Information Security Pseudo-skills and the Power of 6

How many Security Analysts does it take to change a light bulb? The answer should be one but it seems organisations are insistent on spending huge amounts of money on armies of Analysts with very niche “skills”, as opposed to 6 (yes, 6!) Analysts with certain core skills groups whose abilities complement each other. Banks and telcos with 300 security professionals could reduce that number to 6.

Let me ask you something: is Symantec Control Compliance Suite (CCS) a “skill” or a product or both? Is Vulnerability Management a skill? Its certainly not a product. Is HP Tippingpoint IPS a product or a skill?

Is McAfee Vulnerability Manager 7.5 a skill whereas the previous version is another skill? So if a person has experience with 7.5, they are not qualified to apply for a shop where the previous version is used? Ok this is taking it to the extreme, but i dare say there have been cases where this analogy is applicable.

How long does it take a person to get “skilled up” with HP Arcsight SIEM? I was told by a respected professional who runs his own practice that the answer is 6 months. My immediate thought is not printable here. Sorry – 6 months is ridiculous.

So let me ask again, is Symantec CCS a skill? No – its a product. Its not a skill. If you take a person who has experience in operational/technical Vulnerability Management – you know, vulnerability assessment followed by the treatment of risk, then they will laugh at the idea that CCS is a skill. Its only a skill to someone who has never seen a command shell before, tested manually for a false positive, or taken part in an unrestricted manual network penetration test.

Being a software product from a major vendor means the GUI has been designed to make the software intuitive to use. I know that in vulnerability assessment, i need to supply the tool with IP addresses of targets and i need to tell the tool which tests I want to run against those targets. Maybe the area where I supply the addresses of targets is the tab which has “targets” written on it? And I don’t want to configure the same test every time I run it, maybe this “templates” tab might be able to help me? Do i need a $4000 2-week training course and a nice certificate to prove to the world that I can work effectively with such a product? Or should there be an effective accreditation program which certifies core competencies (including evidence of the ability to adapt fast to new tools) in security? I think the answer is clear.

A product such as a Vulnerability Management product is only a “Window” to a Vulnerability Management solution. Its only a GUI. It has been tailored to be intuitive to use. Its the thin layer on top of the Vulnerability Management solution. The solution itself is much bigger than this. The product only generates list of vulnerabilities. Its how the organisation treats those vulnerabilities that is key – and the product does not help too much with the bigger picture.

Historically vulnerability management has been around for years. Then came along commercial products, which basically just slapped a GUI on processes and practices that existed for 20 years+, after which the jobs market decided to call the product the solution. The product is the skill now, whereas its really vulnerability management that is the skill.

The ability to adapt fast to new tools is a skill in itself but it also is a skill that should be built-in by default: a skill that should be inherent with all professionals who enter the field. Flexibility is the key.

The real skills are those associated with areas for large volumes of intellectual capital. These are core technologies. Say a person has 5 years+ experience of working in Unix environments as a system administrator and has shown interest in scripting. Then they learn some aspects of network penetration testing and are also not afraid of other technologies (such as Windows). I can guarantee that they will be up and running in less than one day with any new Vulnerability Management tool, or SIEM tool, or [insert marketing buzzphrase here] that vendors can magic up.

Different SIEM tools use different terms and phrases for the same basic idea. HP uses “flex connectors” whilst Splunk talks about “Forwarders” and “Heavy Forwarders” and so on. But guess what? I understand English but If i don’t know what the words mean, i can check in an online dictionary. I know what a SIEM is designed to do and i get the data flows and architecture concept. Network aggregation of syslog and Windows Events is not an alien concept to me, and neither are all layers of the TCP/IP stack (a really basic requirement for all Analysts – or should be). Therefore i can adapt very easily to new tools in this space.

IPS/IDS and Firewalls? Well they’re not even very functional devices. If you have ever setup Snort or iptables you’ll be fine with whatever product is out there. Recently myself and another Consultant were asked to configure a Tippingpoint device. We were up and running in 10 minutes. There were a few small items that we needed to check against the product documentation. I have 15 years+ experience in the field but the other guy is new. Nonetheless he had configured another IPS product before. He was immediately up and running with the product – no problem. Of course what to configure in the rule base – that is a bigger story and it requires knowledge of threats, attack techniques and vulnerabilities – but that area is GENERIC to security – its not specific to a product.

I’ve seen some truly crazy job specifications. One i saw was Websense Specialist!! Come on – its a web proxy! Its Squid with extra cosmetic functions. The position would be filled by a Websense “Olympian” probably. But what sort of job is that? Carpe Diem my friends, Carpe Diem.

If you run a security consultancy and you follow the usual market game of micro-boxed, pigeon-holed security skills, i don’t know how you can survive. A requirement comes up for a project that involves a number of different products. Your existing consultants don’t have those products written anywhere on their CVs, so you go to market looking for contractors at 600 USD per day. You either find the people somehow, or you turn the project down.  Either way you lose out massively. Or – you could have a base of 6 (its that number again) consultants with core skills that complement each other.

If the over-specialisation issue were addressed, businesses would save considerably on human resource and also find it easier to attract the right people. Pigeon-holed jobs are boring. It is possible and advisable to acquire human resource able to cover more bases in risk management.

There are those for and against accreditation in security. I think there is a solution here which is covered in more detail of Chapter 11 of Security De-engineering.

So how many Security Analysts does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is 6, but typically in real life the number is the mark of the beast: 666.

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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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