The Consistency of Plastique

51lIxdlS2nL._SX300_As I said in my last post I have been travelling quite extensively recently, but this weekend I was able to take a long weekend in Oslo with my wife just before the Nordic CSA Summit where I was invited to speak on “the CISO Perspective”. As a gift for speaking, each of us was given a block of Norwgian cheese, in a roughly square shape, that really did seem to have the consistancy, weight and look of a lump of plastique (I imagine…). It did occur to me that in the spirit of all good 44CON prizes, it was intended to get you stopped at the airport.

On my return home yesterday, I was pret sure my bag would be picked up for secondary screening given the presence of this lump of cheesy explosive in my bag (although apparently @digininja tells me a malt loaf has the same effect as well). Sure enough, my bag was selected, I presented to the good natured security folks the block of cheese, and with a wry smile they let my bag through. The same could not be said of my carry on bag though.

5piecelockpicktoolI was asked quite curtly if I had a penknife or similar in this bag; now I am getting more forgetful, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t. The security guy really did not look like he believed me, so we started to empty my bag. Then I remembered, I had a pick lock set that I had put into  zipped pocket in my bag about nine months ago, intending to give it to my good friend Akash in Boston who had expressed an interest in that particular art. Remember I just said I am getting forgetful? That’s why it has been in my bag for so long having seen Akash many times this last nine months. Oh well.

But it also occurred to me that I had been through about ten different airports in that time, and this was the first time it had been picked up, let alone even identified as a possible penknife (understandable as the picks fold into the main body).

This underscores to me the inconsistency of the security scanning at virtually every airport. Shoes on or off? Belts on or off? IPads as well as laptops taken out? Kindles, in the bag or out? My bag of cables that you tell me to keep in my bag at one airport, and then getting admonished for not pulling it out of the bag at the next? As an end user of these services (and I am fully supportive of them despite this I must say) it is extremely frustrating. There seem to be too many exceptions in place without clear reason, and without tying back to a singular way of doing things. The shoe bomber, Richard Reid, saw to it we have to take our shoes off going through security… except of course when you don’t.

Consistency in an information security programme is obviously key. But sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way. Any policy that ends with “There are no exceptions to this policy” is asinine at best,  and crippling to the business at worst. There will always be a need for an exception in order to ensure business can be carried out effectively. As long as the risks are understood and communicated effectively, then move on and do it.

It certainly doesn’t mean that the exception can be used as an excuse to carry on working like that. There is no concept of precedence in this case. If there was the natural end state would be complete mayhem as every exception is used to the point where there is no policy left. An exception is just what it says on the tin, a one off easing off the rules for business to to operate effectively and efficiently. It should be time based, must be reviewed regularly, and where possible repealed if alternative approaches have come to light.

Consistency is important when applying policies, especially across a large organisation, but for goodness sake, don’t forget that change is an important part of business and needs to be embraced. But please do a better job of managing that change, and the subsequent exceptions, than airport security does.

Conferences and Presentations

What with InfoSec Europe, BSides, RSA Unplugged and the just attended Nordic CSA Summer conference it has been busy on the presentation front again. I have a few more presentation to upload to this site as well as some footage. I am hoping to make it to Blackhat in Vegas for the first time this year, and speak on behalf of friendly vendor who I have always enjoyed working with.

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Diligently preparing for the conference

As I also mentioned in my last post, my employer became a sponsor of the European Security Blogger Awards, something I hope we will be for future events as well. Unfortunately I lost my best personal blogger award crown this year to Lee Munson of Security faq’s. I can’t help but feel that if I have to lose to someone, Lee would be top of my list as he consistently outshines me in both quality and volume of blogging. As a community we are lucky to have someone like Lee and if you haven’t already done so please do reach out to him and congratulate him.

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Direct Hit, Near Miss or Remote Miss? Why you are more confident than you should be.

_39166788_blitz416_gettyIn the years running up to the beginning of the second world war the British government was extremely concerned that in the event of hostilities breaking out, the german Luftwaffe would launch significant attacks against Britain and especially London. With an estimated 250,000 casualties in the first week alone, the consensus was that millions of Londoners would flee, leaving the industrial war engine to grind to a halt. Several psychiatric hospitals were even set up on the outskirts of London to handle the huge numbers of casualties psychologically affected by the bombing.

History tells us this was not the case, despite horrific numbers of casualties and extensive damage to homes, property and businesses throughout London.

A Canadian psychiatrist, J. T. MacCurdy, in his book The Structure of Morale postulated this was because the effect of a bomb falling on a population splits them into three groups:

1. The people killed by the bomb. As MacCurdy puts it

the morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors, so from that point of view, the killed do not matter. Put this way the fact is obvious, corpses do not run about spreading panic.

Harsh, but true in this model.

2. The Near Misses, the ones that

feel the blast, … see the destruction… but they survive, deeply impressed. It may result in ‘shock’…and a preoccupation with he horrors that have been witnessed.

