Fintechs and Security – Prologue

  • Prologue – covers the overall challenge at a high level
  • Part One – Recruiting and Interviews
  • Part Two – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Application Security
  • Part Three – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Other Layers
  • Part Four – Logging
  • Part Five – Cryptography and Key Management, and Identity Management
  • Part Six – Trust (network controls, such as firewalls and proxies), and Resilience

Fintechs and Security – A Match Made In Heaven?

Well, no. Far from it actually. But again, as i’ve been repeating for 20 years now, its not on the fintechs. It’s on us in infosec, and infosec has to take responsibility for these problems in order to change. If i’m a CTO of a fintech, I would be confused at the array of opinions and advice which vary radically from one expert to another

But there shouldn’t be such confusion with fintech challenges. Confusion only reigns where there’s FUD. FUD manifests itself in the form of over-lengthy coverage and excessive focus on “controls” (the archetypal shopping list of controls to be applied regardless of risk – expensive), GRC, and “hacking/”[red,blue,purple,yellow,magenta/teal/slate grey] team”/”appsec.

Really what’s needed is something like this (in order):

  • Threat modelling lite – a one off, reviewed periodically.
  • Architecture lite – a one off, review periodically.
  • Engineering lite – a one off, review periodically.
  • Secops lite – the result of the previous 3 – an on-going protective monitoring capability, the first level of monitoring and response for which can be outsourced to a Managed Service Provider.

I will cover these areas in more details in later episodes but what’s needed is, for example, a security design that only provides the answer to “What is the problem? How are we going to solve it?” – so a SIEM capability design for example – not more than 20 pages. No theory. Not even any justifications. And one that can be consumed by non-security folk (i.e. it’s written in the language of business and IT).

Fintechs and SMBs – How Is The Infosec Challenge Unique?

With a lower budget, there is less room for error. Poor security advice can co-exist with business almost seamlessly in the case of larger organisations. Not so with fintechs and Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). There has been cases of SMBs going under as a result of a security incident, whereas larger businesses don’t even see a hit on their share price.

Look For A Generalist – They Do Exist!

The term “generalist” is seen as a four-letter word in some infosec circles. But it is possible for one or two generalists to cover the needs of a fintech at green-field, and then going forward into operations, its not unrealistic to work with one in-house security engineer of the right background, the key ingredients of which are:

  • Spent at least 5 years in IT, in a complex production environment, and outgrew the role.
  • Has flexibility – the old example still applies today – a Unix fan has tinkered with Windows. So i.e. a technology lover. One who has shown interest in networking even though they’re not a network engineer by trade. Or one who sought to improve efficiency by automating a task with shell scripting.
  • Has an attack mindset – without this, how can they evaluate risk or confidently justify a safeguard?

I have seen some crazy specialisations in larger organisations e.g. “Websense Security Engineer”! If fintechs approached security staffing in the same way as larger organisations, they would have more security staff than developers which is of course ridiculous.

So What’s Next?

In “On Hiring For DevSecOps” I covered some common pitfalls in hiring and explained the role of a security engineer and architect.

There are “fallback” or “retreat” positions in larger organisations and fintechs alike, wherein executive decisions are made to reduce the effort down to a less-than-advisable position:

  • Larger organisations: compliance driven strategy as opposed to risk based strategy. Because of a lack of trustworthy security input, execs end up saying “OK i give up, what’s the bottom line of what’s absolutely needed?”
  • Fintechs: Application security. The connection is made with application development and application security – which is quite valid but the challenge is wider. Again, the only blame i would attribute here is with infosec. Having said that, i noticed this year that “threat modelling” has started to creep into job descriptions for Security Engineers.

