Eliminating the Inefficiency of Work-in-Progress in Cybersecurity

Some time ago I read “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. My big takeaway: Work-in-Progress or WIP items slow production. As the theory goes, you can be swimming in “efficiencies”, but if you’re stumbling over excess work-in-progress inventory or you’ve ignored a bottleneck, you’re nowhere near your potential.

This is clear enough in manufacturing. But these concepts can be applied elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Kristin & Adam

Demands on IT departments are growing exponentially. As technological advances accelerate, IT professionals are required to keep up. This isn’t one area, but in several areas at once. IT pros are pursuing cutting edge analytics and at the same time pushing traditional on-prem infrastructure to the cloud; while also balancing an undercurrent of spurious applications and solutions. Not just balancing, but seeking to meet an expectation of “subject matter expert” level knowledge/expertise with each new IT initiative.

This drives inefficiencies into IT. I’ll focus on cybersecurity within IT since I’m a cybersecurity analyst.

In order to win, security teams need a system for how they arrive at priorities. Priorities reduce work-in-progress items; they also minimize bottlenecks. IT departments tend to develop rockstars who don’t do all the work, but significant amounts of work pass through them. When many projects are going on at once, rockstars become “constraints”. (See “The Phoenix Project” by Gene Kim and Kevin Behr.)  The other constraint is tools-in-progress. The tendency is to push for breadth over depth. More tools, less expertise in each tool.

When tools are viewed as 80-90% of the solution, the requirement of analysts’ time is easily overlooked. When it comes to cybersecurity, organizations can easily end up with a myriad of tools. Each of these tools becomes a work-in-progress or tool-in-progress item. Tools can add value, but if there are too many, they can actually lower the aggregate value of a team. The way to overcome this is through a highly effective system of prioritization. Knowing what to prioritize takes time. But for each tool, there if there is a sharp focus, chances creating value go up considerably.

Challenge teams to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Dare to set some things aside in order to arrive at critical priorities. Zero in on these priorities. They may change over time. This isn’t an issue. But if they’re changing too frequently, you’ll get stuck with a stifling inventory of work-in-progress items. Make a best-effort attempt to document this and quantify it so it doesn’t keep happening.

With a clean set of priorities and a careful reduction of WIP items, all things are possible! 

Picking the right words to describe cloud assets is kind of important

The work of any given IT department is remarkably broad. And within each functional team, vocabularies around technology can be quite unique. This is fine when different groups don’t have to work together much, but when they get together to solve problems, one great challenge has to do with making sure specific IT terms mean the same thing to everyone.

And if that isn’t challenging enough, take traditional IT terms and then figure out how they all translate into the ‘cloud’. I’ll give an example. Take the distinction between IaaS and PaaS. The way this is often described is that with PaaS you don’t have to worry about patching an operating system. With IaaS, this is the customers’ responsibility, not the cloud service provider’s. But the scope of cloud is much bigger than the VM example. And not understanding this can have serious ramifications.

Let’s say you go out into cloud console for your tenant. (This would be the place where you log in to spin up a virtual machine, for example.) Whether you like it or not, the very moment you spin up a VM in the cloud you’ve created the beginnings of a network topology. Not knowing this can cost you dearly later.

Cloud infrastructure is not just VM’s. There’s a whole world of storage, networking and compute services, too, which we often overlook as being IaaS. Why does this matter? Because knowing and understanding this is also the beginning of securing it. Consider where each of these pieces live in a traditional on-prem model, and what controls are in place to protect the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of these assets. That same diligence has to be transferred to the cloud. For example, protecting your firewall configurations is not unlike protecting your security group configs on a subnet or VM instance.

Also, how do you track changes to these assets? Whatever diligence you apply in traditional IT models, this same diligence is required in the cloud. This includes reviewing and validating configurations on these virtual assets. Think about what would happen if any one of these virtual assets, like a subnet or a whole virtual network were to be deleted. Where would you be and what controls do you have in place to keep this from happening? And in the unfortunate case that it does happen, how would you know how it happened and who did it?

Because it is so much easier to set up infrastructure in the cloud, it is also that much easier to abuse said infrastructure either intentionally or unintentionally. Getting everyone on the same page around the vocabulary for cloud infrastructure is the beginning of fully understanding how to secure this environment. Let’s decide on our critical cloud vocabulary and make sure we all share the same deep understanding of the words we use to describe this environment.

