Consistency, consiztency, consistancy…

It will come as no surprise to most of you that I travel a lot to other countries, and as such I am a frequent visitor of airports and more memorably, the security procedures of those airports.

Every country has their own agency that manages this process, either outsourced or kept within government. Given the complexities of international and aviation law, I can well imagine the difficulties of staying abreast of the latest advice from a variety of different sources and applying it in a globally consistent way. But surely it can’t be that difficult, especially when it comes to the basics?

Here are just some of the more egregious examples of inconstancy that I have encountered around the world:

  • One airport that confiscated my nail scissors, despite the fact I had been carrying them (and had the case searched) through numerous security checkpoints before. The blade size was within accepted norms, except at this airport.
  • The security official that made me take my 100ml or less liquids out of the clear plastic case/bag I was using and put them into a clear plastic ziplock bag for scanning. I had been using that case for months, and continue to use it without issue to this day.
  • The security line where I din’t have to take off my shoes or belt, nor remove laptops or liquids from my bag because “we have a sniffer dog”. In fairness they did have a dog running up and down the line, but I started to doubt it’s ability to smell knives or similar in my case.
  • Having travelled through five airports in four days, the final airport insisted that I take the camera out of my bag, as it is “standard practise in our country to do this”. Not before or since has it been a practise I have experienced, let alone a standard one.
  • Finally, the multiple security personnel who tell me to leave my shoes on, only to be told as I go through the scanner to take my shoes off and put them on the belt to be x-ray’ed.

It goes without saying that I approach every security checkpoint with a mixture of hope, despair and disdain, and always leave with one of those feelings prevalent. Obviously this is an analogy to our world of infosec, perhaps even a tenuous one, but I do feel it is one worth expressing.

How we guide our organisations to interpret and carry out the policies and regulatory requirements they are beholden to is vital to the attitude and approach the employees will take. Uncertainty breeds many things, in this case doubt and anxiety about how to behave. If a policy is not implemented consistently then how can it be observed consistently? If we are constantly surprising our users then we can’t blame them for feeling jumpy, anxious or unsure, and therefore critical of the service being provided.

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Consistency is a very powerful tool to ensure people understand the policies, the purpose and the even the vision of an security organisation. As soon as there is doubt the very purpose of your security organisation is thrown into doubt. For example, why is BYOD allowed for senior execs and not for the rest of the organisation? Or why is a Mobile Device Management solution enforced on some parts of the business and not the other? In both these cases it only encourages the working around of the restrictions that subsequently weaken your security posture.

That is not to say exceptions cannot be made, that is why every policy etc. should have an exceptions statement. After all, expecting a policy to cover all eventualities is simply wishful thinking.

I dare say we all have inconstancies, but it is in all of our interests to drive them out of our organisation wherever possible. Otherwise, you will have people like me wondering what kind of ordeal I am going to have to endure just to get my day job done, and that doesn’t help anyone.

 


Ground Control to Major Thom

I recently finished a book called “Into the Black” by Roland White, charting the birth of the space shuttle from the beginnings of the space race through to it’s untimely retirement. It is a fascinating account of why “space is hard” and exemplifies the need for compromise and balance of risks in even the harshest of environments.

Having seen two shuttles first hand in the last nine months (the Enterprise on USS Intrepid in New York and the Atlanta at Kennedy Space Centre), it boggles my mind that something so big could get into space and back again, to be reused. Facts like the exhaust from each of the three main engines on the shuttle burn hotter than the melting temperature of the metal the engine ‘bells’ are made of (they ingeniously pipe supercooled fuel down the outside of the bells to not only act as an afterburner of sorts but also cool the bells themselves) go to show the kind of engineering challenges that needed to be overcome.

There was one incident however that really struck me regarding the relationship between the crew onboard and the crew on the ground. On the Shuttle’s maiden flight into space, STS-1 also known as Columbia carried out 37 orbits of the earth with two crew on board, mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Once orbit was achieved an inspection of the critical heat tiles on the underside of the shuttle showed some potential damage. If the damage was too extensive the return to earth would (as later events in the Shuttle’s history proved) be fatal.

The crew however were tasked with a variety of other activities, including fixing problems onboard they could address. They left the task of assessing and calculating the damage to those on the ground who were better equipped and experienced to deal with the situation. This they duly did and as we know Columbia landed safely just over two days later.

It struck me that this reflects well the way information Security professionals should treat the individuals we are tasked with supporting. There is much that individuals can do to help of course, and that is why training and awareness efforts are so important, but too often it is the case that “we would be secure if it wasn’t for the dumb users”. The sole purpose of the Columbia ground crew was to support and ensure the safe return of those on board STS-1 so that they could get on with their jobs in space. Ours is the same.

Just because te crew had extensive training to deal with issues as they arose, the best use of their time was to focus on the job in hand and let ground crew worry about other problems. The people we support should also be trained to deal with security issues, but sometimes they really need to just get on with the deliverables at hand and let us deal with the security issue. They might be trained and capable, but we need to identify when the best course of action is to deal with their security issues for them, freeing them to do their work.

Never forget that we support our organisations/businesses to do their jobs. We provide tools to allow them to be more effective in their end goals but it is still our responsibility to do the heavy lifting when the time comes. Except in very rare cases we are there because of them, not in spite of them.

(Photo courtesy of William Lau @lausecurity)