Tina Slankas presented at the Phoenix ISSA chapter this week on use of patterns for building security programs – slides can be downloaded here (PDF). The thrust of her idea was to use patterns – think design patterns if you like – for putting together control frameworks to define security efforts. Tina stated she was using the definition of ‘pattern’ in a very broad way, but the essence was reusable constructs for managing different aspects of enterprise security. For example: how identity management will function at a high level, and how will it fit with other systems.

As a software developer or architect, patterns are invaluable for object-oriented programming, helping model complex ideas as a collection of simple patterns. To be honest, I abandoned the idea of secure design patterns for software architecture pretty much when I first got involved with security. I could not articulate security into the patterns, be they behavioral or structural. Maybe that was just my lack of skill at the time, but it felt like the complexities of how to secure code were beyond pattern descriptions. What was compromised was not as interesting as how it was compromised, and it usually turned out to be a process or protocol that got abused. It was the bits flowing between different patterns, or the ones left undefined, that I worried about. Trust relationships. Assumptions. Identity. Avoiding things like replay attacks. Repudiation. The problem space felt process-oriented, not object-oriented.

But in terms of a control or management framework for IT systems, reusable patterns are an interesting idea. They help with consistency across multiple sites/deployments. They offer a layer of abstraction – you don’t care if the problem is solved by a firewall, a WAF, or DLP, so long as the required controls are in place and meet the requirements. Your could represent the entire PCI specification as a set of patterns. Unless you have a huge infrastructure to manage, I’m not clear how practical this is – but I am interested in the idea of security patterns. I remain skeptical of its value for secure code development, but I see its value for security program management.

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You mean you don’t believe it?! It’s from a government official! They never lie!