We can’t move forward by looking back

A cemetery

For the last few weeks Kurt and I have been having a lively conversation about security ratings scales. Is CVSS good enough? What about the Microsoft scale? Are there other scales we should be looking at? What’s good, what’s missing, what should we be talking about.

There’s been a lot of back and forth and different ideas, over the course of our discussions I’ve come to realize an important aspect of security which is we don’t look forward very often. What I mean by this is there is a very strong force in the world of security to use prior art to drive our future decisions. Except all of that prior art is comically out of date in the world of today.

An easy example are existing security standards. All of the working groups that build the standards, and ideas the working groups bring to the table, are using ideas from the past to solve problems for the future. You can argue that standards are at best a snapshot of the past, made in the present, to slow down the future. I will elaborate on that “slow down the future” line in a future blog post, for now I just want to focus on the larger problem.

It might be easiest to use an example, I shall pick on CVSS. The vast majority of ideas and content in a standard such as CVSS is heavily influenced by what once was. If you look at how CVSS scores things, it’s clear a computer in a datacenter was in mind for many of the metrics. That was fine a decade ago, but it’s not fine anymore. Right now anyone overly familiar with CVSS is screaming “BUT CVSS DOESN’T MEASURE RISK IT MEASURES SEVERITY”, which I will say: you are technically correct, nobody cares, and nobody uses it like this. Sit down. CVSS is a perfect example of the theory being out of touch with reality.

Am I suggesting CVSS has no value? I am not not. In its current form CVSS has some value (it should have a lot more). It’s all we have today, so everyone is using it, and it’s mostly good enough in the same way you can drive a nail with a rock. I have a suspicion it won’t be turned into something truly valuable because it is a standard based on the past. I would like to say we should take this into account when we use CVSS, but nobody will. The people doing the work don’t have time to care about improving something that’s mostly OK, and the people building the standards don’t do the work, so it’s sort of like a Mexican standoff, but one where nobody showed up.

There are basically two options for CVSS: don’t use it because it doesn’t work properly, or use it and just deal with the places it falls apart. Both of those are terrible options. There’s little chance it’s going to get better in the near future. There is a CVSSv4 design document here. If you look at it, does it look like something describing a modern cloud based architecture? They’ve been working on this for almost five years; do you remember what your architecture looked like even a year ago? For most of us in the world of IT a year is a lifetime now. Looking backwards isn’t going to make anything better.

OK, I’ve picked on CVSS enough. The real reason to explain all of this is to change the way we think about problems. Trying to solve problems we already had in the past won’t help with problems we have today, or will have in the future. I think this is more about having a different mindset than security had in the past. If you look at the history of infosec and security, there has been a steady march of progress, but much of that progress has been slower than the forward movement of IT in general. What’s holding us back?

Let’s break this down into People, Places, and Things


I use the line above “The people doing the work don’t have time to care, and the people building the standards don’t do the work”. What I mean by this is there are plenty of people doing amazing security work. We don’t hear about them very often though because they’re busy working. Go talk to someone building detection rules for their SIEM, those are the people making a difference. They don’t have time to work on the next version of CVSS. They probably don’t even have the time to file a bug report against an open source project they use. There are many people in this situation in the security world. They are doing amazing work and getting zero credit. These are the heroes we need.

But we have the heroes we deserve. If you look at many of the people working on standards, and giving keynotes, and writing blogs (oh hi), a lot of them live in a world that no longer exists. I willingly admit I used to live in a world that didn’t exist. I had an obsession with problems nobody cared about because I didn’t know what anyone was really doing. I didn’t understand cloud, or detection, or compliance, or really anything new. Working at Elastic and seeing what our customers are accomplishing in the world of security has been a life changing experience. It made me realize some those people I thought were leaders weren’t actually making the world a better place. They were desperately trying to keep the world in a place that they were relevant and could understand.


One of my favorite examples these days is the fact that cloud won, but a lot of people are still talking about data centers or “hybrid cloud” or some other term that means owning a computer. A data center is a place. Places don’t exist anymore, at least not for the people making a difference. Now there are reasons to have a data center, just like there are reasons to own an airplane. Those reasons are pretty niche and solve a unique problem. We’re not worried about those niche problems today.

How many of our security standards focus on having a computer in a room, in a place? Too many. Why doesn’t your compliance document ask about the seatbelts on your airplane? Because you don’t own an airplane, just like you don’t (or shouldn’t) own a server. The world changed, security is still catching up. There are no places anymore. Trying to secure a server in a room isn’t actually helping anyone.


Things is one of the most interesting topics today. How many of us have corporate policies that say you can only access company systems from your laptop, while connected to a VPN, and wearing a hat. Or some other draconian rule. Then how many of us have email on our personal phones? But that’s not a VPN, or a hat, or a laptop! Trying to secure a device is silly because there are a near infinite number devices and possible problems.

We used to think about securing computers. Servers, desktops, laptops, maybe a router or two. Those are tangible things that exist. We can look at them, we can poke them with a stick, we can unplug them. We don’t have real things to protect anymore and that’s a challenge. It’s hard to think about protecting something that we can’t hold in our hand. The world has changed in a such a way that the “things” we care about aren’t even things anymore.

The reality is we used to think of things as objects we use, but things of today are data. Data is everything now. Every service, system, and application we use is just a way to understand and move around data. How many of our policies and ideas focus on computers that don’t really exist instead of the data we access and manipulate?

Everything new is old again

I hope the one lesson you take away from all of this is to be wary of leaning on the past. The past contains lessons, not directions. Security exists in a world unlike any we’ve ever seen, the old rules are … old. But it’s also important to understand that even what we think of as a good idea today might not be a good idea tomorrow.

Progress is ahead of you, not behind.

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