So for later episodes – of course the areas to cover in security are wider than appsec, but again there is no great complication or drama or arm-waiving:

  • Part One – Hiring and Interviews – I expand on “On Hiring For DevSecOps“. I noticed some disturbing trends in 2019 and i cover these in some more detail.
  • Part Two – Security Architecture and Engineering I – Threat and Vulnerability Management (TVM)
  • Part Three – Security Architecture and Engineering II – Logging (not necessarily SIEM). No Threat Hunting, Telemetry, or Threat “Intelligence”. No. Just logging. This is as sexy as it needs to be. Any more sexy than this should be illegal.
  • Part Four – Security Architecture and Engineering III – Identity Management (IDAM) and Cryptography and Key Management (CKM).
  • Part Five – Security Architecture and Engineering IV – Trust (network trust boundary controls – e.g. firewalls and forward proxies), and Business Resilience Management (BRM).

I will try and get the first episode on hiring and interviewing out before 2020 hits us but i can’t make any promises!

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On Hiring For DevSecOps

Based on personal experience, and second hand reports, there’s still some confusion out there that results in lots of wasted time for job seekers, hiring organisations, and recruitment agents.

There is a want or a need to blame recruiters for any hiring difficulties, but we need to stop that. There are some who try to do the right thing but are limited by a lack of any sector experience. Others have been inspired by Wolf Of Wall Street while trying to sound like Simon Cowell.

It’s on the hiring organisation? Well, it is, but let’s take responsibility for the problem as a sector for a change. Infosec likes to shift responsibility and not take ownership of the problem. We blame CEOs, users, vendors, recruiters, dogs, cats, “Russia“, “China” – anyone but ourselves. Could it be we failed as a sector to raise awareness, both internally and externally?

So What Are Common Understandings Of Security Roles?

After 25 years+ we still don’t have universally accepted role descriptions, but at least we can say that some patterns are emerging. Security roles involve looking at risk holistically, and sometimes advising on how to deal with risk:

  • Security Engineers assess risk and design and sometimes also implement controls. BTW some sectors, legal in particular, still struggle with this. Someone who installs security products is in an IT ops role. Someone who upgrades and maintains a firewall is an IT ops role. The fact that a firewall is a security control doesn’t make this a security engineering function.
  • Security Architects take risk and compliance goals into account when they formulate requirements for engineers.
  • Security Analysts are usually level 2 SOC analysts, who make risk assessments in response to an alert or vulnerability, and act accordingly.

This subject evokes as much emotion as CISSP. There are lots of opinions out there. We owe to ourselves to be objective. There are plenty of sources of information on these role definitions.

No Aspect Of Risk Assessment != Security. This is Devops.

If there is no aspect of risk involved with a role, you shouldn’t looking for a security professional. You are looking for DEVOPS peeps. Not security peeps.

If you want a resource to install and configure tools in cloud – that is DEVOPS. It is not Devsecops. It is not Security Engineering or Architecture. It is not Landscape Architecture or Accounting. It is not Professional Dog Walker. it is DEVOPS. And you should hire a DEVOPS person. If you want a resource to install and configure appsec tools for CI/CD – that is DEVOPS. If you want a resource to advise on or address findings from appsec tools, that is a Security Analyst in the first case, DEVSECOPS in the 2nd case. In the 2nd case you can hire a security bod with coding experience – they do exist.

Ok Then So What Does A DevSecOps Beast Look Like?

DevSecOps peeps have an attack mindset from their time served in appsec/pen testing, and are able to take on board the holistic view of risk across multiple technologies. They are also coders, and can easily adapt to and learn multiple different devops tools. This is not a role for newly graduated peeps.

Doing Security With Non-Security Professionals Is At Best Highly Expensive

Another important point: what usually happens because of the skills gap in infosec:

  • Cloud: devops fills the gap.
  • On-premise: Network Engineers fill the gap.

Why doesn’t this work? I’ve met lots of folk who wear the aforementioned badges. Lots of them understand what security controls are for. Lots of them understand what XSS is. But what none of them understand is risk. That only comes from having an attack mindset. The result will be overspend usually – every security control ever conceived by humans will be deployed, while also having an infrastructure that’s full of holes (e.g. default install IDS and WAF is generally fairly useless and comes with a high price tag).

