Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Respect Experience and Trust Your Gut

I was inspired to write this post after reading a recent paper/post by Marcus Ranum titled "Ranum's Rants - The Anatomy of Security Disasters" available here. Thank you Ivan for the link.

This post is also available in pdf format here.

So as I was reading Marcus, I felt as though I was connecting with every word he wrote:

I’ve seen major security-critical business decisions get made based on whose golf buddy runs what business unit – I’m very skeptical of the notion that "Risk Management" has any value beyond the butt-covering obviousness of having made an attempt.

Brilliant. Insightful. Spoken from experience. Perhaps a dash (or three) of cynicism. But all true.

As security professionals, we see a lot. We learn a lot. We are all about the details and we HATE TO BE BLIND-SIDED!

If you are new to information security, you need to ingest the words from Marcus as if they were your own.

In the most dysfunctional organizations, you get senior (or sometimes mid-level) executives who 'shop a bad idea' until they find someone who is willing to tell them it is good. One security disaster I was involved with happened in exactly this manner: a senior executive hit upon a bad idea and asked the security team for their input. The security team explained why it was a bad idea; in fact they wrote a brilliantly clear, incisive report that definitively framed the problem. So the executive asked the web design team, who declared it a great idea and "highly do-able" and implemented a prototype. Months later, the "whiners" in the security team were presented with a fait accompli in the form of "we're ready to go live with this, would you like to review the security?"

Like it or not, this is our world! Security is now and will always be the enemy of convenience. Deal with it!

The only way to prevent security disasters is to have a security team that is fearless about feeding back information up to the top of the chain of command, and to have senior executives who make decisions based on reality rather than a projection of their fantasies.

Over the years I have realized that I bring 3 valuable assets with me to the table as a security professional:

1) my experience
2) my professional colleagues/relationships
3) my gut

The first two just naturally come over time but the third takes confidence and a foundational trust in both your abilities and your judgement. As I get longer in the tooth, I have grown to trust this "gut feeling" even more and I venture to speculate that once you learn to trust *your* gut feeling, you too will be a better and more effective security professional, as well.

Sure I have made my share of bad decisions and I do not mean to imply that I have seen every possible iteration of a specific event or incident, .. only that over time, I have learned to appreciate that many events are simply variations of prior events and that it is my gut that allows me to connect the dots and recognize the similarities between these events when this connection may not otherwise be readily apparent.

I have also come to expect, foster and appreciate a work environment that I like to call "unbridled candor" where honesty abounds and you had damn well better not ask a question unless you are willing to hear the honest truth. I know from experience that some people can't deal with the truth.

I believe it is my gut that gives me the confidence to speak truth to power in a way that is not seen as confrontational to business decision makers but simply matter-of-fact and authoritative.

Marcus sums it up this way, ...

What can we do to break the cycle? The most important thing is to make sure you are direct and honest about expectations at all times. Do not allow management or clients to believe that they can do dumb things in safety, and do not hide behind bogus probability guesses. "Safety" is not the same thing as "relative safety."

I believe that Marcus trusts his gut and I think you should trust yours as well.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What is a "canary account"?

A canary account is an account created in a database for the sole purpose of detecting if data has been compromised.

The term "canary account" is based on the notion of a canary detecting changes in the air quality of a coal mine to the point where it was unsafe for humans.  Think of it as a early warning system, ...

Within the context of data protection, the canary account could be monitored to make sure it had not been accessed and if the account is accessed, then you have a high likelihood that the data may have been compromised.

This is somewhat related to the notion of a "honey pot" that acts as 'bait' for attackers drawing their attention away from the real crown jewels in favor of pseudo crown jewels that have been crafted to look even more appealing to the attacker, ..

In a post by Robert Graham related to the phpbb hack earlier this year, canary accounts are mentioned as a possible means for alerting to the attack sooner:


The first is to create "canary" accounts. Create accounts that have e-mail addresses, like "something-really-long-xyz-123@gmail.com". This account is not going to get any spam e-mail. When it does get its first spam, you'll know that it came from your database. When I create recommendations for clients, this is always one of the first things I suggest. (Likewise, if you are an e-commerce site, you should get dummy credit cards that only exist in your database). This won't stop you from getting hacked, but it will at least tell you when a hack has happened. (I suspect that this isn't the first time phpbb has been hacked - just the first time it's been made public).

I am not saying that canary accounts are appropriate in all cases but just trying to get you thinking of the possibilities, ..

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Security Peer Review Checklist

Here is a very nice checklist for use with Peer Security Reviews


Also, here is original post announcing availability of the checklist: