This Security Shit’s Hard and It Ain’t Gonna Get Any EasierBy Rich
In case you couldn’t tell from the title, this line is your official EXPLICIT tag. We writers sometimes need the full spectrum of language to make a point.
Yesterday Microsoft released a patch to roll back a patch that fixed the slightly-unpatchable Intel hardware bug because the patch causes reboots and potential data loss. Specifically, Intel’s Spectre 2 variant microcode patch is buggy. Just when we were getting a decent handle on endpoint security with well secured operating systems and six-figure-plus bug bounties, this shit happened. Plus, we probably can’t ever fully trust our silicone or operating systems in the first place.
Information security is hard. Information security is wonderful. Working in security is magical… if you have the proper state of mind.
I decided this year would be a good one for my mid-life crisis before I miss the boat and feel left out. The problem is that my life is actually pretty damn awesome, so I think I’m just screwing up my crisis pre-requisites. I like my wife, am already in pretty good physical shape, and don’t feel the need for a new car. Which appears to knock out pretty much all my options. The best I could come up with was to re-up my paramedic certification, expired for 20 years.
After working at the paramedic level again during my deployment to Puerto Rico it felt like time to go through the process and become official again. One of my first steps was to take a week off infosec and attend a paramedic refresher class.
A refresher class is an entirely different world than initial training. It’s a room full of experienced medics who are there to knock out the list of certifications they need to maintain every two years. Quite a few of the attendees in my class started working around the same time as me in the early 1990’s. Unlike me they stuck with it full-time and racked up 25 years or more of direct field experience.
There are no illusions among experienced medics (or firefighters or cops). If you go in thinking you are there to save lives you are usually out of the job in less than five years. You can’t possibly survive mentally if you think you are there to save the world, because once you actually meet the world, you realize it doesn’t want saving. The best you can usually do is offer someone a little comfort on the worst day of their life, and, maybe, sometimes help someone breathe a little longer.
You certainly aren’t going to change the string of bad life decisions that led you to their door. Bad diet, smoking, drugs, couch potatoitis, whatever. Not that everyone dials 911 as the result of seemingly irreversible decisions, but they do seem to take a disproportionate amount of our time. You either learn how to compartmentalize and survive, or process and survive, or you get another job. Even then it sometimes catches up to you and you eventually leave or kill yourself. Suicide is a very real occupational hazard.
Then there are new illnesses, antibacterial resistance, new ways of damaging the human body (vaping, exploding phones, airbags, hoverboards), the latest drug crisis, the latest drug shortage, ad infinitum. On the other side we have new drugs, new monitoring tools, new procedures, and new science.
For me this maps directly to the information security professional mindset.
As long as there are human beings and computer chips we will never win. There will never be an end. We face an endless stream of challenges and opportunities. Some years things are better. Other years things are worse. The challenge for us as professionals is to decide the role we want to play and how we want to play it.
There are EMS systems which still use proven bad techniques because someone in charge learned it, then decided they don’t want to change. Maybe due to sunk cost bias, maybe due to stubbornness. I know it was hard to learn that the technique I used to help the 14-year-old massive head injury patient 20+ years ago likely contributed to his permanent mental deficit. Not that I did anything wrong at the time, but because the science and our knowledge and understanding of the physiological mechanisms in play changed. I hurt that patient, while providing the best standard of care at the time.
Our password policies made sense at the time, but now we need to move past encoding unmemorable 8-character passwords rotated every 90 days into standards, and update our standards to reflect the widespread adoption of MFA and the latest password hashing mechanisms.
We don’t need to accept that there is literally no need for a DMZ in the cloud we just need to architect properly for the cloud.
We need to accept that Meltdown, ,Spectre and whatever new hardware vulnerabilities appear are out of our control, but we still need to do our best to mitigate the risk.
The bad medics aren’t the new medics or the old medics, but the medics who can’t accept that people don’t really change, and everything else does. Security is no different. In both professions the best leaders are those who continue to push themselves and adapt without burning out permanently. This is especially true for security today, as we face the biggest technology shifts in the history of our profession, while nation-states and extremely well-funded criminals keep raising the stakes.
But there is one key difference between being a paramedic and being a security professional (beyond pay). As a paramedic I may help someone with pain during the worst 10 to 60 minutes of their life, then move on to the next call. As a security professional I can help millions, if not billions (hello Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google Security), at a time. I find this especially rewarding and exciting, especially as we build new products we think can have major impacts at scale – but even if that doesn’t work, I know that both my research and direct client work have touched at least tens of millions of people who will never know who I am. Maybe I only helped keep them a little safer, but a little is better than nothing.
It doesn’t end, we don’t get to relax, but now that all society runs on technology, what we do matters, at scale – even if we can’t see it day-to-day. But we can only make this difference if we continue to learn, challenge ourselves, adapt to the ever changing-knowledge and technology around us, and avoid burnout.
As a paramedic I can help a person. As a security professional I can help a population. I hope you relish this opportunity as much as I do, for we are very fortunate to get it.