Helping our governments – differently

… we may live in a new security and terrorism landscape

Two weeks ago, I didn’t write a full post, because the Manchester arena bombing was too raw.  We are only a few days on from the London Bridge attack, and I could make the same decision, but think it’s time to recognise that we have a new reality that we need to face in Britain: that we may live in a new security and terrorism landscape.  The sorts of attacks – atrocities – that have been perpetrated over the past few weeks (and the police and security services say that despite three succeeding, they’ve foiled another five) are likely to keep happening.

And they’re difficult to predict, which means that they’re difficult to stop.  There are already renewed calls for tech companies* to provide tools to allow the Good Guys[tm**] to read the correspondence of the people who are going to commit terrorist acts.  The problem is that the preferred approach requested/demanded by governments seems to be backdoors in encryption and/or communications software, which just doesn’t work – see my post The Backdoor Fallacy – explaining it slowly for governments.  I understand that “reasonable people” believe that this is a solution, but it really isn’t, for all sorts of reasons, most of which aren’t really that technical at all.

So what can we do?  Three things spring to mind, and before I go into them, I’d like to make something clear, and it’s that I have a huge amount of respect for the men and women who make up our security services and intelligence community.  All those who I’ve met have a strong desire to perform their job to the best of their ability, and to help protect us from people and threats which could damage us, our property, and our way of life.  Many of these people and threats we know nothing about, and neither do we need to.  The job that the people in the security services do is vital, and I really don’t see any conspiracy to harm us or take huge amounts of power because it’s there for the taking.  I’m all for helping them, but not at the expense of the rights and freedoms that we hold dear.  So back to the question of what we can do.  And by “we” I mean the nebulous Security Community****.  Please treat these people with respect, and be aware they they work very, very hard, and often in difficult and stressful jobs*****.

The first is to be more aware of our environment.  We’re encouraged to do this in our daily lives (“Report unaccompanied luggage”…), but what more could we do in our professional lives?  Or what could we do in our daily lives by applying our professional capabilities and expertise to everyday activities?  What suspicious activities – from traffic on networks from unexpected place to new malware – might be a precursor to something else?  I’m not saying that we’re likely to spot the next terrorism attack – though we might – but helping to combat other crime more effectively both reduces the attack surface for terrorists and increases the available resourcing for counter-intelligence.

Second: there are, I’m sure, many techniques that are available to the intelligence community that we don’t know about.  But there is a great deal of innovation within enterprise, health and telco (to choose three sectors that I happen to know quite well******) that could well benefit our security services.  Maybe your new network analysis tool, intrusion detector, data aggregator has some clever smarts in it, or creates information which might be of interest to the security community.  I think we need to be more open to the idea of sharing these projects, products and skills – proactively.

The third is information sharing.  I work for Red Hat, an Open Source company which also tries to foster open thinking and open management styles.  We’re used to sharing, and industry, in general, is getting better about sharing information with other organisations, government and the security services.  We need to get better at sharing both active data from systems which are running as designed and bad data from systems that are failing, under attack or compromised.  Open, I firmly believe, should be our default state*******.

If we get better at sharing information and expertise which can help the intelligence services in ways which don’t impinge negatively on our existing freedoms, maybe we can reduce the calls for laws that will do so.  And maybe we can help stop more injuries, maimings and deaths.  Stand tall, stand proud.  We will win.

*who isn’t a tech company, these days, though?  If you sell home-made birthday cards on Etsy, or send invoices via email, are you a tech company?  Who knows.

**this an ironic tm***

***not that I don’t think that there are good guys – and gals – but just that it’s difficult to define them.  Read on: you’ll see.

****I’ve talked about this before – some day I’ll define it.

*****and most likely for less money than most of the rest of us.

******feel free to add or substitute your own.

*******OK, DROP for firewall and authorisation rules, but you get my point.

Talking to (actual) people – a guide for security folks

…”am I safe from this ransomware thing?”

