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6/23/2013
12:27 PM
Mike Rothman
Mike Rothman
Commentary
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The Slippery Slope Of Security Invisibility

Everyone seems to want security to just be there, invisible to end users. Everyone except the security industry, that is, if it wants to survive

I really liked my partner Rich Mogull's recent Dark Reading blog on "Security Needs More Designers, Not Architects." He makes the point that user experience is key to the success of security controls, and that companies like Apple and others have been working hard to design security under the hood of their general consumer offerings to make security invisible.

I believe that in the long run, security isn't a standalone offering. It must be included in the fabric of the technological ecosystem and that no one should really have to think about how to secure something -- that whatever it is it would be built with security in mind. Of course, in the long run I'll be dead, and so will you. To be clear, I'm not sure we'll ever see this kind of security invisibility in my lifetime. Or my kids', for that matter. But I am a professional cynic, so take that skepticism for what it is.

Yet one of the things that will inevitably get in the way of building security into everything is how it impacts the existing multibillion-dollar security industry. The short answer is dramatically. The jobs that you and I do daily will probably go away if security is just there. There will be a need for security knowledge, but not necessarily security specialization. You can bet that multibillion-dollar industries do not go quietly into the night. And there is a definite disincentive for these incumbent security vendors to fade into the background.

Let me give you a little example of what I'm talking about. I worked a few lifetimes ago with a fellow who spent time as a product manager for a major antivirus company. Yes, when antivirus kind of worked. He told me the story about how the company decided to silence the notifications of signature updates since it was kind of annoying to the customers. The product updated silently when necessary and the user would be none the wiser. Win-win, right?

Actually, it was a big loss for the vendor. The customers loved it. They were no longer pestered by useless notifications. But the vendor saw a measurable negative impact in its product renewals. Since users no longer saw the updates happening, they thought the product wasn't doing anything. So they didn't renew. Makes perfect sense in hindsight. The AV vendor turned notifications back on, and renewal rates went back to historical levels. Amazing how that worked.

It's unfortunate, but if no one thinks security is there, they'll forget to continue paying for it. And getting funding for those key projects will get harder and harder. In fact, most security practitioners feel this pain every day. In the aftermath of a breach, they get whatever they want. No matter the cost. They need to fix the problem, and senior management certainly won't let money get in the way. Not when there is a perp walk hanging in the balance.

Of course, if you're that strange combination of good at security and lucky as hell, you may not have had a breach in a while. Your reward? Groveling to the CFO to explain (again) why security is still important.

Operating system vendors and others that provide infrastructure products and services can get away with making security invisible. In fact, they want to do so, as evidenced by the work of Microsoft and Apple over the past few years. But security vendors and internal security groups need to figure out a way to not antagonize users and force them around your controls, while being just visible enough to ensure the organization knows security is important and warrants increasing investment. Good luck with that.

Rich's future vision of elegantly designed security that just works is truly a compelling vision. The problem is getting there. I think in comparison you'll say Frodo's journey to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom was a stroll in the park.

Mike's bold perspectives and irreverent style are invaluable as companies determine effective strategies to grapple with the dynamic security threatscape. Mike specializes in the sexy aspects of security, like protecting networks and endpoints, security management, and ... View Full Bio

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