What is Information Security: New School Primer
Recently, I’ve heard some bits and pieces about how Information Security (InfoSec) can be “threat-centric” or “vulnerability-centric”. This stuck me funny for a number of reasons, mainly it showed a basic bias towards what InfoSec *is*. And to me, InfoSec is too complex to be described as “threat-centric” or “vulnerability-centric” and yet still simple enough to be described at a high level in a few paragraphs in a blog post. So I thought I’d write a “primer” post on what InfoSec is to create a reference point.
First, InfoSec is a hypothetical construct. It is something that we can all talk about, but it’s not directly observable and therefore measurable like, say, speed that we can describe km/hr. “Directly” is to be stressed there because there are many hypothetical constructs of subjective value that we do create measurements and measurement scales for in order to create a state of (high) intersubjectivity between observers (don’t like that wikipedia definition, I use it to mean that you and I can kind of understand the same thing in the same way).
Because it’s a hypothetical construct, what is “secure enough” is also subjective to the observer, and a subjective assessment that is then immediately, almost subconsciously compared to the relative risk tolerance of the owner in their mind. This presents many challenges in managing a security program, not the least of which is establishing that high degree of intersubjectivity, above.
Second, security is not an engineering discipline, per se. Our industry treats it as such because most of us come from that background, and because the easiest thing to do to try to become “more secure” is buy a new engineering solution (security product marketing). But the bankruptcy of this way of thinking is present in both our budgets and our standards. A security management approach focused solely on engineering fails primarily because of the “intelligent” or adaptable attacker. For example, if security were pure engineering, it would be like building a bridge or getting an airplane in the air. In these cases, the forces that are applied to the infrastructure do not adapt or change tactics to cause failure. At worst, in engineering against nature we only have a difficult time adapting to forces unforeseen due to a combination of factors.
But InfoSec has to deal with the behaviors of attackers. Their sentience includes creativity and adaptability. The wind does not act to deceive. Gravity and rust do not go “low and slow” to evade detection. Rain does not customize its raindrops to bypass umbrellas. But sentient attackers do change to evade defenses and reach their goal.
And because InfoSec is not solely a “computer/software engineering” problem, it requires an understanding of both technology and non-technology fields. Yes, this includes software engineering, hardware engineering, and network engineering – but it also means concepts like management science and behavioral analytics (among many others) should have their place in understanding all the phenomena that creates a state of “secure”.
For example the outcome of having more than a “vulnerability-centric” view of InfoSec (from above) is that “secure” would reasonably measured by understanding both the force that the attackers can apply, and our ability to resist that force (1). In this way,”threat-centric” security (study of ability to apply force) is as useless without “vulnerability-centric” security (study of the ability to resist). It’s like trying to measure “distance-centric” speed without it being relative to “time-centric” speed, and is as equally useless.
Finally, InfoSec is a subset of Information Risk Management (IRM). IRM takes what we know about “secure” and adds concepts like probable impacts and resource allocation strategies. This can be confusing to many because of the many definitions of the word “risk” in the english language, but that’s a post for a different day.
THE NEWSCHOOL APPROACH – THE MONEYBALL-ING OF INFORMATION SECURITY?
Moneyball is a fantastic book about how new approaches to measuring and modeling the performance of baseball players created market efficiencies for those baseball teams who were better able to use the data they had at hand. In a sense, the New School of InfoSec seeks to foster the collection of data and the development of new and better models for managing security.
But that simplistic analogy belies other important concepts. A call for the application of scientific method, the recognition that our standards are really just hypothesis about “how to secure”, the requirement that claims of success be backed up with data and not just a logical argument or isolated anecdotes, data sharing, transparency – these are all fundamental premises, needs even, of the New School of Information Security.
Because Security is a hypothetical construct, one that requires a great deal of intersubjectivity and a broad array of applicable knowledge to understand, the evidence of history suggests that a New School approach – a scientific approach, is the most efficient way of making progress.
(1) Jack Jones – The Factor Analysis of Information Risk