Keeping It Supremely Simple, the NASA way

Any regular reader (hello to both of you) will know that I also follow an ex NASA engineer/manager by the name of Wayne Hale. Having been in NASA for much of his adult life and being involved across the board he brings a fascinating view of the complexities of space travel, and just as interestingly, to risk.

His recent post is about damage to the Space Shuttle’s foam insulation on the external fuel tank (the big orange thing),and the steps NASA went through to return the shuttle to active service after it was found that loose foam was what had damaged the heat shield of Columbia resulting in its destruction. His insight into the machinations of NASA, the undue influence of Politics as well as politics, and that ultimately everything comes down to a risk based approach make his writing compelling and above all educational. This is writ large in the hugely complex world fo space travel, something I would hazard a guess virtually all of us are not involved in!

It was when I read the following paragraph that my jaw dropped a little as I realised  that even in NASA many decisions are based on a very simple presentation of risk, something I am a vehement supporter of:

NASA uses a matrix to plot the risks involved in any activity.  Five squares by five squares; rating risk probability from low to high and consequence from negligible to catastrophic.  The risk of foam coming off part of the External Tank and causing another catastrophe was in the top right-hand box:  5×5:  Probable and Catastrophic.  That square is colored red for a reason.

What? The hugely complex world of NASA is governed by a five by five matrix like this?

Isn’t this a hugely simplistic approach that just sweeps over the complexities and nuances of an immensely complex environment where lives are at stake and careers and reputations constantly on the line? Then the following sentence made absolute sense, and underscored the reason why risk is so often poorly understood and managed:

But the analysts did more than just present the results; they discussed the methodology used in the analysis.

It seems simple and obvious, but the infused industry very regularly talks about how simple models like a traffic light approach to risk just don’t reflect the environment we operate in, and we have to look at things in a far more complex way to ensure the nuance and complexity of our world is better understood. “Look at the actuarial sciences” they will say. I can say now i don’t subscribe to this.

The key difference with NASA though is that the decision makers understand how the scores are derived, and then discuss that methodology, then the interpretation of that traffic light colour is more greatly understood. In his blog Wayne talks of how the risk was actually talked down based upon the shared knowledge of the room and a careful consideration of the environment the risks were presented. In fact the risk as it was initially presented was actually de-escalated and a decision to go ahead was made.

Imagine if that process hadn’t happened; decisions may have been made based on poor assumptions and poor understanding of the facts, the outcome of which had the potential to be catastrophic.

The key point I am making is that a simple approach to complex problems can be taken, and that ironically it can be harder to make it happen. Everyone around the table will need to understand how the measures are derived, educated on the implications, and in a position to discuss the results in a collaborative way. Presenting an over complex, hard to read but “accurate” picture of risks will waste everyone’s time.

And if they don’t have time now, how will they be able to read Wayne’s blog?

 

 


Price versus Value; Why it is Important in Information Security

Running my own business now means I have to work out how much I am going to charge for my services, and if the market (or client) is going to be willing to pay me that price. It makes for an interesting internal dialogue, especially as I have always been told to not sell myself short or underestimate the skills I have and the value they bring to a client.

I recently lost out on some work because the client decided to go with somebody established rather than a new company like me. To be fair to them they had paid me well for five days consultancy to help them work out what they wanted, and they were very pleased with what was delivered so I honestly thought they would choose me. Hubris at its best I suppose.

I suspect that by going with a larger, established company they may well be paying less than I quoted for (it was assistance with ISO27001 certification by the way). The established company would have a larger range of resources, some certainly more junior than me and the people I was going to subcontract with, a tried and tested approach they have used hundreds of times before, and larger resources to back them up throughout the process. The client will certainly become compliant and obtain the certification.

Now, I am not going to denigrate the work this competition do, but I imagine they would be very task oriented, focussed on getting the certification for their client, and ensuring they come back year after year for more support. Then they will be onto the next job and doing the same thing again in short order. I have been a part of this process myself in my old consulting days.

