Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ShackF00 » Less Talk, More Action

Earlier this month in NYC, my friend Marcus Ranum and I were having dinner and drinks after a day at the IANS forum. Marcus, in a lighthearted mood, posed the following question to me:

A fight breaks out between giant robots, pirates, and ninjas. Who wins?

We had a fun and spirited debate about this, and laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of the question itself – a pointless conversation, but fun, to be sure. The problem is, we’re having a lot of the same kinds of conversations in infosec right now.

Recently, my friend Josh Corman posted an article on CSO Magazine’s site entitled “The rise of the chaotic actor: Understanding Anonymous and ourselves”. As I would expect (coming from Josh), it is interesting, well-written, and insightful. It’s also totally, completely unimportant. Let me say that another way: IT’S A WASTE OF %*&^$ TIME. Now, lest you get the impression that I am bashing Josh, please know that I am not. I count him as a friend, he’s incredibly smart and talented. In fact, his Rugged Software project is one of the best, and likely most important, efforts underway in the infosec industry right now, and needs all the support it can get. But this? Drivel. And no, it’s not the content that chaps me. Not at all. Although, I must say, the use of D&D references crosses even MY boundary of geekiness acceptance.

Nope, not the content. What, then? The thing that pisses me off about this, and lit a fire under my ass yesterday, is that Josh, and CSO Magazine, put this out there with the disclaimer that this was “important”. Folks, it is not. It’s not because this kind of input is the equivalent of my conversation with Marcus – a watercooler discussion point, an anecdote, a thing to have a short chat and discuss casually – NOT something that will really change the fact of what we are dealing with. And what we are dealing with is the same problem we’ve had for a while now, in my opinion – too much blah blah blah, not enough elbow grease security.

I don’t blog a whole lot. I spend my time in a breakdown that consists of about 30% teaching people to fix shit (sometimes by breaking it first), 60% actually fixing shit (or breaking it first), and 10% speaking about these things. That is 10% of my time spent proselytizing or (hopefully) educating in some way, usually on a technical subject. What I see a lot of out there is people wasting their cycles debating shit that DOES NOT HELP ACTUALLY SECURE ANYTHING. This is not a good trend, folks. We need more do-ers, people who can put hands to keyboard and actually get some security done.

Josh and I had a spirited debate about this on Twitter. He reminded me of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, and said we need to Plan before we Do. He’s right, of course. I’m not insinuating that. But this is not planning. This is mental masturbation. And too much planning, with too little doing, leads to “analysis paralysis” and that is a death-knell for your security program. I’d rather see a CISO who’s a former drill sergeant than one who is an endless pontificator of “what could be”. My friends Alex Hutton and Mike Dahn made small points that are valid – Alex reminded me that not all work is purely hands-on technically, as he and his team at Verizon compile metrics and risk data that all of us rely on. Totally valid, and that IS important. Mike nudged me and said that theory and practice must go together like PB and J (great analogy), and certainly there’s some truth to that as well. But if you are ALL theory, or spend too much time there, you don’t get around to the doing. And there’s a lot that needs doing. Check this stat from Alex and team’s latest Verizon Data Breach report:

Wow. If we spent just 10% of the time we waste on mental masturbation like “what do they want? who are they? are they nice people” kinds of crap on ACTUALLY hardening boxes, screening and pruning ACLs and FW rules, tuning IDS, performing sound vulnerability management practices, and actually fixing our code, we’d be in hella better shape. Are these conversations fun? Sure. Do we need to really rethink our focus? Maybe. I personally do not care if Anonymous is a secret league of 1337 grandmothers from Poland, or whether they want to hack me for vengeance, political motivation, or just plain old theft. Nope. Don’t care. I just know I have adversaries, and I need to protect my sensitive data. That’s what I care about, and that’s what you should care about too.

A few months ago I posted a post-RSA note on “Change we can Believe in”. I had grown tired of all the whining in this industry about how we “need change”. Well, here’s a change for ya: Stop wasting your time on crap like this that is not impactful unless you are a state agency. Most of us just need to hunker down and fix some things.


Thas was simply perfect. I completely agree with Dave, not only with his main point but also on the high quality of Corman's article. I wasn't actively following my Twitter feed when they discussed all this, but after I read the comment from Mike Rothman I decided to read both sides. I confess that Corman's piece was so ethereal I only scanned through parts of it.

It's interesting and important to debate over the adversary motives, means and opportunities. That's a crucial part (but not the whole) of the intellectual work to identify priorities. But as Dave was quite clever to point out using the 96% number from this year's DBIR, we might end up being breached through obvious stuff while discussing the colour and the "chaos level" of the adversary. Again, using my blog's motto, balance is the key.

In terms of practical advice, if your organization is big enough to justify it, having different teams to work on different work streams like Threat Intelligence and Vulnerability/Exposure Management is probably the best way to deal with it, both bringing their results to a prepared executive who can check if those two different activities are complementing each other.

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