Monday, September 4, 2017

The father of modern security: B. F. Skinner

A lot of what we call security is voodoo. Most of it actually.

What I mean with that statement is our security process is often based on ideas that don't really work. As an industry we have built up a lot of ideas and processes that aren't actually grounded in facts and science. We don't understand why we do certain things, but we know that if we don't do those things something bad will happen! Will it really happen? I heard something will happen. I suspect the answer is no, but it's very difficult to explain this concept sometimes.

I'm going to start with some research B. F. Skinner did as my example here. The very short version is that Skinner did research on pigeons. He had a box that delivered food at random intervals. The birds developed rituals that they would do in order to have their food delivered. If a pigeon decided that spinning around would cause food to be delivered, it would continue to spin around, eventually the food would appear reinforcing the nonsensical behavior. The pigeon believed their ritual was affecting how often the food was delivered. The reality is nothing the pigeon did affected how often food was delivered. The pigeon of course didn't know this, they only knew what they experienced.

My favorite example  to use next to this pigeon experiment is the password policies of old. A long time ago someone made up some rules about what a good password should look like. A good password has letters, and numbers, and special characters, and the name of a tree in it. How often we should change a password was also part of this. Everyone knows you should change passwords as often as possible. Two or three times a day is best. The more you change it the more secure it is!

Today we've decided that all this advice was terrible. The old advice was based on voodoo. It was our ritual that kept us safe. The advice to some people seemed like a fair idea, but there were no facts backing it up. Lots of random characters seems like a good idea, but we didn't know why. Changing your password often seemed like a good idea, but we didn't know why. This wasn't much different than the pigeon spinning around to get more food. We couldn't prove it didn't not work, so we kept doing it because we had to do something.

Do you know why we changed all of our password advice? We changed it because someone did the research around passwords. We found out that very long passwords using real words is substantially better than a nonsense short password. We found out that people aren't good at changing their passwords every 90 days. They end up using horrible passwords and adding a 1 to the end. We measured the effectiveness of these processes and understood they were actually doing the opposite of what we wanted them to do. Without question there are other security ideas we do today that fall into this category.

Even though we have research showing this password advice was terrible we still see a lot of organizations and people who believe the old rituals are the right way to keep passwords safe. Sometimes even when you prove something to someone they can't believe it. They are so invested in their rituals that they are unable to imagine any other way of existing. A lot of security happens this way. How many of our rules and processes are based on bad ideas?

How to measure
Here's where it gets real. It's easy to pick on the password example because it's in the past. We need to focus on the present and the future. You have an organization that's full of policy, ideas, and stuff. How can we try to make a dent in what we have today? What matters? What doesn't work, and what's actually harmful?

I'm going to split everything into 3 possible categories. We'll dive deeper into each in future posts, but we'll talk about them briefly right now.

Things that make money
Number one is things that make money. This is something like a product you sell, or a website that customers use to interact with your company. Every company does something that generates revenue. Measuring things that fit into this category is really easy. You just ask "Will this make more, less, or the same amount of money?" If the answer is less you're wasting your time. I wrote about this a bit a long time ago, the post isn't great, but the graphic I made is useful, print it out and plot your features on it. You can probably start asking this question today without much excitement.

Cost of doing business
The next category is what I call cost of doing business. This would be things like compliance or being a part of a professional organization. Sending staff to conferences and meetings. Things that don't directly generate revenue but can have a real impact on the revenue. If you don't have PCI compliance, you can't process payments, you have no revenue, and the company won't last long. Measuring some of these is really hard. Does sending someone to Black Hat directly generate revenue? No. But it will create valuable connections and they will likely learn new things that will be a benefit down the road. I guess you could think of these as investments in future revenue.

My thoughts on how to measure this one is less mature. I think about these often. I'll elaborate more in a future post.

Infrastructure
The last category I'm going to call "infrastructure". This one is a bit harder to grasp what makes sense. It's not unlike the previous question though. In this case we ask ourselves "If I stopped doing this what bad thing would happen?" Now I don't mean movie plot bad thing. Yeah if you stopped using your super expensive keycard entry system a spy from a competitor could break in and steal all your secrets using an super encrypted tor enabled flash drive, but they probably won't. This is the category where you have to consider the cost of an action vs the cost of not doing an action. Not doing things will often have a cost, but doing things also has a cost.

Return on investment is the name of the game here. Nobody likes to spend money they don't have to. This is why cloud is disrupting everything. Why pay for servers you don't need when you can rent only what you do need?

I have some great stories for this category, be sure to come back when I publish this followup article.

The homework for everyone now is to just start thinking about what you do and why you do it. If you don't have a good reason, you need to change your thinking. Changing your thinking is really hard to do as a human though. Many of us like to double down on our old beliefs when presented with facts. Don't be that person, keep an open mind.

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