Vulnerability assessment is heavily impacted by not engaging security peeps. Devops peeps can deploy code testing tools and interpret the output. But a lack of a holistic view or an attack mindset, will result in either no response to the vulnerability, or an excessive response. Basically, the Threat And Vulnerability Management capability is broken under these circumstances – a sadly very common scenario.

SIEM/Logging is heavily impacted – what will happen is either nothing (default logging – “we have Stackdriver, we’re ok”), or a SIEM tool will be provisioned which becomes a black hole for events and also budgets. All possible events are configured from every log source. Not so great. No custom use cases will be developed. The capability will cost zillions while also not alerting when something bad is going down.

Identity Management – is not deploying a ForgeRock (please know what you’re getting into with this – its a fork of Sun Microsystems/Oracle’s identity management show) or an Azure AD and that’s it, job done. If you just deploy this with no thought of the problem you’re trying to solve in identity management, you will be fired.

One of the classic risk problems that emerges when no security input is taken: “there is no personally identifiable information in development Virtual Private Clouds, so there is no need for security controls”. Well – intelligence vulnerability such as database schema – attackers love this. And don’t you want your code to be safe and available?

You see a pattern here. It’s all or nothing. Either of which ends up being very expensive or worse. But actually come to think of it, expensive is the goal in some cases. Hold that thought maybe.

A Final Word

So – if the word risk doesn’t appear anywhere in the job description, it is nothing to do with security. You are looking for devops peeps in this case. And – security is an important consideration for cloud migrations.

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How To Break Into Information Security

I’ve been asked a few times recently, usually by operations folk, to give some advice about how to break into the security sector, so under much pain I decided to commit my thoughts on the subject to this web log post. I’ve commented on this subject before and more extensively in chapter 6 of Security De-engineering, but this version is more in line with the times (up to 2012 I was advising a wide pass-by trajectory of planet infosec) and it will be shorter – you have my word(s).

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First I’d just be wary about trying to get into security just because of financial reasons (David Froud has an excellent blog and one of his posts covered this point well). At the time of writing it is possible to get into the field just by having an IT background and a CISSP. But don’t do that unless you have what’s REALLY required (do not judge what is REALLY required for the field based on job descriptions – at the time of writing, there are still plenty of mistakes being made by organisations). Summarising this in a very brief way:

  • You feel like you have grown out of pure IT-based roles and sort of excelled in whatever IT field you were involved in. You’re the IT professional who doesn’t just clear their problem tickets and switch off. You are, for example, looking for ways to automate things, and self-teach around the subject.
  • Don’t think about getting into security straight from higher education. Whereas it is possible, don’t do it. Just…don’t. Operational Security (or opsec/devopssec) is an option but have some awareness of what this is (scroll down to the end for an explanation).
  • Flexibility: can jump freely from a Cisco switch to an Oracle Database on any Operating System. Taking an example: some IT folk are religious about Unix and experience a mental block when it comes to Windows – this doesn’t work for security. Others have some kind of aversion to Cloud, whereas a better mindset for the field is one that embraces the challenge. Security pros in the “engineer” box should be enthusiastic about the new opportunities for learning offered by extended use of YAML, choosing the ideal federated identity management solution, Puppet, Azure Powershell, and so on. [In theory] projects where on-premise applications are being migrated to Cloud are not [in theory] such a bad place to be in security [in theory].
  • You like coding. Maybe you did some Python or some other scripting. What i’ve noticed is that coding skills are more frequently being seen as requirements. In fact I heard that one organisation went as far as putting candidates through a programming test for a security role. Python, Ruby, Shell ([Li,U]nix) and Powershell are common requirements these days. But even if role descriptions don’t mention coding as a requirement – having these skills demonstrates the kind of flexibility and enthusiasm that go well with infosec. “Regex” comes up a lot but if you’ve done lots of Python/Ruby and/or Unix sed/awk you will be more than familiar with regular expressions.

