Taking Care of Business

I remember back in early 1996 arriving home from work and telling the future ex Mrs Langford that was going to be very busy “for the next two to three months”. There was a project going on that I decided I was going to get involved in (outside of my normal IT Manager day job) and that it was going to be good for my career. In modern parlance, I had decided to “lean in”.

Those busy two to three months ended for me on the 10th September 2017. I had pushed myself professionally as hard as I could, burnt the candle at both ends, worked long hours, was only off work sick when I euphemistically “called in dead”, accrued millions of air miles, and was ostensibly successful in my career. Without wishing to dwell here on the events of that fateful night/morning in September 2017, I had reached the end of the line; all of that work and effort had ultimately netted my severe anxiety and stress, diabetes, alcoholism, and a desire to make it all stop very violently.

All of which brings us neatly to right now. I am currently off work sick. I’m very likely to head back tomorrow 9even though I am not 100%, but boredom is a keen medicine sometimes), but I have had the best part of five working days of, plus a weekend in between. I had been feeling under the weather for about a week or so beforehand, but at about midday on my first day off I decided to just switch off my computer and go to bed, and there I more or less stayed for the best part of a week. I had tested positive for COVID, but a few days later that was now negative and I still felt like a bag of rusty spanners had taken residence in my lungs, and my energy levels were depleting like a Death Star tractor beam. Looks like I worked through a second bout of COVID and then got taken down by another virus; but those are details for me and my GP and work HR I guess.

But “SO WHAT?!” I hear you cry? Well, throughout these last few days of being off I made a conscious effort to disconnect from work as much as possible and focus on my recovery. I learnt my lesson those few years back, and realised I needed to get myself back to fitness, despite the many pressing deadlines and meetings I was missing, and the importance of the work I was doing. I focussed on myself and my health as I knew I don’t want to go back too early and jeopardise not only my health but my work performance.

And you know what? Despite everything I had experience before and told myself, I still felt guilty about taking the time out.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, anywhere though, not least the information security industry. A few weeks ago, my good friend and all round good chap Sarb Sembhi, who along with Peter Olivier and Paul Simms authored a paper on Mental Health in Cyber Security, and of which I was asked to peer review. I will leave you to read the paper yourself, but the figures in there are both unsurprising as well as making for uncomfortable reading regarding anxiety, depression, anger, alcoholism etc..

I was asked by a client over dinner recently “what keeps you up at night?”. Obviously they were fishing for gossip/insight into the state of our joint business, but I told them that basically nothing does because after my life changing experience back in 2017, I refuse to get stressed or anxious over work matters because it simply isn’t worth it, especially as I am not CISO for something that may save/take lives. And yet here I am feeling guilty about taking maybe another day off sick, and deciding to go back even though I am still not breathing right and feeling fatigued. Surely I should know better?!

To be clear, we are (normally) compensated well and a have privileged positions at work to get the job done properly; we have responsibilities to our colleagues and to the clients and markets we support to do the right job and put the effort in, and frankly most of us even enjoy our jobs. But I can absolutely guarantee you that none of that is worth anxiety, depression, anger, diabetes, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies if that pressure to perform is maintained indefinitely.

Taking care of business ultimately means taking care of yourself first.

I am going to be at InfoSecurity Europe in a few weeks time on stage with the Sarb and Peter, authors of the above mentioned Mental Health in Cyber Security paper.

Links to other interesting stuff on the web (affiliate links)

What Exactly is the Cyber Scheme?

Solving today’s Security Challenges With Device Centric SSE

Sneaky Tricks In Enterprise Pricing

You, Me, and Dystopia

We all remember the Ocean’s 11 styles of antics that criminals can emulate to gain access to IoT devices and, subsequently, the enterprise network on which they are hosted. It may have been an isolated incident, but it underscores that ANY vulnerability can be exploited.

The question of “why should we be bothered now?” begs to be answered, given that these risks have been around for a long time. But, interestingly, the 2020 COVID lockdown (and subsequent ones) and the impacts it had on the supply chain may help us to answer this question with surprising clarity.