So what value would someone like me bring then, especially if the end goal is the same, i.e. certification? Put simply, I strongly believe in the differing cultures of one company to the next, and the fact that what is left at the end of the certification needs to be reflective of that culture and able to be adopted for the long term. That means policies, procedures, communications and the overarching ethos of the programme must be in harmony with the clients vision and goals. That is very hard to do with a boilerplate approach. I guess it comes down to “the personal touch” as well as a somewhat selfless approach in ensuring the client is educated in the process enough along the way that they could actually go through the process again with significantly less of your support.

Is it the most immediately profitable approach? Of course not, but it is how you build “sticky” relationships with potential clients by ensuring they see you are there for their benefit and not yours. With a bit of luck this will mean more opportunities with them in the future or recommendations to other potential clients.

There are certainly no hard feelings between me and the client I mentioned at the beginning, they are lovely, honest and transparent people who I enjoyed working with and who paid me a fair price for my time in the analysis phase, and I really do wish them the best of luck in their certification with their new vendor.

I just hope they call me when they realise what they could have had. <Disengage hubris mode>


The Power of Silence

Not so many years ago in the dim and distant past, the very first full length public talk I did was called “An Anatomy of a Risk Assessment”; it was a successful talk and one I was asked to present several times again in the following years. Below is a film of the second time I presented it, this time at BSides London:

My presentation style left a lot to be desired, and I seemed unable to stop using note cards until almost eighteen months later despite me not using them for other talks I gave! (Top speaking tip folks, never use printed notes when speaking, it conditions your mind to think it can only deliver when using them.) But that is not the focus of this message.

One of the pieces of “anatomy” that I spoke about in terms of risk assessments was the ears. The principle being that since you have two ears and one mouth, when auditing or assessing you should be listen twice as much as be speaking. This is important for two reasons, the second of which may not be as obvious as the first:

  1. If you are assessing someone or something, you should be drawing information from them. When you are speaking you are not gaining any information from them which is a wasted opportunity. As a consequence of this therefore,
  2. There will be periods of silence which you must not feel tempted to break. Just as nature fills a vacuum so a human wants to fill a silence. Silence therefore will encourage the target of the assessment to open up even more, just so as not to feel awkward!

Interestingly, after my very first presentation of this talk, a member of the audience asked me if i had ever been in the Police Force. “I haven’t” I replied.

Well, some of the techniques you just described are exactly like police interrogation techniques, especially the silence. I should know, I used them every day!

Flattered though I was, I did become a little concerned! Was i taking this risk assessment malarkey a little too seriously? Was i subjecting people to what amounted to an interrogation?

Obviously this was not the case, but it occurred to me that in the many books i have read on risk assessment and audit, never is the softer side of the process covered. We tend to focus on the technology, or the boxes that need to be ticked, when actually we can simply sit back and let others do the talking. I also employ humour very often to help people relax, and even do it when i am on the other side of the table too. It can make a gruelling and mindless activity far more engaging and allow you to connect with the person on the other side of the table more effectively.

It engenders trust.

You can apply many of the techniques described in the presentation in your daily work lives, especially when on a discovery programme or wanting to get to the bottom of an incident. In fact, I can’t think of anything easier than having a (one-sided) chat with someone and getting the assessment completed.

Or as Will Rogers, actor and vaudeville performer in the early 1900’s put it:

Never miss a good chance to shut up


On another note, look out for a new series of YouTube films coming from me in the next few weeks.

I give you, The Lost CISO


What does a CISO actually do?

I read this wonderful article by Helen Patton  a CISO and contributor to Medium, and in it she describes the seven main areas she spends her time as a CISO; Technology, Data, Business, All The Other Internal Stuff, Vendors and Partners, Law Enforcement and Customers. (She also adds an eighth area, her Security Team of course!).

It is a fascinating read and one that tells a lot about the type of work a CISO will find themselves doing, and much of it resonated with me. I do believe however that the viewpoint is constrained by one aspect of her role, and one Helen states upfront:

Given that Cyber Security is about, well, cyber, and given that in my organization my administrative reporting line goes through the CIO, I spend a fair amount of time working on technology strategy.

It prompted me to write this post because I feel a CISO can do so much more once the role is removed from the auspices of IT. This has been a pet topic of mine for a number of years now, and it is a similar challenge CIO’s once faced, i.e. not reporting into the highest level of management possible. even spoke back in 2013 at RSA on just this topic.

