A Christmas Cyber

Mallory was dead: to begin with. Bob knew he was dead, and nobody liked Bob, he was the security guy, nobody likes the security guy.

“Merry Christmas Bob!” said Alice. “Bah humbug!” was the reply. Bob had to work over Christmas protecting the network, he had no reason to be merry. As Bob opened the door to the server room he noticed the door knocker looked like Mallory, which was odd as the server room door didn’t have a knocker. A closer inspection led Bob to believe his mind was playing tricks on him.

Bob sat down at the terminal and heard the door slam shut. This is of course impossible as the door has a slow closer on it so this sort of thing couldn’t happen. As Bob peeked around the side of the terminal he saw the ghost of Mallory.

“How now!” said Bob, “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” said Mallory.

“Tonight you will be visited by 3 spirits, they will guide you in hopes that you can avoid my path.”

Mallory walked backwards, hit his head on the door, fell down, then stood up, looked around, and snuck out as best as one can after running into a door and falling down.

“Still an idiot” thought Bob. “I can’t imagine any of this is real.”

Cyber Past

Later that night while reading Alice’s mail instead of checking the IDS logs, Bob heard a sound that made him look up quickly. There standing before him was a woman with a ghostly appearance.
“I am the ghost of cyber past” whispered the spirit. “The … what, wait, what? This stupid thing is real?” “I’m here to show you how you used to be, the shadows of things that once were.”
Instantly Bob was transported to the server room ten years ago. He was speaking with the lead architect about how to secure the infrastructure.
“I remember him” recalled Bob. “He should have been fired for incompetence.” “You weren’t always like this” said the spirit “You once had hope you could change things and help them.” “Well, I was a foolish youth, these people are beyond help now” Bob recalled.
The Spirit gazed at the youthful Bob. “We should create a security policy that will help keep the network secure, it’s important not to get in the way too much, I have no doubt we can do this if we work together!”
Just then the scene faded and they were returned to the server room of today, a drab place that had no joy or good ideas anywhere you looked.
“Sigh, there are going to be two more of these bozos who come tonight I suppose. I probably won’t get anything done. This will be worse than end of quarter.”

Cyber Present

The clock struck one, which was odd given there isn’t a clock in the server room. “Now why is that even needed” yelled Bob.
Bob looked up and saw another Spirit. “You’re the one who will show me nobody likes me right!” The spirit looked at him and sighed. “This is why nobody likes you Bob, let’s go.”
The first stop was a party where Alice is talking to some friends. “Then he actually said bah humbug. I mean, who even does that. The guy is totally mental.” Bob shouted “It’s not like you’re any better!” “She can’t hear you” said the Spirit. Bob grumbled something foul to himself.
“I had hoped to show you more, but this is the only person I could find who even talked about you, seriously Bob, you need to be nicer to, well, anyone.”
The scene changed to Bob’s apartment. It was a disheveled room with clutter everywhere. The computer chair was the only place that didn’t have a mess on it. “I have friends in World of Warcraft!” “That’s a lie and you know it!” said the Spirit. “They kicked you out of the guild because you treat them all horribly.”
“Really Bob, I’ve been doing this a long time, you’re without a doubt the most unlikable person I’ve seen, you need to be nicer.” “Maybe if they were nice to me!” “It really doesn’t work that way. Stop being such a jerk.” Bob looked at the Spirit “Aren’t you supposed to be all mysterious and not tell me what to do?” “I’ve made an exception. Also, clean up this dump when you get home.”
With that the room vanished and Bob was again in the server room.
“What a waste of time” he sighed. “That guy was dumber than the people I have to work with.”

