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28 Oct 2016

Which comes first, the awareness budget ... or awareness?

If your annual cycle matches the calendar year, you’re probably working hard on a 2017 budget proposal to secure the funding for all you need to do on information security, cybersecurity, information risk management, compliance, business continuity and so on - doing it yourself or maybe helping the boss.

Is security awareness and training part of the plan, hopefully not just a single line item but an integral part of virtually everything you are proposing to do?  If not, don't be surprised if, once again, you struggle to make much headway in information security in 2017. Security awareness is not just an optional extra but an essential prerequisite for success ... and the magic starts with senior management having sufficient knowledge, understanding and appreciation of what information security is all about to approve an adequate budget.

With that in mind, do you see the conundrum? Awareness is needed to gain funding for ... awareness and the rest of information security. How is that possible?

Here are five possible routes out of the paradox:
  1. Do nothing - the straw man option. Hope that your budget proposal is so self evident, so stunningly elegant and convincing that management is right behind you all the way. Good luck with that.
  2. Rely on management's general awareness and appreciation of information risk, security and related matters, since they are business people and these are business issues, right? Errr, maybe, but if you're actually talking about IT security or cybersecurity exclusively, you should not be surprised to find that management believes this to be an IT issue, making it part of the IT budget, meaning that you are hostage to whatever is planned for IT spend. Good luck again squeezing some cash out of the CIO and the IT organization that has its own investment objectives and plans that may or may not truly encompass yours. Worse still, do you see the gaping gap that opened up? What about all the rest of information risk and security that does NOT fall within IT or cybersecurity - including, yes, you guessed it, full-scope security awareness and training?
  3. Hope that previous awareness activities have achieved their aim, and that management is fully clued-up on this stuff. Perhaps you honestly believe it but, being a cynic, excuse me if I'm more than a little dubious. What makes you so certain that management gets it? Have you already been running an effective awareness program addressing the senior managers making those big budget decisions in strategic business terms that make sense (and if so, how did was it funded)? Or will you concede that this is just another cop-out? 
  4. Just do it, in other words run the corporate security awareness and training activities on a shoestring, eking out whatever funding you can beg, borrow or steal from other areas. Squeeze something out of IT, a bit more out of HR or training budgets. Code it as "risk management" or "compliance". Do the whole thing on the cheap, and yet overspend (then seek forgiveness). This is a surprisingly common approach in practice but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to spot the flaws and the missed opportunities. 'Just do it' implies a piecemeal, tactical approach with little forward planning or consistency throughout the year. You're unlikely to be able to employ an awareness specialist, but maybe you'll cross-charge an IT project for some awareness activities, perhaps stump up for the odd few hours of someone's time to prepare some materials, prioritizing that over funding someone's attendance at a professional security training course, conference or whatever - or not, as the case may be. 'Just do it' programs give security awareness, and information security, a bad name. We can do better than that, much better.
  5. Quickly plan and deliver security awareness activities specifically targeting senior management - in person - right now. The budget is a classic situation that benefits enormously from leg-work: some quality time spent one-on-one with senior managers, explaining and discussing your proposal over coffee, through email, on the phone or even snatched moments sharing the elevator to the exec suite, patiently listening to their queries and suggestions, and addressing their concerns, will pay off handsomely in due course when the budget proposals are duly considered. Start by thinking and talking seriously about how information security supports the achievement of business objectives. Look carefully at the corporate strategies and policies in this area for the security hooks. Go beyond the obvious compliance imperatives to find business opportunities that revolve around both protecting and exploiting information - BYOD, cloud and IoT security for three very topical if IT-centric examples. Find someone in Finance to explain the budgeting and forecasting process and help you craft an even better budget proposal, with clear objectives and measurable targets (yes, security metrics). Get the CIO, CLO, CRO and other key players on-board, for sure, and preferably others too. Identify the blockers and dig your secret tunnels under them. Build alliances and collaborate to accumulate. Sell sell sell.

By the way, option 5 is what your more politically-savvy 'competitors' in the budget race will be doing too. It's all part of the game, whether you call it awareness or schmoozing or persuading, even social engineering. For bonus points, find out what works for them and emulate the most successful ones. Why is it that Ed from Engineering always gets his way at budget time? What makes Engineering so special? Is it, perhaps, the way Ed puts it across as much as the literal words in the proposal ...?

