Sunday, September 24, 2017

Measuring security: Part 2 - The cost of doing business

If you've not read my last post on measuring security you probably should. It talks about how to measure the security of things that make money. That post is mostly focused on things like products that directly generate revenue. This time we're going to talk about a category I'm calling the cost of doing business.

The term "cost of doing business" is something I made up so I could group these ideas in some sensible way. At least sensible to me. You probably can't use this with other humans in a discussion, they won't know what you're talking about. If I had a line graph of spending I would put revenue generating on one side, the purse cost centers on the other side. The cost of doing business is somewhere in the middle. These are activities that directly support whatever it is the organization does to make new money. Projects and solutions that don't directly make money themselves but do directly support things being built that make money.

The cost of doing business includes things like compliance, sending staff to meetings, maybe regulatory requirements. Things that don't directly generate revenue but you can't move forward if you don't do these things. There's not a lot of options in many cases. If you don't have PCI compliance, you can't process payments, you can't make any money, and the company won't last long. If you don't attend certain meetings nobody can get any work done. Regulated industry must follow their requirements or the company can often just be shut down. Sometimes there are things we have to do, even if we don't want to do them.

In the next post we'll talk about what I call "infrastructure", these are the things that are seen as cost centers and often a commodity service (like electricity or internet access). I just want to clarify the difference. Infrastructure is something where you have choice or can decide not to do it with a possible negative (or positive) consequence. Infrastructure is what keep the lights on at a bare minimum. Cost of doing business must be done to get yourself to the next step in a project, there is no choice, which changes what we measure and how we measure it.

The Example

Let's pick on PCI compliance as it's pretty easy to understand example. If you don't do this it's quite likely your company won't survive, assuming you need to process card payments. If you're building a new web site that will process payments, you have to get through PCI compliance, there is no choice, and the project cannot move forward until this is complete. The goal now isn't so much measuring the return on an investment as it is being a good steward of the resources given to us. PCI requirements and audits are not cheap. If you are seen as making poor decisions and squandering your resources it's quite likely the business will get grumpy with you.

Compliance and security aren't the same thing. There is some overlap but it must be understood that you can be compliant and still get hacked. The overlap of compliance is a great thing to focus on for measuring what we do. Did your compliance program make you more secure? Can you show how another group used a compliance requirement to make something better? What if something compliance required saved some money on how the network was architected? There are a lot of side benefits to pay attention to. Make sure you note the things that are improvements, even if they aren't necessarily security improvements.

I've seen examples where compliance was used to justify 2 factor authentication (2FA) in an organization, There are few things more powerful than 2FA that you can deploy. Showing compliance helped move an initiative like this forward, and also showing how the number of malicious logs drops substantially is a powerful message. Just turning on 2FA isn't enough. Make sure you show why it's better, how the attacks are slowed or stopped. Make sure you can show there were few issues for users (the people who struggle will complain loudly). If there is massive disruption for your users, figure out why you didn't know this would happen, someone screwed something up that means. It's important to measure the good and the bad. We rarely measure failure which is a problem. Nobody has a 100% success rate, learn from your failure.

What about attending a meeting or industry conference? Do you just go, file the expense report, and do nothing? That sounds like a waste of time and money. Make sure you have concrete actions. Write down what happened, why it was important you were there, how you made the situation better, and what you're going to do next. How did the meeting move your project forward? Did you learn something new, or make some plans that will help in the future? Make sure the person paying your bills sees this. Make them happy to be providing you the means to keep the business moving forward.

The Cost

The very first step we have to consider when we want to measure what we're doing is to do your homework and understand cost. Not just upfront cost but cost of machines, disk, people, services, anything you need to keep the business moving forward. If there are certain requirements needed for a solution make sure you understand and document it. If a certain piece of software or service has to be used show why. Show what part of the business can function because of the cost you're providing. Remember this is going to be specific requirements you can't escape. These are not commodity services and solutions. And of course the goal is to move forward.

If you inherit an existing solution take a good look at everything, make sure you know exactly what the resource cost of the solution is. The goal here isn't always to show a return on investment, but to show that the current solution makes sense. Just because something costs less money doesn't mean it's cheaper. If your cut rate services will put the project in jeopardy you're going to be in trouble someday. Be able to show this is a real threat. It's possible a decision will be made to take on this threat, but that's not always your choice. Always be able to answer the questions "if we do this what happens" and "if we don't do this what happens".

This topic is tricky. I keep thinking about it and even as I wrote this post it changed quite a lot from what I started to write. If you have something that makes money it's easy to justify investment. If you have something that's a pure cost center it's easy to minimize cost. This middle ground is tricky. How do you show value for something you have to do but isn't directly generating revenue? If you work for a forward looking business you probably won't have to spend a ton of time getting these projects funded. Growing companies understand the cost of doing business.

I have seen some companies that aren't growing as quickly fail to see value in the cost of doing business. There's nothing wrong with this sometimes, but as a security leader your job is to make your leadership understand what isn't happening because of this lack of investment. Sometimes if you keep a project limping along, barely alive, you end up causing a great deal of damage to the project and your staff. If leadership won't fund something, it means they don't view it as important and neither should you. If you think it is important, you need to sell it to your leadership. Sometimes you can't and won't win though, and then you have to be willing to let it go.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Measuring security: Part 1 - Things that make money

If you read my previous post on measuring security, you know I broke measuring into three categories. I have no good reason to do this other than it's something that made sense to me. There are without question better ways to split these apart, I'm sure there is even overlap, but that's not important. What actually matters is to start a discussion on measuring what we do. The first topic is about measuring security that directly adds to revenue such as a product or service.

The concept of making money is simple enough. You take a resource such as raw materials, money, even people in some instances. Usually it's all three. You take these resources then transform them into something new and better. The new creation is then turned into money, or revenue, for your
business. If you have a business that doesn't make more money than it spends you have a problem. If you have a business that doesn't make any money you have a disaster.

This is easy enough to understand, but let's use a grossly simplified example to make sure we're all on the same page. Let's say you're making widgets. I suppose since this is a security topic we should call them BlockWidgetChain. In our fictional universe you spend $10 on materials and people. Make sure you can track how much something costs, you should be able to determine how much of that $10 is materials and how much is people. You then you sell the BlockWidgetChain for $20. That means you spent $10 to make $20. This should make sense to anyone who understands math (or maths for you English speakers).

Now let's say you have a competitor who makes BlockChainWidgets. They're the same thing basically, but they have no idea how much it costs them to make BlockChainWidgets. They know if they charge more than $20 they can't compete because BlockWidgetChains cost $20. Their solution is to charge $20 and hope the books work out.

I've not only described the business plan for most startups but also a company that's almost certainly in trouble. You have to know how much you spend on resources. If you spend more than you're charging for the product that's a horrible business model. Most of security works like this unfortunately. We have no idea how much a lot of what we do costs, we certainly don't know how much value it adds to the bottom line. In many instances we cannot track spending in a meaningful way.

Measuring security
So now we're on to the idea of measuring security in an environment where the security is responsible for making money. Something like security features in a product. Maybe even a security product in some instances. This is the work that pays my bills. I've been working on product security for a very long time. If you're part of your product team (which you should be, product security doesn't belong anywhere else, more on that another day) then you understand the importance of having features that make a product profitable and useful. For example I would say SSO is a must have in today's environment. If you don't have this feature you can't be as effective in the market. But adding and maintaining features isn't free. If you spend $30 and sell it for $20, you'd make more money just by staying in bed. Sometimes the most profitable decision is to not do something.

Go big or go home
The biggest mistake we like to make is doing too much. It's easy to scope a feature too big. At worst you end up failing completely, at best you end up with what you should have scoped in the first place. But you spend a lot more on failure before you end up where you should have been from the start.

Let's use SSO as our example here. If you were going to scope the best SSO solution in the world, your product would be using SAML, OAuth, PKI, Kerberos, Active Directory, LDAP, and whatever else you manage to think of on planning day. This example is pretty clearly over the top, but I bet a lot of new SSO system scope SAML and OAuth at the same time. The reality is you only need one to start. You can add more later. Firstly having a small scope is important. It shows you want to do one thing and do it well instead of doing 3 things badly. There are few features that are useful in a half finished state. Your sales team has no desire to show off a half finished product.

How to decide
But how do we decide which feature to add? The first thing I do is look at customer feedback. Do the customers clearly prefer one over the other? Setup calls with them, go on visits. Learn what they do and how they do it. If this doesn't give you a clear answer, the next question is always "which feature would sell more product". In the case of something like SAML vs OAuth there might not be a good answer. If you're some sort of cloud service OAuth means you can let customers auth against Google and Facebook. That would probably result in more users.

If you're focused on a lot of on-prem solutions, SAML might be more used. It's even possible SSO isn't what customers are after once you start to dig. I find it's best to make a mental plan of how things should look, then make sure that's not what gets built because whatever I think of first is always wrong ;)

But how much does it cost?
Lastly if there's not a good way to show revenue for a feature, you can look at investment cost. The amount of time and money something will take to implement can really help when deciding what to do. If a feature will take years to develop, that's probably not a feature you want or need. Most industries will be very different in a few years. The expectations of today won't be the expectations of tomorrow.

For example if SAML will take three times as long as OAuth to implement. And both features will result in the same number of sales. OAuth will have a substantially larger return on investment as it's much cheaper to implement. A feature doesn't count for anything until it's on the market. Half done or in development are the same as "doesn't exist". Make sure you track time as part of your costs. Money is easy to measure, but people and time are often just as important.

I really do think this is the easiest security category to measure and justify. That could be because I do it every day, but I think if you can tie actual sales back to security features you'll find yourself in a good place. Your senior leadership will think you're magic if you can show them if they invest resources in X they will get Y. Make sure you track the metrics though. It's not enough to meet expectations, make an effort to exceed your expectations. There's nothing leadership likes better than someone who can over-deliver on a regular basis.

