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What 80’s pop can teach us about Rocket failure and incident management

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Most accidents originate in actions committed by reasonable, rational individuals who were acting to achieve an assigned task in what they perceived to be a responsible and professional manner.

(Peter Harle, Director of Accident Prevention,Transportation Safety Board of Canada and former RCAF pilot, ‘Investigation of human factors: The link to accident prevention.’ In Johnston, N., McDonald, N., & Fuller, R. (Eds.), Aviation Psychology in Practice, 1994)

I don’t just read infosec blogs or cartoons that vaguely related to infosec, I also read other blogs from “normal” people. One such blog is from a chap called Wayne Hale who was a Fligh Director (amongst other things) at NASA until fairly recently. As a career NASA’ite he saw NASA from it’s glory days through the doldrums and back to the force it is today. There are a number of reasons I like his blog, but mostly I have loved the idea of space since I was a little kid – I still remember the first space shuttle touching down, watching it on telly, and whooping with joy much to my mother’s consternation and chagrin. The whole space race has captured my imaginaion, as a small child and an overweight adult. I encourage anyone to head to his blog for not only fascinating insider stories of NASA, but also of the engineering behind space flight.

What Wayne’s blog frequently shows is one thing; space is hard. It is an unforgiving environment that will take advantage of every weakness, known and unknown, to take advantage and destroy you. Even just getting into space is hard. Here is Wayne describing a particular incident the Russians had;

The Russians had a spectacular failure of a Proton rocket a while back – check out the video on YouTube of a huge rocket lifting off and immediately flipping upside down to rush straight into the ground. The ‘root cause’ was announced that some poor technician had installed the guidance gyro upside down. Reportedly the tech was fired. I wonder if they still send people to the gulag over things like that.

This seems like such a stupid mistake to make, and one that is easy to diagnose; the gyro was in stalled upside down by an idiot engineer. Fire the engineer, problem solved. But this barely touches the surface of root cuse analysis. Wayne coniTunes;

better ask why did the tech install the gyro upside down? Were the blueprints wrong? Did the gyro box come from the manufacturer with the ‘this side up’ decal in the wrong spot? Then ask – why were the prints wrong, or why was the decal in the wrong place. If you want to fix the problem you have to dig deeper. And a real root cause is always a human, procedural, cultural, issue. Never ever hardware.

What is really spooky here is that the latter part of the above quote could so easily apply to our industry, especially the last sentence – it’s never the hardware.

A security breach could be traced back to piece of poor coding in an application;

1. The developer coded it incorrectly. Fire the developer? or…

2. Ascertain that the Developer had never had secure coding training. and…

3. The project was delivered on tight timelines and with no margins, and…

4. As a result the developers were working 80-100 hrs a week for three months, which…

5. Resulted in errors being introduced into the code, and…

6. The errors were not found because timelines dictated no vulnerabiliy assessments were carried out, but…

7. A cursory port scan of the appliction by unqualified staff didn’t highlight any issues.

It’s a clumsy exampe I know, but there are clearly a number of points (funnily enough, seven) throughout the liufecycle of the environment that would have highlighted the possibility for vulnerabilities, all of which should have been acknowledged as risks, assessed and decisions made accordingly. Some of these may fall out of the direct bailiwick of the information security group, for instance working hours, but the impact is clearl felt with a security breach.

A true root cause analysis should always go beyond just the first response of “what happened”? If in doubt, just recall the eponymous words of Bronski Beat;

“Tell me why? Tell me why? Tell me why? Tell me why….?”

Your InfoSec premiums have increased by 20% this year. Are we worth it?

High-insurance-PremiumsMy annual home insurance quote came through this morning, with the usual 10-20% uplift that I know I can remove again through simply phoning the provider and threatening to leave. It is a pretty standard technique in the industry that has been going on for years, and that preys upon the lazy people in the world who can’t be bothered to look for a better deal.

Rewind a few months when I spoke with a very senior executive who admitted that he saw information security as a form of insurance.

“I don’t want to have to pay for it, but I do because I know that when I need it you guys come and fix the problems we are in”

This is a somewhat common and fair attitude to information security given our background as an industry and how we often interact with the business (a particularly large topic that this entire blog is really about). yet what was so interesting was his follow on comment:

“the things is, I am sure there is so much more information security can do for us, I just don’t know what it is”

When I first took out home insurance, I was most concerned about getting the cheapest quote. I was young, free and almost single, but all of the extras that the larger insurance companies were offering (and charging for) did not concern me. If my house burnt down I would find somewhere else to live while the insurance company sorted everything out, what do I need a hotel for?  Lost my house keys? I will change the crappy lock on the front door myself when I get round to it, I don’t need a locksmith from the insurance company to do it for me.