There is a non-tech element to security (sometimes referred to as “GRC”) but this is something you can get into later. Being aware of international standards and checking to see what’s in a typical corporate security policy is a good idea, but don’t be under the impression that you need to be able to recite verses from these. Generally speaking “writing stuff” and communication is more of a requirement in security than other fields, but you don’t need to be polished at day zero. There are some who see the progression path as Security Analyst –> Security Consultant (Analyst who can communicate effectively).

Another common motivator is hacker conferences or Mr Robot. Infosec isn’t like that. Even the dark side – you see Elliott with a hoody writing code with electronic techno-beats in the background, but hackers don’t write code to compromise networks to any huge degree, if at all. All the code is written for them by others mostly. And as with the femtocell and Raspberry Pi incidents, they usually have to assume a physical presence on the inside, or they are an internal employee themselves, or they dupe someone on the inside of the organisation under attack. Even if you’re in a testing role on the light side, the tests are vastly restricted and there’s a very canned approach to the whole thing with performance KPIs based on reports or something else that doesn’t link to actual intellectual value. Its far from glamorous. There’s an awful lot of misunderstanding out there. What is spoken about at hacker confz is interesting but its not usually stuff that is required to prove the existence of vulnerability in a commercial penetration test – most networks are not particularly well defended, and very little attention is given to results, more so because in most cases the only concern is getting ticks in boxes for an audit – and the auditors are often 12 years old and have never seen a command shell. Quality is rarely a concern.

Its a good practice to build up a list of the more influential bloggers and build up a decent Twitter feed and check what’s happening daily, but also, here are the books that I found most useful in terms of starting out in the field:

  • TCP/IP Illustrated – there are 3 volumes. 1 and 2 are the most useful. Then…
  • Building Internet Firewalls – really a very good way to understand some of the bigger picture ideas behind network architecture design and data flows. I hear rolling of eyes from some sectors, but the same principles apply to Cloud and other “modern” ideas that are from the 90s. With Cloud you have less control over network aspects but network access control and trust relationships are still very much a concern.
  • Network Security Assessment – the earlier versions are also still pertinent unless you will never see a Secure Shell or SMB port (hint: you will).
  • Security Engineering – there’s a very good chapter on Cryptography and Key Management.
  • The Art of Software Security Assessment – whether or not you will be doing appsec for a living you should look at OWASP‘s site and check out Webgoat. They are reportedly looking to bolster their API security coverage, which is nice (a lot of APIs are full of the same holes that were plugged in public apps by the same orgs some years ago). But if you are planning on network penetration testing or application security as a day job, then read this book, its priceless and still very applicable today.
  • The Phoenix Project – a good background illustrative for gaining a better understanding of the landscape in devops.

Also – take a look at perhaps a Windows security standard from the range of CIS benchmarks.

Finally – as i alluded earlier – opsec is not security. Why do i say this? Because i did come across many who believe they made it as a security pro once they joined a SOC/NOC team and then switched off. Security is a holistic function that covers the entire organisation – not just its IT estate, but its people, management, availability and resilience concerns, and processes. As an example – you could be part of a SOC team analysing the alerts generated by a SIEM (BTW some of the best SIEM material online is that written by Dr Anton Chuvakin). This is a very product centric role. So what knowledge is required to architect a SIEM and design its correlation rules? This is security. The same applies to IDS. Responding to alerts and working with the product is opsec. Security is designing the rulebase on an internal node that feeds off a strategically placed network tap. You need to know how hackers work among other areas (see above). Security is a holistic function. A further example: opsec takes the alerts generated by vulnerability management enterprise suites and maybe does some base false positives testing. But how does the organisation respond effectively to a discovered vulnerability? This is security.

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