Archive for September, 2014

Sep 25 2014

“All we need to do is …. redo everything”

Published by under General,Risk,Simple Security

I love listening to idealists.  In fact, I’d be one if it wasn’t for the crushing despair and cynicism that working in the security profession has instilled in me.  Or maybe I work in this field because the crushing despair and cynicism already existed.  In either case, I’ve lost the ability to even think “we could just fix all of our security problems if we just …”.  And when I see others saying the same thing, I have to shake my head in amusement at their naivete.  But it really makes me wonder when I see someone who’s been in security even longer than I have say those words.  Especially when it’s someone like Ivan Ristic.

Ivan is arguing in his post that all we need to do is create tools and languages that don’t allow XSS or SQL injection and the world will be a better place.  He’s right, but the very next thing is admit how unlikely this is in the real world.  Such languages and tools would be a wonder to behold, but they’d kill backwards compatibility.  If you’ve ever worked in a web server farm, you know this just isn’t going to happen.  Actually, if you’ve worked in any aspect of IT, you know that killing anything by not supporting backwards compatibility is nearly impossible.  Even if there’s only one user who’d be affected by it, the powers that be simply won’t let anyone who might give them a few cents more be left behind.

We live in a real world, however surreal it might sometimes feel.  The problems in security are big, complex and ugly.  There are simple solutions, such as what Ivan’s suggesting, but the problem with simple solutions is that they come at a high price.  We’re not going to get programming languages that don’t let developers create security holes, because sometimes that’s the easiest way for them to get their jobs done.  We might get away with it if we introduce tools that make it easier to program securely then slowly close the holes that allow for insecure coding.  But this is a solution that’s going to be decades in the making, not overnight.

There is no “All we need to do is…” in security.  It’s always more complex than it first seems.

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Sep 14 2014

Limiting online time

Published by under Family,General

I limit online time.  Not for me, for my children.  Apparently I’m among a fairly prestigious group of people who do so, since many of the C-level execs in Silicon Valley also limit their children’s time with tech.  Though it looks like many of them are even stricter than I am about how much time the children get to interact with their computers.

We’ve always limited the amount of time our children can spend on the computer.  We found from an early age, they’d spend every waking moment playing games and surfing the internet if they could.  I wonder who they’re using as their role model?  When they got their first computer, one I’d rebuilt from parts of several of my older computers, we allowed them to have it in their room.  We found out quickly that was a mistake, as our youngest had taken to watching videos that contained language we didn’t want him using.  Ever.  Since then the computers have been in the computers have been in a common area where we could look over their shoulders whenever we wanted.

We have hard limits for when they’re allowed on the computer, which are probably not as strict as many of the parents mentioned in the times article.  The children often try to get around these limits by grabbing their iPhones or a tablet, but it’s made clear that these also count as time online and aren’t allowed.  We have hundreds of books, scattered around the house, and reading is always encouraged, no matter the time of day.  Now if we could only teach the youngest how to treat books with proper respect.

One thing we’re looking at changing is their use of social media.  Neither of the children have any social media accounts at all.  It’s not just that we don’t want them to have Facebook or Twitter accounts, it’s also that they’ve heard me talk about social media so much that they have decided on their own that it’s not worth it to have them.  They do have Skype accounts for keeping in touch with their friends back in the States and a few forum accounts, but these aren’t really ‘social media’ as I think of it, though maybe I’m wrong.

This might change in the near future, as our older has started expressing some curiosity towards social media and would like to experiment some.   As long as he understands his parents will be following him and watching who he interacts with, at least at first, I think we can allow him to try it.  I don’t want him to be like the guy who keeps a case of soda in his room because his parents never let him have it as a kid.  Instead we’ll let our children learn in a relatively safe environment, or at least one where we can intervene if we need to.

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Sep 08 2014

Buffer between Target and banks

Published by under PCI,Risk

We all know that Target got compromised last year, but what some of you might not know is that the banks who issued the credit cards that were compromised are suing Target.  They’re saying that because Target didn’t take sufficient measures to protect the card data the banks had to spend millions of dollars in order to re-issue every one of the cards that were compromised.  It makes sense on the surface, since the banks incurred the cost due to the insecurity of Target’s systems.  But here’s the rub: there’s no direct relationship between the issuing banks and Target.

I find it funny because this relationship is one of the things that was drilled into me from the start of my Qualified Security Assessor training.  There is a relationship between the merchant and its bank, called the acquiring bank, between the acquiring bank and the card brands, between the card brands and the issuing banks and finally between the issuing bank and the consumer.  This was done with careful thought to create a buffer between the card brands and both merchants and consumer.  As a consumer if you have an issue, you have to take it to your own issuing bank or the merchant, since you have no direct relationship with the card brand or the acquiring bank.  It’s also why the card brands have always said that they don’t issue fines to compromised merchants, it’s the merchant’s bank that have to issue the fine. The picture below illustrates this relationship and is similar to what was used to train QSA’s when I went through training.


I find a certain poetic justice in this defense being used by Target.  The card brands and the banks developed this system in part because it’s a reasonable way for transaction clearance to work, but also in large part because it gave as many parties as possible a way to distance themselves from the sins of another party.   Except the banks and card brands meant for it to be a buffer from lawsuits between them and both merchants and consumers, never thinking it would provide a buffer for the merchants as well.

