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Tidal Forces: The Trends Tearing Apart Security As We Know It

By Rich

Imagine a black hole suddenly appearing in the solar system – gravity instantly warping space and time in our celestial neighborhood, inexorably drawing in all matter. Closer objects are affected more strongly, with the closest whipping past the event horizon and disappearing from the observable universe. Farther objects are pulled in more slowly, but still inescapably. As they come closer to the disturbance, the gravitational field warping space exponentially, closer points are pulled away from trailing edges, potentially ripping entire planets apart.

These are tidal forces. The same force that creates tides and waves in our ocean, as the moon pulls more strongly on closer water, and less on seas on the far side of the planet.

Black holes are a useful metaphor for disruptive innovations. Once one appears it affects everything around it, and nothing looks the same at the end. And like a black hole’s gravity, business/technical tidal forces rip apart our conceptions, markets, and practices – slowly at first, accelerating as we approach an event horizon, beyond which the future is unclear.

I have talked a lot about disruptive innovation over the past nine years, since starting Securosis. In blog posts, on stage at RSA (with Chris Hoff), and in countless other venues. All my research continues to convince me we are deep into a series of shifts, which are shredding existing security practices and markets, at a much deeper and more fundamental level than we have seen before. This is largely because now is the the first time we have had a profession and markets large enough for these forces to act on in a meaningful way. If a market falls down in the woods, and there aren’t any billion-dollar companies to smash on the head, nobody pays attention. Now our magnitude and inertia magnify these disruptions.

Sticking with my metaphor, I like to think of these disruptive forces as three black holes influencing all information technology. Security is only one of the many areas impacted, but it is the only one I am really qualified to discuss. There are also a series of other emergent waves and interactions which complicate the model and could fill a book, but I’ll do my best to focus on the most impactful trends. As I lay these out, please keep in mind that I am not saying these eliminate security issues – but they definitely transform them.

  • Endpoints are different, often more secure, and frequently less open: The modern definition of an ‘endpoint’ is almost unrecognizably different than ten years ago. Laptop and desktop sales are stagnant, as phones put more power into your pocket than a high-end desktop had when this shift started. Mobile devices are incredibly secure compared to previous computing platforms (largely due to their closed systems), while modern general purpose computer operating systems are also far more hardened (and compromised less often) than in the past. Not perfect – but much better, with a higher exploitation cost, and continuously improving. Ask any enterprise security manager how Windows 7-10 infection rates look compared to XP, entirely aside from the almost complete lack of widespread malware on Apple’s iOS and macOS. But these devices are not only largely inaccessible to many security vendors (notably monitoring and anti-malware), but their tools don’t offer much value for preventing exploitation. Combined across consumer and enterprise markets, these trends have produced a major consumer shift to phones and tablets. In turn, this has slenderized the cash cow of consumer (and often enterprise) antivirus, with clear signs that evem on traditional computers, the mandatory security footprint will shrink in time. The ancillary effects on network security are also profound – we will address them in a moment. Even the biggest fly in the ointment, the massive security issues of IoT, are poor fits for ‘traditional’ tools and practices.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) is the new back office: Email, file servers, CRM, ERP, and many other back-office applications are rapidly migrating from traditional on-premise infrastructure into cloud services. Entire fleets of servers, which we have dedicate massive budgets to securing, are being shut down and repurposed or decommissioned. Migrating these to a mature cloud service often reduces security risk and cost. On the other hand moving to less secure SaaS providers (most of the market) requires a compensatory shift in security operations, skills, and spending. This transition also supports the rise of zero trust networks, where enterprises no longer trust their local networks, instead requiring all connections to all services to be encrypted with TLS (increasingly immune to existing monitoring techniques) or VPN. Between this transition to the cloud and the growth in encrypted connections, we see dramatic impacts to perimeter security, monitoring, patching, incident response, and probably a dozen other security practices. Migrating to highly secure cloud services wipes out the need for large portions of existing security, and the corresponding increases are much smaller, producing an often substantial net gain. Worst case, you might still deploy your own software stack, but it will be in an IaaS cloud instead of a data center across the corporate campus.
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is the new data center: Major cloud providers (a very short list of very large companies) offer infrastructure which, thanks to economic forces, is far more secure than most enterprise data centers. Amazon Web Services itself was about a $12B business in 2016, so clearly the migration to cloud computing is now more of a stampede. A shift merely from physical to virtual machines would still be important, with wide-ranging impact, but we are watching a deeper architectural transformation, driven by cloud providers’ software defined networks; combined with serverless, containers, and other emerging options. You cannot stick your existing IPS in front of a Lambda function, nor can you patch or configure an Elastic Load Balancer. Many foundational security practices, which we rely on to protect our custom applications, either aren’t needed or cannot be implemented using traditional tools or techniques.

All of this is available when build an organization from scratch today. Very secure endpoints, which are much less reliant on historic security tools, connecting predominantly to cloud services over encrypted links. Offices with networks which exist merely to provide Internet access – with nearly all applications, services, and servers hosted in the cloud. New applications leveraging architectures and capabilities which barely resemble those of yesterday, and certainly aren’t hosted in a data center you manage.

But facing these dramatic changes, we see a security market heavily reliant on existing revenue models, and a professional workforce which has spent decades building a particular set of skills, practices, and operational models which don’t always match emerging requirements. This is not just theory – I have talked with friends and contacts at major security vendors who cannot shift existing products and operations to best leverage the cloud, even when they want to. Shareholders refuse to support the required revenue model changes, while companies see massive internal friction – at precisely the same time they need to modify product development, operations, and sales compensation. When your entire revenue and sales compensation models are built on pushing boxes, transitioning to elastic software and services products and pricing isn’t hard.

On the security professional side I have trained hundreds of practitioners on cloud security, while working with dozens of organizations to secure cloud deployments. It can take years to fully update skills, and even longer to re-engineer enterprise operations, even without battling internal friction from large chunks of the workforce – who don’t believe these changes are happening, lack some of the required foundational skills (mostly coding), or simply lack time to learn new things while keeping the old things running.

I don’t claim to know exactly how all this will play out. I don’t claim to have all the answers, But I do know, without a doubt, that these tidal forces are inexorably drawing us forward at wildly uneven yet accelerating rates – which will rip apart existing security markets, practices, and operations. And the bigger you are, the further apart your leading and trailing edges, the more painful the stretching.

Over the next few weeks this series will focus on each of the forces, discussing the transformations and their impact in depth. I’m cheating a bit, using this blog as a way to pull my thoughts together for my upcoming RSA session on this topic. Even if we don’t know exactly what’s on the other side of the event horizon, we can still prepare by recognizing that change is happening, and looking for key opportunities to prepare for multiple potential outcomes.

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