Cybersecurity Risk and a Cadence of Communication

Risk is everywhere. What’s the probability that something bad will happen? And when it does happen, how bad will it be? For folks who work in security these are questions we ask every day, all day.

But it doesn’t stop there. After we get done asking these questions, we have to artfully communicate our approximations to decision makers. Sometimes this works. Mostly it doesn’t.

Part of the challenge is that our calculation of risk involves technology and gobs of technical know-how; the kind of in-the-weeds technical know-how that most business folks don’t find particularly useful. So there’s a translation process. As we translate, the meat of our risk evaluations can get lost. And decision makers don’t have time to get up to speed.

So herein lies the challenge. The business makes risk decisions, like, all the time, but since technological or security risk is hard to understand, they aren’t always arriving at their decision destination with the right knowledge. It a reasonable enough to suggest that they can be informed enough to make the right decisions?

I’d say it is. But we can’t have the presumption that a single email or a short briefing will suffice. It order to make communication around risk work, there should be a cadence of communication. It should not be the first time that a decision-maker is hearing about a given risk. Security pros can help decision makers build up a baseline of risk seen in a given environment so that when a risk report does surface, it actually means something. Without regular context for these types of reports, they’re just empty words. It security they may mean something, but that’s as far as the meaning goes.

How can you develop a cadence of communication within your organization?

Wild West Hackin’ Fest: Affordable and Content-Heavy

John Strand, who owns Black Hills Information Security (BHIS), has a way clearing the fog of what passes for knowledge in the security industry. And he knows how to make his audiences laugh. It’s a kind of cathartic truth-laugh that brings people together. I remember the first time I heard him plug the Wild West Hackin’ Fest (WWHF). I made a mental note. This could be a good, small conference that offers a lot of value. Of course, I knew that there was a lot more to BHIS than its owner, but you can often tell the culture of events from the folks who run them.

So last summer, on our family vacation, I did some recon. We managed to stay a couple nights in Deadwood. Perfect chance to inspect the venue and get a good sense of what a conference here might be like. Yup, I could definitely see this: a security conference in Deadwood.

Not long after that trip I made plans to go. And I convinced a colleague to come with me. It wasn’t fancy. Don’t get me wrong. The Deadwood Mountain Grand Hotel was awesome, but the bulk of the sessions were basically in two large rooms and a stage, which were really part of one large room divided by curtains. But here’s the thing. I don’t need fancy. I need content. And that’s what we got. Session after session was loaded with content.

I remember a talk by Paul Vixie, one of the creators of DNS, that completely tied me in to the importance of DNS. And another talk by Jon Ham where his passion for forensics made me feel like there was a whole world that I’d been skipping over in my infosec career development. And Jake Williams was there too. His session was on privilege escalation. And I was like, “Wait, what?” — an eye opener indeed. Also memorable was a talk by Annah Waggoner. It was her first talk and she was inspirational. Doing a talk for the first time at an event like WWHF has to take courage. Which is another thing, WWHF is great about pushing, encouraging folks to present, especially those who haven’t done it before.

I’m not going to rehash every talk, but I do want to encourage people to go to this event. I’m very excited about going again this year! If you want an affordable, content-heavy, hands-on experience, Deadwood in October is the time and place for you!

https://www.wildwesthackinfest.com

“Sapiens” and Economic Value

To some extent, Economics is the study of how people produce more (both variation and volume) when they work together. Most of the time people have a place in the world’s economy when they provide value, which is measured by money and credit…mostly.

The book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari has me thinking differently about economics. Harari takes us into critical transitions in human history; like the years just before and after the invention of “credit”. According to Harari, “credit” is anchored in the belief that the future will be better than the past. For most of human history, people assumed the reverse. The future was no match for the glory of the past.

Once credit took hold, however, both for good and ill, it allowed for a greater and more frequent transfer of value. Humanity could start to build a future together. And value could begin to be sought out in all corners of the globe. Trade and credit meant that we could do more together. And the more humans worked together to produce what they needed (or wanted) the more the economy grew. With all the benefits of economic growth, humans also witnessed exploitation and abuse of this system. Individuals and institutions figured out how to steal value from others who weren’t in a position to know better or defend themselves.