As you may have noticed*, there was somewhat of a commotion over the past week when the WannaCrypt ransomware infection spread across the world, infecting all manner of systems**, most notably, from my point of view, many NHS systems.  This is relevant to me because I’m UK-based, and also because I volunteer for the local ambulance service as a CFR.  And because I’m a security professional.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the attack, of the importance of keeping systems up to date, the morality of those who spread ransomware***,  how to fund IT security, or the politics of patch release.  All of these issues have been dealt with very well elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to discuss talking to people.

I’m slightly hopeful that this most recent attack is going to have some positive side effects.  Now, in computing, we’re generally against side effects, as they usually have negative unintended consequences, but on Monday, I got a call from my Dad.  I’m aware that this is the second post in a row to mention my family, but it turns out that my Dad trusts me to help him with his computing needs.  This is somewhat laughable, since he uses a Mac, which employs an OS of which I have almost no knowledge****, but I was pleased that he even called to ask a question about it.  The question was “am I safe from this ransomware thing?”  The answer, as he’d already pretty much worked out was, “yes”, and he was also able to explain that he was unsurprised, because he knew that Macs weren’t affected, and because he keeps it up to date, and because he keeps backups.

Somebody, somewhere (and it wasn’t me on this occasion) had done something right: they had explained, in terms that my father could understand, not only the impact of an attack, but also what to do to keep yourself safe (patching), what systems were most likely to be affected (not my Dad’s Mac), and what do to in mitigation (store backups).  The message had come through the media, but the media, for a change, seemed to have got it correct.

I’ve talked before about the importance of informing our users, and allowing them to make choices.  I think we need to be honest, as well, about when things aren’t going well, when we (singularly, or communally) have made a mistake.  We need to help them to take steps to protect themselves, and when that fails, to help them clear things up.

And who was it that made the mistake?  The NSA, for researching vulnerabilities, or for letting them leak?  Whoever it was leaked them?  Microsoft, for not providing patches?  The sysadmins, for not patching?  The suits, for not providing money for upgrades?  The security group, putting sufficient controls in place to catch and contain the problem?  The training organisation for not training the users enough?  The users, for ignoring training and performing actions which allowed the attack to happen?

Probably all of the above.  But, in most of those cases, talking about the problem, explaining what to do, and admitting when we make a mistake, is going to help improve things, not bring the whole world crashing down around us.  Talking, in other words, to “real” people (not just ourselves and each other*****): getting out there and having discussions.

Sometimes a lubricant can help: tea, beer, biscuits******.  Sometimes you’ll even find that “real” people are quite friendly.  Talk to them.  In words they understand.  But remember that even the best of them will nod off after 45 minutes or so of our explaining our passion to them.  They’re only human, after all.


*unless you live under a rock.

**well, Windows systems, anyway.


****this is entirely intentional: the less I know about their computing usage, the easier it is for me to avoid providing lengthy and painful (not to mention unpaid) support services to my close family.

*****and our machines.  Let’s not pretend we don’t do that.

******probably not coffee: as a community, we almost certainly drink enough of that as it is.

Service degradation: actually a good thing

…here’s the interesting distinction between the classic IT security mindset and that of “the business”: the business generally want things to keep running.

Well, not all the time, obviously*.  But bear with me: we spend most of our time ensuring that all of our systems are up and secure and working as expected, because that’s what we hope for, but there’s a real argument for not only finding out what happens when they don’t, and not just planning for when they don’t, but also planning for how they shouldn’t.  Let’s start by examining some techniques for how we might do that.

Part 1 – planning

There’s a story** that the oil company Shell, in the 1970’s, did some scenario planning that examined what were considered, at the time, very unlikely events, and which allowed it to react when OPEC’s strategy surprised most of the rest of the industry a few years later.  Sensitivity modelling is another technique that organisations use at the financial level to understand what impact various changes – in order fulfilment, currency exchange or interest rates, for instance – make to the various parts of their business.  Yet another is war gaming, which the military use to try to understand what will happen when failures occur: putting real people and their associated systems into situations and watching them react.  And Netflix are famous for taking this a step further in the context of the IT world and having a virtual Chaos Monkey (a set of processes and scripts) which they use to bring down parts of their systems in real time to allow them to understand how resilient they the wider system is.

