20
Sep
15

Why Security Fails

I am writing this more than anything because I am dreading taking my lawn mower apart to replace the cable that engages the self-propulsion system. From what I have seen online, some sadistic engineer has made this an ugly job of taking the bottom end of the mower mostly apart just to get to the drive system to unhook the cable in the first place. But I digress.

The primary reason security fails at most organizations is the level of complexity involved in their IT. Organizations have legacy systems, other internal systems, outsourced systems, cloud solutions and a sundry variety of third parties and business partners. With all of these solutions in play, is it any wonder why organizations cannot identify whether or not they have been breached? Where do you start and where do you end? How do you determine if it is a false positive or real? It is such a hard task in fact, that no one wants to or has the time to take the effort to research every incident or they do only cursory research resulting in what they think happened.

Next to complexity the next reason security fails is the reliance on security tools. It is not that tools are not important, but there is mistaken belief that tools are all that you need to be secure. Tools are necessary to identify and focus personnel on potential issues, but tools by themselves are not the complete answer. All security professionals have to do is look to the ubiquitous intrusion prevention system (IPS) that almost every organization has as the prime example of a tool that does not live up to its potential. IPSs are installed but are hardly ever enabled to actually prevent intrusions nor can they truly prevent all intrusions even when fully enabled.

But tools bring other issues. You have organizations that seem to have every security tool under the sun. Now let us be clear here. Organizations may have lots of security tools; however in my experience very few of those tools are ever fully implemented. There are lots of reasons for this but one of the biggest is the revolving door of security leadership. A leader comes in and they have their own security vendor alliances and push their vendor tool agenda. However, that leader either moves on or gets ejected and the next security leader comes along with their security tool world view. As a result, organizations acquire a lot of tools but none are ever fully implemented because of the leadership revolving door.

The second reason security tools tend to miss full implementation is that the implementation runs into significant issues that halt or slow their implementation. There are two reasons for this situation. The first is vendor hyperbole about their solution. My example of the IPS is a prime example of hyperbole. How many IPSs were bought under the promise that it was a “silver bullet” solution?

The second reason tools miss full implementation goes back to the first reason security fails – the complexity of the environment. Environmental complexity makes implementation of anything difficult and, in some cases, impossible. In the case of security tools, the most common situation that stymies a tool’s rollout is the acquisition of a new company. Resources get reallocated to the acquisition and when the fire drill is over, people have forgotten about the tool implementation that was going on before that drill. In the end, the tools do not fully integrate into the environment for whatever reason and therefore leaves gaps in coverage.

But the last reason tools fail is due to a lack of ongoing care and feeding. The tool gets implemented and then gets turned over to the team that will keep it functioning into the future. As time goes on people rotate through the area, training on the tool is not kept up, maintenance on the tool suffers and slowly but surely the tool becomes ineffective.

My favorite example of this was a SIEM implementation at one of my clients. When it first went in it was amazing what it identified both from a security perspective, but also a variety of operational issues that had never had any exposure. However over the next five years, the SIEM system became a backwater for security. There was a belief by IT and security management that the SIEM was somehow self-managing and did not need high caliber personnel. That last year I reviewed the SIEM I was interviewing one of the personnel responsible for it and they said that they had practically tuned out all of the false positives. I inquired why and was shown in the demonstration of the SIEM. Sure enough, very few alerts were even generated and those were few and far between. But then it became alarmingly clear as to why when the person pulled up the systems network map generated by the tool. Most of the corporate network was missing. Further review of the SIEM generated diagram indicated that the organization’s move from their corporate data center to a better equipped co-location facility had apparently not been reflected in the SIEM. How this occurred was a discussion over the next months and it was never clear how the ball got dropped.

Then there are the organizational culture issues. A lot of personnel seem more interested in trying to dodge responsibility and accountability like it is the plague. The more I encounter this attitude, the more I think this behavior can be traced to employers making their employees feel like they are a dime a dozen and can be replaced on demand. But I also believe it is a result of the ugly corporate cultures that have been created over the last couple of decades.

