Regression to the Fundamentals

After 25 years in technology, mostly in security, I recently realized I’m regressing. No, not in terms of my mental acuity or health (although all of you would be better judges on my brain function), but more in terms of my career. And no, I don’t mean I’m going back to the Helpdesk… and according to my children and most of my family I never really left anyway. Not that I’m paid for it. Well, sometimes with some cookies. But never enough cookies. It’s just that the longer I do this the more I realize that it’s the fundamentals that really matter. That as much as I love all the fun advanced research, all that work really only addresses and helps a relatively small percentage of the world. The hard problems aren’t the hard problems; the hard problems are solving the easy problems consistently. We mostly suck at that. What’s fascinating is that this isn’t a problem limited to security. I really noticed it recently when I was working on my paramedic recertification. As a paramedic I can do all sorts of advanced things that involve drugs, electricity, and tubes. In some cases, especially cardiac arrest, the research now shows that you, the bystander, starting good quality CPR early is far more important than me injecting someone with epinephrine. In fact, studies seem to indicate that epi in cardiac arrest does not improve long term patient outcomes. CPR and electricity (AEDs) for the win. Advanced clinicians for myself? Useful and necessary, but useless without the fundamentals before we get there. Back to security. As a researcher (and a vendor) we are drawn to the hard problems. I’m not saying they don’t matter — they very much do. As much as AI is in the hype machine right now it’s there for a reason and we need experts engaged early, even if most of what they’ll do will fail because AI is a truly disruptive innovation. If you don’t believe me just re-read this sentence after the 2024 election. And some basic problems need new innovations instead of banging our heads against the wall. Passwordless is a great example of attacking an intractable problem with hard engineering that is invisible to users. As much as I’d like to be doing more leading-edge research, I keep finding myself focusing on the basics, and trying to help other people do the basics better. Let’s take cloud incident response, my current bread and butter. Will Bengtson and I keep coming up with all sorts of cool, advanced cloud attacks to include in our IR training at Black Hat. The reality is those are mostly there so people think we are smart and to keep the rare advanced students interested. Nearly all cloud attacks a student working on a real IR team will encounter are the same two or three “simple” things. Lost or stolen credentials used for crypto, ransomware, or data exfiltration, or hacking a vulnerable public-facing instance for… crypto,  ransomware, or data exfiltration. Instead of spending my time on leading-edge research I’m building training for people with zero experience. I’m working on simple models which hopefully help people focus better. On the product side I’m focusing more on basic problems that seem to slip through the gaps. Chris Farris and I are working on a new talk and threat modeling approach to focus consistently on the fundamentals which really matter, not all the crazy advanced stuff in your inbox every day. Researchers and research teams mostly publish on the fun, interesting and advanced things because that’s more intellectually interesting and gets the headlines. There’s nothing wrong with that — we need it — but never forget that the basics matter more. I still get FOMO from time to time, but in the end I can do a lot more good at a much larger scale focusing on helping with fundamentals. Simple isn’t sexy, but without plumbers we’re all covered in shit pretty damn quickly. As a paramedic the one thing we are exceptional at is facing utter chaos, identifying what will kill you, and keeping things from getting worse. Maybe I biased my career from the start. Chris says he objects to being called a simple problem. Please humor him. Will just asked that I spell his name correctly.   Share:

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