Do you remember how difficult it was to get hold of toilet paper, pasta and hand gel in March of 2020? Panic buying meant that the supply chain struggled to meet demand; combined with the “just in time” supply models employed by most manufacturers and retailers, stocks were diminished quickly with no replenishment in sight. So far, so what, right?

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, there are well over 8,000 small to medium sized food suppliers in the UK (probably exacerbated by the gig economy as well). How many companies of this size do you know of that have a robust cybersecurity programme in place?

This puts them at a significant disadvantage when it comes to recognising a cyber-attack and defending against it. Given the fish tank scenario from my last blog, it is no stretch of the imagination to see circumstances whereby chilled and perishable goods are sabotaged and destroyed, either in situ or in transit. Remote monitoring is rapidly becoming the norm and will reduce costs and effort, something any small business would jump at. So protecting these environments, the sensors, and the control devices from the get-go becomes critical.

The incentives to disrupt and destroy the supply chains are sometimes manifest, but only occasionally. Terrorism, both domestic and international, will always try and attack a nation’s weakest point. But there are other threats to consider as well.

The (fairly) recent global lockdowns and various actions carried out by governments worldwide have changed the business and planetary ecosystem, and not always for the better. Without commenting on the politics of the situations themselves, activism has been on the rise globally, with people taking to the streets to defend their particular viewpoints and air their grievances.

The hacker group, Anonymous, are the epitome of so-called “hacktivism”, using their collective skills to disrupt and expose governments and corporations. Their particular flavour of activism involves attacking their targets and exploiting their weaknesses for political and social leverage. So again, it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see these current troubling times being a catalyst for more hacktivism, attacking vulnerable supply chains through their reliance on IoT technology.

The positive impact of technology always needs to be balanced against the sociological and cultural impractical it may have, as well as the environment in which it operates. With the commoditisation of security testing capabilities and offensive technological tools, the ability to attack and exploit weaknesses in the supply chain becomes open to the general populace. If that populace suffers a more significant division of wealth and disenfranchisement, the risk of the supply chain being attacked is greater.

Ocean’s 11 suddenly becomes The Hunger Games; the implications of an insecure supply chain vulnerable to attack can have severe consequences for what we consider to be our ‘normal’ lives. So taking precautions now to protect our society’s lifelines must be imperative.

Links to other interesting stuff on the web (affiliate links)

Introducing Cyber Advisor

BSidesAustin 2023: CyberSecurity In The Texas Tech Capital

Understanding ‘Lone Wolf’ Attacks Dissecting and Modeling 2022’s Most Powerful Cyber Attacks

Beer, PowerPoint and Politics

Gone are the days when being a CISO (or even just ‘the security guy/gal’) was about actual information security or IT security. Even the term IT Security is outdated now and emphasises a one-dimensional view of what security is really about. However, I digress…

The Information Security element of CISO is correct, but for various reasons, the CISO’s role is very different from what it was a decade ago. The role then required a strong technologist who understood the firewalls, their rules, the cryptographic controls and even how to code hotfixes on the fly. This isn’t surprising given the role almost wholly came from an IT background; after all, back in the day, mere lip service was paid to the human element, and the legal considerations were considered simply “someone else’s job”.

I was often asked what my job as a CISO entailed, and because I didn’t initially understand what I had actually got myself in for when I took on my first CISO job I used to jokingly say;

PowerPoint and politics

Me. Back Then.

The odd thing is that this response is not far from the truth. My role became significantly less about my understanding of specific niches of information security knowledge and more about putting across to the business what this information security lot was all about and how it helped the company stay competitive, out of trouble or even just in business. The more I was doing this, the more I was embroiled in the day-to-day machinations of how a business works and the inescapable conclusion I came to was this; even if information security is seen as essential to the business, it is still just one voice of many that are trying to influence, cajole and be heard.