3. The Remote Misses. These are the people who hear the sirens, the bombs explode, watch the aircraft overhead, but the bombs explode down the street. For them the experience of the bombing is that they survived easily, unlike the Near Miss group. The emotion as a result of the attack…

is a feeling of excitement with a flavor of invulnerability.

Near miss = trauma, remote miss = invulnerability.

Diaries and recollections of the period certainly support these theories. For instance, when a laborer was asked if he wanted to be evacuated to the countryside (after being bombed out of his house twice) he replied;

What, and miss all this? Not for all the tea in China!

The reason for this attitude, the sense of invulnerability, is that they have been through the very worst of time… and survived. They had faced their fears, and realized they were not as bad as they thought they were going to be, and in fact the result of surviving had given them a sense of elation that made them feel even more alive than before.

This is a very long way of saying that we may very easily view security incidents and breaches like this. Sony (perhaps) are the ones right at the centre of the blast. they are affected directly, and don’t even run around spreading panic because they are too busy dealing with the incident itself.

The near misses, Sony’s vendors, suppliers and partners are probably reeling from the near miss and are probably doing all they can to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. in short why are traumatized.

Finally, there is the rest of us. Yeah baby! Another breach, and it wasn’t us! We are invincible! We don’t need to do anything different at all, because we are survivors!

I think I see an issue here. Every time we are not breached, we become more confidant that we will not be breached, and become over confident and convinced we are having the time of our lives doing great stuff in the infosec world and not being breached. let’s hope that bomb doesn’t drop too close to home to burst that bubble, otherwise Careers is So over ceases to be a funny industry joke and very much a reality. Take the precautions now, take the threat seriously, and do what you can now, before it is too late.

I would strongly recommend reading the Book David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell if you would like to read more about this concept as well as others along the same lines.

A personal note…

PubGr_logoI am now under new employment as a result of an acquisition of my previous employer, and I have been fortunate enough to be elevated to Group CISO of the acquiring company. Unsurprisingly this has resulted in a massive new workload, travel schedule and responsibilities, and hence my distinct lack of posts this last few months. Despite this I have still been nominated for European Personal Security Blog 2015 in this years Blogger Awards; thank you!

Additionally, I am so proud to say that not only is my new employer keen to promote this blog internally in the new company, but also thrilled to say we have become the newest sponsor of the European Security Blogger Network.

Finally, I have been on the road a huge amount the last few weeks, including at RSA USA where I was very happy with my presentation at the RSA Studio; I spoke about how we have changed our approach to security awareness, and the use of the Restricted Intelligence product to catalyse it.

There were also talks at Munich Identity Management Conference, although the talks are not public yet.

Next week, Bsides London, InfoSec Europe, European Blogger Awards and RSA Unplugged. I am mentoring a rookie at Bsides, Speaking at infoSec, as well as at the Tripwire booth, sponsoring (and nominated!) at the Blogger Awards, and just watching at RSA Unplugged.

It’s has been a busy few months!


Are you the most thrilling ride at the theme park?

emotional-rollercoaster-53445I recently spent the day in Thorpe Park (a bit like a down market DisneyLand for anyone not from the UK), and we were all looking forward to a day of roller coasters, silly ride photographs, bad overpriced food and generally some good fun. We had never been before, and my kids are now old enough to be able to go on almost all of the rides now. Much excitement was expected.

Yes, we had a good day overall, but not as good as it should have been. The first two rides we tried to get on as soon as the gates swung open were closed because of technical faults; both these rides were at opposite corners of the park, so after 30 minutes not only had we not even had one ride, we hadn’t even got in the queue for one. This somewhat set the tone for the day. At the fourth closed ride my wife gave some unfortunate teenaged park assistant an earful (he was rescued by a senior colleague). At the fifth we could only laugh and accept our fate. And so it went on; the photo booth to collect photos from one ride was closed after we had staged the perfect family shot on the ride, the hand dryers in the toilets all blew cold, cold air on a cold day, vending machines were out of order, and so on. The more we looked the more we found fault.

We still had a good day, but we won’t be going back any time soon, and conceded that in the theme park area at least, the Americans have by far the best theme parks compared to Britain.

The whole experience reminded me of some security groups I have experienced. We very often promise a world of smiling, excited faces, a world made better by our presence and an experience that will surpass your expectations. The reality is often a little more drab than that.

We often see security functions that allegedly “enable your teams to work more effectively”, or “allow you to leverage your creativity while we drive your competitiveness” and so forth. In our drive to be seen to be a benefit to the business (good), we often set ourselves up for failure as we establish these grandiose statements (bad). “Leveraging security to be a differentiator in the marketplace” is great, but only if you can deliver on it. An ISO27001 certification may help your business get more work initially, but if the basic principles of good security practice in your delivery teams is not there, that work will soon be lost. Your company workforce working securely and in harmony is the best way of supporting your business, not having a “security strategy that differentiates us to our clients”.

Let’s focus on getting the rides running properly in your security programme before marketing ourselves in a way that ultimately shows even our hand dryers don’t work.


