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Past Life Regressions & Why Security Is a Petunia (Or a Whale) Depending Upon Where You Stand

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In Douglas Adam’s epic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” we read about an organism experiencing a bit of a identity crisis at 30,000 feet:

It is important to note that suddenly, and against all probability, a Sperm Whale had been called into existence, several miles above the surface of an alien planet and since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity. This is what it thought, as it fell:

The Whale: Ahhh! Woooh! What’s happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my… well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a… tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what’s this roaring sound, whooshing past what I’m suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I’m dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There’s an awful lot of that now isn’t it? And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’! That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me? Hello Ground!

Curiously the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

“Security” is facing a similar problem.

To that end, and without meaning to, Gunnar Petersen and Lenny Zeltser* unintentionally wrote about this whale of a problem in two thought provoking blogs describing what they portray as the sorry state of security today; specifically the inappropriate mission focus and misallocation of investment (Gunnar) and the need for remedying the skills gap and broadening the “information security toolbox” (Lenny)  that exists in an overly infrastructure-centric model used today.

Gunnar followed up with another post titled: “Is infosec busy being born or busy dying?”  Fitting.

Both gents suggest that we need to re-evaluate what, why and how we do what we do and where we invest by engaging in a more elevated service delivery role with a focus on enablement, architecture and cost-efficiency based on models that align spend to a posture I can only say reflects the mantra of survivability (see: A Primer on Information Survivability: Changing Your Perspective On Information Security):

[Gunnar] The budget dollars in infosec are not based on protecting the assets the company needs to conduct business, they are not spent on where the threats and vulnerabilities lie, rather they are spent on infrastructure which happens to be the historical background and hobby interest of the majority of technical people in the industry.

[Lenny] When the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail, wrote Abraham Maslow a few decades ago. Given this observation, it’s not surprising that most of today’s information security efforts seem to focus on networks and systems.

Hard to disagree.

It’s interesting that both Gunnar and Lenny refer to this condition as being a result of our “information security” efforts since, as defined, it would appear to me that their very point is that we don’t practice “information security.”  In fact, I’d say what they really mean is that we primarily practice “network security” and pitter-patter around the other elements of the “stack:”

This is a “confused discipline” indeed.  Fact is, we need infrastructure security. We need application security.  We need information security.  We need all of these elements addressed by a comprehensive architecture and portfolio management process driven by protecting the things that matter most at the points where the maximum benefit can be applied to manage risk for the lowest cost.


That’s. Freaking. Hard.

This is exactly why we have the Security Hamster Sine Wave of Pain…we cyclically iterate between host, application, information, user, and network-centric solutions to problems that adapt at a pace that far exceeds our ability to adjust to them let alone align to true business impact:

Whales and Petunias…

The problem is that people like to put things in neat little boxes which is why we have neat, little boxes and the corresponding piles of cash and people distributed to each of them (however unfortunate the ratio.)  Further, the industry that provides solutions across this stack are not incentivized to solve long term problems and innovative solutions brought to bear on emerging problems are often a victim of poor timing.  People don’t buy solutions that solve problems that are 5 years out, they buy solutions that fix short-term problems even if they are themselves predicated on 20 year old issues.

Fixing stuff in infrastructure has been easy up until now; buy another box.

Infrastructure has been pretty much static and thus the apps and information have bouyed about, tethered to the anchor of a static infrastructure.  Now that the infrastructure itself is becoming more dynamic, fixing problems upstack in dynamic applications and information — woohoo, that’s HARD, especially when we’re not organized to do any one of those things well, let alone all of them at once!

Frankly, the issue is one where the tactical impacts of the blending and convergence of new threats, vulnerabilities, socio-economic, political, cultural and technology curves chips away at our ability to intelligently respond without an overall re-engineering of what we do.  We’d have to completely blow up the role of “security” as we know it to deliver what Gunnar and Lenny suggest.

This isn’t a bad idea, it’s just profoundly difficult.  I ought to know. I’ve done it.  It took years to even get to the point where we could chip away at the PEOPLE who were clinging on to what they know as the truth…it’s as much generational and cultural as it is technical.

The issue I have is that it’s important to also realize that we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again and more importantly WHY.  I don’t think it’s a vast conspiracy theory but rather an unfortunate side-effect of our past lives.

I don’t disagree with the need to improve and/or reinvent ourselves as an industry — both from the perspective of the suppliers of solutions, the operators or the architects.  We do every 5 years anyway what with every “next big thing” that hits.

To round this back to the present, new “phase shifts” like Cloud computing are great forcing functions that completely change our perspective on where, how, who, and why we practice “security.”  I’d suggest that we leverage this positively and march to that drum beat Lenny and Gunnar are banging away on, but without the notion that we’re all somehow guilty of doing the wrong things.

BTW, has anyone seen my Improbability Drive?


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  1. January 26th, 2011 at 10:48 | #1

    well said.

    "but without the notion that we’re all somehow guilty of doing the wrong things."

    Completely agree, Ops and infrastructure are very important to security, the reasons for them being the main focus are historical not malicious, but we need to move all the same. Like Deming says "you dont have to change, survival is not mandatory."

  1. January 26th, 2011 at 13:55 | #1
  2. February 9th, 2011 at 10:23 | #2
  3. December 10th, 2011 at 09:09 | #3