Security in a Box

Are you looking for that special gizmo in a box which will provide your organization a warm blanket of security? Buy it, plug it in, and viola! You are now secure. Fold up the tents and walk away, the job is done. Well, keep looking. Regardless of what some security vendors peddle to uninformed IT managers, it simply does not exist.

Security is an on-going process of diligence. The simple fact is, as long as the environment being protected changes, and the threats to that environment look for ways to take advantage, security must also adapt. No one product sufficiently spans the current and potential spectrum of attack vectors, nor does any one solution cover all aspects of technology and behaviors which may be exploited.

The booming growth of security products over the past few years can partly be attributed to organizations dumping money into the market. A common mistake of many senior IT managers was to invest bags of money under the false belief it was a one-time expenditure. As if security could be purchased in a box, installed, and the issue resolved. Especially in IT departments, people new to the realm of security apply IT thinking to the ‘problem' of security, expecting to find an engineering solution ‘fix' so life can move on. I can't blame them really, as most technology minded people deal with obstacles rather than opponents. An obstacle can be overcome. Engineers are great at going over, under, around or through obstacles. Find the right technology, gadget, toy, process, or application and the problem is solved so the diligent IT person can move on to the next obstacle.

Opponents, not obstacles

Well, security is not about obstacles, it is about opponents. Every security threat can be traced back to a person. That person, if malicious, has an agenda and an objective. Put an obstacle in their way, they will find a way to counter or go around it in the pursuit of their objective. In fact, the behavior of attackers is usually predictable, as they follow the ‘path of least resistance' to achieve their objective.

If you treat an opponent like an obstacle, you will be fighting a never-ending set of losing battles. One hole is plugged and the opponent simply adjusts to the actions and comes at you from another direction. It can degrade into a battle of attrition. The defense in this manner can only hope they ‘fix' enough things to make the attacker move on to another target. However, the cost of each ‘fix' is much greater than the cost for the attacker to adapt. For a dedicated attacker, the odds are in their favor, unless the target is willing to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources to continually fight the ‘obstacle' battle in hopes that eventually the attackers will tire or find an easier target.

I plan on going more in depth on this Attacker -> Methods - > Objective model in another blog and may go into great depth in a whitepaper, time permitting. Traditional IT thinking, when applied to security, is an endless treadmill consuming time and resources.

Feel the Pain

Be careful what you wish for. If senior management maintains a simplistic view of security, then many problems are sure to follow. Time to bring on the pain. Choosing to adopt the deceptively straightforward �obstacle� defense is an unpleasant education in futility as new issues quickly replaces ones just remedied. It is both costly and frustrating. Losses begin to tally and security spends increase as the organization is stuck in a routine of responding to each new type of attack. Management can get very aggravated at the continuing expense and interruption with such a poor strategy. From the perspective at the top, it is easy to blame the security staff and not obvious the lack of a comprehensive security strategy is the real culprit.

In this cycle, it is a safe bet management would not comprehend the strategic need to identify an optimal balance of security. Such viewpoints tend to distill the situation to a binary state, either the company is secure or it is not. Trying to argue a gradient or any other perspective may fall on deaf ears. Expect the commitment to be limited to short term security expenditures and no allowance for much in the way of sustaining costs or future additional costs necessary to mitigate new threats. Budget discussions can be frustrating; with management expecting a dramatic decrease in future security spending while those in the trenches are struggling just to maintain effectiveness against new types of attacks. The lure of an easy solution or product is very tempting, but nothing more than a mirage which distracts leaders and reinforces an overly simplistic way of thinking, leading the organization down a path of inadequate preparedness for sustaining needs of the future.

On the converse, if an organization maintains the perspective that an ‘opposition' exists, then an entirely different game is played. One which can be won or at least managed efficiently. The organization can implement a thorough defense-in-depth strategy which starts with Prediction. Predicting the opposition's objectives, capabilities, and most likely methods is the first step in applying a cost effective structure to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to attacks.

Cost of the Magic Box

If your organization is looking for the magic security box then it is suffering from the ‘obstacle' way of thinking. This will be costly. The security programs implemented under this way of thinking will most likely be rigid and have a short effective shelf-life. Many security initiatives will be in response to successful attacks and will be rushed into production. Stacking an increasing number of independent solutions weighs heavily on the computing infrastructure, complicating the very environment it is trying to protect, and sets in motion steadily increasing sustaining and support costs, with no end in sight. Bleak to say the least.

Management perception and strategy are very important aspects when evaluating the value of security programs. Security is not a snap-shot in time. Sure, buying a flashy product may fix a specific problem which cropped up, but the long term costs must be factored in. Will this product ever be End-of-Life'ed? Is their a different product which not only closes this gap in security but also provides broader protection against future issues? What are the real operating and sustaining costs? Will the product be maintained by the vendor and continually upgraded to address new threats?

The bottom line

When measuring security it is important to understand the threats, solutions, as well as the organization which everything will be applied. With all other factors equal, the value of a security product is greatly different in an organization with a comprehensive defense-in-depth strategy, versus an organization with a haphazard strategy with non-integrated solutions. No one product or service does it all. The attackers are dynamic and will adapt to an organizations defenses. Understanding the concept of ‘opposition', even embracing the idea, will thrust your organization ahead in this game.

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Matthew Rosenquist

About Matthew Rosenquist

Matthew Rosenquist is a Cybersecurity Strategist for Intel Corp and benefits from 20+ years in the field of security. He specializes in strategy, measuring value, and developing cost effective capabilities and organizations which deliver optimal levels of security. Matthew helped with the formation of the Intel Security Group, an industry leading organization bringing together security across hardware, firmware, software and services. An outspoken advocate of cybersecurity, he strives to advance the industry and his guidance can be heard at conferences, and found in whitepapers, articles, and blogs.