So that gives us four approaches that are applicable, with various options for automation:

  1. scenario planning – trying to understand what impact large scale events might have on your systems;
  2. sensitivity planning – modelling the impact on your systems of specific changes to the operating environment;
  3. wargaming – putting your people and systems through simulated events to see what happens;
  4. real outages – testing your people and systems with actual events and failures.

Actually going out of your way to sabotage your own systems might seem like insane behaviour, but it’s actually a work of genius.  If you don’t plan for failure, what are you going to do when it happens?

So let’s say that you’ve adopted all of these practices****: what are you going to do with the information?  Well, there are some obvious things you can do, such as:

  • removing discovered weaknesses;
  • improving resilience;
  • getting rid of single points of failure;
  • ensuring that you have adequately trained staff;
  • making sure that your backups are protected, but available to authorised entities.

I won’t try to compile an exhaustive list, because there are loads books and articles and training courses about this sort of thing, but there’s another, maybe less obvious, course of action which I believe we must take, and that’s plan for managed degradation.

Part 2 – managed degradation

What do I mean by that?  Well, it’s simple.  We***** are trained and indoctrinated to take the view that if something fails, it must always “fail to safe” or “fail to secure”.  If something stops working right, it should stop working at all.

There’s value in this approach, of course there is, and we’re paid****** to ensure everything is secure, right?  Wrong.  We’re actually paid to help keep the business running, and here’s the interesting distinction between the classic IT security mindset and that of “the business”: the business generally want things to keep running.  Crazy, right?  “The business” want to keep making money and servicing customers even if things aren’t perfectly secure!  Don’t they know the risks?

And the answer to that question is “no”.  They don’t know the risks.  And that’s our real job: we need to explain the risks and the mitigations, and allow a balancing act to take place.  In fact, we’re always making those trade-offs and managing that balance – after all, the only truly secure computer is one with no network connection, no keyboard, no mouse and no power connection*******.  But most of the time, we don’t need to explain the decisions we make around risk: we just take them, following best industry practice, regulatory requirements and the rest.  Nor are the trade-offs usually so stark, because when failure strikes – whether through an attack, accident or misfortune – it’s often a pretty simple choice between maintaining a particular security posture and keeping the lights on.  So we need to think about and plan for some degradation, and realise that on occasion, we may need to adopt a different security posture to the perfect (or at least preferred) one in which we normally operate.

How would we do that?  Well, the approach I’m advocating is best described as “managed degradation”.  We allow our systems – including, where necessary our security systems – to degrade to a managed (and preferably planned) state, where we know that they’re not operating at peak efficiency, but where they are operating.  Key, however, is that we know the conditions under which they’re working, so we understand their operational parameters, and can explain and manage the risks associated with this new posture.  That posture may change, in response to ongoing events, and the systems and our responses to those events, so we need to plan ahead (using the techniques I discussed above) so that we can be flexible enough to provide real resiliency.

We need to find modes of operation which don’t expose the crown jewels******** of the business, but do allow key business operations to take place.  And those key business operations may not be the ones we expect – maybe it’s more important to be able to create new orders than to collect payments for them, for instance, at least in the short term.  So we need to discuss the options with the business, and respond to their needs.  This planning is not just security resiliency planning: it’s business resiliency planning.  We won’t be able to consider all the possible failures – though the techniques I outlined above will help us to identify many of them – but the more we plan for, the better we will be at reacting to the surprises.  And, possibly best of all, we’ll be talking to the business, informing them, learning from them, and even, maybe just a bit, helping them understand that the job we do does have some value after all.

*I’m assuming that we’re the Good Guys/Gals**.

**Maybe less story than MBA*** case study.

***There’s no shame in it.

****Well done, by the way.

*****The mythical security community again – see past posts.


*******Preferably at the bottom of a well, encased in concrete, with all storage already removed and destroyed.

********Probably not the actual Crown Jewels, unless you work at the Tower of London.