Steve Hunt

The chief technology officer was happy with the vulnerability assessment I just performed. So when I suggested he engage us for a follow up project, I nearly fell into a trap many security professionals stumble into.

My client had been experiencing errors and fraud in health plan and pension paperwork. We narrowed the problem to poor corporate ID badge management, database servers that were left unattended and terminated employees who still had network access.

But I remembered some wisdom from Chip Gliedman at think-tank Forrester: If I build a 10-foot wall around my house for a thousand dollars, I may feel secure. But what happens when a fence salesman proposes to put three feet of barbed wire fence on top of my concrete wall for another grand? I have to decide if the extra height makes me more secure, and if so, whether it is worth all that money.

Of course, an intruder can still rappel down from a helicopter. So the wall is not enough and I begin planning a concrete dome.

When we focus on security, we spiral toward over-engineering and bad decisions.

Most security managers and consultants like me fall into that trap on occasion. We dream so much about all the bad things, we lose touch with the motivations and goals of business managers to whom we serve.

Business focus

There is a more natural way of achieving security – focus on the business.

If I am a business manager serving a new application to my customers, I need a few basic things.

  • I need to know who my customers are, with some level of confidence.
  • I must ensure that they can do everything they need to do.
  • Assuming I have many customers doing many things, I need a simple way of managing it.
  • And at the end of the day I need reports telling me who did what.

Now, with no explicit talk of security, I just listed the four fundamental categories of security: authentication, authorization, administration and audit.

Businesses also want something other than security. If a bank manager has a mandate to reduce expenses related to bank tellers, she has a couple of options. She could fire all the tellers and lock up all the bank branches, but then the bank would have no interface with its customers. Or she could take all the money, put it in piles on the street corner under a clipboard that says, “Take what you want, but write it down so we may balance your account.” That wouldn’t work either, obviously.

The best solution for reducing teller expenses is to take the money, put in on the street corner locked in a box with a computer attached and give customers a plastic card for authentication and auditing.

Security was never the point. The bank had a business objective and achieved it by using some security. That is how we all should think of security: as a way of helping our companies achieve the goals or value they seek.

If I want to secure my building, I can encase it in layers of concrete and steel. But no one will be able to get in or out.

If I want my network to be secure, I can install a thousand firewalls and throw all my PCs in the sea. I will have a secure network, and I’ll also be out of business.

In other words, I can attain higher and higher levels of security, but often at the cost of the thing I was trying to secure.

Once you think your job is security, you are doomed. That goes for security managers and service professionals, too. Our job is not to secure the airplane, building, city or network. Our job is to secure the business.

I stopped myself before the client heard me spew any more fear mongering about bad guys. Instead, I remembered that the customer wants to make his business better. I suggested that by eliminating some of the vulnerabilities, the data would be more reliable and the administrators would spend less time correcting errors. By solving the business problem, the security worked itself out.