Moreover, this is where the politics come in, unfortunately. It is human nature and the way of businesses around the world. Politics is everywhere, and any CISO who doesn’t see and at least understand what is going on is, at best, going to be ignored and, at worst, eaten alive.

Which brings me to my second quote from me (well, it makes attribution a whole lot easier, doesn’t it?);

The purpose of a CISO is not to make the company more secure per se, but rather to help it sell more beer/widgets, increase shareholder value (as appropriate), and let the business make risky decisions more easily… through the judicious use of security

Me, Just now. Again.

The CISO should not be concerned with the name on the front of the firewall or the specifics of the latest penetration test. Instead, they should focus on how best to align their security services to the business and ensure security isn’t just a cost centre but a capability that allows teams and the company to run faster, more efficiently, and with less risk.

That doesn’t take technical knowledge; that takes strategic and business knowledge.

Links to other interesting stuff on the web (affiliate links)

Shift Gears: How to Leverage Data-Centric Security Controls in AWS

Changes to the OWASP API Security Top Ten 2019 to 2023

Cybersecurity as an Operational Effort

When It All Goes Pete Tong…

Murphy’s Law states:

“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong”

Many CISOs will also state:

“it is not a case of if you have been breached, but rather that you have, you just don’t know it yet”

Depressing as both statements sound by themselves, put them together, and you enter into a worldview of doom and gloom from which it is hard to crawl. It doesn’t matter what you do; there will always be a breach and multiple mistakes in your team. These factors create a perfect storm for finding a new job relatively quickly.

But there is hope that when you start a new role or join a new company, there is one thing that needs to be in place before anything else; the Incident Management Plan*. In all but the most security mature organisations, any improvements put into place by you will take months and years to bear fruit, during which time a disaster can strike without notice (the unknown unknowns hitting at an unknown time, if you will.) So making sure you have a plan to fall back on at a moment’s notice gives you space and time to respond appropriately while still being able to focus on the more fundamental changes you have in mind for the organisation.

But what to put into these plans? There are a few key points that should always be adhered to whenever writing a response plan;

Keep it Simple

Human beings are emotional sacks of meat and adrenalin when things go wrong. They can simultaneously be forgetful, angry, scared, sad, and even stupid. Therefore your plans, and by association, your writing and grammar, need to be as simple as possible. It’s not an easy task and will require many edits, reviews and rewrites, but simplicity is your friend during a confusing and rapidly changing situation. 

Keep it Flexible

Extending the first point, you also cannot create a prescriptive document. If you define every action based on a specific input, your plan will fail when that particular input isn’t happening. The plan needs to work on the principles of what must occur during an incident rather than the specifics of what needs to be done. It is useful, for instance, to focus on roles and responsibilities rather than activities; in this way, someone is accountable for “public communications”; how they achieve that is up to them, but the plan does not define it.

Know What’s Important

This is another way of saying, “Understand your critical services”. These services could be technology-based, process focussed or even role/person-specific. During an incident, the immediate focus is to get the bare minimum of services/capabilities/business operating again as quickly and safely as possible. Going back to Business As Usual is for later on. You need to know what the bare minimum is to achieve it.

The ISO 22301:2019 – Security & Resilience – Business continuity management systems standard is a great place to start to understand the mechanics of this element in more detail (and great for this topic as a whole).

Collaborate While Creating

It never ceases to amaze me how often plans like this get created in isolation across companies, divisions and departments. What that means, more often than not, is a competition for resources because they all assume they will have exclusive access to the resources required to see them through a crisis just because they have a plan.

Ideally, there should be a single master plan for the organisation that allows each discrete business area to manage their plans (essential in larger organisations). Then, all of these plans and their requirements are fed back into the overarching strategy to carry out capacity planning and coordination more effectively and efficiently.