I see a lot of groups that don't do any of this. They wander in circles sometimes adding security features that don't matter, often engineering solutions that customers only need or want 10% of. I'll never forget when I first looked at actual metrics on new features and realized something we wanted to add was going to have a massive cost and generate zero additional revenue (it may have actually detracted in future product sales). On this day I saw the power in metrics. Overnight my group became heroes for saving everyone a lot of work and headaches. Sometimes doing nothing is the most valuable action you can take.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The father of modern security: B. F. Skinner

A lot of what we call security is voodoo. Most of it actually.

What I mean with that statement is our security process is often based on ideas that don't really work. As an industry we have built up a lot of ideas and processes that aren't actually grounded in facts and science. We don't understand why we do certain things, but we know that if we don't do those things something bad will happen! Will it really happen? I heard something will happen. I suspect the answer is no, but it's very difficult to explain this concept sometimes.

I'm going to start with some research B. F. Skinner did as my example here. The very short version is that Skinner did research on pigeons. He had a box that delivered food at random intervals. The birds developed rituals that they would do in order to have their food delivered. If a pigeon decided that spinning around would cause food to be delivered, it would continue to spin around, eventually the food would appear reinforcing the nonsensical behavior. The pigeon believed their ritual was affecting how often the food was delivered. The reality is nothing the pigeon did affected how often food was delivered. The pigeon of course didn't know this, they only knew what they experienced.

My favorite example  to use next to this pigeon experiment is the password policies of old. A long time ago someone made up some rules about what a good password should look like. A good password has letters, and numbers, and special characters, and the name of a tree in it. How often we should change a password was also part of this. Everyone knows you should change passwords as often as possible. Two or three times a day is best. The more you change it the more secure it is!

Today we've decided that all this advice was terrible. The old advice was based on voodoo. It was our ritual that kept us safe. The advice to some people seemed like a fair idea, but there were no facts backing it up. Lots of random characters seems like a good idea, but we didn't know why. Changing your password often seemed like a good idea, but we didn't know why. This wasn't much different than the pigeon spinning around to get more food. We couldn't prove it didn't not work, so we kept doing it because we had to do something.

Do you know why we changed all of our password advice? We changed it because someone did the research around passwords. We found out that very long passwords using real words is substantially better than a nonsense short password. We found out that people aren't good at changing their passwords every 90 days. They end up using horrible passwords and adding a 1 to the end. We measured the effectiveness of these processes and understood they were actually doing the opposite of what we wanted them to do. Without question there are other security ideas we do today that fall into this category.

Even though we have research showing this password advice was terrible we still see a lot of organizations and people who believe the old rituals are the right way to keep passwords safe. Sometimes even when you prove something to someone they can't believe it. They are so invested in their rituals that they are unable to imagine any other way of existing. A lot of security happens this way. How many of our rules and processes are based on bad ideas?

How to measure
Here's where it gets real. It's easy to pick on the password example because it's in the past. We need to focus on the present and the future. You have an organization that's full of policy, ideas, and stuff. How can we try to make a dent in what we have today? What matters? What doesn't work, and what's actually harmful?

I'm going to split everything into 3 possible categories. We'll dive deeper into each in future posts, but we'll talk about them briefly right now.

Things that make money
Number one is things that make money. This is something like a product you sell, or a website that customers use to interact with your company. Every company does something that generates revenue. Measuring things that fit into this category is really easy. You just ask "Will this make more, less, or the same amount of money?" If the answer is less you're wasting your time. I wrote about this a bit a long time ago, the post isn't great, but the graphic I made is useful, print it out and plot your features on it. You can probably start asking this question today without much excitement.

Cost of doing business
The next category is what I call cost of doing business. This would be things like compliance or being a part of a professional organization. Sending staff to conferences and meetings. Things that don't directly generate revenue but can have a real impact on the revenue. If you don't have PCI compliance, you can't process payments, you have no revenue, and the company won't last long. Measuring some of these is really hard. Does sending someone to Black Hat directly generate revenue? No. But it will create valuable connections and they will likely learn new things that will be a benefit down the road. I guess you could think of these as investments in future revenue.

My thoughts on how to measure this one is less mature. I think about these often. I'll elaborate more in a future post.

The last category I'm going to call "infrastructure". This one is a bit harder to grasp what makes sense. It's not unlike the previous question though. In this case we ask ourselves "If I stopped doing this what bad thing would happen?" Now I don't mean movie plot bad thing. Yeah if you stopped using your super expensive keycard entry system a spy from a competitor could break in and steal all your secrets using an super encrypted tor enabled flash drive, but they probably won't. This is the category where you have to consider the cost of an action vs the cost of not doing an action. Not doing things will often have a cost, but doing things also has a cost.

Return on investment is the name of the game here. Nobody likes to spend money they don't have to. This is why cloud is disrupting everything. Why pay for servers you don't need when you can rent only what you do need?

I have some great stories for this category, be sure to come back when I publish this followup article.

The homework for everyone now is to just start thinking about what you do and why you do it. If you don't have a good reason, you need to change your thinking. Changing your thinking is really hard to do as a human though. Many of us like to double down on our old beliefs when presented with facts. Don't be that person, keep an open mind.