What Cybersecurity and a Trip to the Dentist Have in Common

It was that time of year again. The day I lie and promise to be good the rest of the year: dental check-up day. During this most recent visit I was struck at how much people treat the security of their computers and accounts in the same way they treat their oral health.

You know what you’re supposed to do, but you don’t do it. “How often do you floss?” the dentist asks us, knowing full well that we’re lying through our bloody gums. If we flossed regularly we wouldn’t have bloody gums. When it comes to security we know we’re supposed to do all sorts of things, like create strong passwords and never re-use them, or lock our screens when we leave our desks, or use two-factor authentication on everything we can. When do we do these things? When a bunch of passwords get stolen and cracked, or when a phish leads to a data breach; the equivalent of flossing like a maniac the night before your annual check-up.

You have tools, but you don’t use them well. Mechanical toothbrushes, water flossers, even the metal tools the hygienist uses to scrape away plaque, are all readily available. When do you use them? You brush in the morning for sure and usually at night. We already know you don’t floss. You bought the Waterpik but it makes such a mess you only use it after corn on the cob or brisket. Likewise, you may run anti-virus software but you’re not diligent about updating it. You delay installing patches because it is inconvenient. You allow Flash and pop-ups and cookies and all sorts of things that could cause problems because who wants to use the web like it’s 1995?

Solutions are rarely permanent. Fillings replace the gap left when a cavity is removed, but eventually fillings can develop cracks. Crowns can come loose. That new IDS or firewall or end-point solution, where there was none, is a significant improvement in your security posture, but there are ways to bypass or undermine every security mechanism, at which point you’re back in the hands of expensive professionals (to fix the problem and/or clean up the mess) and looking at another pricy – and temporary – investment.

You have to get your hands dirty to do the job right. Understanding just what a sorry state your oral health is in means letting someone put their hands in your mouth. They’re spraying water and its splashing on your face. They’re getting their blood on their fingers. Bits of gunk are flying around. Sometimes they have to put you under because what’s necessary would make you scream. There is no such thing as a quick fix to security problems either. You have to attack the problem at the root, and that means blood, sweat, and tears.

These issues don’t exist in a vacuum. Dental health impacts more than just your mouth, and illnesses that impact other parts of your body can impact oral health. Bad or poor security can have a negative impact on your organization in myriad ways, and if your organization doesn’t place a priority on security you’re not going to get the best security capabilities or resources. In both cases you have to view the situation holistically. Just because you have a pretty smile, doesn’t mean you don’t have problems.

 

Cybersecurity Through the Lens of Rock Climbing

I’ve been to a lot of kid’s sporting events in the last decade plus. They have their moments, but I think I speak for all parents who are not living vicariously through their child’s prowess on the field of play when I say there are a few dozen places you’d rather be than sitting on a cooler of orange slices and water bottles on a Saturday morning.

But since we’re fond of making sports a metaphor for so many other things in life — or is it the other way around — I thought I’d point out a couple of lessons that rock climbing (yes, they have competitions) teaches us in security.

Everything is harder than it looks. When my son started rock climbing he was all about using his arms, with predictable results. It wasn’t until he realized the importance of using all four limbs that he really started to have success. There is no shortage of recommendations or guidance or frameworks that one can use to help secure an enterprise, but if it was as easy as installing anti-virus, telling the CEO there are bad guys out there, and checking boxes on a list, my SF86 wouldn’t be in Beijing.

There is a significant difference between practice and real life. Climbing gyms have all sorts of different configurations on their walls, but they cannot always replicate what you’ll find in the wild. Sometimes, there isn’t a convenient hand- or foot-hold to get you over the top. Sometimes you hit a dead end and have to find another way around. In security maybe that’s a corporate policy (or raison d’etre). Maybe its a regulation or even a physical constraint. Regardless, you need to be prepared to take a long, winding route to your goal, or accept that what needs doing is one crag too far.