Multi-channel Sharing and Education

This is the one time I will permit using a few trees to print out your plans. Electronic documents are still valuable and should be saved in different formats and on other devices and platforms (for redundancy, obvs). Having paper copies of the entire document, in addition to aide memoirs, laminated “cheat sheets”, credit card numbers and any other creative approaches to ensuring the needed information is always available. Remember, this is a time of crisis; your laptop may be burning down with your building, and your phone may be out of battery with nowhere to charge. Base your communication and distribution methods on the assumption of Murphy’s Law above.

Test the Plan, Learn and Review

You must test the plan as much as possible, especially when creating it. If you feel brave enough, you can have a tabletop walkthrough or pull the plug on a data centre. Some third-party services allow you to test your plan in a virtual space using specialised communications tools that are even more realistic. Whatever the case, every time you check it, review it and feed the findings back into the plan. Even a slight improvement could make all the difference.

Test the Plan Again

Did I mention testing? Even if you have a real-life crisis, use the learnings and feedback to improve the plan again. Every opportunity to stress the crisis plan, people and procedures must happen.

Test it Again

It must be tested, whatever happens, at least once a year, and reviewed yearly. You will be surprised at how much your business changes over a year; a process may be updated, people and roles change, and telephone numbers and email addresses frequently updated. If your plan doesn’t reflect even these simple changes, it is more likely to fail.

The Holy Trinity Mantra

Finally, if in doubt, remember these three elements of your plan. I like to ensure they are seen through in this order, but you may feel differently according to your business and how it operates. (If people don’t list as number one on your list, take a long, hard look at yourself.) Nonetheless, The Trinity remains the same.

  1. Focus on People – without your people, you have no business to speak of, recovered or otherwise.
  2. Focus on Facilities – even with just a pen, paper, telephone, and somewhere to work, your people can work miracles in keeping the business afloat. Keep them safe, secure and happy.
  3. Focus on Technology – get the systems running to take the strain off the people. This may have taken days or weeks, depending on the incident. Ensure your critical systems are running first, and that includes payroll. Paid people pull together in a crisis. Unpaid people don’t.

Hopefully, you will never have to use the plan, but if you do, feeling prepared for anything is a powerful way to ensure your best work on everything else on your list. Knowing that you have it ready to go is like remembering to take your umbrella with you when you leave the house. Because you have it, it isn’t going to rain; mildly annoying but so much better than getting caught in a monsoon in your best work attire.

*Also known as the Crisis Management Plan, Business Continuity Plan, When It Hits The Fan Plan, or any other variable that works for you, your company, and your business culture.

Links to other interesting stuff on the web (affiliate links)

How to Upskill Your Cybersecurity Team

The AWS Security Cheat Sheet

Think Before You Share The Link

We Have Both Types of Teaching Here; Education AND Awareness

It is an accepted truth (trust me, I am a professional), that security is often seen as just a technical profession; firewalls, DLP, DMARC, SFTP and TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms)are thrown around with gay abandon. Being resilient is a matter of hardening the OS, having a SOC fully staffed, and running the industry’s latest SIEM services. CISOs should be technical and know all of the TPLAs (Three Plus Letter Acronyms) having spent their formative years in their Mother’s basement while they hacked the Pentagon/GCHQ/Kremlin.

It may surprise you that I dislike this approach and viewpoint.

I found a wonderful quote on (where else?) the internet that, unfortunately, I cannot attribute to anyone. So, if you know where this comes from, please do tell me:

“People aren’t the weak link in security; they are the ONLY link.”


Information security is primarily a people industry. Technology isn’t a panacea but merely an accelerant and amplifier of the existing processes and solutions. Without the people, there is no information to secure in the first place. If we, as CISOs and business leaders, don’t embrace and support our people, we make our jobs so much more problematic when securing the business and helping it do more, sell more, and create more.

So, in my usual style, here are the three things I suggest everyone who has “people” in their business and is responsible for education in one form or another should bear in mind.

Crowd Sourcing

So many of us (I know I did for the longest time) overlook the rather undeniable fact that having many people means they can all carry a small part of the security load. Crowdsourcing works because many people put a small amount of something in to help someone else build something big. You can make this approach work for you in several different ways.