Cyber Future

The last Spirit was waiting for Bob as soon as he arrived. “This one is supposed to scare me” thought Bob. He looked up and saw one of his sales reps. “Oh FOR …” “Hi Bob, shall we get going?” “I always knew there was something up with you, you actually are the devil!” “Spirit Bob, I’m a spirit.” “Oh whatever, look, I’m busy, can we just assume you show me a terrible future so I can finish up?”
“No.”
The server room was suddenly much brighter, it was clearly daytime at some point in the future. There were two people talking. “Will you miss him?” said the first person, Bob didn’t recognize them. “Absolutely not” said the second person. “That guy was horrible. Nobody liked him, I’m amazed it took so long to fire him, what a pain”. “You can’t just be a tyrant, security is important, we need someone who can help, not just tell us ‘no’ anytime a question is asked.” “Hah, that’s true, all Bob ever did was say no and yell. Thank goodness they fired him.”
“They fire me!” asked Bob. “They had no choice” said the Spirit. “You weren’t actually helping, you just made problems worse really. Remember this is but the future that could be if you don’t change your ways. There is still hope for you Bob, you can make things better instead of just being part of the problem. Tonight was all about showing you the error of your ways so you can become the security person you once thought you could be. The security person the world needs, it’s important. It’s time to go now, you’ve seen enough. I’ll call you on Monday, I think your firewall it out of compliance.”
With that the server room scene changed back to the present, it was dark outside and Bob was alone in the room. He shivered, it was suddenly chilly.
Bob took a deep breath, what a night. He looked up at the clock, it was almost time to head home. The future Bob saw made him nervous. “That’s not how I want to go out, I’m smart enough to make things right” he thought. Bob leaned back in his chair. After thinking about what to do Bob decided he had to change things. That’s not the future he wanted he had to build a new future. A great future, a future he deserves!
Bob grinned, grabbed a scrap of paper and started writing something down. He taped it to the door. The note read “Merry Christmas everyone, Love Bob.”
“This will be a Christmas to remember” Bob said out loud.
He then shut off the power to the whole server room and left. His phone started ringing immediately and he ignored it as he walked to his car. “Nobody fires me!” he thought to himself. “I wonder if the guild will let me back in?”

Security is the new paperless office!

If you’re old enough, you remember reading a lot about the coming “paperless office”. It never came, but I realized there are parallels we can draw in the context of our current security problems.

Back in the 90’s, everyone wanted a paperless office. It sounded neat and with the future coming, who would need paper with all the flying cars and hoverboards! It turns out paper didn’t go away. Everyone keeps talking about how security is the most important thing ever, investing in the paperless office was once the most important thing ever.

Stage 1: Magic!

This is where security is today. Everyone knows it’s neat, but nobody knows what to really do. Well some people know, but nobody listens to them. Instead we want a magic solution that will fix everything. Most of it doesn’t work but who cares, it’s magic, shut up and take my money!
The paperless office had tons of bizarre things from magic scanners to document systems to things that almost looked like a tablet to store all your paper. None of those things really worked well, they were’t purchased by a lot of people. Anyone who owned an early Palm Pilot probably remembers how just keeping the thing working took at least double the time a paper book consumed. That doesn’t even count the odd writing style you had to use, I’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.
Back in those days most companies had rooms to store the documents. It generally had a lock on it that was never locked, and most of the documents got filed away and were never ever looked at again. The amount of wasted paper and floor space was crazy. If there was a fire, everything got lost. The reasons to get your data out of those rooms was pretty obvious. Just like the reasons to now protect that data is obvious, but how to actually do these things is not.

Stage 2: There is no stage 2

The thing is, there wasn’t ever some mega event that ushered in the paperless office, there will probably never be a paperless office. What actually happened, and is still happening, is we saw a lot of incremental change over the course of decades to bring us to where we are today. I wouldn’t say we’re anywhere near paperless, but we will continue to approach zero. There are some things that make life a lot nicer and things seem to keep getting better.
Most companies don’t have massive document rooms anymore, they store much of that paperwork on a server somewhere. A decent system can tell you exactly who viewed what, when, and why. We do this because it’s better in almost every way, but it took a long time to work out how everything fits together. I never print out maps or travel information anymore, it’s all on my phone. I don’t keep receipts, I just scan them. A lot of HR documents are filled out through a web browser. I pay many bills through a web browser.
There are still people who claim paper is better with a nostalgic glee. There are plenty of crazy arguments about why paper is better, these people aren’t worried about utility though, they have a view of reality that isn’t based on the utility of something, they like things they way they are. More on this person later though, we all know one, keep them in mind.
None of these paperless changes happened quickly or with much fanfare. It was just the slow march of progress. Security is happening the same way. There isn’t going to be a singular giant event that changes everything, there will be lots of little ones. Over the course of the next decade some people will continue to make incremental improvements. Things will get better one step at a time. Security today is better than it was ten years ago, it’s still bad, but it is better.
Here’s the catch though. a lot of security people today are actually fighting change. It’s not the way they would have done it, and instead of helping they like to complain about how nothing will work. They are going to be the people in ten years talking about how much better life was when everything was on paper in a giant warehouse. Those trees had it coming!

