Looking Over The RIM And Into The Chasm
What security folks need to learn from RIM's stunning downfall
If you've been too focused on fighting fires all week, you may have missed the big news in the mobile space. No, not that Apple sold 37 million iPhones and 15 million iPads. Founders and co-CEOs of RIM (Research in Motion) stepped down. Even better, they went all the way down the hall to find their successor. COO Thorsten Heins was named to the CEO post, and his first public statement was: "I Don’t Think There Is a Drastic Change Needed."
Really? RIM has been executing so well that vultures have been circling around its carcass for almost two years. We don't track market share or anything, but you know it's hard to restrain that chuckle when you see some poor sap pull out a BlackBerry nowadays. You probably ask whether his new iPhone or Android is on order. If not, he grumbles something about still being on Windows XP and how his IT group isn't quite on the cutting edge.
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To be clear, this isn't about RIM --in my Ivan Drago voice, "If they die, they die" -- it's just sad to see a company that was a true innovator with huge momentum refuse to acknowledge market realities, refuse to change, and then move so slowly once it decided it had problems. HP basically gave up, as it couldn't rescue WebOS. This game is over, and RIM lost. Oh, well. But there are a couple of very instructive lessons that we security folks need to pay attention to, or face a similar fate.
The first is the need to evolve with the times. For a long time, the fairly rudimentary defenses we had were good enough. You know: keeping your devices patched, your AV up to date, and your network ops team from screwing with the firewall and IDS too often. But then things started to change, and far too many security folks have been too resistant to change with them.
The attackers aren't going through the front door anymore. They use your people against you through novel social-engineering attacks. They use your developers against you by taking advantage of holes in your code. They attack your security vendors to be able to bypass the products you buy from them. Yet far too many security folks get excited by that firewall upgrade, or getting their hands on the newest version of the endpoint suite, which sucks less than the last one. What worked in the past won't work in the future.
Not that we can turn away from these traditional security controls. Due to both compliance mandates and script kiddies, we're still forced to keep these products in use and will for the foreseeable future. But those controls aren't enough. You have to roll with the tides and understand your controls are insufficient. You need to look at new technologies (like network-based malware detection), address the soft spots (database and application security), and focus on detection and response. You already are compromised -- the question is whether you know it yet.
Second, sometimes you need new blood. RIM seemed to take the easy path and just promote someone who was involved in the fiasco that company has become. Sometimes that has worked out, but there are very few examples of that. Be brutally honest about your situation. Do your IT and security leaders continue to be tone deaf to what's going on around them? Are they more concerned with their fiefdoms than in asking the tough questions that need to be asked? If so, then maybe it's time to figure out whether you can be successful in your job. We've all seen that movie before, and it is usually someone other than the senior folks to take the fall, at least the first couple of times.
There will be another job, just like there was another smartphone to step in when RIM couldn't evolve fast enough. The best thing you can do as a practitioner is to stay focused on what you need to do and make an assessment regarding whether you can be successful. When it's clear you are destined for failure, pack up and move on. The last thing you want is to still be on the ship as it runs aground. Falling into the lifeboat doesn't sound very good during your next interview.
Mike Rothman is President of Securosis and author of the Pragmatic CSO.