Archive for the 'Simple Security' Category

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 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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Dec 15 2013

Twitter spam filters overloaded

I believe the Twitter spam filters are currently overloaded or at least someone’s figure out a way around them.  In the last 72 hours, I’ve gotten more twitter followers than I normally get in a three weeks.  At first it was hard to tell if they were real people or not, but as they’ve accumulated, I’m certain that the vast majority of them are not.  It’s gotten to the point that I’m reporting all new followers as spam, unless there is sufficient reason to believe they might be a real person. 

So what characteristics do the spam followers share in common?

  1. Non-english speakers.  Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and any number of other languages I don’t recognize.  I’m assuming some are gibberish even in their own language.
  2. Very low number of tweets.  Almost all of these accounts less than 200 tweets and a significant number have less than 50 tweets.  There doesn’t seem to be a commonality of having links in these tweets, but I’ve given up on looking at their tweets.
  3. High following count/low follower count.  In an organic growth pattern, twitter users don’t tend to have a 10 to 1 following/follower ratio, since close to 10% of twitter is the bots anyway.  
  4. No listed count.  It doesn’t look like the bots have figured out how to get themselves listed quite yet.  Maybe there will be a botnet that will autolist bots in the future, but this is a big giveaway for now.

I’m confident the folks at twitter will figure out a way to stem the tide of the current bot invasion, but in the mean time I’ll continue to report these accounts for spam.  I apologize ahead of time if I block any real people by accident.  

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Dec 01 2013

Security in popular culture

One of the shows I’ve started watching since coming to the UK is called “QI XL“.  It’s a quiz show/comedy hour hosted by Stephen Fry where he asks trivia questions of people who I assume are celebrities here in Britain.  As often as not I have no clue who these people are.  It’s fun because rather than simply asking his questions one after another, the group of them riff off one another and sound a little bit like my friends do when we get together for drinks.  I wouldn’t say it’s a show for kids though, since the topics and the conversation can get a little risque, occasionally straying into territory you don’t want to explain to anyone under 18.

Last night I watched a show with someone I definitely recognized: Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear.  A question came up about passwords and securing them, which Clarkson was surprisingly adept at answering, with the whole “upper case, lower case, numbers and symbols” mantra that we do so love in security.  He even knew he wasn’t supposed to write them down.  Except he was wrong on that last part.  As Stephen Fry pointed out, “No one can remember all those complex passwords!  At least no one you’d want to have a conversation with.”

Telling people not to write down their passwords is a disservice we as a community have been pushing for far too long.  Mr. Fry is absolutely correct that no one can remember all the passwords we need to get by in our daily life.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ll probably have to enter at least a dozen passwords before the end of today, each one different, with different levels of security and confidentiality needed.  I can’t remember that many passwords, and luckily I don’t have to since I use 1Password to record them for me.  

But lets think about the average user for a moment; even as easy as 1Password or LastPass are to use, they’re probably still too complex for many users.  I’m not trying to belittle users, but many people don’t have the time or interest to learn how to use a new tool, no matter how easy.  So why can’t they use something they’re intimately familiar with, the pen and paper?  The answer is, they can, they just have to learn to keep those secrets safe, rather than taping the password on a note under their keyboard.

We have a secret every one of us carry with us every day, our keys.  You can consider it a physical token as well, but really it’s the shape of your keys in particular that are the secret.  If someone else knows the shape of your keys, they can create their own and open anything your keys will open.  This is a paradigm every user is familiar with and they know how to secure their keys.  So why aren’t more of us teaching our users to write down their passwords in a small booklet and treat it with the same care and attention they give their keys?  Other than the fact it’s not what we were taught by our mentors from the beginning, that is.