Stage 3: Wait, but there was no stage 2 …

So the question now is what can we do? The question of how do we fix all this mess keeps coming up over and over again. Nobody can answer it, some people don’t even understand the question. If you consider yourself a security person, just start helping. Be patient, answer questions, give good advice. As everyone learns new lessons things will improve. There isn’t one fix. Regulation won’t fix anything, huge corporations won’t fix anything, insurance won’t fix anything. Everything will slowly fix itself. The best we can do is try to go from slowest to slower.
There is a bigger issue of are the bad guys moving faster than us? I think today they are, if that will ever change is a debate for a different day.

The world is going to deal with these problems, if the experts help it will go a lot smoother, if they don’t we’ll still get there, it just takes longer. Don’t be the guy who wishes for the good old days. Figure out how to help.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

Security lacks patience

I had a meeting with some non security people to discuss some of the challenges around security. It’s a rather popular topic these days but nobody knows what that means (remember 5 years ago when everyone talked about cloud but nobody knew what that meant?). The details are irrelevant, the most important thing that came out of this meeting was when someone pointed out as a group we are impatient.

I sort of knew this, but I wouldn’t have listed this in the top 10 of “what’s wrong with us”.

What does it mean to be impatient? We don’t listen as well as we should. We get tired of having to explain the same thing over and over again. We don’t like to talk to someone who knows less than us (which is everyone). There are plenty of other examples, I’m not going to dwell on them though. It’s likely many of us have no idea we’re impatient.

I think the most important aspect of this though is how we deal with new idea. In almost every instance of someone proposing a new idea, we rarely talk to them about it, we spend time telling them why they’re wrong. There is nothing security people like to do more than tell someone why they’re wrong. Being technically correct is the best kind of correct!

I was at a working group recently where a number of people suggested new ideas. In almost every case the majority of time was spent explaining to them why their ideas were stupid and would never work. This isn’t a good use of time. It’s the help or shut up concept. We’re not patient, we don’t want to engage, we just want to prove why we’re right and get back to doing nothing. Don’t be this person, if you don’t have constructive feedback listen instead of talking. Bad ideas generally self destruct during discussion, and discussion makes good ideas great.

Has bluntly telling someone their idea is stupid ever actually worked? I bet in almost every instance they double down and never will listen to you again. This is how bad ideas become bad projects.

How do I be more patient?

Being more patient isn’t all that hard in theory, but it’s really hard if you’re used to proving everyone wrong all the time. You just have to learn to listen. It sounds simple but for most security people it’s going to be really hard, one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Let’s cover some examples.

A new way to classify security flaws is proposed, you think it’s dumb. Do you

  1. Tell them why they’re wrong
  2. Argue over why your way is better (even though you don’t really have a way)
  3. Sit there and listen, even though it feels like your insides want to jump out and start yelling

The correct answer is #3. It’s really hard to listen to someone else speak if you think they’re wrong. There are few feeling of satisfaction like completely destroying someone’s idea because it wasn’t thought all the way through. This is why nobody likes you.

You find a remote execution flaw in some code a coworker wrote. Do you

  1. Make sure everyone knows they did this and push to revoke their git access
  2. Tell them how stupid they are and demand they fix the problem without any help
  3. Teach them how to fix the problem, listening to what they say while they’re trying to learn
#1 and #2 are pretty much the way things work today. It’s sort of sad when you really think about it.

If you just sit and listen, people will talk. Most people don’t like silence. If you say nothing, they will say something. In the above example, the person you listen to will start to talk about why they did what they did. That will give you what you need to teach them what they need to know. This is how you gain wisdom. We are smart, we are not wise.

Listening is powerful. Patience is listening. Next time you’re talking to someone, no matter what the topic is, just sit and listen. Make a point not to speak. You’ll learn things you never dreamt of, and you’ll build trust. Listening is more powerful than talking, every time.
Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

Where is the physical trust boundary?

There’s a story of a toothbrush security advisory making the rounds.

This advisory is pretty funny but it matters. The actual issue with the toothbrush isn’t a huge deal, an attacker isn’t going to do anything exciting with the problems. The interesting issue here is we’re at the start of many problems like this we’re going to see.

Today some engineers built a clever toothbrush. Tomorrow they’re going to build new things, different things. Security will matter for some of them. It won’t matter for most of them.

