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.


Less is sometimes more; InfoSec’s role in the business

Funny-and-Lazy-Animals-7-300x229I read an excellent article the other day from a LinkedIn reference talking about how laziness can be an effective approach to productivity. It dispelled the myth that “leaning in” when applying yourself to your job isn’t always required to do a good job. There is no need to get up at 04:30hrs to get your morning yoga done before getting to the office at 06:00 and working through the next fourteen hours. it even makes mention of an old Prussian army management matrix that made use of this concept. It reminds me of a Bill Gate’s quote (although it sounds like Steve Jobs!):

I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it

When put like that it sounds right, and yet the concept of using a lazy person seems counterintuitive. Perhaps we should replace lazy with “busy”, or “time poor”, but I think the point is well made nonetheless.

It reminded me of when I wast first put in charge of an information security project to ascertain the organizations level of exposure to personally Identifiable Information (PII). There had been a number of high profile breaches in the media, and the leadership was concerned about how many records we had access to and what we were doing about it. My approach was to work with a very talented team of junior infosec professionals, and we came up with an amazing spreadsheet that tracked every facet of what we thought we might need with, with macros and reporting buttons, lovely color scheme etc. We even tried to make it as friendly as possible as the trick up our sleeve was that we would be asking 95% of the organisation to fill this in themselves (and therefore saving on high labour costs to get this done). The other 5% were the very risky ones we already knew, so they got a personal visit from us to make them feel really special!

After a month of pushing, chasing and cajoling, our completion rate was something like 13%, and we were just a few days away from our deadline. Senior management were not happy, and demanded a full review. The career dissipation light started blinking in my peripheral vision.

We were trying to be far too clever for our own good, far too detailed, we wanted to cross EVERY i and dot EVERY t, whatever the cost to the project and the business. We were detail oriented and were going to get the most accurate report this company had ever seen. Except we didn’t. I was clearly told in no uncertain terms that I had completely misunderstood the business, how busy they were, how finite detail wasn’t what was at stake but getting a good idea of the scale of the problem was, and also to understand that people are generally doing their best to protect the company and were not in the habit of hiding the sort of activities we were doing our best to uncover.

We reduced the 154 question spreadsheet to 10 questions, some of which were voluntary. They were the the most important questions we had to ask, and we subsequently got the data we needed in a little over three weeks for roughly 97% of the organisation (you can’t help some people unfortunately). I managed to keep my job.

Perhaps it is our backgrounds in audit and compliance, but we infosec professionals love our checklists, our questions, our matrices and black and white answers to really drill down to the finite detail. That is not to say that at times they are not important – a good penetration test does need to be detailed and very complete, but that is mainly because the expectation of it being so. It wouldn’t surprise me though if 20% of a pen test uncovers 80% of the vulnerabilities. Vendor security questionnaires, risk assessments, audits, project or team reviews etc., can all potentially be done just as effectively with an element of brevity. Understanding what is important to the business and not to the security function is key here. If infinitesimal detail is important to the business then by all means go for, just ensure that is what the business really is after. most of the time they just need a reasonable picture.

Creating barriers to the successful adoption of security practices by using fifty page reference documents, or encouraging people to work around a security risk because doing the right thing involves sign off from six different gatekeepers is not a recipe for success as it puts the organization in direct opposition to the security function. By making sure that checklists and questionnaires are focussed, relevant and to the point will only encourage people to adopt the security measure that matter because there is clear benefit for a small amount of input.

We have all got better things to do with our time than collate thousands of questions that we have insisted are answered in order to ensure that the ultimate security objectives have been met. In some instances there may be value in that, but in the majority of cases I would wager there is none.

And besides, the rugby/cricket/baseball* match is on this afternoon, so we need to leave early to catch the game.

*Delete as appropriate. Just don’t add football.

 


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.


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.


Woof Woof, Bark Bark (or how to not support security in your organization).

security_dog_hoodie_on_black_whiteI recieved the email below from a colleague at work. At first glance it is funny, the chief security officer being represented by a dog… Hilarious! Of course security is just about being able to bark at people and occasionally bite them. This role isn’t about corporate responsibility or even enterprise risk management, it is about wagging your tail and barking at people and getting them to do things because you have barked it so.

I’m having second thoughts about my growth plan if this is where it leads to.

CSO dog

If I am honest, I am guilty of this too. I have often described myself as an “overpaid security guard” to people who haven’t a clue about information security, and they nod knowingly at me, thinking they understand InfoSec policy, enterprise risk and even DLP.

The above example of belittling the security function of an organisation has steeled me into action; if I can’t explain the role of a CISO/CSO to my Mother, then I need to re-evaluate what it is I am doing and the impact it has on the business. It also annoys me that the role of CISO is so easily belittled. I don’t think I have ever seen a CFO role boiled down to an image of a coffee bean, or even the CIO image reduced to a mouse or keyboard. What makes this worse is that this product offers “the highest security for your files in the cloud” and yet this is how seriously they take security.

A fundamental part of this is down to us as CISO’s and security people to ensure we don’t belittle ourselves to ingratiate ourselves. It is extremely difficult for us to ensure we are valued and respected in our organisations as it is, and sometimes the somewhat subservient/comedic route feels easiest. This is not the best way; it is the longest and hardest route to acceptance and understanding because the role is by it’s nature seen as a frivolity and a hilarious side act.

(We should note however that there is a place for humour in security, and if used correctly it is extremely effective. The point I am making above is that security as a serious subject should not be presented as a humourous aside.)

I recall a situation where I noticed someone working at a hot desk who had no visible identification. I asked around if anyone knew who the individual was, and nobody did. As I approached the individual I was met with a chorus of “get him Thom” and “tackle him mate!” etc. with much hilarity ensuing. None of it was meant meanly of course, but it was synonymous with the  simplistic attitude of security. If any of the people who had spoken those words had any real idea of the security implications of having someone in their office without any idea of who they are, then their response may have been a bit more serious. The best part is of course that I had plainly failed in my security education and awareness with this group of people.

We are not guard dogs. We are not security guards (although they are an important part of the security function). We are not bouncers. We are not doing security for theatrical effect.

We are here to protect your revenue, your reputation and your bonus payouts. We are here to ensure we maintain good relationships with our clients, and allow our organisations to take on greater risk and therefore reap greater reward. We are here to help inform the business of security risk and advise as required.

What’s so funny in that?

Note: I have been extremely quiet on here these last few months; my role has changed dramatically at work requiring more travel and less time for the frivolous acts of blogging. Combine that with a busy schedule with Host Unknown and my other info sec commitments I have neglected this blog site somewhat. Hopefully this post sees me back in the saddle again, and you can always catch up with me on Twitter. Oh, and the holiday was good too!

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