The Why of Security

Security is a field of questions. We find ourselves asking all kinds of them all the time. Who is trying to get into my network? What are they using? How can I stop them? But I feel that the most important question is the one we ask the least. And the answer to that question provides the motivation to really fix problems as well as conserving the effort necessary to do so.

The Why’s Old Sage

If you’re someone with kids, imagine a conversation like this one for a moment:
Your child runs into the kitchen with a lit torch in their hands and asks “Hey, where do we keep the gasoline?”
Now, some of you are probably laughing. And some of you are probably imagining all kinds of crazy going on here. But I’m sure that most of you probably started asking a lot of questions like:
  • – Why does my child have a lit torch in the house?
  • – Why do they want to know where the gasoline is?
  • – Why do they want to put these two things together?
  • – Why am I not stopping this right now?
Usually, the rest of the Five Ws follow soon afterward. But Why is the biggest question. It provides motivation and understanding. If your child had walked in with a lit torch it would have triggered one set of responses. Or if they had asked for the location of combustible materials it might have elicited another set. But Why is so often overlooked in a variety of different places that we often take it for granted. Imagine this scenario:
An application developer comes to you and says, “I need to you open all the ports on the firewall and turn off the AV on all the machines in the building.”
You’d probably react with an immediate “NO”. You’d get cursed at and IT would live another day as the obstruction in “real development” at your company. As security pros, we are always trying to keep things safe. Sometimes that safety means we must prevent people from hurting themselves, as in the above example. But, let’s apply the Why here:
  • – Why do they need all the firewall ports opened?
  • – Why does the AV need to be disabled on every machine?
  • – Why didn’t they tell me about this earlier instead of coming to me right now?
See how each Why question has some relevance to things? If you start asking, I’d bet you would figure some interesting things out very quickly. Such as why the developer doesn’t know what ports their application uses. Or why they don’t understand how AV heuristics are triggered by software that appears to be malicious. Or the value of communicating to the security team ahead of time for things that are going to be big requests!

Digging Deeper

It’s always a question of motivation. More than networking or storage or any other facet of IT, security must understand Why. Other disciplines are easy to figure out. Increased connectivity and availability. Better data retention and faster recall. But security focuses on safety. On restriction. And allowing people to do things against their better nature means figuring out why they want to do them in the first place. Too much time is spent on the How and the What. If you look at the market for products, they all focus on that area. It makes sense at a basic level. Software designed to stop people from stealing your files is necessarily simple and focused on prevention, not intent. It does the job it was designed to do and no more. In other cases, the software could be built into a larger suite that provides other features and still not address the intent. And if you’ve been following along in security in the past few months, you’ve probably seen the land rush of companies talking about artificial intelligence (AI) in their solutions. RSA’s show floor was full of companies that took a product that did something last year and now magically does the same thing this year but with AI added in! Except, it’s not really AI. AI provides the basis for intent. Well, real AI does at least. The current state of machine learning and advanced analytics provides a ton of data (the what and the who) but fails to provide the intent (the why). That’s because Why is difficult to determine. Why requires extrapolation and understanding. It’s not as simple as just producing output and correlating. While machine learning is really good at correlation, it still can’t make the leap beyond analysis. That’s why humans are going to be needed for the foreseeable future in the loop. People provide the Why. They know to ask beyond the data to figure out what’s going on behind it. They want to understand the challenges. Until you have a surefire way of providing that capability, you’re never going to be able to truly automate any kind of security decision making system.

Tom’s Take

I’m a huge fan of Why. I like making people defend their decisions. Why is the one question that triggers deeper insight and understanding. Why concentrates on things that can’t be programmed or automated. Instead, why gives us the data we really need to understand the context of all the other decisions that get made. Concentrating on Why is how we can provide invaluable input into the system and ensure that all the tools we’ve spent thousands of dollars to implement actually do the job correctly.
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