You need strength in your core and at the extremities. Having a strong grip is great, but without a high level of strength and mobility in your abdomen, shoulders, and hips, you will find it very hard to get up and out of tight spots. Better security requires a range of talents, tools, and methods. You’ve got to work on them all, and in a coordinated fashion with the rest of the organization, to succeed.

Energy drains quickly. A given bouldering problem may be both vertical and horizontal. The distance traversed may not be long, but crawling on all fours, upside-down, is not a party. Trying to achieve security goals can be equally challenging and exhausting. You’re always the person who says, ‘no’. You’re always fighting for resources, and respect. You’re always the scapegoat. At some point everyone asks, “why bother?”

No one gets through the hard stuff the first time. Everyone who makes going through a high V-rated route look easy only does so because they fell on their backsides more often than they reached the top. They make it look easy because they know what doesn’t work. Senior practitioners, successful CISOs, they all failed a lot before they won.

Breaches Forever!

The computer security industry is not stopping breaches. Not for lack of trying, but if you’re familiar with the myth of Sisyphus, such efforts are the definition of pointless. If this sounds strange coming from a computer security person, it shouldn’t. I’m not here to blow smoke up your fourth point of contact; I’m hear to point out that the impetus for progress is not going to come from anything a bunch of nerds conjure up.

The arguments that spring up whenever there is an epic breach are predictable and can be broken down into two major themes:

    1. Everyone in the victim company is an idiot. If they just employed people like me and my friends, this never would have happened.
    2. Securing data on an enterprise scale is hard. The idea that there is one or a hundred things that could have been done to prevent this disaster dismisses the complexity of what’s involved in protecting an “enterprise” and not “my basement lab.”

Now, the argument over whether or not the C-levels of Equifax were equipped — intellectually or materially — has been made, but the result doesn’t matter. Day to day the dynamic in corporations around the world is the same. The world’s greatest CISO still has to fight for budget, human resources, technical equipment and software, etc. The CFO still has to balance budgets and attempt (futile as it may be in security) to assess if the CISO’s requests produce a sufficient ROI, etc. The CEO really only cares about making his numbers in a fashion that keeps him out of jail.

There is no requirement for a secure enterprise. There is a requirement to have an enterprise that is secure enough to maintain compliance with applicable laws and that enables effective business operations.

Did Equifax do wrong? From what we can tell via publicly available information they did things, to varying degrees of effectiveness, and with questionable timing. They could have done a better job, but Equifax is just like every corporation in that security is something they have to comply with; profit is why they get up in the morning.

Breaches, regardless of their size or the sensitivity of the data involved, have become so commonplace that they are no longer automatically considered problematic. A breach alone is no longer justification for a lawsuit. Increasingly you have to show actual damages to have standing. Credit card number compromised? The bank makes you whole and happily issues you a new card. Medical data compromised? Insurance fraud is readily solved by a rate increase you hardly notice. Intimate details of your life lost to a foreign adversary? Well I guess the Forbidden City really is at this point.

And life goes on.

Breaches are a part of our way of life. By and large they do not impact our lives enough (or enough lives) to merit the kind of attention they get. As a friend recently pointed out, we are now living in a “post-authentication” world: so much data about us has been lost/stolen that anyone can be anyone else for a length of time. There is no point in trying to keep your personal information personal because it’s all effectively public, and has been for some time. Many times over.

The idea that this breach, or any breach hereafter, is going to be ‘the one’ that mobilizes the populace to a degree that they’re willing to do what is necessary to achieve political/legal change is wishful thinking. An angry mob, to the extent that anyone outside of the usual privacy/security community is going to get off their couch, is no substitute for the well-funded and organized industry lobbying effort.

I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that’s how it’s always played out, and there is no indication history is not going to repeat itself.