A user who can write down their passwords is more likely to choose a long, complex passsword, something they’d probably have a hard time remembering otherwise.  And as long as they are going to treat that written password as what it is, a key to their accounts, then we’ll all end up with a little more security on the whole.  So next time your preparing to teach a security awareness class, go back to the stationary store and pick up one of those little password notebooks we’ve all made fun of and hand them out to your users, but rememind them they need to keep the booklet as safe as they do their other keys.  If you’re smart, you’ll also include a note with a link to LastPass or 1Password as well; might as well give them a chance to have even a little better security.

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Nov 17 2013

Using the Secret Weapon

Published by under Cloud,Personal,Simple Security

I’m not the most organized person in the world; I never have been and I never will be.  But I’ve usually been able to keep a modicum of organization in my life by using pen and paper and a notebook.  Sometimes things would fall through the cracks, as happens to everyone, but I can normally keep up.  Lately though, that hasn’t been true.  Since moving to the UK and expanding my role there, I have so much on my plate that just keeping up with tasks has been a major issue.  So I did what any good security geek does, I asked on Twitter about the tools others are using and how they use it to track their todo list.  By some margin, the biggest response I got was Evernote and The Secret Weapon.

Evernote is a free, with upgrade to premium, note taking/scrapbooking/catch-all program that’s been around for a few years.  I’d signed up when it first came out, but never really understood how to use it for myself.  The Secret Weapon isn’t a piece of software, but instead a way to use Evernote with your email and the Getting Things Done (GTD) system.  Basically, there are a set of tutorials on the Secret Weapon site that walk you through how to set up Evernote and your email and how to use the system going forward.  In all, you can watch the videos in about an hour, though I’d suggest you watch the first few, let it percolate for a little while, watch one or two more, etc. until you’ve watched them all over a few days.  It gives you a very good point to start from for using this system.

Like many people, I’ve had to modify the GTD/TSW methodology to meet my own needs and work style.  I’ve been using a number of the GTD principals for some time without realizing it.  I’m using on OSX which allows me to use Smart Mailboxes to tag and flag emails, but I leave them in my inbox, which acts as my archive folder.  And since I’m using Mail, I don’t have the easy integration that would be available if I was using Outlook.  But then I’d have to use Outlook, so I consider manually cutting and pasting into tasks in Evernote to be the lesser of two evils.

Once you’ve set up the system, getting hooked on the organization it gives you is incredibly quick.  I love that I can tag my todo list by priority, project, people involved and any number of other aspects.  I love being able to tell at a glance exactly which projects I should be working on today and knowing that I haven’t forgotten anything major (unless I’ve forgotten to enter it into Evernote). And I’ve started to take more and more of my meeting notes in Evernote as well, though using a keyboard instead of pen and paper can be a bit distracting for me as well as those around me.

And then there’s the downsides.  The biggest concern I have by far is the security of Evernote; you can’t encrypt your notes except individually, which is unrealistic if you have dozens or hundreds of notes, which is bound to be the case once you’ve been using it for a while.  Evernote does have a two-factor authentication capability, but I have yet to try it and I’m not sure I can use it given the amount of travel I do; I never know how much connectivity I’m going to have on any given day.  Evernote has both iOS and Android applications available and I’m starting to dip my toes into them, but quite frankly they both seem to be pretty hard to use, other than for checking the status of your projects.  I’m not very satisfied with the user interface with either operating system and don’t know if I have the patience to deal with them.

The other piece of software that several people suggested I try is Omnifocus.  It also offers integration with iOS devices, but both the desktop and phone/tablet versions are pay for.  And there’s no Android support for the program, which is a pain for me as I have an Android phone and I’m shifting to using my Nexus 7 more than my iPad as time goes by.  

The bottom line for me is that TSW and Evernote works well, but I’m very concerned about having my organizational matrix on the Internet in a way that is much less secure than it could be.  I’d upgrade to a premium account if that’s what it took me to get that encryption and I may end up upgrading since I’m using it so much anyway.  I’m not sending my email to Evernote wholesale as is suggested by TSW tactics, so I feel less uncomfortable than I could be, but I’m still not happy with this security lapse.  

Let me know what your experience has been using Evernote and The Secret Weapon.