This is a very common reporting line of course, largely because information security responsibilities often come out of IT, or the focus is purely on IT security and therefore fits into that service. It does however create potential issues:

  • The infosec message is filtered through the IT lens, and security issues become a smaller part of the overall IT programme.
  • The role is focussed significantly more on technology (the first item on Helen’s list above) and doesn’t take into account other factors, such as physical, people, or even awareness.
  • If the security function is dictating or heavily influencing technology and architecture, a conflict of intents can arise if there are security deficiencies in those aspects. There is no independent perspective on testing the environments, and a conflict of interest in highlighting deficiencies therein.

In these circumstances the role has a tighter focus, is more hands on, and may potentially not bring the benefits to an organisation that it could.

So what should CISO be doing then?

The CISO primarily needs to be a representative of the business, and not of a department. By that I mean that the CISO is not always going to be the best information Security professional in the same way that the CFO is not always the best accountant. They are however the best person to make decisions that span their area of responsibility AND the business, and actually focus on the bigger picture.

My role as a CISO therefore is not to make the company the most secure company in the world. If I did that, it would be out of business in a matter of months; loss of agility, inability to invest, reluctance to accept certain projects etc etc would make the company wholly unprofitable. My role is to help the company sell more, do more, innovate more and earn more… through the judicious application of security as a competitive advantage.

Put simply, a CISO needs to stop saying “No” to projects or requests that on the face of it are high risk, and stop expecting 100% security on rollouts prior to launch. That doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to perfection, or aim to build the very best environment we can, we just have to accept that something that is a high risk to us, may be a low risk to the business overall. Of course the business needs to understand what the security risks are and be cognisant of the risk when taking decisions, but security is not the single most important input here, it is one of many. We are advisors, not dictators.

The CISO therefore not only does many of the things Helen points out in her article, but it goes beyond that; above everything else in my opinion is being able to truly understand the business, it’s challenges, goals and vision, provide performance information, read the company reports and educate the senior leadership on what risks there are without sowing F(ear), U(ncertainty) and D(oubt). In other words then, what does a CISO do…?

Powerpoint and politics.

Everything else is just details.


Everything that is happening now has happened before

While looking through old notebooks, I found this piece that I wrote in 2014 for a book that never got published. Reading it through it surprised me how much we are still facing the same challenges today as we did four years ago. Security awareness and security training are no different…

So, you have just been given responsibility for your company’s information security awareness programme and you have rolled out an off the shelf training product to the company. Job done? Probably not unfortunately, because like so many things in security, there is far more to an education and awareness programme than meets the eye. The following nine areas presented here are intended to give you guidance when establishing or improving your programme. Some may not be relevant to your organisation, some will be very relevant, but all of them are intended to provide ideas and insight into what is often a very emotive and personal subject.

 

Start at the Top

No business programme, least of all a security awareness one, is going to have any ongoing impact in an organisation if it doesn’t have the full support the senior leadership. Depending upon the type and size of organisation this could be the Board, the senior management team or even the C level executives.

Be wary of them just paying lip service as well, as they are crucial for the ongoing engagement of the company and your programme’s success. If they are the ones that haven’t taken their training then they are not committed to your programme. Senior leadership should be helping to not only communicate the training, but also reinforcing key messages and certainly leading by example.

Finally, make sure you can report back the senior leadership on the value of the training on a regular basis, be it every three, six or twelve months. However you choose to do this, bear in mind that the key purpose is to ensure your awareness programme is aligned with the business goals, and that is seen as a part of your organisations continued success.

Don’t Rely on Compliance

Using compliance as a key driver for acquiring investment for an education programme does work, but it is a short sighted approach that will limit what you can do in the future. This is because compliance is a very specific business problem that awareness addresses, and when the compliance requirement has been met there is no reason for the business to invest more money, investigate alternative approaches or expand the programme. That tick in the box limits the future of your programme.

Instead, use compliance as just one of the many drivers to build your programme, along with profit retention, reputational damage control and a protection against lost billable time for instance. These drivers will help your programme, again, align better with the company’s goals.