Boundaries of trust


Today when we try to decide if something is a security issue we like to ask the question “Does this cross a trust boundary?” If it does, it’s probably a security issue. If no trust boundary is crossed, it’s probably not an issue. There are of course lots of corner cases and nuance, but we can generally apply the rule.

Think of it this way. If a user can delete their own files, that’s not crossing a trust boundary, that’s just doing something silly. If a user can delete someone else’s files, that’s not good.

This starts to get weird when we think about real things though.

Boundaries of physical trust?


What happens in the physical world? What counts as a trust boundary? In the toothbrush example above an attacker could gain knowledge of how someone is using a toothbrush. That’s technically a trust boundary (an attacker can gain data they’re not supposed to have), but let’s face it, it’s not a big deal. If your credit card number was also included in the data, sure no question there.

But as such, we’re talking about data that isn’t exciting. You can make the argument about tracking data from a user over the course of time and across devices, let’s not go there right now. Let’s just keep the thinking small and contained.

Where do we draw the line?


If we think about physical devices, what are our lines? A concept of just a trust boundary doesn’t really work here. I can think of three lines, all of which are important, but not equally important.

  1. Safety
  2. Harm
  3. Annoyance

Safety

When I say safety I’m thinking about a device that could literally kill a person. This could be something like disabling the brakes on a car. Making a toaster start a fire. Catastrophic events. I don’t think anyone would ever claim this class of issues isn’t a problem. They are serious, I would expect any vendor to take these very seriously.

Harm

Harm would be where someone or something can be hurt. Nothing catastrophic. Think maybe a small burn, or a scrape. Perhaps making someone fall down when using a scooter, or burn themselves with a device. We could argue this category for a while. Things will get fuzzy between if the problem is catastrophic. Some vendors will be less willing to deal with these but I bet most get fixed quickly.

Annoyance

Annoyance is where things are going to get out of hand. This is where the toothbrush advisory lives. In the case of a toothbrush it’s not going to be a huge deal. Should the vendor fix it? Probably. Should you get a new toothbrush over it? Probably not.
The nuance will be which annoying problems deserve fixes and which ones don’t? Some of these problems could cost you money. What if an attacker can turn up your thermostat so your furnace runs constantly? Now we have an issue that can cost real money. What if we have a problem where your 3D printer ruins a spool of filament? What if the oven burns the Christmas goose?
Where is our trust boundary in the world of annoying problems? You can’t just draw the line at money and goods. What happens if you can ring a person’s door bell and they have to keep getting up to check the door? Things start to get really weird.
Do you think a consumer will be willing to spend an extra $10 for “better security”? I doubt it. In the event a device will harm or kill a person there are government agencies to step in and stop such products. There are no agencies for leaking data and even if there were they would have limited resources. Compare “annoyance security” to all the products sold today that don’t actually work, who is policing those?
As of right now our future is going to be one where everything is connected to the Internet, none of it is secure, and nobody cares.
Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

If your outcome is perfect or nothing, nothing always wins

This tweet
https://twitter.com/RichFelker/status/666325066838339584

Led to this thread
http://marc.info/?t=144778171800001&r=1&w=2

The short version is there are some developers from Red Hat working on gcc attempting to prevent ROP style attacks. More than one person has accused this work of being pointless and a waste of time. It’s not, the waste of time is arguing about why trying new things is dumb.

Here’s the important thing security people always screw up.

The only waste of time is if you do nothing and complain about the people who are doing something.

It is possible the ROP work that’s being done won’t end up preventing anything. If that’s true the absolute worst thing that will result is learning a lesson. It’s all too easy in the security space to act like this. If it’s not perfect you can make the argument it’s bad. It’s a common trait of a dysfunctional group.

This is however true in crypto, never invent your own crypto algorithm.

But in the context of humanity, this is how progress happens. First someone has an idea, it might be a terrible idea, but they work on it, then they get help, the people helping expand and change the idea, eventually, after people work together, the end is greater than the means. Or if it’s a bad idea, it goes nowhere. Failure only exists if you learn nothing.

This isn’t how security has worked, it’s probably why everything seems so broken. The problem isn’t the normal people, it’s the security people. Here’s how a normal security idea happens:

  1. Idea
  2. YOUR IDEA IS STUPID YOU’RE WASTING YOUR TIME AND YOU’RE STUPID!!!
  3. Give up

That’s madness.

