Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line 2: Degrees of Security Value

In this entry, Akamai’s Andy Ellis dwells on the degrees of security assurance within organizations, and explains why adversaries succeed in their attacks.

How much security is good enough?

How much security is good enough?

How much security value is ‘good enough’? We’d all love to have perfect security; we’re not going to be there though. This graph is not to scale (see image), so please don’t count pixels. But if we think about some point on this line that we will call Good Security, and I’m just going to put it out there as a strongman for a moment, let’s think about what good security might mean in relation to other things.

I think we’d all like to agree that if on Monday a chaotic actor decides to attack you and they conduct an attack on Friday, you should be sufficient against that attack if you have good security. So, clearly, good security is better than what the casual adversary is going to bring to bear.

I think we’ll probably also agree that if you’re worried about a nation state actor, good security probably isn’t enough. Stuxnet is probably going to beat you if you have a nation state adversary, if you have any incorporated adversary. In fact, these probably aren’t the right terms. Probably we want to say Determined Adversary, because it might be that you are faster than your neighbor; you’ve heard that anecdote that you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than your neighbor. Apple is pretty clearly running faster with iOS than Google is with Android; that isn’t necessarily going to protect them from the rumors of an untethered jailbreak tomorrow.

So, clearly, above this is some concept of Perfect Security, and this is something we have to worry about as an industry: nobody is going to implement perfect security. I have put it here to show that it’s the ideal, it’s a thing we look at, but if you’re implementing perfect security, then you’re taking no risk. Businesses are about taking risk. The goal is: take risk so that you can do something; you can make money, you can be successful. Perfect security means you have no risk. Businesses don’t operate that way, they like to take risk, it’s in their DNA. We’ll talk about that DNA a little bit later.

To me, I want to have a good assessor and a bad auditor.

So, now that we’ve talked about adversaries, let’s talk about, in theory, your partners, who sometimes might be adversarial. So, there are assessors and there are auditors. I like to distinguish them. To me, I want to have a good assessor and a bad auditor.

An assessor is someone you bring in and you ask them to help you. You say: “Please, tell me what I’m doing wrong.” So, somewhere in this, if you bring in a good assessor, they’ll tell you something you’re doing wrong and they could help get you better.

An auditor, on the other hand, has a checklist. They’re doing a PCI audit, an ISO audit, you name it; and they’re doing an audit against it. You don’t want a good one, you want a passing grade. So, if you go hire a competent auditor who is serious in what they’re doing, this is probably where they’re going to get you. They’re using the checklist that was standardized maybe 3 years ago. But before it was standardized, it took 18 months to write.

So, it’s based on a consultant’s view of an adversarial model that is defining risk in terms of return of investment for an adversary, where adversary’s value of your data is the same as your own. And what I think most of us recognize is that what adversaries value is not what their targets value.

Of course, most people don’t hire serious auditors. What they hire is a standard auditor, and then they play a game: “How can we fool our auditor? How can we write down things that are mostly true, spin them in a way that makes us look good, and we will give that to our auditor? And that’s all the security we’re going to do, because that’s all we’re required to do. And so, that’s what we’re going to give to our auditors.” That’s probably what most of our businesses are doing today.

But there’s a line below that. What if you don’t have an auditor? What if security isn’t core to your business? This is what many organizations think they can get away with, even less that what would fool a casual auditor, because they don’t have to hire a casual auditor. Maybe you’re a small merchant and you can fill out a self assessment questionnaire for the PCI DSS standard. You get to write down whether you’re doing enough security. I’m pretty sure nobody is ever going to write down: “I’m not doing enough security; VISA, please don’t give me anything.” I don’t think that’s how it’s going to work. So, that’s basically where these are.

Security value degrees and trends

Security value degrees and trends

So, I’m going to draw a couple of lines (see graph). The first one I’m drawing is the security poverty line. This is the Cover Your Ass line. If your organization falls into either of those bottom two dots, that’s how you define how much security value you need to have, you’re stuck below the security poverty line, and quite likely you think in terms of security subsistence syndrome: “I am going to do the minimum I can to cover my own ass.”

There’s another line, since I had said how much is good enough. I’m going to posit that good enough is probably below where a good assessor can help you. You’d like to always be able to bring in those good assessors to get better, you use that third party. But if you can fend off a nation state for most businesses, you’re spending too much money on security. Very few people actually run into this problem, so we won’t worry about it.

These aren’t static lines, however; they’re changing. You can see the direction they’re all going. You’ll notice that most of them are going on an upward curve – again, not to scale. The standard auditor and the serious auditor aren’t really changing over time. Anyone who’s been under the PCI regime will recognize that from year to year the PCI standard isn’t substantially changing, despite the fact that adversarial tools have significantly changed in that time.

Common adversarial tools

Common adversarial tools

That’s led to the rise of other technologies (see image) : Havij, its screenshot makes it look like a technology probably from 7 or 8 years ago; but Havij democratized SQL injection. Anybody can download this, point it at a web app and compromise it. Like not being successful enough led to the rise of the High Orbit Ion Cannon, which now you can use booster packs for.

So, what we’re starting to see Anonymous do, another chaotic actors, is telling people: “Here’s where we will release the booster pack. The booster pack is the targeting; we will release it 30 minutes before our operation. Come get it, do an attack, trying to get a faster loop than the defenders get.” Because the problem with having to coordinate in public means that your targets get to watch what you do.



So, instead they release tools that let them get faster, be smarter. And of course, this listing wouldn’t be complete without a screenshot of Metasploit (see image). Metasploit is one of the greatest tools out there, we use it for penetration testing ourselves. But there’s nothing that stops an adversary from using it. In fact, if you go to Metasploit’s community and go look at what people are asking, about half of the questions are from people who are saying: “I want to break into a system, how do I do it?” That’s what the tools are being used for. This rising tide has lifted all boats, and the adversaries are using them more than the defenders. So, that’s why things are getting better for the adversary.

Read previous: Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line

Read next: Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line 3: Perceived and Actual Risk

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