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I may meander but I'm 'exploring', not lost

Nov 14, 2018

NBlog Nov 14 - lack of control =/= vulnerability

A common misunderstanding among infosec professionals is that vulnerabilities include the lack or inadequacy of various infosec controls e.g. 'the lack of security awareness training'.

No     No!    NO!

Vulnerabilities are the inherent weaknesses that may be exposed and exploited by the threats, leading to impacts. 

In the lack-of-awareness example, people's naivete and ignorance are inherent weaknesses that may be exposed in various situations (e.g. when someone receives a phishing email) and exploited by threats (the phishers in this case i.e. fraudsters using social engineering techniques to mislead or misdirect victims into clicking dubious links etc.) leading to various impacts (malware infection, identity fraud, blackmail or whatever), hence risk. Naivete and ignorance are vulnerabilities. There are others too, including human tendencies such as greed and situations that distract us from important points, such as security warnings from our email and browser software, or that little voice in our head whispering "Too good to be true!".

Vulnerabilities exist with or without the controls. Sure, well-designed and implemented controls mostly reduce vulnerabilities but the lack of a control is not itself a vulnerability. It's a lack of control, something fundamentally different. 

Effective infosec awareness and training compensate for and reduce the naivete and ignorance, in part, and give people the skills and motivation to spot and deal appropriately with threats to  information, such as phishing. The control is imperfect, though - we know that - hence the risk is not totally eliminated, merely reduced ('mitigated' in the lingo). The limitations are two-fold: (1) those inherent issues run deep, and (2) the threats are constantly morphing.

I've blogged about this before and was reminded of it yet again today when checking out some 'infosec threat catalogs' on the Web. There are some potentially useful generic infosec threat lists out there but most also list non-vulnerabilities such as lack of awareness, catching my beady eye and distracting me. Those hijack my attention and wind me up, to the point that I refuse to recommend the associated threat catalogs even if those bits are sound. I won't propagate the misconception that lack of control is vulnerability.

Yes, I'm vulnerable too. I'm human. Allegedly. My button is hot.

To complicate matters further, controls can contain or be associated with vulnerabilities. Controls sometimes fail to work as designed. They break or are broken, get bypassed, misconfigured or turned off, or are simply overwhelmed - a genuine concern for phishing given the sheer number and growing variety of attacks. Nevertheless, I maintain that control weaknesses are not vulnerabilities. They are conceptually distinct.

Weak or missing controls result from inherent weaknesses or flaws in our information security practices, which are vulnerabilities. Misunderstanding "vulnerability" is both a vulnerability and a threat, at which point I'm going to leave this top a-spinning as I stagger back to my morning coffee.

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