Firstly, approach certain people to be “super contributors” to your infosec crowdsourced campaign. These are the folks that are your primary eyes and ears on the ground, the folks that people go to when they have an immediate problem. Think of them as the cyber first-aiders, if you will, with a few of them dotted around each floor or department.

Give them some face-to-face training if you can or at the least some detailed role briefing notes. They are doing this role because, like first-aiders, they want to help people and be a part of the solution. Reward them with a token monetary compensation, some swag, recognition or whatever fits into your organisational culture.

Secondly, the rest of the people in the organisation can also be encouraged to play a part; connect their ability to spot phishing, social engineering, reporting incidents and breaches to their role in the organisation and its successes. Finally, make it fun (see below), make it engaging and make it educational. 

Doing that is, of course, an essential subject in of itself, but the real message here is to embrace what you might see as your biggest weakness as your biggest strength. Making this leap of faith in your mind means your approach to training, problem-solving, and how you address the people in your organisation changes to positive and collaborative rather than cynical and combative.

Story Telling

 Storyteller is probably the second oldest profession in the world; we can easily imagine stories being told from one generation to the next around the campfire. But, before the written word was used, it was vital before Grandpa died that he told us the secret to successfully hunting that particular breed of rabbit/buffalo/mammoth (depending upon what part of the world you came from).

And yet we can also imagine that after hearing the same story over and over again, night after night, while Grandpa gets slowly drunk on his fermented yak’s milk becomes quite tedious. His tales of daring-do and athletic ardour, as he leapt onto the back of the killer rabbit, became very tiresome after the 954th time. And then last night, as he was getting carried away with the demonstration of his rabbit chokehold, he broke wind. Not only was that the version of the story you passed on to your children, but it was also the birth of the third oldest profession: Comedian (probably).

I am a huge fan of humour in the workplace, especially when it comes to educating people; a good joke conjures up images, feelings, experiences, and smells. But, above all, it is a story. Stories help people create worlds in their minds, relate their experiences to those worlds, and establish a visceral feeling in their bodies, an actual chemical change. Of course, there are few guarantees in this world. Still, one I pass on with a cast-iron guarantee is that no positive, memory-creating chemical changes in any brain anywhere in the world were created by putting people in a room and shouting PowerPoint at them for an hour.

The lesson here is that a good story goes a long way to helping people retain the information; build your message with a strong start, a fantastic middle and a resounding end, and you have the makings of impactful and memorable education.

Don’t Stop

“Oh no, it is that time of year again; we must do our security training”.

Don’t be this company. If you do something once a year because you have to, it becomes an obstacle, something that needs to be completed quickly and with as little effort so you can get on with the fun stuff.

If educational activities in the rest of our lives are continual activities, then why do we not apply this to our infosec training? First, of course, it is not an educational experience that people have opted into, but keeping a cadence to the activities that go beyond just one activity works. Ensuring the format changes and evolves, so it isn’t just posters all year round but lunch and learns, videos, emails, intranet, competitions, and the like means people who struggle to learn in one format can pick it up in another and keeps them on their toes, wondering what the next activity is. It piques their interest and keeps them engaged.

Try creating a 24-month schedule of activities and subjects; it’s not easy, but even having that schedule open and visible allows you to think much more long-term rather than just at a compliance, box-ticking level. Of course, you can still do quizzes (so many auditors and standards require that kind of box-ticking, unfortunately), but by avoiding the one-shot PowerPoint training and ten easy-to-guess questions, you are keeping the content new and fresh. You are also building a reputation as someone who cares about the educational process and the positive outcomes it brings, not just ticks in boxes.

Wrestling Rabbits can be fun AND educational.

Links to other interesting stuff on the web (affiliate links)

Five Key Dark Web Forums to Monitor in 2023

What is Cybersquatting? The Definitive Guide for Detection & Prevention

Seven Questions About Firmware and and Firmware Security