Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line

Andy Ellis Andy Ellis, the Chief Security Officer at Akamai Technologies, gives a keynote at ‘Hack in the Box Amsterdam’ event, providing an in-depth view of the concept of present-day information security, its goals and constituents.

Let’s start off with defining the security poverty line; the security poverty line is the term coined by Wendy Nather of the 451 security group.

The idea here is that organizations that don’t have enough resources to do even the minimum security that everybody would look at them and say: “Well, you have to do this. You have to run antivirus. Whether you think antivirus is effective or not, you have to run antivirus. You have to look at your log files. You have to have a firewall. You have to have an IDS.”

And at some point you look around and you say: “Well, there’s me and there’s my EUR7300 budget; how am I supposed to do any of this? Let alone all of it.”

So, what happens is you run into this mindset, that we call the Security Subsistence Syndrome – and what this says is since you can’t even do the barest minimum to cover your own ass, all you’re going to do is cover your ass. Because the last thing you want to have is someone say: “Well, you didn’t install antivirus and instead you were off playing with this weird open source technology that none of us have heard about.”

Key concepts explained

Key concepts explained

Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM AntiVirus, pick whatever it is, and that’s what drives this mentality – the mentality that when you think you can’t do enough, that you’d better not do anything different. And different is what security needs to be about, it’s what we have to do to go forward. Because if we don’t, what we’re going to do is we’re going to start accruing technical debt. Technical debt is that work that you cast into the future, it’s just like deficit spending; it’s deficit spending about your engineering. If you build something and you intentionally leave a capability out for the future – that’s technical debt and you’re going to have to come back and fix it if you don’t make your software maintainable. If you leave anything undone, in the future you have more risk, and the future is going to get much harder.

And what makes technical debt very painful is that you very rarely know that it exists. In fact, in most companies the people who keep track of technical debt have very high turnover. It’s very unusual; I’ve actually worked for Akamai for 12 years, so every bit of technical debt that happened on my watch – we wrote down. We know about 12 years of technical debt that faces our business and what we’re going to do about it. Average longevity in the security industry for a chief security officer doesn’t even hit 2 years. We turn over the people who might keep track of this; this increases our risk.

So, that’s a little bit about the security poverty line. Now let’s figure out how to measure it, or how to at least think about it. First, let’s talk about security value. What value do we bring to our organizations when we’re defending them? So, I’m going to define the value quite simply: your resources multiplied by your capabilities; how well you can leverage those resources.

Resources – that’s an easy one: time and money; the time of the people that you have to implement things, and it’s the money you have to go buy stuff.

Breaking Value down to the principal constituents

Breaking Value down to the principal constituents

Capabilities is a little bit harder, three things are going to capabilities: it’s your skill, it’s your effort, and it’s your effectiveness. Your skill – that seems pretty easy: if I ask you to go implement a firewall, do you know how Cisco IOS works? Do you know how NetWitness works? Do you know how any of these technologies work, or do you have to go learn?

Your effort is how you will apply yourself, also seems pretty easy. This doesn’t mean working 80-hour weeks, although most of us probably have that addiction in our systems. This actually means going and doing the work in a timely fashion.

Effectiveness is the interesting one. How do you measure being effective? Sometimes that’s not beating your head against the wall; sometimes it’s about your environment. In fact, last year we looked at our effectiveness. Our information security team at the time was 11 people. And we had 5 of them focused on enterprise security: just our corporate network. We’re one of the largest cloud businesses in the world, and we had half of our security team just thinking about our corporate security, not even thinking about our production network.

And we looked at it like this: “Why are we so ineffective that half of our resources have to be focused on a problem that everybody faces? And only half of them are doing then all the work.” And we actually realized it was environmental; it wasn’t about those 5 people, it was about the fact that they worked for information security, and not for our CIO. And every time they came in and they said: “This is what you should do”, the people in that organization said: “Why is an outsider telling me what to do? I don’t want to do it.” They weren’t that explicit, but that was the behavior you see. And that’s what you expect to see in most organizations.

You don’t have control over your resources; what you have is control over your capabilities.

And if they didn’t come in and tell them what to do, then later they would say: “Well, you didn’t give us any guidance. How are we supposed to know what to do?”

And so, what we did a year ago is we handed those 5 people to the CIO. We said: “You have your own security organization now. They are about twice as effective now as they were.”

Didn’t get rid of anybody, didn’t change that organization: twice as effective just because of an environment. This is very important to measure, very important to understand, because every CFO in every business has a qualitative view of your capabilities. In fact, that’s where they’re going to go put their resources. They will look across your organization and they’ll say: “Well, here’s the median capability of my organization; anybody above it gets more resources, they’re clearly applying them well. Anybody below it, we’re going to take resources away from.”

You don’t have control over your resources; what you have is control over your capabilities. Now, in some sense I’m preaching to the choir, because everybody is here about increasing your own capabilities. You are here to increase your skill. You’re here to make yourself more effective. But many of our organizations aren’t really thinking that way.

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

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