The Equifax Breach is Not Special

The hue and cry over the Equifax hack has subsided to a dull roar. We’ve passed the stage of ‘initial reports,’ which are usually wrong, and are firmly in armchair cybersecurity pundit mode. ‘What did Equifax executives know and when did they know it?’ inquiring minds want to know, among other things of varying relevance. All of this is de rigeur for massive breaches, along with a few other things…

First, there is more to the breach than meets the eye. This means some things won’t be as bad as initially thought, some things will be horribly worse. Today’s villains will end up looking like martyrs and everyone who seems competent will be remembered as buffoons…or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that everyone could have done everything right and they’re still just gears in a corporate machine working off of imperfect information, under impossible deadlines, without enough funding, and without the right human resources. You know: the same problems we all have.

The leadership team of Equifax is not better or worse than any other company. This means both behavior and capabilities and actions. Much has been made about the academic qualifications of the firm’s CISO, but it’s much ado about nothing. Experian isn’t her first job in security, and her previous positions were not for outfits that were slack about security. Let’s also remember that Equifax is not in the security business, so their primary concern was never going to be security.

Equifax will still be in business a year from now. Pick a major breach at a publicly traded company. Go back as far as you like. How many of those companies are still in business? How many of them have stock prices that are the same or better as they were just before the breach? I’ll save you some time: None that I can find have gone bankrupt and their stock prices are doing just fine, thankyouverymuch. If things hold true to form they’ll suffer no long-term impact. I’m so confident about this I’m actually buying Equifax stock.

This will not be the breach event that brings about change or reform.Remember the Target breach? Home Depot? TJ Maxx? OPM? Remember how those were the breaches that were supposed to change everything? Remember how breaches stopped, executives went to jail and paid stiff fines, and everything was right with the world? This breach is no different, and there is nothing to indicate the result will be different.

Finally, nobody cares. Not enough anyway, and not for long. Security people care because of myriad reasons. Individuals care because they’re afraid of being impersonated or defrauded. Lawmakers care because their constituents care and because being outraged on behalf of the little people makes for good passive campaigning. But let me tell you what is going to happen:

  • Some other security drama is going to pop up in a couple of weeks and all the angry nerds will channel their anger in that direction because nothing helps improve security than snarky hot takes on social media.
  • Individual citizens are going to realize that most if not everything lost in this breach has been lost a dozen times before. Even if this is the time they get ripped off, banks and retailers will make them whole.
  • Lawmakers will move on to the next crisis du jour because constituents have stopped pestering them about Equifax, and the data broker/credit rating industry lobbyists will have spent a sufficient amount of money on donations, scotch, cigars, and steaks to convince the honorable gentleman from the back 40 that the industry can regulate and take care of itself.

The Equifax breach is not special. It’s just like every other breach that preceded it, and it is almost assuredly going to be another data point that supports the template for the one that follows it. Security is not the issue we think it is, and it will never be until the consequences are high enough.

No One is Too Small to Attack

If you’ve been a security practitioner for any length of time, you have probably hear this from a client at least once:

We’re too small/unimportant to be a target of hackers.

If you’ve been doing this for any length of time you also know this is the point in the conversation where you smile politely, get up, and excuse yourself while they go back to their business and you go on to your next meeting. Anyone who has it in their head that they don’t have a red laser dot on their forehead is not going to be convinced by your war stories or ream of counter-examples.

They will learn the hard way.

The thing you want to tell these folks is that anyone online is a target because everyone online has something of value. The reason most folks who think they’re not targets think the way they do is because they don’t deal in valuable information. Data breaches at banks, government agencies, or credit bureaus make headlines because your name, along with your birth date, social security number, bank account, and so on are monetizable.

If you move or make commodity widgets, your efficiency and up-time are what you consider valuable. The design of the widget is not special; they’re one of a hundred factories worldwide that make widgets. What these folks don’t realize is that just having a computer online is a valuable resource to someone. That’s one more processor that a bad guy didn’t have before. It’s one more hard drive they can store illicit material on. One more system they can hop through or use to target another victim. You may not be a target, but you could be an accessory.

It’s also important to note that while you may not be the intended victim of someone else’s attack, that you were involved means down-time, and the expense of cleaning systems, and most all the other issues that the actual victim has to deal with. Yes, on a smaller scale, but it’s not zero, which is the sum you came up with when you decided you weren’t a target.

