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Learning Lessons from Incidents

After the February, 2017 S3 incident, Amazon posted this:

We are making several changes as a result of this operational event. While removal of capacity is a key operational practice, in this instance, the tool used allowed too much capacity to be removed too quickly. We have modified this tool to remove capacity more slowly and added safeguards to prevent capacity from being removed when it will take any subsystem below its minimum required capacity level. This will prevent an incorrect input from triggering a similar event in the future. We are also auditing our other operational tools to ensure we have similar safety checks. We will also make changes to improve the recovery time of key S3 subsystems. (“Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region“)

How often do you see public lessons like this in security?

“We have modified our email clients to not display URLs which have friendly text that differs meaningfully from the underlying anchor. Additionally, we re-write URLs, and route them through our gateway unless they meet certain criteria…”

Relatedly, Etsy’s Debriefing Facilitation guide. Also, many people are describing this as “human error,” which reminds me of Don Norman’s “Proper Understanding of ‘The Human Factor’:”

…if a valve failed 75% of the time, would you get angry with the valve and simply continual to replace it? No, you might reconsider the design specs. You would try to figure out why the valve failed and solve the root cause of the problem. Maybe it is underspecified, maybe there shouldn’t be a valve there, maybe some change needs to be made in the systems that feed into the valve. Whatever the cause, you would find it and fix it. The same philosophy must
apply to people.

(Thanks to Steve Bellovin for reminding me of the Norman essay recently.)

Introducing Cyber Portfolio Management

At RSA’17, I spoke on “Security Leadership Lessons from the Dark Side.”

Leading a security program is hard. Fortunately, we can learn a great deal from Sith lords, including Darth Vader and how he managed security strategy for the Empire. Managing a distributed portfolio is hard when rebel scum and Jedi knights interfere with your every move. But that doesn’t mean that you have to throw the CEO into a reactor core. “Better ways you will learn, mmmm?”

In the talk, I discussed how “security people are from Mars and business people are from Wheaton,” and how to overcome the communication challenges associated with that.

RSA has posted audio with slides, and you can take a listen at the link above. If you prefer the written word, I have a small ebook on Cyber Portfolio Management, a new paradigm for driving effective security programs. But I designed the talk to be the most entertaining intro to the subject.

Later this week, I’ll be sharing the first draft of that book with people who subscribe to my “Adam’s New Thing” mailing list. Adam’s New Thing is my announcement list for people who hate such things. I guarantee that you’ll get fewer than 13 messages a year.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that at BSides San Francisco 2012, Kellman Meghu made the point that “they’re having a pretty good risk management discussion,” and that inspired the way I kicked off this talk.

Calls for an NTSB?

In September, Steve Bellovin and I asked “Why Don’t We Have an Incident Repository?.”

I’m continuing to do research on the topic, and I’m interested in putting together a list of such things. I’d like to ask you for two favors.

First, if you remember such things, can you tell me about it? I recall “Computers at Risk,” the National Cyber Leap Year report, and the Bellovin & Neumann editorial in IEEE S&P. Oh, and “The New School of Information Security.” But I’m sure there have been others.

In particular, what I’m looking for are calls like this one in Computers at Risk (National Academies Press, 1991):

3a. Build a repository of incident data. The committee recommends that a repository of incident information be established for use in research, to increase public awareness of successful penetrations and existing vulnerabilities, and to assist security practitioners, who often have difficulty persuading managers to invest in security. This database should categorize, report, and track pertinent instances of system security-related threats, risks, and failures. […] One possible model for data collection is the incident reporting system administered by the National Transportation Safety Board… (chapter 3)

Second, I am trying to do searches such as “cites “Computers at Risk” and contains ‘NTSB’.” I have tried without luck to do this on Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic and Semantic Scholar. Only Google seems to be reliably identifying that report. Is there a good way to perform such a search?

Groundrules on Complaining About Security

Groundrules on Complaining About Security

In this article, I want to lead into some other articles I’m working on. In those, I’m going to complain about security. But I want those complaints to be thoughtful and within a proper context.

You will hear many of us in security talk about threat models. Adam literally wrote the book on threat models and if you don’t have a copy, you should get one.

Threat models are a way of thinking about security in a somewhat rigorous way. Without some sort of threat model, you’re not really doing security.

Threat models sound complex, but they’re really not. We all do them intuitively all the time, and here’s the basic outline of how to make one. You want answers to these questions:

  1. What are you doing?
  2. What could go wrong?
  3. What are you doing about it?

Among the valuable things in Adam’s book, he talks about these and more, but these three simple questions frame how to talk about security no matter who you are. If you don’t have a threat model, you might be doing something useful, but it’s not really security.

