I have always believed that security – both physical and digital – is a self-correcting system.

No one wants to invest any more into security than they need to. Locks, passwords, firewalls, well-armed ninja – they all take money, time, and effort we’d rather spend getting our jobs done, with our families, or on personal pursuits. Only the security geeks and the paranoid actually enjoy spending on security. So the world only invests the minimum needed to keep things (mostly) humming.

Then, when things get really bad, the balance shifts and security moves back up the list. Not forever, not necessarily in the right order, and not usually to the top, but far enough that the system corrects itself enough to get back to business as usual. Or, far more frequently, until people perceive that the system has corrected itself – even if the cancer at the center merely moves or hides.

Security never wins or loses – it merely moves up or down relative to an arbitrary line we call ‘acceptable’. Usually just below, and sometimes far below. We never fail as a whole – but sometimes we don’t succeed as well as we should in that moment.

Over the past year we have gotten increasing visibility into a rash of breaches and incidents that have actually been going on for at least 5 years. From RSA and Comodo, to Epsilon, Nasdaq, and WikiLeaks. Everyone – from major governments, to trading platforms, to banks, to security companies, to grandma – has made the press. Google, Facebook, NASA, and HBGary Federal. We are besieged from China, Eastern Europe, and Anonymous mid-life men pretending to be teenage girls on 4chan.

So we need to ask ourselves: Now what?

The essential question we as security professionals need to ask is: is the quantum dot on the wave function of security deviating far enough from acceptable that we can institute the next round of changes? We know we can do more, and security professionals always believe we should do more, but does the world want us to do more?

Will they let us? Because this is not a decision we ever get to make ourselves.

The first big wave in modern IT security hit with LOVELETTER, Code Red, and Slammer. Forget the occasional website defacement – it was mass malware, and the resulting large-scale email and web outages, that drove our multi-billion-dollar addiction to firewalls and antivirus. Up and down the ride we started.

The last time we were in a similar position was right around the time many of the current trends originated. Thanks to California SB1386, ChoicePoint became the first company to disclose a major breach back in 2005. This was followed by a rash of organizations suddenly losing laptops and backup tapes, and the occasional major breach credited to Albert Gonzales. PCI deadlines hit, HIPAA made a big splash (in vendor presentations), and the defense industry started quietly realizing they might be in a wee bit of trouble as those in the know noticed things like plans for top secret weapons and components leaking out. And there were many annual predictions that this year we’d see the big SCADA hack.

The combined result was a more than incremental improvement in security. And a more than incremental increase in the capabilities of the bad guys.

Never underestimate the work ethic of someone too lazy to get a legitimate job.

In the midst of the current public rash of incidents, we have also seen far more than an incremental increase in the cost and complexity of the tools we use – not that they necessarily deliver commensurate value. And everyone still rotates user passwords every 90 days, without one iota of proof that any of the current breaches would have been stymied if someone had added another ! to the end of their kid’s birthday. 89 days ago.

Are we deep into the next valley? Have things swung so far from acceptable that it will shift the market and our focus?

My gut suspicion is that we are close, but the present is unevenly distributed — never mind the future.