Monday, March 24, 2008

Bruce Schneier: Inside the Twisted Mind of a Security Professional

Bruce Schneier's commentary on Wired about how security professionals think is a good read - and a great opportunity. Those of us in the industry often hear statements such as "Wow, I'm glad you're on our side" or "That's pretty evil!" when we make suggestions of how to break a system. Bruce says:

"This kind of thinking is not natural for most people. It's not natural for engineers. Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail. It involves thinking like an attacker, an adversary or a criminal. You don't have to exploit the vulnerabilities you find, but if you don't see the world that way, you'll never notice most security problems."

Bruce's thoughts on this closely match my own - we are, in some ways, engineers of failure. Where others look to make systems work, we seek to stress and test them to the breaking point. The mindset is often difficult to escape - the switch is always on.

When I'm at my local credit union branch, I'm watching to see how they handle my transaction, and how security is set up inside. I look for flaws everywhere - from simple issues like not locking doors to complex issues with data and programming. I know that I check security automatically, and that I analyze almost any system I'm faced with to find flaws or opportunities for exploit.

Since we're security professionals, and we'd like to make other people more aware, we're faced with the question: can we teach the security mindset? Bruce's contention is that it isn't trivial:

"I've often speculated about how much of this is innate, and how much is teachable. In general, I think it's a particular way of looking at the world, and that it's far easier to teach someone domain expertise -- cryptography or software security or safecracking or document forgery -- than it is to teach someone a security mindset."

So, if it isn't trivial, how do we do it? Can we teach the rudiments of the security mindset in a way that makes it available and open to the layman? I believe we can. Will they be effective security analysts overnight? Of course not - there's a degree of technical knowledge and understanding that we can't instill easily. The analytical mindset is, however, something we can plant the seeds for. Just a little crack in the normal mindset that accepts systems, and that instead looks for issues is all we need!

Here are a few ideas that you can use to prompt people in your organization to adopt the security mindset:
  1. Challenge them to think like a bank robber when they next do their banking. Ask if they pay attention to security cameras, how they identify themselves, and if the cashier has money out and visible.
  2. Get them interested in how a system they are involved with can break. Web developers often delight in breaking an application if you show them how, and system administrators are tickled to learn how to break into a machine - if it isn't theirs! Find something that the person works with every day, and show them how the system can be broken.
  3. Make opportunities to ask questions and to test systems available, and encourage your staff to do so. I've had the opportunity to lecture college classes on physical security and you can help foster the moment when the light comes on through simple means - tell stories, point out issues and fixes, and then ask simple questions. You'll be surprised at how the pace picks up once one person answers.
How do you plant the seeds of the security mindset?

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