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)


Security is Not, and Should not be Treated as, a Special Flower

My normal Wednesday lunch yesterday was rudely interrupted by my adequate friend and reasonable security advocate Javvad calling me to ask my opinion on something. This in itself was surprising enough, but the fact that I immediately gave a strong and impassioned response told me this might be something I needed to explore further…

The UK Parliament in this report have recommended that CEO salaries should be defined by their attitude and effectiveness of their cybersecurity. I am not one normally for histrionics when it comes to government reports, partly because they are often impenetrable and not directed at me or my lifestyle, but I will make an exception in this case. I think this attitude is quite simply short sighted and a knee jerk reaction to a very public breach that was admittedly caused by a lackadaisical attitude to security.

I have argued for a long time that the security function is not a “special flower” in the business, and that by supporting that case security becomes an inhibitor of the business, restricting it from taking the kind of risks that are vital to a growing and agile business. The only way I would agree to this demand would be if the CEO’s compensation was directly related to financial performance, staff attrition, number of court cases levelled and number of fires or false alarms in its premises, and have that all supported by a change in the law. If that happened, there would suddenly be a dearth of well paid, well motivated CEO’s in the country.

By calling security out individually means the security function will all to easily slip back into old behaviours of saying NO! to every request, only this time the reason given is not just “it’s not secure”, but also “Bob’s pay depends on it”.

This can only work if every other function of the CEO was also covered by similar laws as I said above. Sure, there are basic behaviour laws around financial, people, legal, facilities etc. such that a company can’t be embezzled, people can’t be exploited or put into danger etc.. But this recommendations makes security far to primary a concern. It also doesn’t even take into account the fact that determined hackers will get in anyway in many cases, or that data can easily be stolen through softer, social engineering techniques. Zero day exploit, never before seen? Sorry Mr CEO, you need to take a pay cut for not having a cyber crystal ball and defending against it. Determined nation state attacks? Tough luck you only have a cyber budget a fraction the size of the attackers, back to reduced pay.

I get that many folks are angry with the level of CEO pay and reward in the workplace these days. In the case of Talk Talk I find it astounding that Dame Dido Harding has been awarded £2.8 million GBP in pay and shares after what has to be an absolutely disastrous year fro Talk Talk. That said, I also don’t know the details of her contract and the performance related aspects of it; maybe she hit all of her targets, and cyber risk was not one of them.

This is where we need to address this; not in law and regulation, but in cyber savvy contracts and performance metrics within the workplace and enforced by the Board. No emphasis on cybersecurity, but a balanced view across the entire business.

No single part of a business is the special flower, we all have an equal and unique beauty and contribution to make.


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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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.


Attitude, Knowledge, Opinion and Expertise; an information security career map?

opinionI was talking to one of my colleagues a few days ago who joined our team a little under a year ago. Althea (I promised her a name check here) actually joined the security team from the small group of personal assistants in the company. While this is perhaps not the most obvious place to recruit into a technically savvy environment from, Althea has very quickly become an excellent member of the team.

I often hear in conferences and panels about the security skills shortage we are currently suffering, and I regularly quote the story of Althea joining us as an example of how we are very often simply looking in the wrong places and should be looking to promote from within more. Althea has been with the company for six years (a long time these days) and was working for and supporting some of the most senior people in our company. She had to be organised, forthright, able to communicate succinctly and above all remain calm under pressure (you know how senior executives can be sometimes).

For me, her attitude is far more important than her technical ability. Technology and hard skills are things that can be taught in relatively short periods of time; attitude is something that takes a lot longer to learn, decades even. Althea is already well on her way to getting the requisite technical skills required of her role, but her organisational skills, contacts within the organisation, and ability to communicate to people throughout the organisation whatever their seniority is second to none.

I was talking to her about this and related the competence framework I use to try and understand both mine and others maturity in their role. When first moving into a new role you move through each of one of these phases of competence:

  • Unconsciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Incompetent
  • Consciously competent
  • Unconsciously competent

(you might want to reread those a few times, I know I did when I first came across them)

So, if you start with the right attitude, you are going to minimise the amount of time you spend being unconsciously incompetent, as the next logical step is to acquire knowledge. This allows your to bring the right skills to bear onto your role, and bring you quickly into being consciously incompetent and possibly beyond. Minimising the time you spend in the first two phases is of course very important to your career.

But knowledge really isn’t everything. Those with just the knowledge can’t see beyond their day to day tasks and roles; they are unable to see the “big picture” as everything is focussed around technical solutions and black and white answers to business problems. (Just listen to some of the “questions” asked at every security conference you go to; they are not really questions but affirmation that their knowledge is greater than the speaker. They wholly miss the point that knowledge is actually all they have.) I would suggest that forming your own opinions on subjects is a logical and vital step in anyone’s career path. Business problems are not black and white, there are a variety of approaches, solutions, outcomes and inputs that those with a purely knowledge/technical viewpoint simply won’t appreciate. Forming and gathering these opinions takes place through reading, observing, listening, writing and finally testing your opinions in the community. These experiences are not just the gathering of specific knowledge, but the nuances of what can be right in one circumstance, wrong in another and even every possibility in between.

For instance, shipping a single, failed drive that was part of a RAID 5 cluster back to the manufacturer may be the right thing to do for some organizations. From a security knowledge perspective this is anathema unless the drive has been degaussed or even fully destroyed; it completely depends on the business, circumstance and many other factors. Encrypting backup tapes? Obviously this should be done, except of course when it shouldn’t, for the same reasons as before. Security is only one opinion in a sea of opinions that matter.

Having opinions in this industry is vital to stimulate conversation and evolve our understanding and viewpoints in our own workplaces. Once this opinion is applied in a considered and effective manner, only then could one possibly consider themselves having “expertise”, and I wouldn’t label yourself that before someone else does first.

In order to allow your team to grow in this manner it is vital to encourage them to engage with both the internal company community as well as information security community as a whole. Encourage them to take part in any related event, internal and external, or even organise one. What about volunteering to help at a conference, or ultimately even apply to speak? By giving your team members the opportunity to research, write, precis, deliver, defend and receive feedback on a topic of their choice they have the best opportunity to take their knowledge beyond the day to day and into the more opinion based level of the strategic, and become better decision makers in the process.