities, and strategic understanding of business and technology management, while a CISO – like a CIO – often engages in discussion regarding sales, operations, finance, and business processes along with communicating critical security information to other executives. As noted by Michael Roling (CISO), “Understanding organizational risk and effectively implementing the technology, people and processes to mitigate it are two significant job roles of today’s CISO”.

Essentially, the CISO focuses on maintaining the overall security posture of an organization, including both physical and software/network security, while the CIO focuses on overseeing and managing the systems and processes that run the enterprise’s operations, which includes keeping the company’s systems secure and safe. While the CISO is the direct line of responsibility for data security, the CIO has a broader responsibility in understanding data’s overall impact on a business, and thus often operates as the strategic manager associated with ensuring the security of all IT systems in an organization.

What Role Does Information Technology Play Within a Company?

IT traditionally plays several roles within a company. With the advent of new technologies, business workflows, processes and operations are often supported, enhanced and optimized, while IT often allows new products/services to be offered. Usually, a company’s IT infrastructure is composed of five major components:

  1. Hardware: Hardware systems include servers, storage, workstations, etc.
  2. Enterprise Software: Enterprise software includes vendor-based enterprise suites, such as ERP, CRM, Supply-chain management software, etc.
  3. Networking Systems: Networking systems includes routers, switches, servers, hosts, etc.
  4. Databases: Database systems includes data warehouses, business intelligence and data analytics platforms, and traditional backend database management systems.
  5. Internet Technologies: This includes content management systems, web servers, web hosts and other backend systems associated with a company’s online presence.


IT allows for more precise, feasible, robust, efficient, and streamlined business workflows, operations, and processes, along with allowing a company to offer new/better products and/or services. For instance, innovations such as email, the Internet, Smartphones, and fax machines  allowed for businesses to streamline their processes/operations, offer new services, reduce overhead, and simplify the steps needed to offer their products to end-users, along with making production and management more feasible. With the advent of cloud systems, blockchain technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Big Data/Business Intelligence, new ways to increase efficiency, reduce overhead, enhance productivity, and create new products/services have become possible.

Vulnerabilities, Threats, and Risks

Within the realm of IT, the use of IT systems creates three concerns that must be dealt with by a security professional:

  • Vulnerability: A flaw or weakness in a system or process that could be exercised resulting in adverse consequences.
  • Threat: The potential exercise or exploit of a specific vulnerability, whether accidentally or intentionally.
  • Risk: The likelihood of a potential threat exercising a vulnerability resulting in an adverse impact to an organization.

A security professional is needed to carry out threat modeling (to identify and address threats), risk management (to mitigate risks), and vulnerability assessments (to identify and nullify security vulnerabilities).

What is a CIO?

A Chief Information Officer (CIO) is the senior-most C-level executive that reports directly to the CEO (or CFO/COO), and strategically manages all aspects of an enterprise’s IT infrastructure.

CIO: Chief Information Officer

The CIO functions as the business and IT head of an organization, in aligning all goals of the enterprises with the components of the IT infrastructure. To this end, he/she will craft the IT strategic plan, and direct all IT staff in the implementation of the IT plan/blueprint, while ensuring that all IT systems are optimally used to carry out the goals of the company on a daily basis.

The Importance of Streamlining Business Practices with Technology Solutions
Put simply, a CIO is a leader whose job is to strategically align all components of the IT infrastructure with the goals and objectives of the organization. This allows all organizational goals to be optimally met, and ensures that all IT systems are leveraged to provide a positive ROI, while also reducing unnecessary overhead, increasing operational efficiency, and, ultimately, increasing the bottom line.

While using the wrong IT systems (i.e. software systems, hardware systems, etc.) can hurt a company by not providing the functionality required to meet the company’s goals, having a strategy in place that aligns IT functions with those goals allows a CIO to have a birds-eye-view of all operations, ensuring that only the necessary IT components are in place, and are used effectively and efficiently to increase the bottom line of the company.