Oh and keep notes for next year's budget rounds in the hope of making an earlier start and a better impression!


PS  In the unlikely event that you find yourself long on funds and short of time, we can help you spend whatever's left in your 2016 information security/awareness and training budgets to avoid the dreadful shame of handing it back ... with the risk of a corresponding budget cut next year. Seriously, let's talk

22 Oct 2016

A little something for the weekend, sir?

The following bullet-points were inspired by another stimulating thread on the ISO27k Forum, this one stemming from a discussion about whether or not people qualify as "information assets", hence ought to be included in the information asset inventory and information risk management activities of an ISO27k ISMS. It's a crude list of people-related information risks:

  • Phishing, spear-phishing and whaling, and other social engineering attacks targeting trusted and privileged insiders;
  • ‘Insider threats’ of all sorts – bad apples on the payroll or at least on the premises, people who exploit information gained at work, and other opportunities, for personal or other reasons to the detriment of the organization;
  • ‘Victims’ – workers who are weak, withdrawn and easily (mis)lead or coerced and exploited by other workers or outsiders;
  • Reliance on and loss of key people (especially “knowledge workers”, creatives and lynch-pins such as founders and execs) through various causes (resignation/retirement, accidents, sickness and disease, poaching by competitors, demotivation, redundancy, the sack, whatever);
  • Fraud, misappropriation etc., including malicious collaboration between groups of people (breaking divisions of responsibility);
  • Insufficient creativity, motivation, dynamism and buzz relative to competitors including start-ups (important for online businesses);
  • Excessive stress, fragility and lack of resilience, with people, teams, business units and organizations operating “on a knife edge”, suboptimally and at times irrationally;
  • Misinformation, propaganda etc. used to mislead and manipulate workers into behaving inappropriately, making bad decisions etc.;
  • Conservatism and (unreasonable) resistance to change, including stubbornness, political interference, lack of vision/foresight, unwillingness to learn and improve, and excessive/inappropriate risk-aversion;
  • Conversely, gung-ho attitudes, lack of stability, inability to focus and complete important things, lack of strategic thinking and planning, short-term-ism and excessive risk-taking;
  • Bad/unethical/oppressive/coercive/aggressive/dysfunctional corporate cultures, usually where the tone from the top is off-key;
  • Political players, Machiavellian types with secret agendas who scheme and manipulate systems and people to their personal advantage and engage in turf wars, regardless of the organization as a whole or other people;
  • Incompetence, ignorance, laziness, misguidedness and the like – people not earning their keep, including those who assume false identities, fabricate qualifications and conceal criminality etc., and incompetent managers making bad decisions;
  • Moles, sleepers, plants, industrial spies – people deliberately placed within the organization by an adversary for various nefarious purposes, or insiders ‘turned’ through bribery, coercion, radical idealism or whatever;
  • People whose personal objectives and values do not align with corporate objectives and values, especially if they are diametrically opposed;
  • Workers with “personal problems” including addictions, debts, mental illness, relationship issues and other interests or pressures besides work;
  • Other ‘outsider threats’ including, these days, the offensive exploitation of social media and social networks to malign, manipulate or blackmail an organization.

It's just a brain-dump, a creative outpouring with minimal structure. Some of the risks overlap and could probably be combined (e.g. there are several risks associated with the corporate culture) and the wording is a bit cryptic or ambiguous in places. I'm quite sure I've missed some. Maybe one day I will return to update and sort it out. Meanwhile, I'm publishing it here in its rough and ready form to inspire you, dear blog reader, to contemplate your organization's people-related information risks this weekend, and maybe post a comment below with your thoughts.

For the record, I believe it is worthwhile counting workers as information assets and explicitly addressing the associated information risks such as those listed above. You may or may not agree - your choice - but if you don't, that's maybe another people-related risk to add to my list: "Naivete, unawareness, potentially unrealistic or dismissive attitudes and unfounded confidence in the organization's capability to address information risks relating to people"!

Have a good weekend,

13 Oct 2016

There must be 50 ways ...

Over on the ISO27k Forum today, a discussion on terminology such as 'virus', 'malware', 'antivirus', 'advanced threat prevention' and 'cyber' took an unexpected turn into the realm of security control failures.