There is no denying that some organizations have created corporate cultures that stress “dog eat dog”, “step over the bodies” and similar tactics if you intend to get ahead. I chalk this up to Jack Welch and his GE corporate culture which he claimed weeded out all but the best of the best. But it is also the result of our own culture and society through reality shows like ‘Survivor’, ‘The Apprentice’, ‘Big Brother’ and similar shows that glorify underhandedness and other questionable tactics versus the virtue of pure teamwork to getting ahead. Because these corporate cultures want people to go after one another, is it even possible that any progress is accomplished in corporations. That is because everyone is so scared of being attacked and losing their job, they do anything to avoid that possibility by tossing anyone else under the bus at the first sign of trouble. It rapidly devolves into a gross and disgusting exercise in a swirling mess of finger pointing and the “Blame Game”.

You then add into this toxic environment IT Operations and/or IT Security personnel who are culturally emasculated thanks to that terrific previously discussed corporate culture borrowed from GE. These people care, but only to a point. The culture just implies that the boss will end your career if you ever bring them “bad news” because people are a dime a dozen. All this results in a situation where people might recognize an alert or something awry, but are reluctant to bring it to anyone’s attention because of the adverse consequences that will likely result. After all, it is the low level minions that get let go first in these situations long before the CISO or CSO. And those minions do not get the great golden parachutes that higher ups get. So why should they bother to put their necks out?

All you have to do is to take a look at the Neiman Marcus and Target breaches. In both cases security operations personnel received alerts indicating something might be wrong. In both cases, these personnel wrote off those alerts and moved on. According to the media, at least in the case of Target these personnel notified higher ups who in turn contacted their security solutions providers and then those people were told to ignore the alerts because they were likely false positive results. However, such a response reinforces the misconception that the tools are not factual when more research should be done to prove that fact.

A long time ago, I paraphrased Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan in the movie ‘A League of their Own’. “Security is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.” Security is hard enough even without all of the other barriers some organizations put in the way.

As a result, is it any wonder that organizations outsource security to a managed service provider? Outsourcing takes security out of the corporate culture and away from internal politics. It also puts all of the tool implementation responsibilities on the outsourcer’s back, not your organization. As long as the outsourcer is kept in the loop regarding changes to the environment, you can have much better assurance that your environment is actually being monitored. And that is where most outsourcing arrangements end up going bad is that the outsourcer is unware of changes made and therefore cannot maintain security because now there are gaps.

Regardless of whether you outsource or you get your organization to own up to the responsibilities required to maintain security, security requires a significant commitment of any organization.

Oh and for those of you that ended up curious about the outcome of my lawn mower project. I finally stepped up after writing this post and got the drive cable replaced. It turned out to be quite the project, but thanks to the Internet and a few postings by people, I had a decent path to follow. The hardest part of the project was that the aforementioned sadistic engineer mounted the cable attachment on the top of the drive mechanism making it a true exercise in patience and manual dexterity to reconnect the new drive cable to the transmission. It took more time to get just that one task done than the teardown and reassembly processes. However, I now have a self-propelled lawn mower again.

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2 Responses to “Why Security Fails”


  1. 1 Name changed to protect the current job
    September 20, 2015 at 4:19 PM

    You should do lawn work more often. 🙂 This, seriously, is one of your best posts.

    I recognized my company in many of the statements you made. Spend the big bucks on the magic unicorn tools but don’t give people enough time to fully implement it and pay ongoing attention to it. Here it’s not the management turnover that does it; it’s the personnel turnover that does it. The “new guy” is always the smartest so the non-technical management does a rip-and-replace because of the FNG’s opinion. And it never gets fully implemented.

    They all want the magic metrics that the auditors request but the auditors won’t tell them what are good metrics to track. So they pick the lame ones from vulnerability scanners. And every vulnerability’s risk is considered in isolation from all other risks so they’re all “low” or rationalized away with “Who could ever figure that out?”. Even though the combination of some of the “lows” are OMG’ers.

    And compliance rules, not true security. I actually had one of the aforementioned non-technical managers demand to know why I implemented a long password requirement for administrative passwords that can’t do two-factor when all that is required are 8-character passwords. And then proceeds to regale me with how he has used the same password for 10+ years and every ninety days he just increments the number at the end.

    So now I’m taking the view of “Never let a good hack go to waste.” and I document when I was overruled and I’m sitting back waiting for the big one to drop. And we all know it will. I’ve got a few breach responses under my belt from previous jobs but not this one. Yet. 🙂

  2. September 20, 2015 at 2:43 PM

    Security is based on technology, processes, partners and people. When the focus changes to the latter, we will be able to protect our information assets.


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