Challenging Conventional Wisdom


In IT security ("cybersecurity") today, there is a powerful herd mentality. In part, this is because it is driven by an interest in shiny new things. We see this with the massive pile-on to new technologies when they gain buzzword status: e.g., threat intelligence, big data, blockchain/bitcoin, AI, zero trust. The more they are talked about, the more others think they need to be adopted, or at least considered. Startups and some vendors add to the momentum with heavy marketing of their products in that space. Vendor conferences such as the yearly RSA conference are often built around the latest buzzwords. And sadly, too few people with in-depth knowledge of computing and real security are listened to about the associated potential drawbacks. The result is usually additional complexity in the enterprise without significant new benefits — and often with other vulnerabilities, plus expenses to maintain them.

Managers are often particularly victimized by these fads as a result of long-standing deficiencies in the security space: we have no sound definition of security that encompasses desired security properties, and we, therefore, have no metrics to measure them. If a manager cannot get some numeric value or comparison of how new technology may make things better vs. its cost, the decision is often made on "best practice." Unfortunately, "best practice" is also challenging to define, especially when there is a lot of talk and excitement by people about vending the next new shiny thing. Additionally, enterprise needs are seldom identical, so “best” may not be uniform. If the additional siren call is heard about "See how it will save you money!" then it is nearly impossible to resist, even if the "savings" are only near-term or downright illusory.

This situation is complicated because so much of what we use is defective, broken, or based on improperly-understood principles. Thus, to attempt to secure it (really, to gain greater confidence in it) solutions that sprinkle magic pixie dust on top are preferred because they don't mean sacrificing the sunk cost inherent in all the machines and software already in use. Magic fairy dust is shiny, too, and usually available at a lower (initial) cost than actually fixing the underlying problems. So that is why we have containers on VMs on systems with multiple levels of hypervisor behind firewalls and IPS --and turtles all the way down — while the sunk costs keep getting larger. This is also why patching and pen testing are seen as central security practices— they are the flying buttresses of security architecture these days.

The lack of a proper definition and metrics has been known for a while. In part, the old Rainbow series from the NCSC (NSA) was about this. The authors realized the difficulty of defining "secure" and instead spoke of "trusted." The series established a set of features and levels of trust assurance in products to meet DOD needs. However, that was with a DOD notion of security at the time, so issues of resilience and availability (among others) weren't really addressed. That is one reason why the Rainbow Series was eventually deprecated: the commercial marketplace found it didn't apply to their needs.

Defining security principles is a hard problem, and is really in the grand challenge space for security research. It was actually stated as such 16 years ago in the CRA security Grand Challenges report (see #3). Defining accompanying metrics is not likely to be simple either, but we really need to do it or continue to come up against problems. If the only qualities we can reliably measure for systems are speed and cost, the decisions are going to be heavily weighted towards solutions that provide those at the expense of maintainability, security, reliability, and even correctness. Corporations and governments are heavily biased towards solutions that promise financial results in the next year (or next quarter) simply because that is easily measured and understood.

I've written and spoken about this topic before (see here and here for instance). But it has come to the forefront of my thinking over the last year, as I have been on sabbatical. Two recent issues have reinforced that:

  • I was cleaning up my computer storage and came across some old presentations from 10-20 years ago. With minor updating, they could be given today. Actually, I have been giving a slightly updated version of one from 11 years ago, and the audiences view it as "fresh." The theme? How we don't define or value security appropriately. (Let me know if you’d like me to present it to your group; you can also view a video of the talk given at Sandia National Laboratories,)
  • I was asked by people associated with a large entity with significant computing presence to provide some advice on cloud computing. They have been getting a strong push from management to move everything to the cloud, which they know to be a mistake, but their management is countering  their concerns about security with "it will cost less." I have heard this before from other places and given informal feedback to the parties involved. This time, I provided more organized feedback, now also available as a CERIAS tech report (here). In summary, moving to the cloud is not always the best idea, nor is it necessarily going to save money in the long term.

I hope to write some more on the issues around defining security and bucking the "conventional wisdom" once I am fully recovered from my sabbatical. There should be no shortage of material. In the meantime, I invite you to look at the cloud paper cited above and provide your comments below.


Posted by Scott Foote
on Monday, July 8, 2019 at 09:02 AM

Insightful post Spaf.

Regarding the herd mentality… one major motivation for this, somewhat irresponsible, buying behavior is the apparent “Quest for Simplicity, in a Sea of Complexity”.  Many managers are overwhelmed with the complexities of their information infrastructure, it’s dependencies, and the myriad of challenges to securing it.  Simple solutions, carrying bold promises, can look very attractive when one is that overwhelmed.

Posted by Arnold Robbins
on Tuesday, July 9, 2019 at 09:27 AM

Hi Gene. Nice read.

I think that this sentence: “And sadly, too few people with in-depth knowledge of computing and real security are listened to about the associated potential drawbacks.” is key.

If more people were educated and really understood computing and security, there would be much less automatic going for the shiny magic pixie dust.

Educating the people in the enterprise space, the ones actually on the ground, should be a top priority for Industry and Academia.

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