Category: careers

Ries on Gatekeepers

Eric Ries wrote the excellent book Lean Startup. In a recent interview with Firstround, he talks about how to integrate gatekeeping functions into a lean business.

There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in there, and almost all of it applies to security. The core is that the gatekeeper has compassion for the work and ambiguity of engineering, and that compassion comes from being embedded into the work.

Engineering involves starting with problem statements that are incomplete or inaccurate, and dialog about those problems leading to refinement of the understanding of both the problem and the solution. It’s hard to do that from a remote place in the organization.

This is an argument for what Ries calls embedding, which is appropriate for some gatekeeping functions. What’s more important for security is “a seat at the table.” They’re importantly different. Embedding is a matter of availability when a problem comes up where we need the voice of legal or finance. A seat at the table is that the person is invited to the meetings where the problems and solutions are being refined. That happens naturally when the person invited is a productive contributor. Many functions, from program management to test to usability have won a seat at the table, and sometimes lost it as well.

The first hurdle to a seat at the table, and the only one which is non-negotiable, is productive engagement. “We get more done because we invite Alice to our meetings.” That more might be shipping faster, it might be less rework, it might be higher quality. It is always things which matter to the organization.

The more productive the engagement, the more willing people will be to overlook soft skills issues. The famed BOFH doesn’t get a seat at the table, because as much as IT might want one, he’s abusive. Similarly, security people will often show up and say things like “one breach could sink the company,” or “your design is crap.” Hyperbole, insults, anger, all of the crassly negative emotions will cost not just Angry Bob but the whole security team their seat. These are behaviors that get drawn to the attention of management or even HR. They limit careers, and they also make it hard to give feedback. Who wants to get insulted when you’re trying to help someone? They limit teams. Who wants to work with people like that?

There are other, less crass behaviors with similar effect: not listening, not delivering on time, not taking on work that needs taking on. These soft skills will not get you to the table, but they’ll ease the journey, and most importantly, get you the feedback you may need to get there. But if you are in a gatekeeper role today, or if your security team aspires to rise to the point where you have a rope you can pull to stop the production line, the new article on gatekeepers by Mr. Ries is well worth your time.

One of the aspects of the post that’s worthwhile is providing crisp guidance, which reminds me of what Izar Tarandach talked about at Appsec 2018. (My notes, the video.)

Photo by Aryok Mateus.

Building an Application Security Team

The Application Security Engineer role is in demand nowadays. Many job offers are available, but actual candidates are scarce. Why is that? It’s not an easy task as the level of skills needed is both to be broad and specialized at the same time. Most of the offers are about one person, one unicorn that does all those wonderful things to ensure that the organization is making secure software.


Looking at where we are coming from

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the application security industry is traditionally split between two main types of offering: those who are selling products and those who are selling pen test services. In many occasions both are from the same vendor, but from different teams internally. Let’s break down how they are judged on their success to have an idea how it managed to evolve.

Continue reading

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.

What CSOs can Learn from Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll

If you listen to the security echo chamber, after an embarrassing failure like a data breach, you lose your job, right?

Let’s look at Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, who made what the home town paper called the “Worst Play Call Ever.” With less than a minute to go in the Superbowl, and the game hanging in the balance, the Seahawks passed. It was intercepted, and…game over.

Breach Lose the Super-Bowl
Publicity News stories, letters Half of America watches the game
Headline Another data breach Worst Call Play Ever
Cost $187 per record! Tens of millions in sponsorship
Public response Guessing, not analysis Monday morning quarterbacking*
Outcome CSO loses job Pete Caroll remains employed

So what can the CSO learn from Pete Carroll?

First and foremost, have back to back winning seasons. Since you don’t have seasons, you’ll need to do something else that builds executive confidence in your decision making. (Nothing builds confidence like success.)

Second, you don’t need perfect success, you need successful prediction and follow-through. Gunnar Peterson has a great post about the security VP winning battles. As you start winning battles, you also need to predict what will happen. “My team will find 5-10 really important issues, and fixing them pre-ship will save us a mountain of technical debt and emergency events.” Pete Carroll had that—a system that worked.

Executives know that stuff happens. The best laid plans…no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. But if you routinely say things like “one vuln, and it’s over, we’re pwned!” or “a breach here could sink the company!” you lose any credibility you might have. Real execs expect problems to materialize.

Lastly, after what had to be an excruciating call, he took the conversation to next year, to building the team’s confidence, and not dwelling on the past.