The Most Important Duties of a CIO

CIOs have many crucial duties in an organization, where they mainly focus on strategy, management/leadership, and overseeing the implementation of IT systems to meet the goals of an organization. CIOs will often craft the IT strategic plan of a company, which parallels the overall business plan of the enterprise, while also crafting IT policies, managing task automation workflows, managing the IT systems needed for data analysis, crafting plans for IT innovation, and much more. Essentially, the CIO is the senior-most IT strategist of a company.

What is a CISO?

The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) or Chief Security Officer (CSO) is the senior-most, C-level executive of a company responsible for strategizing, implementing, managing, overseeing, and leading all cybersecurity aspects of an enterprise’s IT infrastructure.

With the rise of cybercrime, the CISO/CSO has become one of the most important C-level executives of a company. Reportedly, roughly 60.8 percent of enterprises have a CISO, and there is an increasing number of CISOs reporting directly to the CEO.

CISO: Chief Information Security Officer

As noted above, the CISO is responsible for maintaining the security posture of an organization (including hardware and software), ensuring that all attack surfaces are covered, managing the testing and patching of all system vulnerabilities, strategizing and crafting the security policy of the organization, ensuring that the company is in compliance with all data security regulations (i.e. PCI-DSS, HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley), and aligning all goals of the organization with the securing/protecting (“hardening”) of all IT components and systems within an enterprise’s IT infrastructure.

It is important to note that the CISO is different from the Chief Privacy Officer (CPO), whose role is to maintain the privacy and safe storage of customer information, which often overlaps with the role of the CISO/CSO.

The Importance of Cybersecurity

Each year, data breaches cost companies billions of dollars in stolen data and damage to systems, not including the cost of payouts necessary for not complying with data regulations. While a single data breach could cripple a company, a single Cryptolocker ransomware worm could lock a company out of their own systems, and a single use of poor encryption could allow a malicious user to obtain access to a system, including customer credit card information and/or private company data. Thus, as cybercrime is on the rise, and identity theft, data theft, and malware increases, there is much at stake for companies – including customer trust, and large fines for not complying with data security legislations.

The Most Important Duties of a CISO

The CISO/CSO focuses on several security aspects of a company’s IT infrastructure. Thus, a CISO has many functions and duties within an organization related to data security, including the strategizing, implementation and management of several technical, data security policies associated with:

  • Threat modeling, Risk management, Penetration testing, System patching, Complying with data security legislation, Installation of security controls, and the Utilization of strong encryption.

In addition to the above, as noted by Scott Koegler of Security Intelligence (2017), CISOs have five core priorities not directly related to technical factors, including:

  1. The development of a security program for an entire enterprise
  2. The management of Incident Response protocols and operations
  3. Management and training of security staff
  4. Management of daily threat monitoring across an enterprise’s networks and systems
  5. Communicating security information to other executives and managers in an easy-to-understand manner

When do the CIO and CISO Work Together?

CIOs and CISOs alway must work together, since their responsibilities both involve different aspects of the company’s IT infrastructure. While a CIO does strategize, manage and oversee the entire operations associated with a company’s IT systems – including its security/protection – a CISO focuses more directly on strategically and tactically managing the details of the company’s IT security posture, typically in conjunction with the CIO. CIOs and CISOs also work together when decisions must be made that affect a company on a financial level (i.e. financial risk), while also affecting the company’s IT systems and IT security posture.

Additionally, it is important to understand that CIOs do have direct and indirect roles associated with a company’s security, including using their knowledge of key vulnerabilities to help craft the overarching security policies of certain departments, helping to train staff and keep personnel educated about critical vulnerabilities, and helping to operate as a bridge between IT personnel and business personnel, via effective communication practices.

The CIO and Chief Information Security Officer Both Play Important Roles Within a Company

While the CIO is a critical force in any company – one that strategically manages and oversees all aspects of a company’s IT infrastructure – the CISO is able to focus directly on establishing the policies, practices and tools that keep a company’s data systems and digital assets safe and secure. Both the CIO and CISO play important roles in organizations, and when working together, they are able to effectively and strategically manage the entirety of a company’s IT assets – ensuring that they are aligned to a company’s goals and are leveraged effectively – while keeping such systems and assets protected and secure.