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Oct 12 2013

Can DevOps become SecOps?

Published by under Simple Security

This is an incomplete thought.

This week I saw Gene Kim give his talk on DevOps and The Phoenix Project for the first time. I’d read the book and loved it, but I’d never seen Gene put life into the concepts himself.  I was mesmerized by by his animation and energy in the presentation.

What at I couldn’t help thinking is, how can this be translated into security?  DevOps has a security component, but it’s the collaboration between development and operations that makes this work.  So how can that collaboration be expanded to cover the whole business?  I’m probably expressing this poorly, but I think we need to work towards a business model where the whole business thinks of security as simply a part of how they think about how security is part of the fabric of what we do, rather than the bolt on it is now.

I’m going to have to give this a lot more thought, but I’m glad I got to see him talk rather than simply reading his book.

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Oct 02 2012

Network Security Podcast, Episode 291

This week’s show went a little long, as all three of us had a lot to say on the stories we covered.  We also spent more than a few minutes at the beginning of the show talking about some of the resources people can use to get mentorship when entering the security field.  We also ramble a little bit and Rich gives us an assessment of one of his co-workers technical skils.

(All three of us made the show this week, and to be honest it was a little wittier than usual, if we do say so ourselves).

Network Security Podcast, Episode 291, October 2, 2012

Time:  38:30

Show notes:

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Sep 21 2012

Notes from SOURCE Seattle

Published by under General,Simple Security

I got to attend my first SOURCE event last week, thanks to a lucky confluence of events which freed up my time.  Mainly, I didn’t have to go to the PCI Council’s Community Meeting and was able to take advantage of SOURCE Seattle instead.  I know many of the people involved in SOURCE and I’d been wanting to go for a long time.  This was the 10th SOURCE event, and I walked away very happy I’d finally been able to attend.

The Seattle conference is very different than any other event I’ve been a part of; with under 100 people in attendance, it’s small and personal.  I had the opportunity to talk to almost every person there, which is something you rarely get to say at any event these days.  During lunch on both days the team running the event led interesting discussions and helped encourage people to talk to other security professionals they’d never met before.

My favorite talk was by Tony Rucci, giving a detailed account of what it was like to be part of the White House staff on 9/11/2001.  It was interesting to hear the first hand account of someone who’d been on the ground at the time.  I liked getting to go to talks by friends like Adam Shostack and Zach Lanier, even if Zach did lose me about 15 minutes into his talk (I’m not an Android debugger by trade, so shoot me).  Robert M. Lee’s talk on the maturity of security was good to hear, but I feel he may be a bit optimistic.  The Base Rate Fallacy talk by Florer & Lowder made my brain hurt; my wife is currently taking a statistics class, maybe I should ask her for help.

I haven’t been to the larger SOURCE Boston, but if you’re in the Seattle area, look at coming to the con when it happens next year.  Hopefully it stays small and intimate for a few more years.  And hopefully it can stay in the Maritime Museum for a few more years as well.

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Feb 15 2012

Why are we talking philosophy instead of technology?

Published by under General,Risk,Simple Security

A friend of mine recently complained in Twitter that, according to his count, nearly 80% of all talks given at the security conferences he’d looked at recently were now non-technical.  It might be in part because he’s @ramblinpeck on twitter, aka Daniel Peck, Research Scientist or something like that at Barracuda Networks.  Which is my way of saying his idea of a technical talk might be a little more technical than many peoples’.  But whether you’re at his level of technical expertise or mine, I think he’s got a valid point in saying that at most security conferences, the majority of the talks are less about the technical aspects of security and more about the philosophy or generalities of security.  And that’s probably the way it should be.