The widget makers of the world are right to look with a jaundiced eye at calls to spend a lot on security, or to procure a lot of fancy boxes and software. When solutions are designed by people who cut their teeth on fighting nation-state adversaries and “advanced” threats, there isn’t a lot of options for people who need the basics.

Success in cybersecurity at every level means paying attention to business needs, and acceptable risks, not just external threats. The best advice is holistic in nature, not a pitch that plays to your professional strengths. That you know how to wield a hammer is not an excuse for only paying attention to exposed nails.

Most of the time, the best security recommendations are the cheap and unglamorous ones. No, it’s not pretty or fun, but it’s what you owe your clients if you’re really about security.

C.R.E.A.M. IoT Edition

I didn’t get to see the discussion between Justine Bone and Chris Wysopal about the former’s approach to monetizing vulnerabilities. If you’re not familiar with the approach, or the “Muddy Waters” episode, take a minute to brush up, I’ll wait….

OK, so if you’re in one computer security sub-community the first words out of your mouth are probably something along the lines of: “what a bunch of money-grubbing parasites.” If you knew anyone associated with this event you’ve probably stop talking to them. You’d certainly start talking shit about them. This is supposed to be about security, not profiteering.

If you’re in a different sub-community you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “what a bunch of money-grubbing parasites,” only for different reasons. You’re not naive enough to think that a giant company will drop everything to fix the buffer overflow you discovered last week. Even if they did, because it’s a couple of lines in a couple of million lines of code, a fix isn’t necessarily imminent. Publicity linked to responsible disclosure is a more passive way of telling the world: “We are open for business” because it’s about security, but it’s also about paying the mortgage.

If you’re in yet another sub-community you’re probably wondering why you didn’t think of it yourself, and are fingering your Rolodex to find a firm to team up with. Not because mortgages or yachts don’t pay for themselves, but because you realize that the only way to get some companies to give a shit is to hit them where it hurts: in the wallet.

The idea that vulnerability disclosure, in any of its flavors, is having a sufficiently powerful impact on computer security is not zero, but its not registering on a scale that matters. Bug bounty programs are all the rage, and they have great utility, but it will take time before the global pwns/minute ratio changes in any meaningful fashion.

Arguing about the utility of your preferred disclosure policy misses the most significant point about vulnerabilities: the people who created them don’t care unless it costs them money. For publicly traded companies, pwnage does impact the stock price: for maybe a fiscal quarter. Just about every company that’s suffered an epic breach sees their stock price at or higher than it was pre-breach just a year later. Shorting a company’s stock before dropping the mic on one vulnerability is a novelty: it’s a material event if you can do it fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

We can go round and round about what’s going to drive improvements in computer security writ large, but when you boil it down it’s really only about one of and/or two things: money and bodies. This particular approach to monetizing vulnerabilities tackles both.

We will begin to see significant improvements in computer security when a sufficient number of people die in a sufficiently short period of time due to computer security issues. At a minimum we’ll see legislative action, which will be designed to drive improvements. Do you know how many people had to die before seatbelts in cars became mandatory? You don’t want to know.

When the cost of making insecure devices exceeds the profits they generate, we’ll see improvements. At a minimum we’ll see bug bounty programs, which is one piece of the puzzle of making actually, or at least reasonably secure devices. Do you know how hard it is to write secure code? You don’t want to know.

If you’re someone with a vulnerable medical device implanted in them you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “who the **** do you think you are, telling people how to kill me?” Yeah, there is that. But as has been pointed out in numerous interviews, who is more wrong: the person who points out the vulnerability (without PoC) or the company that knowingly let’s people walk around with potentially fatally flawed devices in their bodies? Maybe two wrongs don’t make a right, but as is so often the case in security, you have to choose between the least terrible option.

