AWS CISO Talks Risk Reduction, Development, Recruitment

Steve Schmidt says limiting access to data has dramatically changed the security posture across Amazon Web Services.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

June 25, 2019

5 Min Read

AWS re:Inforce – BOSTON – Enterprise cloud adoption has ramped up in the 12 years Steve Schmidt has worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS), but he says the threat landscape hasn't changed much. Businesses have simply become more aware of the many risks they face.

"The biggest risk to most organizations, large or small, still tends to be people," he said in an interview at AWS re:Inforce, its inaugural cloud security conference, held this week in Boston.

To mitigate this risk, Schmidt launched an initiative within AWS to radically reduce employees' access to data by 80%. This was a large number, he noted, and one he partly chose to raise eyebrows – and partly because of its effectiveness. Reducing data access by 10 or 20 percent wouldn't have had the same effect; an 80% cut forced investment in security tools.

"Reduction in human access to data is probably the single biggest lever we have as a company to reducing overall risk profile," he said. This "dramatically changed" its security posture and had the unexpected benefit of improving job satisfaction for engineers who disliked maintaining machines and doing the same daily tasks. Less data access prompted a shift to automation, which freed time to build projects they cared about and boosted recruitment and retention.

Employees' level of data access should be a key security concern for any company, but Schmidt also pointed out how cloud concerns often vary depending on the size and age of an organization. Startups, for example, are most interested in fast and secure growth. They want to know, "how do I build this quickly, inexpensively, and securely from the beginning?" he said. They're more willing to rapidly adopt new things than larger firms, with less retrofitting later.

Larger enterprises are different in the sense they can afford security teams and are more willing to customize, he explained. There's an acceleration curve here: The first system they deploy to the cloud may take a while, but from there they can quickly pick up the pace of adoption.

Middle-tier companies need the most direction to effectively achieve their cloud security goals, Schmidt continued. While they want to securely transition from on-prem systems to the cloud, they often lack resources and security engineers. "There's not a lot of IT staff, but they want to get rid of on-prem," he said. "They need prescriptive guidance on how to implement security."

On Building Secure Code
Schmidt's team does an application security review on every service AWS launches – no small feat considering new projects roll out daily. Application security is the place to enforce good security practices in alignment with service and design, he explained. The industry needs it.

Security pros who understand the problem of secure development realize it's better to get dev teams thinking about security and preventing crummy code than trying to unravel the mess they made afterward, he explained. AWS uses an internal automated code analysis platform in lieu of peer-to-peer code reviews, which involve security teams hunting code errors after the engineers had developed it. The code reviews were a frustrating process, he explained, as they required the engineers to learn all the errors at the same time, and then go back and correct them.

AWS' tool builds "natural peer feedback processes" into the software development life cycle, Schmidt said. It provides a code review while engineers are developing, so they view mistakes as they happen and receive immediate feedback. The result is a smoother dev process.

Security: Not Just for the CISO
As Schmidt put it in his morning keynote: "Security is everyone's job. It's not just the job of every security pro in this room today." At the end of each week, a group of AWS executives, including CEO Andy Jassy, sit down and review the week's security issues.

"That's his opportunity to reinforce to everyone that security is job zero," Schmidt said. What's more, the heads of each individual AWS service are responsible for that service's security. The AWS board is also involved in security, he added, with conversations at least every quarter.

But finding people to staff the security team is tough. Recruitment is the most challenging part of the CISO role for Schmidt, who joined AWS from the FBI in 2008. Right now, referrals are the most efficient means of recruitment. AWS employees are often the first-level filter for candidates. "They know if this person will fit in the team," he said. AWS has also been successful with military recruiting, which has brought skilled pros into its environment.

"There are not enough qualified security engineers out there," he said, pointing to a lack of university graduates. Modern curricula are outdated and needs to be updated with current technologies and methodologies, Schmidt added, and people should have the opportunity to learn security in the way they learn best if cybersecurity is going to fill the talent gap.

"People have different learning styles," he said. "Some excel in a university environment; some people improve by hands-on doing."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Sheridan

Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Kelly Sheridan was formerly a Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focused on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial services. Sheridan earned her BA in English at Villanova University. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymsheridan.

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