Inspired by a tangential comment from Anton Aylward, I've been thinking about the variety of ways that controls can fail:
  1. To detect, prevent, respond to and/or mitigate incidents, attacks or indeed failures elsewhere (a very broad overarching category!);
  2. To address the identified risks at all, or adequately (antimalware is generally failing us);
  3. To be considered, or at least taken seriously (a very common failing I'm sure - e.g. physical and procedural control options are often neglected, disregarded or denigrated by the IT 'cybersecurity' techno crowd);
  4. To do their thing cost-effectively, without unduly affecting achievement of the organization's many other objectives ("Please change your password again, only this time choose a unique, memorable, 32 character non-word with an upside-down purple pictogram in position 22 and something fishy towards the end, while placing your right thumb on the blood sampling pricker for your DNA fingerprint to be revalidated");
  5. To comply with formally stated requirements and obligations, and/or with implied or assumed requirements and expectations (e.g. 'privacy' is more than the seven principles);
  6. Prior to service (flawed in design or development), in service (while being used, maintained, updated, managed and changed, even while being tested) or when retired from service (e.g. if  they are so poorly designed, so tricky to use/manage or inadequately documented that they are deprecated, even though a little extra attention and investment might have made all the difference, and especially if not being replaced by something better);
  7. As a result of direct, malicious action against the controls themselves (e.g. DDoS attacks intended to overwhelm network defenses and distract the analysts, enabling other attacks to slip past, and many kinds of fraud);
  8. When deliberately or accidentally taken out of service for some more or less legitimate reason;
  9. When forgotten, when inconvenient, or when nobody's watching (!);
  10. As an accidental, unintentional and often unrecognized side-effect of other things (e.g. changes elsewhere that negate something vital or bypass/undermine the controls);
  11. Due to natural causes (bad weather, bad air, bad hair - many of us have bad hair days!);
  12. At the worst possible moment, or not;
  13. Due to accidents (inherently weak or fragile controls are more likely to break/fall apart or be broken);
  14. To respond adequately to material changes in the nature of the threats, vulnerabilities and/or business impacts that have occurred since the risk identification/analysis and their design (e.g. new modes or tools for attack, different, more determined and competent attackers, previously unrecognized bugs and flaws, better control options ...);
  15. Due to human errors, mistakes, carelessness, ignorance, misguided action, efforts or guidance/advice etc. (another broad category);
  16. Gradually (obsolescence, 'wearing out', performance/capacity degradation);
  17. Individually or as a set or sequence (like dominoes);
  18. Due to being neglected, ignored and generally unloved (they wither away like aging popstars);
  19. Suddenly and/or unexpectedly (independent characteristics!);
  20. By design or intent (e.g. fundamentally flawed crypto 'approved' by government agencies for non-government and foreign use);
  21. Hard or soft, open or closed, secure or insecure, private or public;
  22. Partially or completely;
  23. Temporarily or permanently (just the once, sporadically, randomly, intermittently, occasionally, repeatedly, frequently, 'all the time' or forever);
  24. Obviously, sometimes catastrophically or spectacularly so when major incidents occur ... but sometimes ...
  25. Silently without the failure even being noticed, at least not immediately.

That's clearly quite a diverse list and, despite its length, I'm afraid it's not complete! 

The last bullet - silent or unrecognized control failures - I find particularly fascinating. It seems to me critical information risks are usually mitigated with critical information security controls, hence any failures of those controls (any from that   l o n g   list above) are also critical.  Generally speaking, we put extra effort into understanding such risks, designing/selecting what we believe to be strong controls, implementing and testing them carefully, thoroughly etc., but strangely we often appear to lose interest at the point of implementation when something else shiny catches our beady eye. The operational monitoring of critical controls is quite often weak to nonexistent (perhaps the occasional control test). 

I would argue, for instance, that some security metrics qualify as critical controls, controls that can fail just like any other. How often do we bother to evaluate and rank our metrics according to criticality, let alone explicitly design them for resilience to reduce the failure risks?

I appreciate I'm generalizing here: some critical controls and metrics are intensely monitored. It's the more prevalent fire-and-forget kind that worries me, especially if nobody had the foresight to design-in failure checks, warning signs and the corresponding response procedures, whether as part of critical controls or more generally as a security management and contingency approach.

Good luck finding any of this in ISO27k, by the way, or indeed in other information security standards and advisories. There are a few vague hints here and there, a few hooks that could perhaps be interpreted along these lines if the reader was so inclined, but hardly anything concrete or explicit ... which itself qualifies as a control failure, I reckon!  It's a blind-spot.


