The Right to Know and Institutionalized Ignorance

I take the title for this from the Yes, Minister episode in which the bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, saves the political career of Jim Hacker by not providing him with full information about an issue. In a nutshell, there are some things that are better for the people at the top to not know. Appleby explains that there is a certain dignity in ignorance, almost an innocence in saying with full honesty, “I did not know that.”

Now, consider your own firm and its security. What if there’s a conduit from the Internet to the DMZ, and from there on to the entire corporate network, including areas segregated for business-critical functions? And what if that conduit has been there for over 10 years? And what if your firm is due for a security audit or in the process of having a security audit? Does anyone in a high position – or any of the auditors, for that matter – personally benefit from this huge flaw being made known?

It’s highly and hugely embarrassing. It’s been there for 10 years, and the network people have known about it all along, but have grown tired of being ignored by the systems people that refuse to re-architect their system with security in mind, since that would significantly impact production. If the people on top and the auditing firm had to deal with this now, I could see the potential for more than one person to potentially get fired or put on a remediation plan because of it.

But if nobody officially knows about it, nobody has to officially do anything about it. The audit completes successfully and the auditors retain their contract to provide auditing services. The managers and executives can nod their heads that, yes, they’ve got their arms around this security thing and that things are looking pretty good on that front.

Yes, the execs and auditors have both a right to know and a need to know about that huge problem, but neither has a desire to have such highly embarrassing information made known. There’s a sort of institutionalized ignorance about the situation to the point where, if there was a breach via that conduit, an executive could legitimately protest at the engineers and developers, “Why didn’t you tellanyone about it?” Never mind that they did, but got ignored, tabled, distracted, re-prioritized, or otherwise sidetracked.

No, if something had been done right away, there’d be no problem. But this has festered and become toxic. It is best for the careers of those closest to it to ignore it. If it does result in a breach, then those at the top have to throw as much blame around as possible so that nobody will try to assign any blame to them, and that blame flows downhill to the very people that tried to inform about the issue to begin with.

In the episode, Appleby explains the difference between controversial and courageous:

“Controversial” only means “this will lose you votes”. “Courageous” means “this will lose you the election”!

Similar parallels apply to business. This is why I roll my eyes a little every time I hear an exhortation to innovate and think outside the box. Trust me, if I’m not following a specified process to innovate or doing a proper SOP for thinking outside the box, I’m doing something either controversial or courageous, with associated negative consequences.

It stands to reason that if I was to email directly a C-level person and copy all the management chain between me and him and then describe a situation as bad as the above, I’d be doing something highly courageous. If I do less than that, then institutionalized ignorance can keep anyone with a right to know the bad news from actually having to hear it, thereby maintaining their dignity in ignorance.

Apart from this being a cautionary tale about not developing a too-cozy relationship with one’s auditors, it’s also a very real concern about where a culture of permitting mistakes has to be in place in order for security to have a chance. Even monumental mistakes such as this 10-year marvel need to be allowed in order for the people responsible for fixing them to actually do something about them other than sweeping them under the carpet and pretending that all is well as they desperately seek employment elsewhere, before the situation blows up.

We’ve got the need to know and the right to know… but are we strong enough to know even when we lack the desire to know?

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