I don’t claim any deep understanding of the underlying legal statutes that could affect this case, but I do see that Target’s defense could bring up any QSA that is worth his or her salt to the stand to illustrate their point.  It’s going to be much harder to establish a responsibility from Target to the issuing bank when any witness with knowledge of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards is going to have to say, under oath, that they had been trained from the first day that there’s no relationship between the two entities.  On the other hand, if the buffer is dismantled legally, it also opens a venue for merchants to sue the card brands, so either way the banks are going to be losers in this battle.  Well played, Target, well played.

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Sep 07 2014

Is pay rising with demand in security?

If you follow me on twitter, you know I like to throw out questions occasionally just to stir things up.  On Friday I asked the following question about jobs in the security realm:

We keep hearing about how desperate companies are to hire infosec professionals. So how come we still see so many low ball salary offers?

This hit a nerve with quite a few people, many of who mentioned that besides having low salaries for the apparent demand, we also see low stature in the company and that while there’s a demand, companies still don’t see how paying a security professional leads to profit.  The conversations on twitter led to an interesting side road about how newcomers to the field are expecting huge salaries without having any experience at all.  But the most comprehensive response came from John Wood, who wrote a whole blog post about it rather than responding 140 characters at a time.

John sees the reasons as being a) the company doesn’t really care about security, so they’re just trying to get the lowest paid person they can, or b) they have no idea what the actual job market for security professionals is like in the real world.  If it’s ‘a’, I’d agree with John and say far away from the company; let someone who’s willing to suffer through a thankless job take the role on.  His suggestion for the second part is that you should talk to the hiring team and explain to them what salaries are like in the real world, then walk away until they’re willing to pay what you feel reasonable.  I’ve worked at a lot of companies in my career and I’ve never had this strategy pay personally, but maybe it has worked for others.

I see the effect of companies who just want ‘check box security’ a lot.  Having been a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) dealing with PCI in a former life, I’m all to familiar with the concept.  I understand that most companies out there still don’t see that security has to be part of core processes in order to be effective and still see it as an impediment to be overcome rather than a selling point for the company.  Besides being directly responsible for the low salary offers, it’s reflected in the low stature the security team is often given within a company.  Of course, there’s the whole argument that we still don’t know how to speak ‘business’, but that’s a drum to beat another day.

Security as a core competency, as  business process that leads to more sales and greater profit is a hard sell and one that’s always going to be difficult to draw a direct correlation to.  I’m lucky in that I work for a company where security is a part of the discussion any time a product is sold, but how do you bring security into the conversation when you sell widgets?  It’s not easy, there are no simple answers and it’s something that each organization has to discover for itself.  The more we can make business aware that a good, well trained security team is essential to the health of the company, the more likely we are to see a willingness to pay salaries commensurate with the market rate for those roles. On the other hand, I’ve been told at a number of places sometimes there is no way of creating that linkage and security will always remain a check box for that company.

What about the new security professionals who are asking for high salaries with just an education and little or no experience?  That’s a hard one for me, since when I started in the security profession the only way to get a job was through experience.  I’d guess that it’s a dark reflection of the demand for security professionals; while in school the student hears again and again about how much demand there is and has unrealistic expectations once they graduate.  Or maybe they’re not that unrealistic after all, since at least some of them seem to get the salary they demand, even if they have to grow into the role they take on.

As a closing thought, one of my coworkers, Brian Sniffen, states

Only contractors are paid spot price. Salary is an annuity.

His point being that if you want the flexibility that creates a high end salary, you have to take the risks that a contractor does, including changing jobs regularly and having an uncertain stream of income.  In security, that risk is probably lower than in many careers, but it’s still a risk that’s there.  I’ve been a contractor and I’ve hopped jobs a lot in my career, which is another way to deal with the pay issue.  I’m not ready to do much of either in the near future, thank you very much.

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Sep 04 2014

Congratulations, Rich

Published by under Family,General,Humor,Personal

Wow, it’s been seven years since Rich Mogull left Gartner and started Securosis.  I met him shortly before he took the leap, introduced by a mutual friend, Richard Stiennon.  I worked with Rich and a host of others to organize the first Security Bloggers Meetup at RSA, which is still going, and when I heard he was leaving Gartner, I invited him to participate in the Network Security Podcast with me, a partnership that lasted over six years.  He’s  a good person, a good friend, and someone I truly feel lucky to have met in the security community.

It’s interesting to see the progression any security professional makes in their career.  Many of us reach a certain level and seem to be content to rest there, while others never stop, never slow down and are never content with where they are now.  You can guess which of these two I believe Rich to be.  It’s heartening to see friends be successful, since one of the recurring themes in security is how we’re losing the war and burning out.  Seeing someone who’s still excited by their role, if not waking up in the morning, is a wonderful experience to behold.

Where were you seven years ago?  I was the security manager for a small company that had been in start-up mode for 12 years.  Now I’m living near London, working as Akamai’s Security Advocate for Europe and traveling the world over.  If I look at Rich as a benchmark, I feel a little inadequate sometimes.  But if I look at where I started versus where I am now, I’m happy, especially if I think about how much farther I can go.  I’m happy that my friends have been successful beyond my wildest dreams.

Congratulations on seven years of success to Rich Mogull and the rest of the team at Securosis.  You deserve the prosperity you’ve enjoyed over the years and I hope you have many, many more years of the same.  Just one thing:  Keep your pants on.

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