PS  There's a germ of an idea here for a journal article, perhaps even a suggestion to SC 27 for inclusion in the ISO27k standards, although the structure clearly needs attention. More thought required. Comments very welcome. Can we maybe think up another 25 bullets in homage to Paul Simon's "Fifty ways to leave your lover"?

8 Oct 2016

Marketing or social engineering?

Electronics supplier RS Online sent me an unsolicited promotional mailing in the post this week, consisting of a slimline USB stick mounted in a professionally printed cut-out card:

Well, it looks like something from RS' marketing machine.  It has their branding, images of the kinds of tools they sell and a printed URL to the RS website.  But the envelope has been modified ...

The printed sticker stamp top right has been crudely redacted with a black marker pen plus two further sticky labels, and 'postage paid' has been printed lower left, allegedly by the Hong Kong post office.  [I put the blue rectangle over my address.]

A week ago, we released a security awareness module on human factors in information security, including social engineering. Among other things, we discussed the risk of malware distributed on infectious USB sticks, and modified USB hardware that zaps the computer's USB port. The notes to a slide in the awareness seminar for management said this:
What would YOU do if you found a USB stick in your mailbox (at home or at work), or in the street, in the parking lot, in a corridor or sitting on your desk? 
In tests, roughly 50% of people plug found USB sticks into their computers.  A few of them may not care about the security risks (such as virus infections or physical damage that can be caused by rogue USB sticks), but most probably don’t even think about it – security doesn’t even occur to them. Maybe they simply don’t know that USB sticks can be dangerous.
Providing information about the dangers is straightforward: we can (and do!) tell people about this stuff through the awareness program.  But convincing them to take the risks seriously and behave more responsibly and securely is a different matter.  The awareness program needs to motivate as well as inform.  
The accompanying management briefing paper said:

It is possible that the USB stick carries malware, whether it truly originates from RS Online's marketing department in Hong Kong, or was intercepted and infected en route to me, or is a total fabrication, a fake made to look like a fancy piece of marketing collateral. I didn't request it from RS, in fact I've done no business with them for ages. The risk to loading the USB stick may be small ... but the benefit of being marketed-at is even less, negligible or even negative, so on balance it will be put through the office shredder.  It's a risk I'm happy to avoid.

Gary (Gary@isect.com)

PS  The title of this piece is ironic.  Marketing IS social engineering.

2 Oct 2016

People protecting people ... against people

We've just delivered the next block of security awareness materials to NoticeBored subscribers, some 210 Mb of freshly-minted MS Office content on the human side of information security.

The module covers the dual aspects of people-as-threats and people-as-controls. It's all about people.

The threats in this domain include social engineers, phishers, scammers and fraudsters, while controls include security awareness and training, effective incident response procedures and various other manual and administrative activities, supplemented with a few specific cybersecurity or technical and physical controls.

Whereas the awareness program has covered phishing and spear-phishing several times before, our research led us to emphasize "whaling" this time around. Whalers use social engineering techniques to dupe financial controllers and procurement professionals into making massive multi-million-dollar payments from fat corporate bank accounts into the criminals' money laundering machinery, where it promptly disappears as if by magic - not the entertaining kind of stage show magic where the lady we've just seen being sawn in half emerges totally unscathed from the box, more the distinctly sinister tones of black magic involving chicken body parts and copious blood.  

In comparison to ordinary phishing, whaling attacks capture fewer but much bigger phish for a comparable amount of investment, effort and risk by the fraudsters. We are convinced it is a growing trend. Luckily, there are practical things that security-conscious organizations can do to reduce the risk, with strong security awareness being top of the list. As with all forms of information security, we accept that widespread security awareness (a 'security culture') is an imperfect control but it sure beats the alternative. What's more, awareness is much more cost-effective than most technological controls, especially in respect of social engineering and fraud. Artifical intelligence systems capable of spotting and responding to incidents in progress are under development or in the fairly early stages of adoption by those few organizations which can afford the technology, the support and the risks that inevitably accompany such complex, cutting-edge systems. In time, the technology will advance, and so will the threat. Security awareness will remain an essential complement, whatever happens. 

If building your security culture is something you'd love to do, if only you had the time and skills to do it, get in touch. Our people are keen to help your people.