A Desperate Call For More Effective Information Security Accreditation

CISSP has to be the most covered topic in the world of infosec. Why is that? The discussions are mostly of course aimed at self-promotion (both by folk condemning the accreditation and then the same in the defensive responses) and justifying getting the accreditation. How many petabytes are there covering this subject? If you think about it, the sheer volume of the commentary on CISSP is proportional to the level of insecurity felt by infosec peeps. It’s a symptom of a sector that is really very ill indeed, and the sheer volume of the commentary is a symptom of how ineffective CISSP is in accreditation, and also the frustration felt by people who know we can do better.

We need _something_. We do need some kind of accreditation. Right now CISSP is the only recognised accreditation. But if you design an accreditation that attempts to cover the whole of infosec in one exam, what did you think the result would be? And there is no room for any argument or discussion on this. Its time to cut the defensiveness and come clean and honest.

The first stage of solving a problem is acknowledgment of its existence. And we’re not there yet. There are still 1000s in this field who cling onto CISSP like a lifebuoy out on the open ocean. There is a direct correlation between the buoy-clingers and the claim that “security is not about IT” …stop that!! You’re not fooling anybody. Nobody believes it! All it does is make the whole sector look even more like a circus to our customers than it already does. The lack of courage to admit the truth here is having a negative impact on society in general.

Seems to me that the “mandatory” label for CISSP in job qualifications is now rare to see. But CISSP is still alive and is better than nothing. Just stop pretending that it’s anything other than an inch thick and a mile wide.

Really we need an entry-level accreditation that tests a baseline level of technical skills and the possession of an attack mindset. We can’t attack or defend, or make calls on risk without an attack mindset. GRC is a thing in security and its a relevant thing – but it doesn’t take up much intellectual space so therefore it needs to be a small part of the requirements. Level 2 SOC Analysts need to understand risk and the importance of application availability, and the value of electronic information to the business, but this doesn’t require them to go and get a dedicated accreditation. Information Security Manage-ment is really an area for Manage-ers – the clue is in the name.

What are the two biggest challenges in terms of intellectual capital investment? They’re still operating systems (and ill-advised PaaS and SaaS initiatives haven’t changed this) and applications. So let’s focus on these two as the biggest chunks of stuff that an infosec team has to cover, and test entry-level skills in these areas.

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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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