Teach Them to Fish

Now onto the content! No training is going to be able to put across the correct response to every single threat, every single implication of regulations and laws, and every single type of social engineering approach. The goal of the training is to arm people with a mindset, not all the answers.

Educating people on the implications of their actions, and not their actions alone is key here. By understanding that clicking on a link could result in something bad happening is more effective than just telling them not to click on links. Helping them appreciate that social engineers use an array of techniques to build a picture of the environment is more important than telling them to mistrust every interaction with every person they interact with.

In your position as an InfoSec professional, how do you know when a link or a question is dangerous? Try to put that across, and you should end up with an awareness programme that educates people not programs them.

Make it Relevant

Off the shelf awareness programmes are often seen as a quick, cost effective and easy approach to educating people. Many of the courses are very good too. However, you should be aware of your own organisational culture. Large, regulated organisations probably couldn’t effectively train through regular lunchtime briefings, and smaller organisations probably wouldn’t receive too well being in a room for three hours and having a PowerPoint shouted at them.

Additionally, there are going to be activities, lexicon and even teams and roles that are unique to your organisation. Try and avoid people having to “translate” the training they are taking to be relevant to their daily lives as much of the impact of the training will be lost.

Make it Useful

Not only should the training be useful in someone’s working lives, but also in their personal lives. In a world of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) the lines between the workplace and home are increasingly blurred, and home networks, tablets and computers are increasingly being used to deliver into the workplace.

Educating people on how to secure their home network and WiFi, how to use a VPN in a cafe with their personal laptop, and even how to manage their own online lives not only helps secure the workplace, but also gives them a sense of being valued for the contributions they are making to the organisation.

Don’t be Too Serious

Humour is always an awkward subject when it comes to education and awareness, as it is rarely a universally agreed topic. However it is worth bearing in mind that given the often large amounts of “compliance” training often required these days (ethics, anti bribery, harassment etc training) making your course stand out is important.

Wherever possible draw upon the culture of the organisation, use in-house references (so everyone understand them) and try and avoid obscure internet humour as many people in the workplace may not understand it. Never, ever use offensive humour, or even anything that comes close to it. If your grandparents are unlikely to laugh then don’t use it!

Go MultiChannel

Taking a leaf out of the book of the marketeers and advertisers, your awareness program should be multichannel and use a number of different approaches to ensure the message gets across. Consider using videos wherever possible, leaflets, internal blogs, “sponsoring” internal events, using town halls and company meetings to present on specific security awareness projects. Poster campaigns are also a useful method of putting core concepts and points across, although a key part to their success is that they get changed on a regular basis to avoid becoming blind to them over time.

Also consider branding items like stickers, pens and pencils with a tagline or advice that ties in with your overall campaign in order to keep your security message in regularly being reviewed. Again this depends very much on the culture of your organisation as to what may seem like a cheap gimmick versus a good idea.

The core concept with this is to constantly engage with people through different means to maintain their attention and recollection of your security training.

Confirm Their Understanding

Making sure people actually understand the fruits of your hard labour goes beyond asking ten banal and blindingly obvious questions at the end of the training. These questions are table stakes when it comes to meeting compliance requirements but do nothing for actually confirming understanding. Conducting social engineering tests, sending false phishing emails (a whole topic in of itself) and even leaving trackable USB sticks lying around are valid ways to test peoples knowledge. The results of these tests can be written up providing even further educational opportunities in articles for the intranet and email updates.

Get Feedback & Start Again

The only way your awareness programme is going to improve over time is to ensure you gather open and honest feedback from all of those that you engage with throughout every phase of your involvement in your security awareness programme. Feedback from all of the recipients of the training, after every talk or awareness session and certainly feedback from the overall programme on an annual basis is an important way of ensuring good elements are enhanced and bad elements are removed.

Gathering feedback however is only half of the story; providing feedback on the effectiveness of the security awareness programme to senior leadership is also important. Consider metrics and the correlation of elements of the training as they roll out over the year to reported security incidents. Wherever possible do you best to monetise the incidents in terms of cost to the business so that over time, as security incidents decline (which they should do!) you can demonstrate the value of the programme and its contribution to the business.

Not all of these may be applicable to you and your organisation, but they should provide some guidance and ideas for you and your security awareness programme.