One Infosec Accreditation Program To Bind Them All

May 2013 saw a furious debate ensue after a post by Brian Honan (Is it time to professionalize information security?) that suggested that things need to be improved, which was followed by some comments to the effect that accreditation should be removed completely.

Well, a suggestion doesn’t really do it for me. A strong demand doesn’t really do it either, in fact we’re still some way short. No – to advocate the strength of current accreditation schemes is ludicrous. But to then say that we don’t need accreditations at all is completely barking mad.

Brian correctly pointed out “At the moment, there is not much that can be done to prevent anyone from claiming to be an information security expert.” Never a truer phrase was spoken.

Other industry sectors have professional accreditation and it works. The stakes are higher in areas such as Civil Engineering and Medicine? Well – if practitioners in those fields screw up, it cost lives. True, but how is this different from Infosec? Are the stakes really lower when we’re talking about our economic security? We have adversaries and that makes infosec different or more complex?

Infosec is complex – you can bet ISC2’s annual revenue on that. But doesn’t that make security even more deserving of some sort of accreditation scheme that works and generates trust?

I used the word “trust”, and I used it because that what’s we’re ultimately trying to achieve. Our customers are C-levels, other internal departments, end users, home users, and so on. At the moment they don’t trust infosec professionals and who can blame them? If we liken infosec to medicine, much of the time, forget about the treatment, we’re misdiagnosing. Infosec is still in the dark ages of drilling holes in heads in order to cure migraine.

That lack of trust is why, in so many organizations, security has been as marginalized as possible without actually being vaporized completely. Its also why security has been reduced down to the level of ticks in boxes, and “just pass the audit”.

Even though an organization has the best security pros in the world working for them, they can still have their crown jewels sucked out through their up-link in an unauthorized kinda way. Some could take this stance and advocate against accreditation because ultimately, the best real-world defenses can fail. However, nobody is pretending that the perfect, “say goodbye to warez – train your staff with us” security accreditation scheme can exist. But at the same time we do want to be able to configure detection and cover some critical areas of protection. To say that we don’t need training and/or accreditation in security is to say the world doesn’t need accreditation ever again. No more degrees and PhDs, no more CISSPs, and so on.

We certainly do need some level of proof of at least base level competence. There are some practices and positions taken by security professionals that are really quite deceptive and result in resources being committed in areas where there is 100% wastage. These poor results will emerge eventually. Maybe not tomorrow, but eventually the mess that was swept under the carpet will be discovered. We do need to eliminate these practices.

So what are we trying to achieve with accreditation? The link with IT needs to be re-emphasized. The full details of a proposal are covered in chapter 11 of Security De-engineering, but basically what we need first is to ensure the connection at the Analyst level with IT, mainly because of the information element of information technology and information security (did you notice the common word in IT and IT security? Its almost as though there might be a connection between them). 80% of information is now held in electronic form. So businesses need expertise to assist them with protection of that information.

Security is about both business and IT of course. Everybody knows this even if they can’t admit it. There is an ISMS element that is document and process based, which is critical in terms of future proofing the business and making security practices more resource-efficient. A baseline security standard is a critical document and cannot be left to gather dust on a shelf – it does need to be a “living” document. But the “M” in ISMS stands for Management, and as such its an area for…manage-ers. What is quite common is to find a security department of 6 or more Analysts who specialize in ISMS and audits. That does not work.

There has to be a connection with IT and probably the best way to ensure that is to advocate that a person cannot metamorphosize into a Security Analyst until they have 5 years served in IT operations/administration, network engineer, or as a DBA, or developer. Vendor certs such as those from IBM, Microsoft, Cisco – although heavily criticized they can serve to indicate some IT experience but the time-served element with a signed off testimonial from a referee is critical.

There can be an entrance exam for life as an Analyst. This exam should cover a number of different bases. Dave Shackleford’s assertion that creative thinkers are needed is hard to argue with. Indeed, what i think is needed is a demonstration of such creativity and some evidence of coding experience goes a long way towards this.

Flexibility is also critical. Typically IT ops folk cover one major core technology such as Unix or Windows or Cisco. Infosec needs people who can demonstrate flexibility and answer security questions in relation to two or more core technologies. As an Analyst, they can have a specialization with two major platforms plus an area such as application security, but a broad cross-technology base is critical. Between the members of a team, each one can have a specialization, but the members of the team have knowledge that compliments each other, and collectively the full spectrum of business security concerns can be covered.

There can be specializations but also proportional rewards for Analysts who can demonstrate competence in increasing numbers of areas of specialization. There is such a thing as a broad-base experienced Security Analyst and such a person is the best candidate for niche areas such as forensics, as opposed to a candidate who got a forensics cert, learned how to use Encase, plastered forensics on their CV, and got the job with no other Analyst experience (yes – it does happen).