Unfortunately, trading on stolen value still happens today. But in the greater scheme of things, I find myself wondering about how we’re going to manage value and economic growth in the future. We’re moving from exploiting people to simply eliminating them from the equation all together. If people are not providing direct value to the global economy, will they be able to participate? Will there be huge swaths of people who can’t take advantage of all the value being created because they won’t have anything to offer in exchange for it?

Think of the countries or societies that are generating value and those that aren’t. Countries that don’t generate value fall victim to crime and exploitation. The further they get from full participation in the global economy, the further they get from the benefits of modern society. Disproportionately they end up on the downside of the world’s value systems.

As a result, with no value accessible to them, citizens in these countries migrate toward countries where value is accessible; where they have a chance of participating and producing value of their own. These value destinations, however, have responded by restricting their borders. Also, they attempt to control the flow of value by forcing their hand in trade deals. But these kinds of restrictions are antithetical to what actually makes a global economy work in the first place. We generate value when we work together.

Sure, there’s competition, but ultimately the real wins happen when we engage countries and societies who have been left out. And we all win when we help them generate value. The more overall participation we get, the better we’ll all be. Both because we’ll benefit from what these countries have to offer and because they won’t become feeders for crime and violence.

‘The Cloud’ is Still New

It feels like folks have been talking about ‘the cloud’ forever. But levels of cloud utilization in the form of IaaS, PaaS, etc. have really only ramped up significantly in the last couple years. The tendency is to think that there are ‘cloud’ people who were just born knowing ‘cloud’ and that the chasm between ‘cloud’ and ‘on-prem’ is so great that the ‘on-prem’ folks simply won’t understand this new realm.

Fact is, ‘the cloud’ is still new. And no one is born knowing anything, especially not best-practices around cloud utilization, security, and architecture. Herein lies both risk and opportunity. If we can all just put down our pretensions around cloud know-how and get busy learning, we might actually be able to build, configure and secure our cloud environments in a way that delivers consistent, beautiful results.

But the first step is remind ourselves about how new all of this is, and how revolutionary it is. Organizational leaders, instead of saying, “Hey what do you know about cloud? Oh, you don’t know anything? Okay, bye.” Need to say, “Hey let’s get learning! See what you can find out about the cloud that will help us meet our goals.” Because the reality is, most of us don’t know everything there is to know about the cloud. It is still new! And it is going to still be new for a long time!

If leaders don’t charge their teams with learning, these same leaders will have their business strategies singularly handled by vendors — well meaning as they may be. And the best solutions and the most remarkable features of ‘the cloud’ will never arrive. Innovation happens with a sense of ownership and dedication. This is less likely to happen when innovative work is attempted by 3rd parties who have ample room to over promise and under deliver.

The cloud is still new! Let’s respect that fact and don’t presume that the best solutions live elsewhere. Bring your teams into this new world and get ready to be blown away. Give them a chance to learn and innovate; don’t write them off. Sometimes the best innovations are right under our noses, but we can see them because we’re blinded by the glare of shinny, well-marketed solutions that can be low on substance.

Security Hygiene is Boring and Critical

This has been said many times before by people many times more credentialed than me. There are sexy vulnerabilities out there that take considerable expertise to understand. Then there are vulnerabilities or configurations that are the equivalent of leaving your car door unlocked.

The calculation so often made goes like this: “it hasn’t happened before”, or “I’ll only be gone for a few minutes”.

Oddly, many who have an incredibly honed financial sense about them and who understand that ‘past performance does not equal equal future results’, have great difficulty extending this concept elsewhere. But nowhere is it more applicable than in security. Past performance does not equal future results! (Or you may have been hacked in the past and you don’t know it.)

The oversight that causes an organization to get hacked in the first place is likely something simple. Are you missing two-factor authentication? Are you still using a default login? Is your password “Spring2019” and do you use it everywhere? These are security concerns that don’t take heaps of expertise to understand; they are boring and critical.

Attackers don’t want to work hard to steal data or install ransomware, so they’re likely to look for simple vulnerabilities or poorly configured networks in order to get the job done. Don’t sweat the small stuff, sweat the simple stuff.

