Does Security Require Imagination?

I’ll open with my premise: if security does require imagination, then we’re in for trouble. So we’re going to need an answer for that question, and I’m afraid the answer is “yes.” Let me explain…

I was recently chatting with a colleague about how I enjoy my job. I thought I was talking about my passion for security, but he heard differently. He heard how my imagination and curiosity were prerequisites for my successes. He pointed out, “If someone doesn’t have the intuition that you have, how is he going to do security successfully? He can fill out a requirements list, do an audit checklist, follow regulations, but how is a person without that imagination going to be able to go beyond that and really get security done?”

In my role, I sometimes get a chance to deliver training for the product I support at $VENDOR. In those classes, I always enjoy a good discussion, when the participants are lively and engaged. But that’s not every class I’ve taught. I’ve taught classes where I had to help winkle out the answers from the students with leading questions. I’ve had students that may have been innovative and clever, but who did not see their future at the company that paid for their training. Demoralized and discouraged, they had no interest in applying their wits and insight to their current employers’ needs.

So, we need imaginative *and* motivated employees to do security right. Great, that really tightens up on my premise. Adding that “motivated” adjective cuts deep into the “imaginative” group. The imaginative ones tend also to be ones that need the best motivations to stick with their roles in security, so that makes the effective security professional even more of an endangered species, if not an outright unicorn.

I’m not going to go deep into the game theory of career path decisions. If one threatens to quit over an issue at work, one either gets passed over for promotions and opportunities because one is seen as a short-timer, or that threat becomes stale if used more than once or twice. Therefore, one doesn’t threaten to quit, one simply quits and moves on. If firms want to retain the imaginative by keeping them motivated, then those firms have to be proactive.

But back to those imaginative people… do firms really want to retain them? Those imaginative people can be high maintenance types, you know. Is it better to keep the “bread-and-butter” types on the payroll and let vendors, VARs, and outsourcers worry about managing the artistes of our profession? After all, we don’t need imagination all of the time. Quite a lot of work in security is simply painting by numbers. What are the vendor best practice recommendations? Follow those. What are the regulatory requirements? Implement those. Maintaining code blocksIP address assignments, switch configurations, application stores, document libraries – you and I both know that there’s drudgery in those tasks, and any level 1 tech with a runbook can handle them.

So when, exactly, do we need the imagination? I know we need it when analyzing the data. Yes, algorithms can sort through quite a lot of noise to get to the signal, but what does the algorithm know about things it could not have been programmed to handle? Leave zero-day exploits aside, we have to know what to do when there’s a new production application in play! It takes imagination and initiative to think of what that new signal might be and who to ask about it so that it can be exempted from blocking rules.

We also need imagination after a breach. There’s chaos and mayhem all around, and it takes some proper cleverness to think of all the other evil that could be taking root as that chaos and mayhem distracts our attention. We need multiple imaginations here, not just one. Different eyes, different minds, different experiences can inform a broad range of responses that build off of each other.

But before the breach, we could certainly use imagination in red and blue teams experimenting with both ways to penetrate and ways to mitigate. Someone has to ask the questions about the environment that lead to fuzz testing and investigations. There’s no way to put “think of something new” in a runbook, the human mind just doesn’t work that way.

There’s also a call for imagination not on the technical side, but on the process and procedure side. We have to be creative in how we submit requests and apply for resources so that we don’t get shot down or delayed. This isn’t out of the box thinking – the people on the other end of the request will reject anything that doesn’t conform to their box. This is inside the box thinking, except with the ability to somehow merge normal spacetime into a singularity that allows for bypassing internal red tape while still, overall, complying with corporate processes and procedures.

So, we’ve got a problem, as I mentioned at the outset. We need creative, imaginative people, and those types simply do not grow on trees. (In point of fact, no humans grow on trees, it’s something to do with our mammalian biology, as I understand…) And while we can encounter a few natural gifted visionaries in the wild, there simply aren’t enough to go around for all the needs of all the firms in the world.

That leads to the question: can we teach people to be creative?

And if so, who is responsible for that?

While my education experience gives a firm “yes” to answer the first question, I’ve got no answer from experience to deal with the second. I would suppose that the firm that desires creative people needs to be about the business of teaching them, but I don’t see any programs that are geared for that. Let’s face it, most of security training deals with learning the tools, technical stuff. Where in our profession do we see training that gets people to think creatively?

As I typed that, the answer came to me – look at our end-user security training. We teach people how to spot phishing attackssocial engineering, things like that. Not everyone passes that training brilliantly, but enough people do to show that it has value in and of itself, but also as creativity training. To successfully deal with a phishing attack, for example, we tell people how to analyze certain data and evaluate it. We don’t provide a list of all possible bad links to click, but we do have a few short rules on how to spot them. And, unlike an algorithm, the human mind can adapt and extend lessons to new situations with ease.

Maybe, then, we don’t have trouble. We just have a need to perhaps change our accounting rules and consider people as unique assets that can be improved, not identical widgets that can be swapped interchangeably. But I can guarantee that it’ll take some imagination in order to close the imagination gap at where you work.

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