Fast forward to today, and I live a far more complex busy life, cash rich (relatively speaking), time poor, with responsibilities to my children and wife, and a lifetime of memories in my house that are virtually irreplaceable. if things go wrong, I need it fixed quickly and easily and with the minimum of impact to me and my family. I even have proactive services, such as boiler cover and servicing to reduce the likelihood of things going wrong in the first place. Therefore I am leveraging every aspect of what the insurance company can give me even before something goes wrong, and the peace of mind that I get knowing they are looking out for me even prior to disaster striking is worth (almost!) every penny.

An information security programme must be able to sell every aspect of its services to the business, and not just be seen as a reactionary force. if it does that, every time something goes wrong, both the financial and emotional premiums of paying for your services will increase time over time until the point the programme is seen as imply an overhead like paying the rent and keeping the plant watered, i.e. when the time comes, costs to be reduced.

Look at how you provide service before the fact; risk assessments, security testing, awareness and education can all be seen as services that prevent and/or add value to the business. What about the day to day? Consultancy to the business to do things securely without them even thinking about it; it doesn’t have to have “security” written on it to be a win for you and the business. And of course don’t forget after the event; incident management, business continuity, or even helping in the quality acceptance environments after something has been developed.

The key is to be involved in the full lifecycle of your business, whatever they are. They will be different from business to business and industry to industry, so it may not always be easy to identify, but it is extremely valuable.

And the prices we quote every year? Unlike insurance premiums, we are worth every penny.

Note: I don’t actually like the analogy of infosec and insurance, but it is one I regularly hear, so I decided to try and embrace it in this blog. I still don’t like it, but I can see how it could be useful for a simple elevator pitch or short conversation. There are plenty of analogies out there, and the best place for them in my humble opinion is at The Analogies Project. Check them out, and use them wherever possible. Even better, think about becoming a contributor.

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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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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.

“Compromise” is not a dirty word

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If it wasn’t for the users we could secure the company much more easily.

or

They just don’t get it, we are doing this for their benefit.

We often hear statements like this being made, and sometimes even uttered by ourselves. In fact I daresay they are often made by people in very different support industries, not just information security, but it seems that we harbour these feelings more than most.

Effective security is security that is understood, adhered to and respected. Ineffective security is either too lax, or so tight that individuals do their level best to work around it. They are not working around it because they are subversive elements in our organizations, but rather because it is restricting them from getting their day jobs done; it has become a barrier.

Each organization will have it’s own unique requirements, and even within that organization unique requirements will come about. The finance and legal teams are likely to require a different level or type of security around their work than a creative or IT team. If you have ever observed a creative team in full flow you will understand that the concept of a “clear desk” policy is not only laughable but also extremely restrictive to the very fundamentals of their craft. That same policy however will be more easily understood and accepted by the aforementioned finance and legal teams.

So in this example do you enforce an organisation wide clear desk policy? Probably not. It may make sense to have a departmental one, although in some circumstances this would be harder to police. Or you could implement clear desk “zones”, i.e. areas where it is not necessary to have a clear desk because of other measures. The measure may be soft, such as background checks on cleaning staff or hard, such as supervised cleaning staff.

Variations to blanket policies always cost money, but if you ascertain the potential financial value of that loss and compare it to the cost of the measures you can help your business to understand, adhere and respect the measure you are proposing.

This doesn’t just apply to physical security (although it very frequently does!) but also to technical and administrative controls too. Policies have to be very carefully written and reviewed by the various stakeholder of your organisation to ensure the right balance is struck. Technical controls also have to have this balance. Data Loss protection (DLP) is a marvelous technology that when implemented correctly can reap huge rewards and avoided risks, but it is expensive and time consuming to install and run. Who should ultimately make that decision, you, or the business. (clue, it’s not you).

Don’t be afraid to compromise in your dealings with your organisation. If they disagree with your approach, they either get it and feel it is simply the cost of doing business, in which case go off and look at other ways to support them. Or they don’t get it, which means you need to do a better job of convincing them of the risk in which case, go off and look at other ways of making your point. A good compromise is made when each party respects and aligns to the other parties point of view, not when each party is on fundamentally different sides.

Help your business respect and align to the information security ideals you hold dear, and do the same for theirs and you will always get more effective security.

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