What Pete Carroll has is a record of delivering what executives wanted, rather than delivering excuses, hyperbole, or jargon. Do you have that record?

* Admittedly, it started about 5 seconds after the play, and come on, how could I pass that up? (Ahem)
† I’m aware of the gotcha risk here. I wrote this the day after Sony Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal was shuffled off to a new studio.

Your career is over after a breach? Another Myth, Busted!

I’m a big fan of learning from our experiences around breaches. Claims like “your stock will fall”, or “your customers will flee” are shown to be false by statistical analysis, and I expect we’d see the same if we looked at people losing their jobs over breaches. (We could do this, for example, via LinkedIn and DatalossDB.)

There’s another myth that’s out there about what happens after a breach, and that is that the breach destroys the career of the CISO and the entire security department. And so I’m pleased today to be able to talk about that myth. Frequently, when I bring up breaches and lessons we can learn, people bring up ChoicePoint as the ultimate counterexample. Now, ChoicePoint is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but from a stock price perspective, they’re a statistical outlier. And so I’m extra pleased to be able to discuss today’s lesson with ChoicePoint as our data point.

Last week, former ChoicePoint CISO Rich Baich was [named Wells Fargo’s] first chief information security officer. Congratulations, Rich!

Now, you might accuse me of substituting anecdote for data and analysis, and you’d be sort of right. One data point doesn’t plot a line. But not all science requires plotting a line. Oftentimes, a good experiment shows us things by being impossible under the standard model. Dropping things from the tower of Pisa shows that objects fall at the same speed, regardless of weight.

So Wells Fargo’s announcement is interesting because it provides a data point that invalidates the hypothesis “If you have a breach, your career is over.” Now, some people, less clever than you, dear reader, might try to retreat to a weaker claim “If you have a breach, your career may be over.” Of course, that “may” destroys any predictive value that the claim may have, and in fact, the claim “If [X], your career may be over,” is equally true, and equally useless, and that’s why you’re not going there.

In other words, if a breach always destroys a career, shouldn’t Rich be flipping burgers?

There’s three more variant hypotheses we can talk about:

  • “If you have a breach, your career will require a long period of rehabilitation.” But Rich was leading the “Global Cyber Threat and Vulnerability Management practice” for Deloitte and Touche, which is not exactly a backwater.
  • “If you have a breach, you will be fired for it.” That one is a bit trickier. I’m certainly not going to assert that no one has ever been fired for a breach happening. But it’s also clearly untrue. The weaker version is “if you have a breach, you may be fired for it”, and again, that’s not useful or interesting.
  • “If you have a breach, it will improve your career.” That’s also obviously false, and the weaker version isn’t faslifiable. But perhaps the lessons learned, focus, and publicity around a breach can make it helpful to your career. It’s not obviously dumber than the opposite claims.

So overall, what is useful and interesting is that yet another myth around breaches turns out to be false. So let’s start saying a bit more about what went wrong, and learning more about what’s going wrong.

Finally, again, congratulations and good luck to Rich in his new role!

Top 5 Security Influencers of 2011

I really like Gunnar Peterson’s post on “Top 5 Security Influencers:”

Its December and so its the season for lists. Here is my list of Top 5 Security Influencers, this is the list with the people who have the biggest (good and/or bad) influence on your company and user’s security:

My list is slightly different:

  1. The Person Coding Your App
  2. Your DBA
  3. Your Testers
  4. Your Ops team
  5. The person with the data
  6. Uma Thurman
  7. You

That’s right, without data to argue an effective case for investing in security, you have less influence than Uma Thurman. And even if you have more influence than her, if you want to be in the top 5, you better be the person bringing the data.

As long as we’re hiding everything that might allow us to judge comparative effectiveness, we’re going to continue making no progress.

Ahh, but which Uma?
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Update: Chris Hoff asks “But WHICH Uma? Kill Bill Uma or Pulp Fiction Uma?” and sadly, I have to answer: The Truth About Cats and Dogs Uma. You remember. Silly romantic comedy where guy falls in love with radio veterinarian Janeane Garofalo, who’s embarrassed about her looks? And Uma plays her gorgeous but vapid neighbor? That’s the Uma with the more influence than you. The one who spends time trying to not be bubbly when her audition for a newscaster job leads off with “hundreds of people feared dead in a nuclear accident?” Yeah. That Uma. Because at least she’s nice to look at while going on about stuff no one cares about. But you know? If you show up with some chops and some useful data to back your claims, you can do better than that.