So what emerges is a pattern for an approximate model of a “graduation”-based career path. And then from 5 years time-served as an Analyst, there can be another exam for graduation into the position of Security Manager or Architect. This exam could be something similar to the BCS’s CISMP or ISACA’s CISA (no – I do not have any affiliations with those organizations and I wasn’t paid to write this).

Nobody ever pretended that an accreditation program can solve all our problems, but we do need base assurances in order for our customers to trust us.

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Migrating South: The Devolution Of Security From Security

Devolution might seem a strong word to use. In this article I will be discussing the pros and cons of the migration of some of the more technical elements of information security to IT operations teams.

By the dictionary definition of the word, “devolution” implies a downgrade of security – but sufficed to say my point does not even remotely imply that operations teams are subordinate to security. In fact in many cases, security has been marginalized such that a security manager (if such a function even exists) reports to a CIO, or some other managerial entity within IT operations. Whether this is right or wrong…this is subjective and also not the subject here.

Of course there are other department names that have metamorphosed out of the primordial soup …”Security Operations” or SecOps, DevOps, SecDev, SecOpsDev, SecOpsOps, DevSecOps, SecSecOps and so on. The discussion here is really about security knowledge, and the intellectual capital that needs to exist in a large-sized organisation. Where this intellectual capital resides doesn’t bother me at all – the name on the sign is irrelevant. Terms such as Security and Operations are the more traditional labels on the boxes and no, this is not something “from the 90s”. These two names are probably the more common names in business usage these days, and so these are the references I will use.

Examples of functions that have already, and continue to be pharmed out to Ops are functions such as Vulnerability Management, SIEM, firewalls, IDS/IPS, and Identity Management. In detail…which aspects of these functions are teflonned (non-stick) off? How about all of them? All aspects of the implementation project, including management, are handled by ops teams. And then in production, ops will handle all aspects of monitoring, problem resolution, incident handling ..ad infinitum.

A further pre-qualification is about ideal and actual security skills that are commonly present. Make no mistake…in some cases a shift of tech functions to ops teams will actually result in improvements, but this is only because the self-constructed mandate of the security department is completely non-tech, and some tech at a moderate cost will usually be better than zero tech, checklists, and so on.

We need to talk about typical ops skills. Of course there will be occasional operations team members who are well versed in security matters, and also have a handle on the business aspects, but this is extra-curricular and rare. Ops team members are system administrators usually. If we take Unix security as an example, they will be familiar with at least filesystem permissions and umask settings, so there is a level of security knowledge. Cisco engineers will have a concept of SNMP community strings and ACLs. Oracle DBAs will know how about profiles and roles.

But is the typical security portfolio of system administrators wide enough to form the foundations of an effective information security program? Not really. In fact its some way short. Security Analysts need to have a grasp not only on, for example, file system permissions, they need to know how attackers actually elevate privileges and compromise, for example, a critical database host. They need to know attack vectors and how to defend against them. This kind of knowledge isn’t a typical component of a system administrator’s training schedule. Its one thing to know the effect of a world-write permission bit on a directory, but what is the actual security impact? With some directories this can be relatively harmless, with others, it can present considerable business risk.

The stance from ops will be to patch and protect. While this is [sometimes] better than nothing, there are other ways to compromise servers, other than exploiting known vulnerabilities. There are zero days (i.e. undeclared vulnerabilities for which no patch has been released), and also means of installing back doors and trojans that do not involve exploiting local bugs.

So without the kind of knowledge I have been discussing, how would ops handle a case where a project team blocks the install of a patch because it breaks some aspect of their business-critical application? In most cases they will just agree to not install the patch. In consideration of the business risk several variables come into play. Network architecture, the qualitative technical risk to the host, value of information assets…and also is there a work-around? Is a work-around or compromise even worth the time and effort? Do the developers need to re-work their app at a cost of $15000?

A lack of security input in network operations leads to cases where over-redundancy is deployed. Literally every switch and router will have a hot swap. So take the budget for a core network infrastructure and just double it – in most cases this is excessive expenditure.

With firewall rules, ops teams have a concept of blocking incoming connections, but its not unusual that egress will be over-looked, with all the “bad netizen”, malware / private date harvests, reverse telnet implications. Do we really want our corporate domain name being blacklisted?

Another common symptom of a devolved security model is the excessive usage of automated scanners in vulnerability assessment, without having any idea that there are shortcomings with this family of product. The result of this is to “just run a scanner against it” for critical production servers and miss the kind of LHF (Low Hanging Fruit) false negatives that bad guys and malware writers just love to see.

The results of devolution will be many and varied in nature. What I have described here is only a small sampling. Whatever department is responsible for security analysis is irrelevant, but the knowledge has to be there. I cover this topic more thoroughly in Chapter 5 of Security De-engineering, with more details on the utopic skills in Chapter 11.

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