Understanding Security: The Spy

First of all, let’s take a look at an actual spy:

That’s John Walker, who was a US Navy Warrant Officer from 1967 to 1985. 1985 was when the FBI found out he had a second career passing cryptographic information to the USSR. And you know what they say about moonlighting without telling your employer…

And you know what, he looks like one of us! This is not James Bond, not Austin Powers, not Jack Ryan, not any of those guys. This is the AIX guru that sits two cubicle rows over. One of us.

The difference between Walker here and a security guy is only in what information is gathered and who it is passed on to. That’s what a spy does, after all. All that Hollywood stuff is just that – make believe for the movies.

If you want a real spy movie that shows the security side of things, watch a 36-minute US Army training film from 1969 about counterintelligence work. It’s set in West Berlin and goes through the steps of gathering intelligence and then using that intelligence to develop operational plans. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3hAUTGm1D8

I watched that short film and it totally clicked with me. The heroes of the film are guys that look like me and my co-workers, doing things me and my co-workers can do. Namely, gathering information and following up on leads. To be sure, the baddies, like Walker up there, also look like me and my co-workers… after all, it’s the admins that outsiders want to turn to working for them, right? But I digress. Gather information, follow leads, document everything, that’s us.

An important note in the film is that an intelligence operation in which information is passed up to a superior is a successful operation. Think about that. We may think what we have discovered may require immediate action, but it’s not always our call to make. We inform the decision makers and leave it at that.

For what it’s worth, the film underlines the importance in gathering information in such a way as to not alert the target – this helps me to deal with the urge to act immediately. Now, there are routine checks that we do for compliance and such, and I’m sure clever attackers will learn to avoid those patterns, but when we run a check and find something out of the ordinary, we report on the details and then coordinate with other groups to see what kind of follow-up is needed.

In current terms, coordination with other groups often means coordinating data from different systems. Putting all the data together helps to build a complete picture of activity. Packet captures, DNS traces, all that fun stuff – assemble it to show the whole story as far as we can tell. That’s what counterintelligence agents do… and what we do in security.

It’s pretty easy to take old-school information and translate it into updated ideas, especially since the core best practices and procedures remain the same. There are plenty of other training films out there to watch where you get to see how any person, with proper training and expectations, can do security work. You don’t have to be James Bond and you’re not fighting Dr. No. Everyone involved is human.

Thanks to these old training films, when I hear the word “spy”, I don’t think of James Bond. I think of me.

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