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Security Counter Culture

By Adrian Lane

There’s nothing like a late-night phone call saying, “I think your email has been hacked,” to drop a security professional over the edge. My wife called me during the RSA Conference to tell me this, because some emails she got from me were duplicates that refused to be deleted. Weirdness like that always makes me question my security, and when I found the WiFi still enabled on my phone, I had my yearly conference ‘Oh $#(!’ moment early.

I consider it a BH/DefCon and RSA tradition, as it happens every year: seething paranoia. And this year the HBGary hack kept my paranoia amped up. The good news is that when I am in this state of mind I find mistakes. It not only makes me suspicious of my own work – I assume I screwed up, and that critical mindset helped me discover a couple flaws. A missed setting on a router, and leaving WiFi on when I went to SF. And there was another mistake understanding how a 3rd party product worked, so I needed to rethink my approach to data security on that as well. Then I start thinking: if they got access to this email account, what would that enable an attacker to do? I don’t sleep for the rest of the night, thinking about different possibilities. Sleep deprivation makes it difficult to maintain this degree of focus long-term, but I always harbor the feeling that something is wrong.

The bad news is that this state of mind does not go well with interpersonal relationships. Especially in the workplace. Suspicious, distrust, and critical are great traits when looking at source code trying to find security flaws. They are not so great when talking to the IT team about the new system crossover they will be doing in 3 days (despite, of course, being several weeks behind on pre-migration tasks). Stressed out of their minds trying to make sure the servers won’t crash, nobody wants you to point out all they ways they failed to address security – and all the (time consuming) remediation they really should/must perform. We take it out on those not tasked with security, because anyone who does not hold the security bar as high as we do must be an idiot. And God help those poor phone solicitors trying to sell IPS to me after RSA because they somehow managed to scan my conference badge – I now feel the need to educate them on all 99 ways their product sucks and how they don’t understand the threats.

Do you have to have a crappy attitude to be effective in this job? Do we need to maintain a state of partial paranoia? I am unable to tell if I simply had this type of personality, which lead me into security; or if the profession built up my the glass is half-empty, cracked, and about to be stolen at any moment, attitude. I’d stop to smell the roses but I might suffer an alergic reaction, and I am certain those thorns would draw blood. Sometimes I feel like security professionals have become the NSA of the private sector – trust no one. We have gotten so tired of leading a charge no-one follows that we have begun to shoot each other. Camaraderie from shared experiences brings us together, but a sense of distrust and disrespect cause more infighting than within any other profession I can think of. We have become a small corporate counterculture without a cool theme song.

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Comments

We need to adopt the Mission Impossible Theme Song as most of our users are in the spectrum between Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”.  (For those non-Rage listeners, the song ends with a series of: “**** you, I won’t do what you tell me”‘s)

But then again it’s thinking like that, that makes us the counter culture.

By RL


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