Monday, November 9, 2009

Security Muggles

The question of “How secure are we?”, essentially a perennial security conundrum, was on the agenda of the recent CSI meeting in Washington, as reported by Dark Reading. What was on offer from a collection of senior security professionals was advice – and perhaps this is the best that can be expected. Christopher Michael, director of information assurance at defence contractor BAE Systems, went as far as basically saying that security status can’t be measured yet security professionals are obliged to do so. So what is to be done? The article has a few ideas, which as presented, don’t flow together particularly well, but some interesting points were made.

The first of which is that security people are predisposed to detail, accuracy and correctness. Donald Knuth, the famous computer scientist, has stated that the reason programming is so hard, therefore so interesting to excel at, is that as a discipline it does not admit approximations – everything must be exact and correct – the processor will not interpret your intentions only execute your commands. And while the traits of detail, accuracy and correctness are necessary for IT activities, they are fundamentally at odds with the type of messages and opinions that senior managers are expecting. Detail, accuracy and correctness can be sacrificed to an extent for the benefits of conciseness, meaning and actionable recommendations. They don’t want to hear about packets, firewall rules or buffer overflows.

I have a soft spot for threat modelling, and appreciate the detail and insights it uncovers, but I often wonder how far up the managerial chain this type of analysis in its raw form can be propagated. Sooner or later you will reach a managerial layer populated by security muggles who will require (or demand) less complicated analyses.

Bill Mann, senior vice president of security product strategy at CA, remarked that “these guys [the muggles] think in spreadsheets”, which is the same sentiment I expressed in Does IT Security Matter? - “Excel is your new best friend - make your spreadsheets work with their (business) spreadsheets”. You perhaps need not take this Excel advice literally but at least think of Excel as the underlying business platform for marshalling data, numbers and money towards business cases. Security, or any other activity, needs to figure prominently in this space to be taken seriously – or at least to get a serious hearing.

This is the same point that Marcus Ranum raised not too long ago, about security people, and their arguments (often objections) being over-ruled by more business-savvy types. We perhaps need to develop skills in one-way hash arguments

Often business has the “snappy intuitively appealing arguments without obvious problems” - plus Excel - while if the security practitioner objects, then by contrast, the “rebuttal may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point (i.e. business case) is wrong”. Snappy and plausible usually wins out over lengthy, detailed and correct. There is asymmetry at work here, a “one way hash” argument, and security people have ended up with the hard inversion problem.

In Some Black Swans in IT Security I argued that the the most pernicious problem facing IT Security today

We have called this Black Swan "Good Enough Security" but we may also have chosen risk-based security, the transition from risk to assurance, the diminishing returns of security, or knowing your security posture. Managers and other stakeholders want to know that their IT assets are adequately protected, and it is up to the IT Security person to define that level of adequacy and provide assurance that it is reached and maintained. Most security people are woefully ill-equipped to define and deliver such assurance in convincing business or managerial language.

It is not so much that we must deal with security muggles but rather IT Security people are seen as business muggles.

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