It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup or the Chaos

Well, Richard Smith has “resigned” from Equifax.

The CEO being fired is a rare outcome of a breach, and so I want to discuss what’s going on and put it into context, which includes the failures at DHS, and Deloitte breach. Also, I aim to follow the advice to praise specifically and criticize in general, and break that pattern here because we can learn so much from the specifics of the cases, and in so learning, do better.

Smith was not fired because of the breach. Breaches happen. Executives know this. Boards know this. The breach is outside of their control. Smith was fired because of the post-breach chaos. Systems that didn’t work. Tweeting links to a scam site for two weeks. PINS that were recoverable. Weeks of systems saying “you may have been a victim.” Headlines like “Why the Equifax Breach Stings So Bad” in the NYTimes. Smith was fired in part because of the post-breach chaos, which was something he was supposed to control.

But it wasn’t just the chaos. It was that Equifax displayed so much self-centeredness after the breach. They had the chutzpah to offer up their own product as a remedy. And that self-dealing comes from seeing itself as a victim. From failing to understand how the breach will be seen in the rest of the world. And that’s a very similar motive to the one that leads to coverups.

In The New School Andrew and I discussed how fear of firing was one reason that companies don’t disclose breaches. We also discussed how, once you agree that “security issues” are things which should remain secret or shared with a small group, you can spend all your energy on rules for information sharing, and have no energy left for actual information sharing.

And I think that’s the root cause of “U.S. Tells 21 States That Hackers Targeted Their Voting Systems” a full year after finding out:

The notification came roughly a year after officials with the United States Department of Homeland Security first said states were targeted by hacking efforts possibly connected to Russia.

A year.

A year.

A year after states were first targeted. A year in which “Obama personally warned Mark Zuckerberg to take the threats of fake news ‘seriously.’” (Of course, the two issues may not have been provably linkable at the time.) But. A year.

I do not know what the people responsible for getting that message to the states were doing during that time, but we have every reason to believe that it probably had to do with (and here, I am using not my sarcastic font, but my scornful one) “rules of engagement,” “traffic light protocols,” “sources and methods” and other things which are at odds with addressing the issue. (End scornful font.) I understand the need for these things. I understand protecting sources is a key role of an intelligence service which wants to recruit more sources. And I also believe that there’s a time to risk those things. Or we might end up with a President who has more harsh words for Australia than the Philippines. More time for Russia than Germany.

In part, we have such a President because we value secrecy over disclosure. We accept these delays and view them as reasonable. Of course, the election didn’t turn entirely on these issues, but on our electoral college system, which I discussed at some length, including ways to fix it.

All of which brings me to the Deloitte breach, “Deloitte hit by cyber-attack revealing clients’ secret emails.” Deloitte, along with the others who make up the big four audit firms, gets access to its clients deepest secrets, and so you might expect that the response to the breach would be similar levels of outrage. And I suspect a lot of partners are making a lot of hat-in-hand visits to boardrooms, and contritely trying to answer questions like “what the flock were you people doing?” and “why the flock weren’t we told?” I expect that there’s going to be some very small bonuses this year. But, unlike our relationship with Equifax, boards do not feel powerless in relation to their auditors. They can pick and swap. Boards do not feel that the system is opaque and unfair. (They sometimes feel that the rules are unfair, but that’s a different failing.) The extended reporting time will likely be attributed to the deep analysis that Deloitte did so it could bring facts to its customers, and that might even be reasonable. After all, a breach is tolerable; chaos afterwards may not be.

The two biggest predictors of public outrage are chaos and coverups. No, that’s not quite right. The biggest causes are chaos and coverups. (Those intersect poorly with data brokerages, but are not limited to them.) And both are avoidable.

So what should you do to avoid them? There’s important work in preparing for a breach, and in preventing one.

  • First, run tabletop response exercises to understand what you’d do in various breach scenarios. Then re-run those scenarios with the principals (CEO, General Counsel) so they can practice, too.
  • To reduce the odds of a breach, realize that you need continuous and integrated security as part of your operational cycles. Move from focusing on pen tests, red teams and bug bounties to a focus on threat modeling, so you can find problems systematically and early.

I’d love to hear what other steps you think organizations often miss out on.

Parroting Bad Security Advice

A PARROT has become the latest voice to fool Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant after ordering gift boxes using an Amazon Echo. Buddy the African Grey Parrot, mimicked his owner’s voice so convincingly that her Amazon Echo accepted the order for six gift boxes. (“
Parrot mimics owner to make purchases using Amazon Echo

As Alexa has a facility to require a PIN code before placing an order, it was really down to the family that their bird was able to make the request.

Of course, Buddy would have been unable to learn the PIN.

Via Michael Froomkin.

“The Readability Of Scientific Texts Is Decreasing Over Time”

There’s an interesting new paper at bioRXiv, “The Readability Of Scientific Texts Is Decreasing Over Time.”

Lower readability is also a problem for specialists (22, 23, 24). This was explicitly shown by Hartley (22) who demonstrated that rewriting scientific abstracts, to improve their readability, increased academics’ ability to comprehend them. While science is complex, and some jargon is unavoidable (25), this does not justify the continuing trend that we have shown.

Ironically, the paper is released as a PDF, which is hard to read on a mobile phone. There’s a tool, pandoc, which can easily create HTML versions from their LaTeX source. I encourage everyone who cares about their work being read to create HTML and ebook versions.

Threat Modeling and Architecture

Threat Modeling and Architecture” is the latest in a series at Infosec Insider.

After I wrote my last article on Rolling out a Threat Modeling Program, Shawn Chowdhury asked (on Linkedin) for more informatioin on involving threat modeling in the architecture process. It’s a great question, except it involves the words “threat, “modeling,” and “architecture.” And each of those words, by itself, is enough to get some people twisted around an axle.

Continue reading “Threat Modeling and Architecture”

Breach Vouchers & Equifax 2017 Breach Links

[Thursday, September 21th is the latest of 5 updates.]

When I wrote “The Breach Response Market Is Broken,” I didn’t expect one of the players to validate everything I had to say. What I said was that the very act of firms contracting with breach response services inhibit the creation of a market for breach response, and the FTC should require them to give vouchers to consumers.

Vice Motherboard is reporting that “Firm Hired to Monitor Data Breaches Is Hacked, 143 Million Social Security Numbers Stolen.”

It’s not clear what database was accessed. On their website, Equifax says “No Evidence of Unauthorized Access to Core Consumer or Commercial Credit Reporting Databases” and “Company to Offer Free Identity Theft Protection and Credit File Monitoring to All U.S. Consumers.”

But here’s the thing; I don’t trust Equifax to protect data that … they just failed to protect. I want protection from an independent firm.

Equifax’s self-dealing in providing breach response services is unfair. No rational, well-informed consumer would select Equifax’s service in this situation. Equifax’s offering of credit file monitoring to all US consumers is also an unfair trade practice, which undercuts innovation, and limits the ability of new entrants to deliver effective services.

The FTC should require Equifax to send a voucher to each impacted individual which can be used to purchase any identity theft protection service on the market as of August, 2017.

Usually I don’t try to blog fast moving stories, but I may make an exception.

Update 1, later that day:

Update 2, Sept 9:

  • The International Business Times reports “Equifax Lobbied To Kill Rule Protecting Victims Of Data Breaches.” They report Equifax wrote “a rule blocking companies from forcing their customers to waive class action rights would expose credit agencies ‘to unmanageable class action liability that could result in full disgorgement of revenues’ if companies are found to have illegally harmed their customers.” It’s a nice life, having the government block your victims from suing you, especially if you’re worried that the harm is great enough to result in ‘full disgorgement of revenues.’ Now, you might argue that’s hyperbole, but maybe it’s a real fear.
  • The Onion reports “Equifax Impressed By Hackers’ Ability To Ruin People’s Finances More Efficiently Than Company Can.”
  • Equifax once brought me to a Nine Inch Nails concert, and under the payola rules, I ought to have disclosed that when writing about them. It was over a decade ago, and had slipped my mind.

