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Application Security

8/11/2014
12:00 PM
W. Hord Tipton
W. Hord Tipton
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Closing The Skills Gap Between Hackers & Defenders: 4 Steps

Improvements in security education, budgets, tools, and methods will help our industry avoid more costly and dangerous attacks and data breaches in the future.

The bad guys are winning. Numerous companies have been in the news recently because they failed to rebuff information security attacks. Target lost its customers’ credit and debit card data. Adobe lost its customers’ credit card information, along with IDs and passwords. EBay lost its customers’ personal information, including email addresses and physical addresses.

These breaches have caused disquiet in the minds of consumers and cost the companies themselves millions of dollars' worth of bad publicity and damage to their brands, not to mention the costs of mitigation and restoration. And the breaches we know about could just be a fraction of the incidents. Companies have to disclose breaches of consumer data, but not the theft of their own internal information.

As long as there is valuable personal information at risk, hackers will try to access it, whether the goal is the immediate use of stolen financial data, the long con of identity theft, or just causing pain to companies and their consumers.

Unfortunately, there is a growing skills gap between those out to do harm and the average defender. Until the information security workforce catches up, we will continue to see the increasing success of sophisticated attacks. However, there are important steps the information security industry can take to slow and even reverse this trend. Here are four key areas to get you started:

Everything starts and ends with education
Education and research need to be improved at the college and university level to improve the skills of future information security professionals and to grow the number of individuals qualified to enter the workforce. Once those security professionals -- the front line against malicious attacks -- have been hired, employers need to invest in their continuing education and training in order to stay ahead of ever-changing security threats. Only such educated individuals will be able to predict the next wave of vulnerabilities and attacks, and design ways to combat them before they develop into a crisis.

Be smart about spending
It is crucial to make the most of our limited security budgets. With more and more critical data touching the Internet, increasingly well-funded cyber criminals have their choice of targets. High-profile companies are always going to be attacked, but small-and medium-sized businesses are now being targeted as low-hanging fruit. Though the rewards might be smaller, there’s a high probability of success and a low probability of being caught.

As an industry, we need to focus whatever security budget is available on the most likely threats. Though all companies must be aware of common threats like APTs and DDoS attacks, one of the biggest threats to us all is the under-educated employee. Whether it’s an executive who falls prey to social engineering or an IT guru who chooses not to use the best network configuration techniques, we often open ourselves up to preventable attacks.

Involve application developers
Increased security has a reputation for hindering an application’s usability, and as time and budget constraints work against the developers, security requirements get squeezed out of software development. There is a massive difference in building a computer application and building a secure computer application, though. Despite the immediate price tag, building security into an application up front is rarely more expensive than trying to make adjustments once the application is built, or cleaning up the mess once a vulnerability is exploited.

Get management to buy in
Even when the security pros are aware of what needs to be done, they can have trouble convincing management to allocate the resources to do it. We need to improve our ability to make a business case for better tools and better training. If you can’t talk “dollars and sense” to your CFO or budget analyst and navigate office politics, you won’t get anywhere. Part of improving education is improving a security professional’s awareness of not just the theoretical importance of security, but security’s return on investment. When you can show executives specifically how security can save the business money, or even save their jobs, you are now speaking their language.

The very public breaches of the past year have caused a lot of damage to companies and individuals, but perhaps they have been a blessing in disguise. If these cyberattacks serve as a wake-up call to the security industry and the businesses we support, precipitating an improvement in our education, budgets, tools, and methods, then we may be able to avoid even costlier and more dangerous breaches down the road. Lost passwords and credit card data will be the least of our concerns if cyberattacks become the weapon of choice in nation-state attacks or ultimately damage the country’s critical infrastructure.

 

W. Hord Tipton, CISSP-ISSEP, CAP, CISA, CNSS, is currently the executive director for (ISC)2, the not-for-profit global leader in information security education and certification. Tipton previously served as chief information officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior ... View Full Bio
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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Ninja
8/11/2014 | 4:11:01 PM
there's another lesson
Many companies that stockpile data may not want to hear it, but the success of hackers ought to be a lesson to avoid storing data.
adriangood
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adriangood,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/12/2014 | 6:59:46 AM
Skills Shortage
There is an IT security skills shortage because the really smart geeks don't want to work for greedy Corporate entities whose only interest is short-term Shareholder returns, and the Corporate environment actively marginalize those people most suited to helping prevent the attacks.

Until Capitalist Business models change the Hacking will continue, the Chinese Government does not lock up its most talented Hackers at every opportunity, it gives them gainful employment.

Unfortunately creative thinking cannot be mass-produced, it has to be an integral part of the persons personality. 

The IT security maladies are just a symptom of our corrupt society, and will only change when our definition of success has been reset.

 

 

 
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
8/12/2014 | 7:27:00 AM
Re: Skills Shortage
@AdrianGood Hacking will continue because cybercrime is a profitable business. But there are still plenty of smart geeks who are working to keep the bad guys in check.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 8:40:10 AM
Re: Skills Shortage

Cyber crime is very profitable, and cyber criminals are better funded than the good guys. Naturally, that means that the good guys are always on the defensive, so really the best way to approach security is to be proactively prepared. True, we cannot be 100% effective in stopping attacks, but if we are diligent and adequately funded, we can put up some pretty good resistance. There really is no shortage of good guys with technical skills; most of the most brilliant geeks are good guys. The missing component is effective communication, and "what we have here is a failure to communicate". Many incredibly skilled people do not have the communication skills required to deliver the security message in a way that is fit for executive consumption, and also for the lay person.  Until we can effectively communicate the importance of security and its role in ensuring that organizational goals are met, funding will be difficult, and management and user support for awareness training will be lacking. For security to be effective, it must be ingrained in the culture of an organization, and the best way to get to that point is through effective communication.

Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
8/12/2014 | 8:50:20 AM
Re: Skills Shortage
For security to be effective, it must be ingrained in the culture of an organization, and the best way to get to that point is through effective communication.

Great point @GonzSTL, I would add that communication about the increasing dangers of cyberattacks must go way beyond the culture of a single organization to the mindset of everyone who is using technology. Of course that is a problem that is far beyond the scope of a business security team!
Sara Peters
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Sara Peters,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 10:25:06 AM
Re: there's another lesson
@Thomas Claburn  Well on one hand, you're right: you can't get stung with a data breach if you don't have any data. But on the other hand, so many companies are trying to get into "big data" that it will be very difficult to convince them to store less. If anything, they'll continue to store more, and make it more accessible to their employees. 
Sara Peters
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Sara Peters,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 10:33:58 AM
Re: Skills Shortage
@adriangood  Wow, that's a fascinating perspective. I definitely agree with some of it -- like that relentless, short-sighted capitalism damages security (and the economy), and that a lot of talented hackers don't want to work for them. But...

if the most talented hackers aren't working for those big corporations, who are they working for? Are they working for smaller companies and government entities? Or are they working for criminal organizations?
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 11:04:24 AM
Cyber Centurion
I was pretty pleased to hear that the UK is pushig for more digital security experts by opening up the Cyber Centurion competitiion to younger school children:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet-security/11025457/School-children-to-be-trained-in-cyber-warfare.html?placement=CB1

That said, I'm not sure I approve of one of the main prizes being to intern at an American defence contractor. Couldn't they do the same at a British company instead? 
dewser
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dewser,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/12/2014 | 12:08:06 PM
Skills Shortage
There is only so much to teach at the college level.  Your standard BS holder is going to come out with some base knowledge in either MIS or CS.  That knowledge is most likely going to be out-of-date when they hit the workforce.  To be an effective defender you need to have some pretty strong bases in a number of IT disciplines.  You need to know how the infrastructure works.  The best way to learn this is to do it.  I've spent the last 15 years of my life in the IT space.  A majority of that was building servers, deploying firewalls, and troubleshooting everything from the simple app crash to the more complicated network performance issues.  Only in the last 3 years have I've focused on security.  But guess what, everything I tell a company now is everything I told them years ago when I was a Sys Admin.

I tried my hand at working for a large enterprise.  My title was IT Security Analyst, but that was nothing more than a title.  I spent more time as a glorified project manager.  That consisted of helping everyone else where their projects to ensure they meet security/compliance objectives.  But honestly many of the regular IT staff had little knowledge of servers, operating systems, networking...  so I spent more time educating them on that.  So in my mind I was being severly underutilized.  Yes I think it was good I was able to help educate but very few of these people showed any desire to learn some things on their own.  Unfortunately this did not play into my long term goals and frankly I was bored out of my gourd.  Now I am doing exciting work in a small startup.  I have to wear many hats but it is very much worth it.

So the big enterprises and the government want skilled hackers, unfortunately I think many do not have the culture that can support these types of minds.  Also money is not always the best motivator.  I could probably be making much much more working for a larger entity as a "Cyber Security Analyst" but in my current role if I want to go to some type of special training or a hacker con, management is all for it.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 1:12:30 PM
Re: Skills Shortage
As with most other BS degrees, you can only gain so much knowledge through education, and the rest really depends on hands-on experience. That does not detract from the importance of education because it is that education that provides the foundation upon which experience is built. You have to look at the entire picture to really understand the different aspects of IT and security. I received a BSCS and what that really did for me was help me understand how electronic computing worked, both from a hardware and a software perspective. As far as security is concerned, for me it was a combination of continuing education, mostly from reading manuals, technical papers, attending technology specific classes, hands on experience, and everyday common sense. The title of "Security Analyst" is so broad that it can encompass many different roles, such as the one you had. You mentioned that you helped everyone else with their projects to ensure that they met security/compliance objectives. Did it occur to you that it was in fact a critical and appropriate role in IT security? Educating fellow employees was also critical - if there was a need for it, then you also served that need, to increase the overall security posture of the organization. Sure, that sounds a lot like deskwork or paper pushing, or whatever, and it isn't quite as sexy as hacking, or tracking hacker activities in real time as depicted in the movies, but in reality, IT security is all of that combined. In a large organization, that is way too much for a single individual, and must be split off into several roles among several personnel. I have also worked for small companies where I wore many hats, and it was both exciting and fulfilling. I suppose that is really where I started to see the big picture, saw how everything worked and how they all come together. I admit it was more exciting that being pigeon-holed into some mundane role. However, one must look at security from an overall point of view, culling information from all the different mundane roles, to provide an overall assessment of the existing security posture in the context of existing business processes. From there, you determine where the gaps are, and provide an analysis and actionable data to produce a secure environment in which the organization can deploy technology in support of the organization's goals. IT security isn't merely a technical discipline; it is in fact a combination of technology know how and business savvy, and is an integral part of an organization that wants to poise itself for success.
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