The Wolf is Here

For decades we’ve heard that iCalamity is right around the corner. For decades we’ve largely ignored pleas to try and address computer security issues when they are relatively cheap and easy, before they got too large and complicated to do at all. We have been living a fairy tale life, and absent bold action and an emphasis on resiliency, it only gets grim(m)er going forward.

Reasonably affordable personal computers became a thing when I was in high school. I fiddled around a bit, but I didn’t know that computer security was a thing until I was on active duty and the Morris Worm was all over the news. Between the last time Snap! charted and today, we have covered a lot of ground from a general purpose IT perspective. We’ve gone from HTML and CGI to the cloud. From a security perspective however, we’ll still largely relying on firewalls, anti-virus, and SSL.

Why the disparate pace of progress? People demand that their technology be functional, not secure. Like so many areas of our lives, we worry about the here and now, not the what-might-be. We only worry about risks until a sufficiently horrific scenario occurs, or if one is not enough, until enough of them occur in a sufficiently short period of time.

Of course today we don’t just have to worry about securing PCs. By now it is fairly common knowledge that your car is full of computers, as is increasingly your house. Some people wear computers, and some of us are walking around with computers inside of us. Critical infrastructure is lousy with computers, and this week we learned that those shepherd boys crying ‘wolf’ all those years weren’t playing us for fools, they were just too early.

The fragility of our standard of living is no longer the musings of Cassandras. The proof of concept was thankfully demonstrated far, far away, but the reality is we’re not really any safer just because ‘merica. Keeping the lights on, hearts beating, and the water flowing is a far more complex endeavor than you find in the commodity IT world. It is entirely possible that in some situations there is no ‘fix’ to certain problems, which means given various inter-dependencies we will always find ourselves with a Damoclean sword over our heads.

Mixed mythologies notwithstanding, the key to success writ large is insight and resiliency. The more aware you are of what you have, how it works, and how to get along without it will be critical to surviving both accidents and attacks. I would like to think that the market will demand both functional and secure technology, and that manufacturers will respond accordingly, but 50 years of playing kick the can tells me that’s not likely. The analog to security in industrial environments is safety, and that’s one area power plants, hospitals, and the like have down far better than their peers in the general purpose computing world. We might not be able to secure the future, but with luck we should be able to survive it.

Cyber Security Through the Lens of an Election

Inauguration day has come and gone, giving us some time to reflect on both the previous election process as well as what lies ahead for the next four years. There are a number of parallels between running for office and running a cyber security operation, and a few lessons learned from the former can help those involved in the latter.

It’s a Campaign, Not a Day Hike

Depending on the office you’re running for, your campaign might start years before the winner takes the oath of office. Likewise, it is likely to take years to reach the ideal end-state for the IT enterprise you’re responsible to protect. To further complicate things, technology in general and security threats specifically will change over time, which means the probability you’ll see the end of the race is very close to 0. Not running is not an option, so pace yourself.

You Need a Team

Every chief executive needs a team to get things done. In government, it’s called a “cabinet” and in business the “C-suite.” Regardless of the nomenclature, the purpose is the same: they are the people who specialize in certain things who help you formulate and execute policy. If you’re lucky you’ll get a team that buys into your vision, trusts you implicitly, and has the resources necessary to get the job done. More than likely you’re going to have something more akin to a Team of Rivals, but not ones you got to pick.

 (All Kinds of) Experience Matters

There is no one-size fits-all career path that leads to the White House. People that get into cyber security have a wide range of backgrounds. Yet in both fields people love to poke at perceived shortcomings of those who aspire to (or end up in) top positions. We pick on Michael Daniel or Rudy Giuliani for their lack of technical acumen, forgetting that George Washington never went to high school and his first job was blue collar. Being able to cast a vision, manage people under stress, mange limited resources, and inspire confidence; none of those things requires a given type or level of education, and all of them can be developed in a variety of ways.

Everyone is a Constituent

If you’re in security, everyone is “your people.” You don’t have a party, you don’t have a faction, you have to make everyone happy. At the very least you have to keep everyone from revolting. Everyone has a different agenda, different needs, different outlooks. You will make enemies, and different people will be your friend or foe depending on the situation. Success depends on keeping all those factors in balance so that you can move the center forward.