On the downside, you’re unlikely to ever be as influential as Kill Bill Uma. Because, you know, she has a sword, and a demonstrated willingness to slice the heads off of people who argue with her, and a don’t-care attitude about jail. It’s hard to top that for short term influence. Just ask the 3rd guy trying to code your app, and hoping it doesn’t crash. He’s got eyes for no one not carrying that sword.

The Diginotar Tautology Club

I often say that breaches don’t drive companies out of business. Some people are asking me to eat crow because Vasco is closing its subsidiary Diginotar after the subsidiary was severely breached, failed to notify their reliant parties, mislead people when they did, and then allowed perhaps hundreds of thousands of people to fall victim to a man in the middle attack. I think Diginotar was an exception that proves the rule.

Statements about Diginotar going out of business are tautological. They take a single incident, selected because the company is going out of business, and then generalize from that. Unfortunately, Diginotar is the only CA that has gone out of business, and so anyone generalizing from it is starting from a set of businesses that have gone out of business. If you’d like to make a case for taking lessons from Diginotar, you must address why Comodo hasn’t gone belly up after *4* breaches (as counted by Moxie in his BlackHat talk).

It would probably also be helpful to comment on how Diginotar’s revenue rate of 200,000 euros in 2011 might contribute to it’s corporate parent deciding that damage control is the most economical choice, and what lessons other businesses can take.

To be entirely fair, I don’t know that Diginotar’s costs were above 200,000 euros per year, but a quick LinkedIn search shows 31 results, most of whom have not yet updated their profiles.

So take what lessons you want from Diginotar, but please don’t generalize from a set of one.

I’ll suggest that “be profitable” is an excellent generalization from businesses that have been breached and survived.

[Update: @cryptoki pointed me to the acquisition press release, which indicates 45 employees, and “DigiNotar reported revenues of approximately Euro 4.5 million for the year 2009. We do not expect 2010 to be materially different from 2009. DigiNotar’s audited statutory report for 2009 showed an operating loss of approximately Euro 280.000, but an after-tax profit of approximately Euro 380.000.” I don’t know how to reconcile the press statements of January 11th and August 30th.]

15 Years of Software Security: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Fifteen years ago, I posted a copy of “Source Code Review Guidelines” to the web. I’d created them for a large bank, because at the time, there was no single document on writing or reviewing for security that was broadly available. (This was a about four years before Michael Howard and Dave LeBlanc published Writing Secure Code or Gary McGraw and John Viega published Building Secure Software.)

So I assembled what we knew, and shared it to get feedback and help others. In looking back, the document describes what we can now recognize as an early approach to security development lifecycles, covering design, development, testing and deployment. It even contains a link to the first paper on fuzzing!

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve been involved in software security as a consultant, as the CTO of Reflective, a startup that delivered software security as a service, and as a member of Microsoft’s Security Development Lifecycle team where I focused on improving the way people threat model. I’m now working on usable security and how we integrate it into large-scale software development.

So after 15 years, I wanted to look forward a little at what we’ve learned and deployed, and what the next 15 years might bring. I should be clear that (as always) these are my personal opinions, not those of my employer.

Looking Back

Filling the Buffer for Fun and Profit
I released my guidelines 4 days before Phrack 49 came out with a short article called “Smashing The Stack For Fun And Profit.” Stack smashing wasn’t new. It had been described clearly in 1972 by John P. Anderson in the “Computer Security Technology Planning Study,” and publicly and dramatically demonstrated by the 1988 Morris Worm’s exploitation of fingerd. But Aleph1’s article made the technique accessible and understandable. The last 15 years have been dominated by important bugs which share the characteristics of being easily demonstrated as “undesired functionality” and being relatively easy to fix, as nothing should really depend on them.

The vuln and patch cycle
As a side effect of easily demonstrated memory corruption, we became accustomed to a cycle of proof-of-concept, sometimes a media cycle and usually a vendor response that fixed the issue. Early on, vendors ignored the bug reports or threatened vulnerability finders (who sometimes sounded like they were trying to blackmail vendors) and so we developed a culture of full disclosure, where researchers just made their discoveries available to the public. Some vendors set up processes for accepting security bug reports, with a few now offering money for such vulnerabilities, and we have a range of ways to describe various approaches to disclosure. Along the way, we created the CVE to help us talk about these vulnerabilities.

In some recent work, we discovered that the phrase “CVE-style vulnerability” was a clear descriptor that cut through a lot of discussion about what was meant by “vulnerability.” The need for terms to describe types of disclosure and vulnerabilities is an interesting window into how often we talk about it.

