After my last post about security spending, I was thinking about how most security teams integrate into the overall business (hint: they don’t). As part of this thought experiment I decided to compare traditional security to something that in modern times has come to be called helicopter parenting.
A helicopter parent is someone who won’t let their kids do anything on their own. These are the people you hear about who follow their child to college, to sports practice. They yell at teachers and coaches for not respecting how special the child is. The kids are never allowed to take any risks because risk is dangerous and bad. If they climb the tree, while it could be a life altering experience, they could also fall and get hurt. Skateboarding is possibly the most dangerous thing anyone could ever do! We better make sure nothing bad can ever happen.
It’s pretty well understood now that this sort of attitude is terrible for the children. They must learn to do things on their own, it’s part of the development process. Taking risks and failing is an extremely useful exercise. It’s not something we think about often, but you have to learn to fail. Failure is hard to learn. The children of helicopter parents do manage to learn one lesson they can use in their life, they learn to hide what they do from their parents. They get extremely good at finding way to get around all their rules and restrictions. To a degree we all had this problem growing up. At some point we all wanted to do something our parents didn’t approve of, which generally meant we did it anyway, we just didn’t tell our parents. Now imagine a universe where your parents let you do NOTHING, you’re going to be hiding literally everything. Nobody throughout history has ever accepted the fact that they can do nothing, they just make sure the authoritarian doesn’t know about it. Getting caught is still better than doing nothing much of the time.
This brings us to traditional security. Most security teams don’t try to work with the business counterparts. Security teams often think they can just tell everyone else what to do. Have you ever heard the security team ask “what are you trying to do?” Of course not. They always just say “don’t do that” or maybe “do it this way” then move on to tell the next group how to do their job. They don’t try to understand what you’re doing and why you are doing it. It’s quite literally not their job to care what you’re doing, which is part of the problem. Things like phishing tests are used to belittle, not teach (they have no value as teaching tools, but we won’t discuss that today). Many of the old school security teams see their job as risk aversion, not risk management. They are helicopter security teams.
Now as we know from children, if you prevent someone from doing anything they don’t become your obedient servant, they go out of their way to make sure the authority has no idea what’s going on. This is basically how shadow IT became a thing. It was far easier to go around the rules than work with the existing machine. Helicopter security is worse than nothing. At least with nothing you can figure out what’s going on by asking questions and getting honest answers. In a helicopter security environment information is actively hidden because truth will only get you in trouble.
Can we fix this?
I don’t know the answer to this question. A lot of tech people I see (not just security) are soldiers from the last war. With the way we see cloud transforming the universe there are a lot of people who are still stuck in the past. We often hear it’s hard to learn new things but it’s more than that. Technology, especially security, never stands still. It used to move slow enough you could get by for a few years on old skills, but we’re in the middle of disruptive change right now. If you’re not constantly questioning your existing skills and way of thinking you’re already behind. Some people are so far behind they will never catch up. It’s human nature to double down on the status quo when you’re not part of the change. Helicopter security is that doubling down.
It’s far easier to fight change and hope your old skills will remain useful than it is to learn a new skill. Everything we see in IT today is basically a new skill. Today the most useful thing you can know is how to learn quickly, what you learned a few months ago could be useless today, it will probably be useless in the near future. We are actively fighting change like this in security today. We try to lump everything together and pretend we have some sort of control over it. We never really had any control, it’s just a lot more obvious now than it was before. Helicopter security doesn’t work, no matter how bad you want it to.
The Next Step
The single biggest thing we need to start doing is measure ourselves. Even if you don’t want to learn anything new you can at least try to understand what we’re doing today that actually works, which things sort of work, and of course the things that don’t work at all. In the next few posts I’m going to discuss how to measure security as well as how to avoid voodoo security. It’s a lot harder to justify helicopter security behavior once we understand which of our actions work and which don’t.