Update 3, Sept 12:

Update 4, September 16:

Update 5, September 21:

Open for Business

Recently, I was talking to a friend who wasn’t aware that I’m consulting, and so I wanted to share a bit about my new life, consulting!

I’m consulting for companies of all sizes and in many sectors. The services I’m providing include threat modeling training, engineering and strategy work, often around risk analysis or product management.

Some of the projects I’ve completed recently include:

  • Threat modeling training – Engineers learn how to threat model, and how to make threat modeling part of their delivery. Classes range from 1 to 5 days, and are customized to your needs.
  • Process re-engineering for a bank – Rebuilt their approach to a class of risks, increasing security, consistently and productively across the org.
  • Feature analysis for a security company – Identifying market need, what features fit those needs, and created a compelling and grounded story to bring the team together.

If you have needs like these, or other issues where you think my skills and experience could help, I’d love to hear from you. And if you know someone who might, I’m happy to talk to them.

I have a to-the-point website at and some details of my threat modeling services are at

Star Wars, Star Trek and Getting Root on a Star Ship

It’s time for some Friday Star Wars blogging!

Reverend Robert Ballecer, SJ tweeted: “as a child I learned a few switches & 4 numbers gives you remote code ex on a 23rd century starship.” I responded, asking “When attackers are on the bridge and can flip switches, how long a password do you think is appropriate?”

It went from there, but I’d like to take this opportunity to propose a partial threat model for 23rd century starships.

First, a few assumptions:

  • Sometimes, officers and crewmembers of starships die, are taken prisoner, or are otherwise unable to complete their duties.
  • It is important that the crew can control the spaceship, including software and computer hardware.
  • Unrestricted physical access to the bridge means you control the ship (with possible special cases, and of course, the Holodeck because lord forgive me, they need to shoot a show every week. Scalzi managed to get a surprisingly large amount from this line of inquiry in Red Shirts. But I digress.)

I’ll also go so far as to say that as a derivative of the assumptions, the crew may need a rapid way to assign “Captain” privileges to someone else, and starship designers should be careful to design for that use case.

So the competing threats here are denial of service (and possibly denial of future service) and elevation of privilege. There’s a tension between designing for availability (anyone on the bridge can assume command relatively easily) and proper authorization. My take was that the attackers on the bridge are already close to winning, and so defenses which impede replacing command authority are a mistake.

Now, in responding, I thought that “flipping switches” meant physically being there, because I don’t recall the episode that he’s discussing. But further in further conversation, what became clear is that the switches can be flipped remotely, which dramatically alters the need for a defense.

It’s not clear what non-dramatic requirement such remote switch flipping serves, and so on balance, it’s easy to declare that the added risk is high and we should not have remote switch flipping. It is always easy to declare that the risk is high, but here I have the advantage that there’s no real product designer in the room arguing for the feature. If there was, we would clarify the requirement, and then probably engineer some appropriate defenses, such as exponential backoff for remote connections. Of course, in the future with layers of virtualization, what a remote connection is may be tricky to determine in software.

Which brings me to another tweet, by Hongyi Hu, who said he was “disappointed that they still use passwords for authentication in the 23rd century. I hope the long tail isn’t that long! 😛” What can I say but, “we’ll always have passwords.” We’ll just use them for less.

As I’ve discussed, the reason I use Star Wars over Star Trek in my teaching and examples is that no one is confused about the story in the core movies. I made precisely this mistake.

Image: The Spaceship Discovery, rendered by Trekkie5000. Alert readers will recall issues that could have been discovered with better threat modeling.