If you are a maker of security, without a threat model you might have a solution in search of a problem. You might also have a stone soup security system, in which you throw a bunch of things in a pot, and while tasty (or secure), isn’t organized. There are many, many stone soup security systems out there.

If you’re going to use a security system, without a threat model you have no way to know if what you’re getting meets your needs.

If you’re challenging a security system, without a threat model, your criticisms may be true but irrelevant.

It is these latter two cases – deciding what security system to you and providing a critique of a security system – that I’m going to focus on, particularly since I’m going to be engaging in challenges, and people selecting a system also need to think about what their own threat model is when selecting a system. If you’re going to use a secuity system, a little bit of thought about what you expect it to do and what you expect it to protect you from is in required.

Let me move a bit away from computer security for a moment; analogies often help.

Let’s look at this statement:

  • Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer.

It’s true. Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer. It doesn’t do half-bad on headaches (with of course, a number of other qualifiers), but it doesn’t cure cancer.

However, if Alice says, “I’m going to go take an aspirin” and Bob says, “Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer,” he has implicitly assumed that her threat model is not:

  • I have a headache
  • I’m going to take an aspirin to cure it

but

  • I have cancer
  • I’m going to take an aspirin to cure it.

Even if Alice actually does have cancer, she might also have a headache. Especially if she has to deal with someone with simplisitic thinking like Bob. This is the sort of headache that got me to write this essay.

Getting back to security, while I was typing the first part of this, a friend and I started on a discussion. We started with wondering if since most front door locks are easily picked, does that mean that they’re just security theatre. The discussion then went into social value of locks (most people are honest, after all), the technological merits of Abloy locks, the expense of getting a good lock for all your doors, the human factors aspects of wanting one key for all your doors, the security problem of weak points from the porch to the windows, and then on to reinforcing hinges and even the front door itself. It was a fun discussion, but it wasn’t a good security discussion, it was security stone soup. The initial question of whether most door locks do anything was the pot of water with a stone in it and we kept adding in garnishes until we ended up with a tasty conversation. However, at no point did we discuss a threat model. We don’t know what we were trying to protect, what threats we were protecting it from, or anything that turns it into a real security discussion.

I think we were talking about a stereotypical threat of a burglar backing up a van to the house and carting off a lot of valuables, but I am just presuming that.

I know of what I speak in this issue of threat models because I’m guilty of it, too. It’s so easy to get caught up in security stone soup that it happened to me while I was writing an essay on threat models and security stone soup.

Now that I have a couple of ground rules in place as a preface, I will complain about security in my next essay.

On Immigration and Refugees

NewImage Sergey Brin and baby
The ban on refugees is illegal, immoral and un-American, and as an American, I want to add my voice.

The ban is illegal. (“Trump’s Immigration Ban Is Illegal.”) I suspect that the United States also has legal obligations under treaties to accept refugees, but Google isn’t my lawyer, and I am no expert.

The ban is immoral. Those who have gone through our immigration process and gotten green cards are being restricted from returning to the US. Those people have followed the legal path to immigration and built lives here. We made a deal with them and we’re breaking it, suddenly and without warning. Those people might have jobs, school, or family to return to, and their lives are upended and uncertain. These are not illegal aliens, they are people who have gone through a complex, and sometimes kafka-esque immigration process.

I have worked with engineers from Syria. (I’m not going to name them in today’s climate.) They did good work, and were good people. They were dealing with the horror of hearing family back home was missing, and they did good work anyway.

The President is hurting America with this ban. By telling those here legally that their status can be upended at a whim, he makes a strong argument against coming here by following the rules as they exist on a given day. Some people will continue to come here in violation of the law; others will go elsewhere, and another country will get both the risk and the reward from that set of refugees.

It’s worth noting that the protests and court orders yesterday, while welcome, “Despite growing dissent, Trump gives no sign of backing down from travel ban.” I guess we need to keep calling this what it is: un-American.

Pictured is John von Neumann, refugee, and inventor of the von Neumann architecture that’s at the heart of the computer on which you’re reading this, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, on his way to protest in San Francisco.

[Update: The hawks at Lawfare blog have an analysis, Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence:.]

2017 and Tidal Forces

There are two great blog posts at Securosis to kick off the new year:

Both are deep and important and worth pondering. I want to riff on something that Rich said:

On the security professional side I have trained hundreds of practitioners on cloud security, while working with dozens of organizations to secure cloud deployments. It can take years to fully update skills, and even longer to re-engineer enterprise operations, even without battling internal friction from large chunks of the workforce…

It’s worse than that. Yesterday Recently on Emergent Chaos, I talked about Red Queen Races, where you have to work harder and harder just to keep up.