The industrialization of security
One effect of memory corruption vulnerabilities was that it was easy to see that the unspecified functionality were bugs. Those bugs were things that developers would fix. There’s a longstanding, formalist perspective that “A program that has not been specified cannot be
incorrect; it can only be surprising.” (“Proving a Computer System Secure“) That “formalist” perspective held us back from fixing a great many security issues. Sometimes the right behavior was hard to specify in advance. Good specifications are always tremendously expensive (although thats sometimes still cheaper than not having them.) When we started calling those things bugs, we started to fix them. And when we started to fix bugs, we got people interested in practical ways to reduce the number of those bugs. We had to organize our approaches, and discover which ones worked. Microsoft started sharing lots of its experience before I joined up, and that’s helped a great many organizations get started doing software security “at scale.”

Another aspect of the industrialization of security is the massive growth of security conferences. There are again, many types. There are hacker cons, there are vulnerability researcher cons, and there’s industry events like RSA. There’s also a rise in academic conferences. All of these (except BlackHat-style conferences) existed in 1996, but their growth has been spectacular.

Looking forward in software security

Memory corruption
The first thing that I expect will change is our focus on memory corruption vulnerabilities. We’re getting better at finding these early in the development with weakly typed languages, and better at building platforms with randomization built in to make the remainder harder to exploit. We’ll see a resurgence of command injection, design flaws and a set of things that I’m starting to think about as feature abuse. That includes things like Autorun, Javascript in PDFs (and heck, maybe Javascript in web pages), and also things like spam.

Human factors
Human factors in security will become even more obviously important, as more and more decisions will be required of the person because the computer just doesn’t know. Making good decisions is hard, and most of the the people we’ll ask to make decisions are not experts and reasonably prefer to just get their job done. We’re starting to see patterns like the “gold bars” and advice like “NEAT.” I expect we’ll learn a lot about how attacks work, how to build defenses, and coalesce around a set of reasonable expectations of someone using a computer. Those expectations will be slimmer than security experts will prefer, but good science and data will help make reasonable expectations clear.

Embedded systems
As software gets embedded in everything, so will flaws. Embedded systems will come with embedded flaws. The problems will hit not just Apple or Andriod, but cars, centrifuges, medical devices, and everything with code in it. Which will be a good approximation of everything. One thing we’ve seen is that applying modern vulnerability finding techniques to software released without any security testing is like kicking puppies. They’re just not ready for it. Actually, that’s a little unfair. It’s more like throwing puppies into a tank full of laser-equipped sharks. Most things will not have update mechanisms for a while, and when they do, updates will increasingly a battleground.

Patch Trouble
Apple already forces you to upgrade to the “latest and greatest,” and agree to the new EULA, before you get a security update. DRM schemes will block access to content if you haven’t updated. The pressure to accept updates will be intense. Consumer protection issues will start to come up, and things like the Etisalat update for Blackberry will become more common. These combined updates will impact on people’s willingness to accept updates and close windows of software vulnerability.

EULA wars will heat up as bad guys get users to click through contracts forbidding them from removing the software. Those bad guys will include actual malware distributors, middle Eastern telecoms companies, and a lot of organizations that fall into a grey area.

the interplay between privacy and security will get a lot more complex and nuanced as our public discourse gets less so. Our software will increasingly be able to extract all sorts of data but also to act on our behalfs in all sorts of ways. Compromised software will scribble racist comments on your Facebook wall, and companies like Social Intelligence will store those comments for you to justify ever-after.

Careers in software security will become increasingly diverse. It’s already possible to specialize in fuzzing, in static or dynamic analysis, in threat modeling, in security testing, training, etc. We’ll see lots more emerge over the next fifteen years.

Things we won’t see

We won’t see substantially better languages make the problem go away. We may move it around, and we may eliminate some of it, but PHP is the new C because it’s easy to write quick and dirty code. We’ll have cool new languages with nifty features, running on top of resilient platforms. Clever attackers will continue to find ways to make things behave unexpectedly.

A lack of interesting controversies.

(Not) looking into the abyss

There’s a couple of issues I’m not touching at all. They include cloud, because I don’t know what I want to say, and cyberwar, because I know what I don’t want to say. I expect both to be interesting.

Your thoughts?

So, that’s what I think I’ve seen, and that’s what I think I see coming. Did I miss important stories along the way? Are there important trends that will matter that I missed?

[Editor’s note: Updated to clarify the kicking puppy analogy.]