“The Cuckoo’s Egg:” An Old Story – New to Me

Two weekends ago I finished reading “Tribe of Hackers: Cybersecurity Advice from the Best Hackers in the World”. (Please read previous blog entry to learn more.) I was amazed at how many of “Tribe of Hackers” contributors recommended an old book, “The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage,” which was written by Clifford Stoll in 1989.

The story actually begins at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1986. I won’t go into too many details about the setting or the time. In computer years, it was ages ago. So my question: “How could such an old book about tracking down a hacker be so routinely recommended by a slew of highly knowledgeable and well-respected info sec professionals?”

Turns out cybersecurity hasn’t changed much. In “The Cuckoo’s Egg,” the hacker who is being tracked by Stoll, an astronomer, is aided by of the following: 1) default credentials, 2) processes that run as root, but shouldn’t, 3) well-known vulnerabilities, 4) the fact that folks can be fooled into entering their credentials into fake sites, 5) the desire of organizations to not share information, 6) the fact that various US agencies described this sort of attack as not their ‘bailiwick’, 7) the fact that various agencies don’t have the expertise to fully comprehend the risk to their data and network infrastructures, and 8) that organizations could not possibly imagine someone actually penetrating their ‘high security’ environments. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but you get the idea.

Besides being a great old book, published when I was a curious, modem tapping, BBS surfing adolescent, it’s an excellent primer on the foundations of modern cybersecurity. Sure, the technology has changed, but fundamentals haven’t moved an inch. Maybe all cybersecurity professionals have heard of this book except for me, but if you haven’t, consider reading it. Even if you’re not after the education, it’s wonderfully entertaining.

“Tribe of Hackers” Wins the Day

It’s weird how I found out about “Tribe of Hackers: Cybersecurity Advice from the Best Hackers in the World”. I saw a photo on Twitter of a fellow Luther Collage alum, Ben Tomhave, showing that he was featured as one of the ‘tribe’. “What’s this about?” I asked myself.

As it turned out, this was a book soon to be released by Threatcare, a firm that is an active, generous purveyor of learning and community building in cybersecurity.

I love books and learning learning, and I’m relatively new to cybersecurity. Though I would hazard to guess that a majority of people in this field feel like they are ‘relatively new’. For people like me, books like this are pure gold. (I can’t say I’ve read many books like this one, however.)

Jeshua with books.

The crowning glory of this recent publication is thought-diversity. (Yes, I just hyphenated those two words together.) You can read a chapter by one contributor who says that ‘user security awareness’ is the biggest bang-for-the-buck toward improving organizational security. The next will say ‘asset inventory’. I love this.

The bang-for-your-buck question is just one simple example. There is a WHOLE LOT more going on in this book than that. It’s loaded with practical advice on building your career, getting along with others, and learning from your mistakes. Sure there is a lot varying ideas, but they all lead to a few core truths. One of these core truths is that cybersecurity is all about PEOPLE. That is even if you like the term ‘cyber’ which one author explains ‘holds no real meaning any more’. I love this too.

This collection of industry wisdom is a rare find. Hats off to Marcus J. Carey and Jennifer Lin and all the contributors who had the fortitude to put these reflections down on paper for people like me. 🙂 “Tribe of Hackers” wins the day! Check it out: https://www.threatcare.com/tribe-of-hackers/

Postman API Learning, Testing, and Development

I’m pretty late into to the API game. Recently I was on a call with a handful of security engineers and they explained that they couldn’t afford to have their people staring at console screens any more. Instead, they rely almost entirely on API’s to automate and streamline their work. I’ve been hearing about API development forever but I’d not gotten past the first hurdle: how to start. My answer to this is Postman.

Once you have an API you want to consume, you can start doing ‘POST’ and ‘GET’ requests pronto and see results immediately. Also, one critical tipping point for me was when I watched a number of the introductory videos that Postman provides. For example, I didn’t understand what the ‘Test’ section was for. The videos demonstrated that this is where you can write JavaScript to traverse the JSON files which are the results of your requests.

Currently, I’m only using a free account. I’m in learning mode, but as I move toward doing more work with API’s in the future, I’ll absolutely be using Postman to test and verify my efforts. It’s also a great introduction in the security advantages and disadvantages of using API’s.

Anyone else who has a desire to dig into API’s and consider what they can do to add value to your work, try Postman. And don’t forget to check out a few of their tutorial videos.