In the pre-cloud world, you could fully update your skills. You could be an expert on Active Directory 2003, or Checkpoint’s Firewall-1. You could generate friction over moving to AD2012. You no longer have that luxury. Just this morning, Amazon launched a new rev of something. Google is pushing a new rev of its G-Suite to 5% of customers. Your skillset with the prior release is now out of date. (I have no idea if either really did this, but they could have.) Your skillset can no longer be a locked-in set of skills and knowledge. You need the meta-skills of modeling and learning. You need to understand what your model of AWS is, and you need to allocate time and energy to consciously learning about it.

That’s not just a change for individuals. It’s a change for how organizations plan for training, and it’s a change for how we should design training, as people will need lots more “what’s new in AWS in Q1 2017” training to augment “intro to AWS.”

Tidal forces, indeed.

Kyber Crystal and the Death Star

Death star construction

This post has spoilers for Rogue One, and also Return of the Jedi.

We learn in Rogue One that the Death Star’s main gun is powered by Kyber crystal. We know from various sources that it’s rare.

Then the Death Star is tested, destroying Jedah, where they’re mining the crystals. Note that both times its fired, they give the order “single reactor ignition.” Are they testing the reactors and power systems, or conserving kyber crystal?

Really, how much “ammo” did the original Death Star have on board? How many times could they fire the main gun?

Was ten or fifteen shots considered sufficient, because after a demonstration, fear will keep the local systems in line? Where did they find enought kyber crystal for the second Death Star?

Rogue One: The Best Star Wars Yet?

NewImageSomeone once asked me why I like Star Wars more than Star Trek. I was a bit taken aback, and he assumed that since I use it so much, I obviously prefer it. The real reason I use Star Wars is not that it’s better, but that there’s a small canon, and I don’t have to interrupt the flow of a talk to explain the scene where Darth Vader is strangling someone. But let’s face it, Star Trek was often better as science fiction. There are four or five bright lights that rank up there as some of the very best storytelling of the last few decades.

Trek at its most poignant was a transparent mirror to the world. The original series commented on Vietnam and race repeatedly in ways which let people see another way of looking at a situation. Moral nuance is easier to see when the ox being gored isn’t yours.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars with moral complexity. If you haven’t seen it, I find your lack of faith…disturbing. But when there’s a guy who cost you your limbs, your children, and threw the galaxy into civil war, throwing him in the reactor core isn’t a very complex choice. In fact, the whole “dark side” is a bit of a giveaway. In case you miss that, the Jedi were guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy. Are we clear yet? No? How about the Nazi uniforms? I could go on, but we’re gonna get to spoilers. My point is, the first four films were great action movies. Maybe we’ll see some moral complexity when someone finally gets around to filming the tragic fall of Anakin Skywalker, reputedly the core story of I-III. But I’m betting they’ll be action movies with talking teddy bears for the kids.

Speaking of morality, if you’re just now noticing that your political world resembles the Empire’s, or if you’re angry that the script seems to mock your party…maybe you should look at your world through that mirror and ask if you’re on the right side of morality or history. After all, that’s what makes for great science fiction. The opportunity to see the world through a new lens. And the fact is, the story was not substantially re-written. “Rogue One’s Discarded Dialog” and See 46 shots that were cut from Rogue One” show a story with a little less character, a little more army, but not a sympathetic, racially and species-diverse Empire. The movie wasn’t re-written as a commentary on 2016.

Structurally, Rogue One is a war story, not an action story. It’s not about the hero’s journey, or Luke growing up. It’s a story about the chaos that follows a civil war, and it’s messy and has characters who make choices from a set of bad options.

When Cassian shoots the fellow so he can escape at the start? Galen Erso’s decision to work on the Death Star, delay it, and insert a flaw (or two?) These are perhaps the wrong choices in bad situations. We don’t see why Saw Gerrera and the Rebel Alliance split. We see the Rebellion at its worst — unable to take action in the face of imminent destruction, and then impulsively chasing Rogue One into battle. (What Rogue One Teaches Us About the Rebel Alliance’s Military Chops is a great dissection of this.)

But we can look to Galen Erso’s decision to work on the Death Star, and have a conversation about what he should have done. Gone to a labor camp and let someone else build it with a better reactor core? What if that someone else had put more shielding over the thermal exhaust ports? (Speaking of which, don’t miss “The Death Star Architect Speaks Out,” and perhaps even my commentary, “Governance Lessons from the Death Star Architect.” I think the governance questions are even more interesting now, if the Empire were to conduct a blameless post mortem, but we know they don’t.) We can use that decision to talk, abstractly, about taking a job in the Trump Administration with less of the horrible emotional weight that that carries.

That mirror on the world is what great science fiction offers us, and that’s what makes Rouge One the best Star Wars yet.

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