From now on, if someone has an idea and you think it’s silly, say nothing. Just sit and watch. If you’re right it will light on fire and you can run around giving hi5s. It probably won’t though. If someone starts something, and others come to help, it’s going to grow into something, or they’ll fail and learn something. This is how humans learn and get better. It’s how open source works, it’s why open source won. It’s why security is losing.

The current happy ending to the ROP thread is it’s going to continue, the naysayers seem to have calmed down for now. I was a bit worried for a while I’ll admit. I have no doubt they’ll be back though.

Help or shut up. That is all.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

Your containers were built in some guy’s barn!

Today containers are a bit like how cars used to work a long long long time ago. You couldn’t really buy a car, you had to build it yourself or find someone who could build one for you in their barn. The parts were terrible and things would break all the time. It probably ran on steam or was pulled by a horse.
Containers aren’t magic. Well they are for most people. Almost all technology is basically magic for almost everyone. There are some who understand it but generally speaking, it’s complicated. People know enough to get by which is fine, but that also means you have to trust your supplier. Your car is probably magic to you. You put gas in a hole in the back, then you can press buttons, push peddles, and turn wheels to transport you places. I’m sure a lot of people at this point are running through the basics of how cars work in their heads to reassure themselves its’ not magic and they know what’s going on!
They’re magic, unless you own an engine hoist (and know how to use it).
Now let’s think about containers in this context. For the vast majority of container users, they get a file from somewhere, it’s full of stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then they run some commands they found on the internet, then some magic happens, then they repeat this twiddling things here and there until on try 47 they have a working container.
It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter where the container content came from, or who wrote the dockerfile, or what happens at build time. It’s easy because we’re still very early in the life of this technology. Most things are still fresh enough that security can squeak by. Most technology is fresh enough you don’t have to worry about API or ABI issues. Most technology is new enough it mostly works.
Except even with as new as this technology is, we are starting to see reports of how many security flaws exist in docker images. This will only get worse, not better, if nothing changes. Almost nobody is paying attention, containers mean we don’t have to care about this stuff, right!? We’re at a point where we have guys building cars in their barns. Would you trust your family in a car built in some guy’s barn? No, you want a car built with good parts and has been safety tested. Your containers are being built in some guy’s barn.
If nothing changes, imagine what the future will look like. What if we had containers in 1995. There would still be people deploying Windows 95 in a container and putting it on the Internet. In 20 years, there are still going to be containers we use today being deployed. Imagine still seeing Heartbleed in 20 years if nothing changes, the thought is horrifying.
Of course I’m a bit over dramatic about all this, but the basic premise is sound. You have to understand what your container bits are. Make sure your supplier can support them. Make sure your supplier knows what they’re shipping. Demand containers built with high quality parts, not pieces of old tractors found in some barn. We need secure software supply chains, there are only a few places doing it today, start asking questions and paying attention.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

Is the Linux ransomware the first of many?

If you pay any attention to the news, no doubt the story of the Linux ransomware that’s making the rounds. There has been much said about the technical merits of this, but there are two things I keep wondering.

Is this a singular incident, or the first of many?

You could argue this either way. It might be a one off blip, it might be the first of more to come. We shouldn’t start to get worked up just yet. If there’s another one of these before the year ends I’m going to stock up on coffee for the impending long nights.
Why now?
Why are we seeing this now? Linux and Apache have been running a lot of web servers for a very long time. Is there something different now that wasn’t there before? Unpatched software isn’t new. Ransomware is sort of new. Drive-by attacks aren’t new. What is new is the amount of attention this thing is getting.
It is helpful that the author made a mistake so the technical analysis is more interesting that it would be otherwise. I wonder if this wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting without that.
If this is the first of many, 2016 could be a long year. Let’s hope it’s an anomaly.
Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

The Third Group

Anytime you do anything, no matter how small or big, there will always be three groups of people involved. How we interact with these groups can affect the outcome of our decisions and projects. If you don’t know they exist it can be detrimental to what you’re working on. If you know who they are and how to deal with them, a great deal of pain can be avoided, and you will put yourself in a better position to succeed.

The first group are those who agree with whatever is it you’re doing. This group is easy to deal with as they are already in agreement. You don’t have to do anything special with this group. We’re not going to spend any time talking about them.