Why do we put brakes on cars? Perhaps not for the reason you think.

Bosch Predictive Emergency Braking System

I have never liked the analogy;

Why do we put brakes on cars? So we can go faster. Therefore we put security controls in place so we can do riskier things.

I mean, I get it, the analogy makes sense, but like many analogies, if we are not careful they are likely to become a little too one dimensional. We also have brakes on cars to slow down for traffic lights, to ensure we don’t go too fast and run into the back of  the car in front, and also to stop the car quickly to avoid someone crashing into us. I am sure with a squeeze and a shove we could fit these analogies into an infosec analogy, but why bother?

I was reminded of this particular analogy and why I don’t like it this morning as I read my paper. The headline really resonated with me;

‘Living rooms’ on wheels put drivers at risk

The Times, Monday 23rd February 2015

The Times, Monday 23rd February 2015

The article discusses how the increase in technology in cars has actually led to an increase accidents in recent years. The anti-lock brakes, stability control etc. is creating complacency amongst users, and putting them and others at risk.

If we are not careful we are shifting towards this in our industry. It is of course a good thing to focus on secure coding practises, OWASP, secure by design etc., because that is as important as a seat belt and an air bag in a car (oops, see how easy it is?!), but if we try and put everything into those particular controls, we are abdicating responsibility away from the user more and more. By creating an insulated and isolated environment in which they operate there is no positive/negative feedback loop, no opportunity to learn from mistakes, near misses or even dumb good luck. They quite literally are on their own being guided only by what their immediate vicinity is reporting to them. Another quote;

They are as uninvolved in the process as they can possibly be

This could be describing our users and clients who we are removing more and more responsibility from when it comes to making sensible, thought out decisions about basic security. We are removing their perceived responsibilities as they say to themselves “if the system is letting me do this, it must be alright” as they download malware specifically designed to undermine so called built in security. (Actually the quote is from Peter Rodger, chief examiner for the institute of Advanced Motorists commenting on cars being turned into living rooms.)

Let us continue to understand how mature our security development framework is, let’s observe the OWASP top ten, but let’s also continue to establish clear guidelines, education and expectations of our people at the same time. If we don’t, we may be congratulating ourselves little too early for running a good security programme.

If we do that, we risk going back over a century in time, and putting the cart before the horse, let alone putting better brakes on the car.

(If you want good analogies however, that can help your people truly understand the information security environment they are operating in, head over to the The Analogies Project.)

Securi-Tay IV

TransparentLogo1-e1423236103647I will be spending the end of week with the Abertay University Ethical Hackers at their Annual Securi-Tay conference in Dundee. It’s a great conference so if you are at a loose end for Friday and in the area make sure you rock up and say hello to the lovely folks up there!


Are you one of “them”? Damaging your information security efforts without even knowing it

90ee2b65615c3fda2b2c4190697c34d4It was ten to six in the morning, and I was on the  station platform waiting for my train to arrive to take me to London. As I walked past two people who were talking, one of them was earnestly telling the other about problems in his office that were caused by “them”:

they’ve changed the heating in the office to make it more consistent apparently but what they don’t realise is that it is sending us all to sleep. They just don’t get it, they’re idiots, and it’s a waste of money

It seems the faceless bureaucrats and management just don’t get it at this gentleman’s place of work and are doing everything they can to hinder the company’s ability to work effectively! But scratch a bit deeper and you may see a slightly different story of trying to deal with complaints from parts of the building that are too cold, using antiquated heating systems that don’t balance heat well the further from the heat source they are, or even just trying to make everyone feel more comfortable in the cold winter months.

The unfortunate impact of their actions though is that productivity has dropped in some areas, and the impression of the team and people behind it has dramatically reduced.

I have regularly stressed the importance of information security ultimately contributing to the success of the business, allowing it to sell more beer if you will, but that is only possible if you understand the business, collaborate with the people on the ground, and align your efforts to their goals. By treating risks in isolated parts of the business without looking at the wider impacts you run the risk of overheating other parts of the business. What initial makes sense in one place does not make sense in another, and the quick win you thought you had really turns out to require a far more nuanced approach.

If what you are doing is simply unavoidable and impacts to the other parts of the business will be felt, then collaboration and communication is vital. Explaining the complaints, challenges, risks etc. and allowing them to voice their feedback is important to ensure people remain bought into your plans. Who knows, you may actually get some better ideas from them that you hadn’t even considered. This approach requires nerves of steel and the skin of a rhino though, as many will see the opportunity to take a swipe at you, but seeing the process through is far more effective in the long term.

Asking for feedback afterwards, chatting to individuals and leadership about what they think about what you have done, and putting that feedback to work to improve your next iteration of the programme all help bring people on side and improve the effectiveness of your information security stance.

Once you are seen to be working in the long term interests of the company and the people who work there, decisions you take and implement will be seen in that wider context, and not just as the actions of someone just “doing their job” and being one of… them.