It’s a great parlor game to try and figure out what the next four years is going to be like on the political front, but the fact of the matter is we have no real idea how things are going to go. In that sense politics is a lot like cyber security: you prepare for the worst, you assume every day is going to be rocky, but sometimes you get pleasantly surprised.

Hail to the Chief! All of them.

Save Yourself – Delete Your Data

You probably don’t remember but in the spring of 2015 I wrote:

What if ransomware is only the beginning? What about exposé-ware?  I’ve copied your files. Pay me a minimal amount of money in a given time-frame or I’ll publish your data online for everyone to see. Live in a community that frowns upon certain types of behavior? Pay me or I’ll make sure the pitchfork brigade is at your door.

This week we learn:

Instead of simply encoding files so that users can’t access them, some blackmailers armed with a new kind of malware called doxware are threatening to leak potentially sensitive files to the public if a ransom isn’t paid, says Chris Ensey, COO of Dunbar Security Solutions.

My response now is the same as it was a before:

In an era when remedying computer security failures is cheaper than calling in computer security experts, we need to collectively get on board with some new ways of doing things.

For starters, we need to work at scale. Botnet takedowns are one example. I’m proud to have been associated with a few, and I’m not going to pretend every effort like this goes off without a hitch, but we need to do more at or near the same scale as the bad guys, and often. That’s really the only way we have any hope of raising attacker costs: when they’re fighting people in the same weight class with similar skills on a regular basis.

We also need to accept that the future has to be more about restoration than conviction. Most corporate victims of computer crime don’t want to prosecute, they just want to get back to work. Tactics, techniques, procedures and tools need to reflect that reality. If you’re law enforcement you don’t have a lot of leeway in that regard, but everyone else: are you really doing right by your customers if you are adhering to a law enforcement-centric approach simply because that’s how you were taught?

Finally, we need to retire more problems. You’ve heard the phrase: “if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?” My variation is: “if you’re such an expert how come you haven’t solved anything?” Now, not every computer security problem can be solved, but there are problems that can be minimized if not trivialized. That would require regularly growing and then slaughtering cash cows. Business majors who run massive security companies don’t like that idea, but it is not like we’re going to run out of problems. So as long as there are new opportunities to slay digital dragons, you have to ask yourself: am I in this to get rich, or am I in this to make the ‘Net a safer place? Kudos if you can honestly do both.

…and I would add one more thing: If you don’t need data, get rid of it. I remember when storage was expensive and you had to be judicious about what you saved, but if you buy enough memory these days its practically free, which has led people to think that there are no consequences for control-s’ing their way to retention nirvana. The supposed value of “big data” doesn’t help. When you get down to it though, you can’t be held ransom – or extorted – over something you don’t have.

Cyber Responsibility: The Trickle-Down Effect

There was a time when cyber security was the sole responsibility of IT, but those days are long gone. Today’s executives know better than to presume themselves and their enterprises immune from a cyberattack, which is why staying safe online requires more than an old “do as I say” mentality. A pair of Cisco leaders, CEO John Chambers and SVP and Chief Security and Trust Officer John N. Stewart place the responsibility squarely on the leadership’s shoulders. “The CEO must make it clear that security is not just an IT problem—it is a priority for the business that is top of mind. Business and technology leadership must work together to discuss potential risks and find solutions that protect intellectual property and financials alike.” (CIO)

Toujours en Avant. I just made this very same argument recently to a room full of CxOs and board members, to varying levels of agreement. You’re never going to convince someone who has had the ‘lead from the front’ mantra drilled into his psyche that there is any other approach, but then in business circles not everyone at echelons-above feels the same way. Regardless of your leadership style remember one thing: people will focus on whatever they are rated on or compensated for. If cyber security is not something that impacts their personal bottom line, they won’t do it regardless of what you say or do.