The second group is reasonable people who will listen to what you have to say. Some will come to agree with you, some won’t. The ones who don’t agree with you possibly won’t even tell you they disagree with you. If what you’re doing is a good idea you’ll get almost everyone in the second group to support you, if you don’t ignore them. This is the group you ignore the most, but it’s where you should put most of your energy.

The third group is filled with unreasonable people. These are people that you can prove your point beyond a reasonable doubt and they still won’t believe you. There is absolutely nothing you can say to this group that will make a difference. These are the people who deny evidence, you can’t understand why they deny the facts, and you will spend most of your time trying to bring them to your side. This group is not only disagreeable, its’ dangerous to your cause. You waste your time with the third group while you alienate the second group. This is where most people incorrectly invest almost all their time and energy.

The second group will view the conversations between the first group and the third group and decide they’re both insane. Members of the first and third group are generally there for some emotional reason. They’re not always using facts or reality to justify their position. You cannot convince someone if they believe they have the moral high ground. So don’t try.

Time spent trying to convince the third group is time not spend engaging the second group. Nobody wants to be ignored.

The Example

As always, these concepts are easier to understand with an example. Let’s use climate change because the third group is really loud, but not very large.

The first group are the climate scientists. Pretty much all of them. They agree that climate change is real.

The second group is most people. Some have heard about climate change, a lot will believe it’s real. Some could be a bit skeptical but with a little coddling they’ll come around.

The third group are the deniers. These people are claiming that CO2 is a vegetable. They will never change their minds. No really never. I bet you just thought about how you could convince them just now. See how easy this trap is?

The first group spends huge amounts of time trying to talk to the third group. How often do you hear of debates, or rebuttals, or “conversations” between the first and third group here. How often do you hear about the scientists trying to target the second group? Even if it is happening it’s not interesting so only first-third interactions get the attention.

The second group will start to think the scientists are just as looney as the third group. Most conversations between group one and three will end in shouting. A reasonable person won’t know who to believe. The only way around this is to ignore the third group completely. Any time you spend talking to the third group hurts your relationship with the second group.

What now?

Start to think about the places you see this in your own dealings. Password debates. Closed vs open source. Which language is best. The list could go on forever. How do you usually approach these? Do you focus on the people who disagree with you instead of the people who are in the middle?

The trick with security is we have no idea how to even talk to the second group. And we rather enjoy arguing with the third. While talking to the second group can be tricky, the biggest thing at this point is to just know when you’re burning time and good will by engaging with the third group. Walk away, you can’t win, failure is the only option if you keep arguing.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

How do we talk to normal people?

How do we talk to the regular people? What’s going to motivate them? What matters to them?
You can easily make the case that business is driven by financial rewards, but what can we say or do to get normal people to understand us, to care? Money? Privacy? Donuts?
I’m not saying we’re going to turn people into experts, I’m not even suggesting they will reach a point of being slightly competent. Most people can’t fix their car, or wire their house, or fix their pipes. Some can, but most can’t. People don’t need to really know anything about security, they don’t want to, so there’s no point in us even trying. When we do try, they get confused and scared. So really this comes down to:
Don’t talk to normal people
Talking to them really only makes things worse. What we really need is them to trust the security people. Trust that we’ll do our jobs (which we’re not currently). Trust that the products they buy will be reasonably secure (which they’re not currently). Trust that the industry has their best interest in mind (which they don’t currently). So in summary, we are failing in every way.

Luckily for us most people don’t seem to be noticing yet.

It’s also important to clarify that some people will never trust us. Look at climate change denial. Ignore these people. Every denier you talk to who is convinced Google sneaks into their house at night and steals one sock is wasted time and effort. Focus on people who will listen. As humans we like to get caught up with this “third” group, thinking we can convince them. We can’t, don’t try. (The first group is us, the second is reasonable people, we will talk about this some other day)
So back to expectations of normal people.
I’m not sure how to even describe this. I try to think of analogies, or to compare it to existing industries. Nothing fits. Any analogy we use, ever existing industry, generally has relatively understood models surrounding them. Safes have a physical proximity requirement, the safety of cars doesn’t account for malicious actors, doors really only keep out honest people. None of these work.

We know what some of the problems are, but we don’t really have a way to tell people about them. We can’t use terms that are even moderately complex. Every time I work through this I keep coming back to trust. We need people to trust us. I hate saying that, blind trust is never a good thing. We have to earn it.

Trust me, I’m an expert!