Why should most talks be more about principles of security and less about the technical aspects of security?  The first reason is that, with a few exceptions, the whole reason that conferences exist is to get butts in seats and to a place where vendors can get at them.  Even community led events like the BSides movement are about getting people to attend and mingle, the goal is still to create an atmosphere that draws people into the event and around other like minded individuals.  And many technical talks are counter to that goal, not in their content, but in who they pull in.  For example, a talk about a bug in a compiler on a OS X box is great for the few individuals in the crowd of attendees who a) work on Apple b) are worried about bugs in compilers and c) have enough technical knowledge and interest to travel the distance to attend an event.  But for the other 98% of the people interested in security who might be willing to travel to an event, they’ll take a look at the subject matter and decide it’s not for them.  Finding the right audience for any deeply technical talk is an art form at best and in most cases is more closely akin to guesswork than anything resembling a science.

A second reason it’s hard to have technical talks at security conferences is because of the wide variety in skill levels attained by security professionals.  I’m fairly smart, I’ve been in security for a long time and I understand at least the basics behind most of the technologies that make the Internet tick.  There are even one or two aspects of security that I can do the deep geek dive with almost anyone.  But when a talk is given that assumes a level of expertise that may not exist in more than a dozen people worldwide, I’m going to be left out and leave the talk annoyed and confused.  Or worse, if a talk was advertised as being technical but I find out when I attend that it’s a primer level of technical and I already know most of what’s being presented, I’m going to be annoyed, probably vocally so, and tell people that the talk was mislabeled.  It’s very hard, if not impossible, to create a presentation that captures multiple levels of technical background and it’s even harder to look at an abstract for a talk and decide what level of technical expertise it’s appropriate for.  Which, again, makes it less likely that the talk will be selected for a conference.

The third, and possibly most important, reason we’re talking about the philosophy behind security more than the technology is that so many of the assumptions that have gone into building the technology are wrong!  Security isn’t something that was designed into the Internet and corporate networks from the start, it was bolted on after, the cracks were spackled over and huge loads of duct tape were wrapped around the whole thing and it was called ‘secure’.  Or, more often, security has simply been ignored as a cost center until a compromise happens and data is lost.  Instead of building a cohesive, multilayered approach, we’ve built a collection of point solutions, few of which actually deliver on their promises and even fewer of which are properly configured to fully deliver what they’re capable of.  Given some of the compromises we’ve seen over the last year, we have every reason to believe what we’re doing isn’t working.

We’re at a point where we need to re-examine the fundamental thinking that underlies how security works.  It’s not an issue of flipping the evil bit off in a packet, it’s an issue of engineering a new set of solutions from the ground up.  The technical aspects of these solutions will be vitally important, but unless we can understand the underlying assumptions we’ve made, we’re going to make the same mistakes again on an even larger scale.

Security professionals come in all levels of technical expertise, but all of us benefit from a better understanding the philosophy that underlies our decision making processes.  I think that understanding where your decisions are coming from is even more important than the technical details of how those decisions are implemented.  I’ve seen many technical decisions made that looked good in the short term, but led to dead ends both in terms of the technology and the opportunities that the decisions limited.

This is all my way of saying that I believe an 80/20 split of non-technical to technical talks is probably appropriate for most security conferences.  The majority of people aren’t going to care about a specific technology because it simply doesn’t affect them directly.  But so many of us want to understand the underlying foundations of our chosen field.  It’s great to dig into the deeply geeky details of a protocol, but the vast majority of professionals will never need to do that for fun or for profit.  But every person who works in the security field needs to understand the philosophy that goes into making security decisions at all levels.

PS.  I’ll be giving a related talk, ‘Fundamental Flaws in Security Thinking’ at BSidesSF on Tuesday, February 28th at 1pm.  Come tell me how I’m wrong.

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Nov 03 2011

Open Tabs 11/03/11

This week’s podcast conversation with HD Moore and Josh Corman was a good thing.  Getting the ideas of “HD Moore’s Law“, the security poverty line and security debt out there so other people can beat on the ideas, examine them for flaws and hopefully incorporate portions of the concepts into their own thinking.  This is, after all, the whole reason I started blogging and podcasting in the first place.

Open Tabs 11/03/11:

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