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If you’ve read some of my recent posts here, you’ll have seen that Im back working on creating data visualization pieces as art.  In the process of making these,  I was reminded again of the relationship between art and security and its practical implications for enterprise security efforts that literally dictate success of failure. Bear with me as I walk through the art piece first and then arrive at the security observations :)

First, to work, art has to have a solid concept. You might accidentally create a piece that’s appealing on some level if you just throw paint at canvas, but you probably won’t repeat that success often and observers will understand this.

Taking that into the realm of data visualization, you can make all the pretty graphs you like, but unless you do some leg-work ahead of time and massage the data into shape, they’ll be of little use and only may accidentally be visually appealing in a way that let’s you intuitively grok it.   (I think this is philosophically similar to some of what Tufte teaches, but I don’t remember for sure.)

For example, if I wanted to (as I did) visually represent the stimulus bill in a meaningful way on screen at once, I could really just use a microscopic font…or turn the whole thing into a jpg and resize it to fit on screen. But what would that accomplish? It would just be mush.  We wouldn’t have identified or accounted for inherent structural properties that we needed to keep to preserve order. We also wouldn’t have separated the wheat from the chaff – useless information would hide useful information. And we wouldn’t have manually added linkages between data points that would help us draw meaningful conclusions visually to account for a loss of resolution in individual words.

What would work, instead, is to turn (as I did) the Stimulus Bill into columns of useful information. You could convert the free form english structure of the Bill into a tabular format and add meta data about the text that I wanted to see in the visuals.  You could add line numbers, position in sentences, group words by sections of the document and add word counts, etc. All this would show up visually and present a much more useful visualization that would also, because of the new more conscious conceptual structure, be more appealing to look at.

So what does this have to do with security? Everything.

Recently, much has been made of the new SANS CAG control list. Basically, this is a list of “best practice” security measures and controls that, if properly done, will make the most impact in securing organizations. Where’s the problem? The problem is that none of these are new (except WiFi). They’ve all been around longer than I’ve worked in the field (7ish years) and probably much longer than that. Everyone who works in security knows them.  Most CTO’s, CIO’s, and CISO’s will probably not be unfamiliar with them. But yet, they’re either not implemented or, more often, they just don’t work.


If these really are best practices (and they are), but yet they’re not working, where’s the disconnect? I think it’s lack of structure. Most organizations do not operate their businesses in a manner that can be secured. There are inherent structural flaws (as in, there isnt any) in the enterprises themselves that conflict with and outright prevent security from happening – just like in art and visualizations.  No matter how much effort or money you throw at the problem, cyber/IT/technical security controls will get you nowhere quickly (if anywhere ever) without a properly run and organized business. What failed cyber or IT security really is, ultimately, is a symptom of failed Operational Risk Management.

If you can’t track assests, if you haven’t identified your key data, if you don’t have clear and measurable business objectives for IT and cyber systems, if you don’t have a clear line of sight between the risk of technical failure to business impact, your security controls -will- fail.

Why? Because an organization run without these things will consistently make poor decisions based on incorrect, out of date, or conflicting information. In other words, you have to build break points into the business to be able to check, measure, and change the the organization at key junctures in order to make good risk-based decisions.  “Risk-Based decision making” get’s bantered about like “moving forward” and “synergies” – but it’s not an empty phrase and it has real, concrete impacts and prerequisites.

Let’s look at a best-case scenario where everyone wants to do the right thing, but there isn’t an enterprise or business architecture in place. Everyone goes through an evaluation of need and risk, pick the right controls, put them in place. Hunky dory, yeah? Well, what happens when a new line of business is added? Nothing to do with security, right? What if the new line is taking critical data that wasn’t exposed by the other systems and making it public inadvertently? Would you know that? If you need to patch critical systems quickly to prevent a flaw, would you know which ones kept your business running? Would you have documented in an easily accessible manner the fact that your manufacturing systems depended on a feature that the new patch – which works just fine on desktops – disables? Etc. Not to mention that your IDS’s depend on this info, your firewalls, your SEMs, everything.  There is relatively little happening on your network that is inherently bad outside of a business context. There are many more (and probably better) examples…but there are two take-home points:

  1. Everyone with the authority to make changes to your business needs to be aware of the secondary dependencies of those decisions and how they intersect with security and inform others of changes they make
  2. If you try and do this without managed processes and without maintaing and continuously updating the information about the business in an architecture, you’ll fail. It’s too hard, too expensive, and takes to long to keep doing it from scratch. It’ll never be accurate, timely, relevant, etc.

Business leadership at all levels and in many (most?) organizations simply are making bad decisions that affect security.  It’s not that we don’t know, as security professionals, the right things to do. It’s that we can’t express it in terms of business risk and the business leaders typically don’t seem to have the structure built in to affect positive change throughout the organization. Build some good, clean structure with visible break points at critical junctures in your business flow and then security will start to become cheaper, easier, and more effective.

About Me

Jack Whitsitt

Jack Whitsitt

National Cyber Security. Risk. Multi-Dimensional Rainbows. Maker of conceptual lenses. Artist. Facilitator. Educator. Past/Future Vagabond. Drinks Unicorn Tears.

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