So let’s assume our only solution for the masses at this point is “trust”. How will anyone know who to trust? Should I trust the guy in the suit? What about the guy who looks homeless? That person over there uses really big words!

Let’s think about some groups that demand a certain amount of trust. You trust your bank enough to hold your money. You have to trust doctors and nurses. You probably trust engineers who build your buildings and roads. You trust your teachers.

The commonality there seems to be education and certification. You’re not going to visit a doctor who has no education, nor an engineer who failed his certification exam. Would that work for us? We have some certifications, but the situation is bleak at best, and the brightest folks have zero formal qualifications.

Additionally, who is honestly going to make certifications a big deal, everything we need know changes ever 6 months.

As I write this post I find myself getting more and more confused. I wonder if there’s any way to fix anything. Let’s just start simple. What’s important? Building trust, so here’s how we’re going to do it.

  1. Do not talk, only answer questions (and don’t be a pedantic jerk when you do)
  2. Understand your message, know it like the back of your hand
  3. Be able to describe the issue without using any lingo (NONE)
  4. Once you think you understand their challenges, needs, and asks; GOTO 1
I’m not saying this will work, I’m hopeful though that if we start practicing some level of professionalism we can build trust. Nobody ever built real trust by talking, you build trust by listening. Maybe we’ve spent so much time being right we never noticed we were wrong.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

How do we talk to business?

How many times have you tried to get buyin for a security idea at work, or with a client, only to have them say “no”. Even though you knew it was really important, they still made the wrong decision.

We’ve all seen this more times than we can count. We usually walk away grumbling about how sorry they’ll be someday. Some of them will be, some won’t. The reason is always the same though:

You’re bad at talking to the business world

You can easily make the argument that money is a big motivator for a business. For some it’s the only motivator. Businesses want save money, prevent problems, be competitive, and stay off the front page for bad news. The business folks don’t care about technical details as much as they worry about running their business. They don’t worry about which TLS library is the best. They want to know how something is going to make their lives easier (or harder).

If we can’t frame our arguments in this context, we have no argument we’re really just wasting time.


Making their lives easier

We need to answer the question, how can security make lives easier? Don’t answer too quickly, it’s complicated.
Everything has tradeoffs. If we add a security product or process, what’s going to be neglected? If we purchase a security solution, what aren’t we purchasing with those funds? Some businesses would compare these choices to buying food or tires. If you’re hungry, you can’t eat tires.
We actually have two problems to solve.
  1. Is this problem actually important
  2. How can I show the value
Is something important is always tricky. When you’re a security person, lots of things seem important but aren’t really. Let’s say inside your corporate network someone wants to disable their firewall. Is that important? It could be. Is missing payroll because of the firewall more important? Yes.
First you have to decide how important is the thing you have in mind. I generally ponder if I’d be willing to get fired over this. If the answer is “no”, it’s probably not very important. We’ll talk about how to determine what’s important in the future (it’s really hard to do).
Let’s assume we have something that is important.

Now how do we bring this to the people in charge?

Historically I would write extremely long emails or talk to people at length about how smart I am and how great my idea is. This never works.

You should write up a business proposal. Lay out the costs, benefits, requirements, features, all of it. This is the sort of thing business people like to see. It’s possible you may even figure out what you’re proposing is a terrible idea before you even get it in front of someone who can write a check. Think for a minute what happens when you develop a reputation for only showing up with good well documented ideas? Right.

Here’s how this usually works. Someone has an idea, then it gets debated for days or weeks. It’s not uncommon to spend more time actually discussing an idea than it is to implement the thing. By writing down what’s going on, there is no ambiguity, there’s no misunderstanding, there’s no pointless discussion about ketchup.

I actually did this a while back. There was discussion about a feature, it had lasted for weeks, nobody had a good answer and the general idea kept going back and forth. I wrote up a proper business proposal and it actually changed my mind, it was a HORRIBLE idea (I was in favor of it before that). I spent literally less than a single work day and cast in stone our decision. In about 6 hours I managed to negate hundreds of hours of debate. It was awesome.

The language of the business is one of requirements, costs, and benefits. It’s not about outsmarting anyone or seeing who knows the biggest word. There’s still plenty of nuance here, but for now if you’re looking to make the most splash, you need to learn how to write a business plan. I’ll leave how you do this as an exercise to the reader, there are plenty of examples.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers