Fintechs and Security – Part One

  • 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

Recruiting and Interviews

In the prologue of this four-stage process, I set the scene for what may come to pass in my attempt to relate my experiences with fintechs, based on what i am hearing on the street and what i’ve seen myself. In this next instalment, i look at how fintechs are approaching the hiring conundrum when it comes to hiring security specialists, and how, based on typical requirements, things could maybe be improved.

The most common fintech setup is one of public-cloud (AWS, Azure, GCP, etc), They’re developing, or have developed, software for deployment in cloud, with a mobile/web front end. They use devops tools to deploy code, manage and scale (e.g. Kubernetes), collaborate (Git variants) and manage infrastructure (Ansible, Terraform, etc), perhaps they do some SAST. Sometimes they even have different Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs) for different levels of code maturity, one for testing, and one for management. And third party connections with APIs are not uncommon.

Common Pitfalls

  • Fintechs adopt the stance: “we don’t need outside help because we have hipsters. They use acronyms and seem quite confident, and they’re telling me they can handle it”. While not impossible that this can work – its unlikely that a few devops peeps can give a fintech the help they need – this will become apparent later.
  • Using devops staff to interview security engineers. More on this problem later.
  • Testing security engineers with a list of pre-prepared questions. This is unlikely to not end in tears for the fintech. Security is too wide and deep an area for this approach. Fintechs will be rejecting a lot of good candidates by doing this. Just have a chat! For example, ask the candidate their opinions on the usefulness of VA scanners. The length of the response is as important as its technical accuracy. A long response gives an indication of passion for the field.
  • Getting on the security bandwagon too late (such as when you’re already in production!) you are looking at two choices – engage an experienced security hand and ignore their advice, or do not ignore their advice and face downtime, and massive disruption. Most will choose the first option and run the project at massive business risk.

The Security Challenge

Infosec is important, just as checking to see if cars are approaching before crossing the road is important. And the complexity of infosec mandates architecture. Civil engineering projects use architecture. There’s a good reason for that – which doesn’t need elaborating on.

Collapsing buildingWhenever you are trying to build something complex with lots of moving parts, architecture is used to reduce the problem down to a manageable size, and help to build good practices in risk management. The end goal is protective monitoring of an infrastructure that is built with requirements for meeting both risk and compliance challenges.

Because of the complexity of the challenge, it’s good to split the challenge into manageable parts. This doesn’t require talking endlessly about frameworks such as SABSA. But the following six capabilities (people, process, technology) approach is sleek and low-footprint enough for fintechs:

  • Threat and Vulnerability Management (TVM)
  • Logging – not “telemetry” or Threat intelligence, or threat hunting. Just logging. Not even necessarily SIEM.
  • Cryptography and Key Management
  • Identity Management
  • Business Continuity Management
  • Trust (network segmentation, firewalls, proxies).

I will cover these 6 areas in the next two articles, in more detail.

The above mentioned capabilities have an engineering and architecture component and cover very briefly the roles of security engineers and architects. A SABSA based approach without the SABSA theory can work. So an architect takes into account risk (maybe with a threat modelling approach) and compliance goals in a High Level Design (HLD), and generates requirements for the Low Level Design (LLD), which will be compiled by a security engineer. The LLD gives a breakdown of security controls to meet the requirements of the HLD, and how to configure the controls.

Security Engineers and Devops Tools

What happens when a devops peep interviews a security peep? Well – they only have their frame of reference to go by. They will of course ask questions about devops tools. How useful is this approach? Not very. Is this is good test of a security engineer? Based on the security requirements for fintechs, the answer is clear.

Security engineers can use devops tools, and they do, and it doesn’t take a 2 week training course to learn Ansible. There is no great mystery in Kubernetes. If you hire a security engineer with the right background (see the previous post in this series) they will adapt easily. The word on the street is that Terraform config isn’t the greatest mystery in the world and as long as you know Linux, and can understand what the purpose of the tool is (how it fits in, what is the expected result), the time taken to get productive is one day or less.

The point is: if i’m a security engineer and i need to, for example, setup a cloud SIEM collector: some fintechs will use one Infrastructure As Code (IaC) tool, others use another one – one will use Chef, another Ansible, and there are other permutations. Is a lack of familiarity with the tool a barrier to progress? No. So why would you test a security engineer’s suitability for a fintech role by asking questions about e.g. stanzas in Ansible config? You need to ask them questions about the six capabilities I mentioned above – i.e. security questions for a security professional.

Security Engineers and Clouds

Again – what was the transition period from on-premise to cloud? Lets take an example – I know how networking works on-premise. How does it work in cloud? There is this thing called a firewall on-premise. In Azure it’s called a Network Security Group. In AWS its called a …drum roll…firewall. In Google Cloud its called a …firewall. From the web-based portal UI for admin, these appear to filter by source and destination addresses and services, just like an actual non-virtual firewall. They can also filter by service account (GCP), or VM tag.

There is another thing called VPN. And another thing called a Virtual Router. On the world of on-premise, a VPN is a …VPN. A virtual router is a…router. There might be a connection here!

Cloud Service Providers (CSP) in general don’t re-write IT from the ground up. They still use TCP/IP. They host virtual machines (VM) instead of real machines, but as VMs have operating systems which security engineers (with the right background) are familiar with, where is the complication here?

The areas that are quite new compared to anything on-premise are areas where the CSP has provided some technology for a security capability such as SIEM, secrets management, or Identity Management. But these are usually sub-standard for the purpose they were designed for – this is deliberate – the CSPs want to work with Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) vendors such as Splunk and Qualys, who will provide a IaaS or SaaS solution.

There is also the subject of different clouds. I see some organisations being fussy about this, e.g. a security engineer who worked a lot with Azure but not AWS, is not suitable for a fintech that uses AWS. Apparently. Well, given that the transition from on-premise to cloud was relatively painless, how painful is it to transition from Azure to AWS or …? I was on a project last summer where the fintech used Google Cloud Platform. It was my first date with GCP but I had worked with AWS and Azure before. Was it a problem? No. Do i have an IQ of 160? Hell no!

The Wrap-up

Problems we see in fintech infosec hiring represent what is most likely a lack of understanding of how they can best manage risk with a budget that is considerably less than a large MNC for example. But in security we haven’t been particularly helpful for fintechs – the problem is on us.

The security challenge for fintechs is not just about SAST/DAST of their code. The challenge is wider and be represented as six security capabilities that need to be designed with an architecture and engineering view. This sounds expensive, but its a one-off design process that can be covered in a few weeks. The on-going security challenge, whereby capabilities are pushed through into the final security operations stage, can be realised with one or two security engineers.

The lack of understanding of requirements in security leads to some poor hiring practices, the most common of which is to interview a security engineer with a devops guru. The fintech will be rejecting lots of good security engineers with this approach.

In so many ways, the growth of small to medium development houses has exposed the weaknesses in the infosec sector more than they were ever exposed with large organisations. The lack of the sector’s ability to help fintechs exposes a fundamental lack of skilled personnel, more particularly at the strategic/advisory level than others.

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Make Cybersecurity Great Again, Again.

Another ‘we can fix infosec‘ is out there.

“OK I admit we can’t make cybersecurity great again, because it never was great in the first place”.

It was certainly better than it is now. At one point in time, we had the technical folk, but not the managers. Now we have neither. There was a brain drain from security around the early 2000s whereby tech folk left in droves, either voluntarily or ‘as a business need’. They were seen as aesthetically unpleasing at a time where the perception was that a threat did not exist! In the proceeding years risks increased on the top of the aforementioned shedding of intellectual capital from organisations. Then around 2010 things reached boiling point when security incidents found their way back on the front pages of the Financial Times.

So around 2010 some organisations wanted to get ‘tech’ again but since all the skills were lost 10 years ago, who knows what good looks like? The same folk who inherited the kingdom of security with their fine aesthetics were now charged with finding the skills, while not knowing what the skills look like.

“President Trump recently appointed Rudy Giuliani as cybersecurity adviser. Some reacted to this as a joke”. I would agree that this reaction is short sighted.

“Well me and my colleagues are in industry and we see the issues every day, we are the consultants, the IT auditors, systems administrators, security managers and network engineers. No we are not CEOs or business owners but it’s our job to educate and inform these business leaders of the risk of doing business on the internet. Sometimes they listen and too often they don’t seem to hear us”. All you can do is confidently state your case and get it in writing somewhere. But be aware that confidence should never be faked. Either learn the skills necessary FAST, or find another vocation. C-levels can detect BS ladies and gentlemen and the more of you that try to BS a C-level, the harder you’re making it for the rest of us. Ask yourselves why it is that security was once a board level thing and now most security chiefs reports to a CIO or COO.

“I see this every day as I travel across Florida doing IT audits and assessments. The organizations with a security role funded do 90 percent better than those with no such funded position.” Audits are a poor way of assessing the performance of security. Really poor in fact. Although it can be said that if an audit is failed – that’s uber bad, but if an audit is passed it does not mean all is good.

“One of the problems of the Internet is that we didn’t install what I like to call strong user authentication or strong file authentication.” Yes, we did. Its called an Operating System. For the most part the security sector has shied away from the OS because its hard for folk who don’t have an IT background to understand. Infosec would like to convince decision makers that it doesn’t exist, because if it does exist, then vendors can’t sell many of the snake oil offerings, and non-tech infosec folk are in a vulnerable position.

Operating Systems come with a slew of controls that can be used to thwart and/or detect attacks – perhaps it would be good if we started using them and reporting on how effectively the organisation uses each control? Why spend extra on snake oil products? For example, why spend gazillions on identity management in cloud deployments when we already have it?

“All too often we see organizations relegating cyber security to the IT department. I have said this a hundred times, cybersecurity is a business problem not an IT issue”. This statement suits a certain agenda that plays to the non-tech/GRC oriented folk. Security is a business problem AND an IT problem, but in terms of the intellectual capital required, its 10% a business problem, and 90% an IT problem.

“All users need awareness training” – yes, i think we are now at the stage where security has to be something that is everyone’s responsibility in the same way as checking for cars before crossing the road is everyone’s responsibility.

Infosec is in dire straits because of the loss of critical skills from the sector, and now we have a situation where people with the wrong skills are reporting to the likes of Rudy Giuliani with a lack of confidence and a myriad of confused messages, mostly built around self-serving interests at the expense of the whole. Its likely the former mayor of NY won’t be any wiser as to the scale of the problem, and therefore how to solve it.

Security professionals with no IT background are like animals handlers who are afraid of animals, and its these folk who are representing the sector.

The message that will be delivered to Giuliani will include the part that the sector needs more money. You know it really doesn’t – it needs less. Stop spending money on “next gen” products where “old gen” gets it done. “Legacy” stuff isn’t legacy unless you allow yourself to be duped by vendors into believing that its legacy. Really firewalls and OS offer most of what’s needed.

The same goes for people. We have too many people. Don’t create jobs around products – this is creating micro-specialisations that you are then calling ‘skills’, and hiring dedicated staff who won’t be very busy and won’t be very enthused or ‘synergistic’. This is what you’re looking for...http://www.seven-stones.biz/blog/addressing-the-information-security-skills-gap/

As Upton Sinclair said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This quote lends itself to the problems in information security more than any other sector. Moreover it has defined information security as a broken entity since it was first adopted seriously by banks and then others.

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Information Security And A Pale Blue Dot

This article is about the place of ego and pride in information security.

Earth From 6 Billion Miles - Thanks To Voyager 1 - Courtesy Of NASA

Earth From 6 Billion Miles – Thanks To Voyager 1 – Courtesy Of NASA

At the request of the late Carl Sagan, as the Voyager 1 space probe was leaving the solar system, at a record distance of approx 6 billion miles from Earth, NASA instructed Voyager 1 to turn its camera back toward Earth.

Yes – the circled pixel sized dot in the image on the right – this is Earth.

But that dot – that is also a good representation of what you know about security, compared to the whole. Its even more than what I know about security, compared with what there is to know.

One thing i have been right about – security, in theory at least, is a fantastic world to be a part of. I left IBM in the late 90s because i had heard about a world that covered all bases in the IT world. And i wasn’t wrong about this. Things did get ugly in the early 2000s – basically IT folk and engineers weren’t welcome any more. This is why we’re in the mess we’re in now. But security, relative to other fields in IT, is still by far the best place to be, at least from where i’m standing.

Security is such a vast field, and whichever turn you take, you find another world within a world, and within that world, the more you discover, the more you realise what there is left to discover. So in other words – the more you know about security – the more you know you don’t know.

So given all this – does ego and pride have a place in this field? And how do you assess your knowledge compared to others? If you think about it in the context of the image above, if you show excessive ego, hold grudges, or get into regular arguments with others in the field – what this really demonstrates in itself is a lack of awareness of security and how vast it is. Given the vastness of the field, if you’re taking a mocking attitude (99% of the time this will not be communicated to the target of the mockery), i hope you can see now how ludicrous is that attitude? Its diabolical actually. If an Analyst comes from a different background, spent all their time in a certain part of the universe, why on earth (pardon the pun) would you be critical or judgmental of them if they don’t know your neighbourhood as well as you do?

Many believe that excessive pride is mainly in the territory of hacking conference speakers, and its here where things get out of control, because of the attention one can get just from doing something as simple as a wifi “evil twin” attack. But no, not based on what i’ve seen. There are security folk from all walks of the sector, and not just the self-proclaimed ‘evangelists’, whose level of self-importance goes as far as taking patronage over the whole sector.

From the outside looking in, we in security are viewed in a fairly dim light in many cases. While working in a small consultancy here in the UK, I’ve heard it said while management was assessing a candidate’s suitability for a Consultant role: “is he weird enough?”. Security seniors in that firm regularly used to get in to impassioned exchanges with C-levels, because of the issue as I mentioned of taking patronage over security. Disagreements would spiral out of control.

C-levels really just want to have the same understandable conversations, and see the same reporting, from security folk as they do from others. The whole security show does seem like a circus to outsiders, especially to folk in other IT departments. And yet many in this field blame the board (“they’re clueless”) when security is pushed further away from the board, rather than looking at themselves.

And as long we do not have a trustworthy means of proving our ability or experience in this field, there will be lots of issues. Many try to compensate for the aforementioned with self-proclaimed titles, and other little nuances. Many develop a whole persona around trying to show the world how great they are.

We’re renown for being different, and we are, but we can be more careful about how we show our uniqueness. It should be enough to just keep a lower profile and do our jobs. If we have confidently given our advice, got it in black and white somewhere, that’s all we can do. If after that, others still don’t agree with us, leave it at that.

Having an out-of-control ego also prevents us from being team players. We need to be open minded to the idea that others can learn from us and benefit us in return – we will always be stronger as a team rather than as an individual, and no one acting as a lone gun slinger ever helped an organisation to improve its stance in information risk management.

Here’s what the Dalai Lama said about ego: “The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings lies in compassion, and the reason for practicing the teachings is to wipe out the persistence of ego, the number-one enemy of compassion.”

Certainly – at least between ourselves, remember how vast a field is security, and don’t lose perspective.

As i mentioned above: the more you know about security, the more you know you don’t know. So try not to demonstrate a lack of knowledge by attempting to demonstrate lots of knowledge.

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