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Joshua Goldfarb
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Security & the Infinite Capacity to Rationalize

To improve the security posture of our organizations, we must open our eyes to rationalization and put an end to it with logic. Here's how.

As humans, we have a tendency to justify and rationalize our actions. We all do so, whether we see what we're doing and whether or not we do so willingly. The novelist Paul S. Kemp is quoted as saying that "the human mind has infinite capacity to rationalize." Former tobacco lobbyist Victor Crawford, who died of lung cancer at 63, justified his personal and professional choices in a 1994 article in The New York Times Magazine entitled "How Do Tobacco Executives Live With Themselves?" this way:

In a way, I think I got my just desserts, because, in my heart, I knew better. But I rationalized and denied, because the money was so good and because I could always rationalize it. That's how you make a living, by rationalizing that black is not black, it's white, it's green, it's yellow.

What does rationalization have to do with security? First, we are security professionals, but we are, of course, also human. As humans, we rationalize just like anyone else would, which can have a negative influence on our decision-making, weaken our security posture, and introduce additional risk to the business. One way to improve our security postures is to stop rationalizing and to start using logic instead.

Let's consider four preventable signs of rationalization in a security organization:

Sign 1: "We have to do something." When a high-profile incident occurs or there is a newsworthy buzz about the world of security, it often comes with a lot of questions from executives, customers, and other stakeholders. While it's clear that something needs to be done, it's not always clear what that something is. If a security organization evaluates the issue at hand, the risk it brings to the organization, and how that risk can be remediated, the team can arrive at a logical conclusion as to what actions are necessary. If, however, the security organization finds itself saying "well, we have to do something," that's usually an indication that rationalization is occurring. It's often a sign that a knee-jerk response is being put in place rather than the right response.

Sign 2: "We can't do that." It may very well be the case that whatever is being proposed can't actually be done. But before accepting that conclusion, you need to ask: "Why not?" If there isn't a clear, concise, logical answer to that simple question, take it as a sign of rationalization.

Perhaps completing a particular task will be difficult, will require significant effort, or will ruffle some feathers in the organization. Regardless, if a security organization isn't honest with itself about what it can and cannot do, it may discount or dismiss ideas that could go a long way toward helping it improve.

Sign 3: "Our security program is quite mature." When I hear a statement like this, I want to see metrics that prove it. If there aren't any readily available, that's the first sign that rationalization is at play. This may sound a bit harsh, but half of security programs are of average or below-average maturity! That's the way a mean works — it's right in the middle. It may very well be the case that a given security organization is ahead of its peers and excelling. Those security teams generally have extremely well-defined processes and procedures, along with metrics to continuously monitor and improve progress and performance. In other words, if a security program is mature, there should be numbers to prove it. If there aren't, logic isn't likely in the mix.

Sign 4: "That's not how we do things here." There are policies, rules, guidelines, practices, and procedures that make sense and are in place for good reason. However, not all of them make sense all of the time. If something isn't producing the required or expected results, it's time to change the way that something is done. I don't mean simply changing for change's sake. I mean real change that improves outcomes and results based on logic and reason. That requires putting the rationalization aside.

Rationalization is lazy — the easy way out. Logic requires more effort. But the extra investment of identifying and eradicating rationalization allows a security organization to open doors that lead the way toward improvement. An improved security posture begins by opening our eyes to rationalization and putting an end to it with logic.

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Josh (Twitter: @ananalytical) is an experienced information security leader who works with enterprises to mature and improve their enterprise security programs.  Previously, Josh served as VP, CTO - Emerging Technologies at FireEye and as Chief Security Officer for ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Strategist
8/7/2019 | 8:32:12 PM
Rationalization is lazy?
No, it isn't. If you are going to solve this issue the first requirement is to understand it. And... well... that's a lazy, overly simplistic view as well as incorrect. Human thought reflects our nature as rapid response probabilistic state prediction biologicals. That was a lot of words. However note that neither logic nor laziness was in there. Logic is something applied selectively, judiciously and sparingly. Now, while agree that laziness is the mother of invention, thoughts are fleshed out emotions just as emotions are primitive thoughts. Your choice is made early and emotionally. Rationalization is how you justify it variously. That my friends is hard work!
User Rank: Ninja
8/6/2019 | 3:47:04 PM
Wonderful commentary

I agree with the statements made, we need to look at security from a logic standpoint where we start looking at the attacks from a mathematical perspective. For example, most of the files that come across are associated with a hash and the locations on the filesystem are related to inodes and hashes. We need to start looking at the file as a number, baseline all the numbers on the filesystem. The files can be identified by the changes associated with specific system files (pgp, kernel, binaries), that information is then gathered by creating an index; from the index we should be able to identify the changes in files, directories and file-types based on the number associated with that specific file (MD5 or SHA256). There is only a finite number of files that are essential to the system's function, once we isolate the files, then we can start to create an algorithm to index files based on purpose and location (SELinux does something very similar - files, directories, filesystem, policies, characteristics).

This will help with the machine learning and identification process because we will be able to identify the change(s) easier than using existing methods.

Some companies are doing this (pattern matching), we just need to do this type of analyis at the atomic level (using inodes and hashes), by developing equations to identify changes based on patterns or relationships, we can create ML structures that look at the system as an algorithic pattern (data flows).

Just a thought.

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