A Grim Observation

This is a picture of the SM-70 anti-personnel mine, devised by East Germany to kill people scaling border fences to escape to the West. Its purpose was not to reduce the number of escape attempts, but to reduce the number of successful attempts. Over time, it did reduce the number of successful escape attempts, but it did not bring the total number of attempts to zero, nor did it bring the number of successful attempts to zero.

I bring this up to show that, even with the extremes that the DDR was willing to go to to prevent population exfiltration, it was an ongoing issue through the entire history of that nation. They killed violators of their policy, the killings were well-known and publicized, and yet the population continued to try to move west. This has implications for corporate security.

Namely, corporations can’t kill off violators of their policies, so those violators will continue to violate. The reward, whatever it may be for them, will face very little relative risk. Criminal penalties? Those are only for those who get caught by companies not afraid of the negative exposure. Most of the worst case scenarios, it’s a job loss for a violation. Considering that a big chunk of people that breach security are already planning to leave that firm, job loss is a threat only so much as it interferes with the timing of leaving the firm.

While the leaders of the DDR could take a long-term approach to their perimeter issues, most executives answer to a board that wants to see results this quarter, or within the first few quarters after a system goes live. Security is an investment, right? Well, where is the return on this investment?

Security is not playing a hand of poker. It is a game of chess. It is a game of chess in which one must accept the loss of pawns, even knights, bishops, rooks, and maybe even a sacrifice of the queen, in order to attain the ultimate goal. Sadly, chess is not a game that is conducive to quarterly results. Just as the person attacking IT systems may spend months doing reconnaissance before he acts, the person defending IT systems must spend months developing baselines of normal activity and acquiring information on what traffic is legitimate and what is not. The boardroom is not a good place to drive security policy.

But, quite often, the security policy does come from the boardroom, complete with insistence that the hackers be found as soon as the security system is in place. Once in place, anything that gets past the security system is seen as a failure of the system. There’s no concept of how many violations get through without the system in place and how many have been deterred by the system, just that security needs to work now, and failure is not an option… and other platitudes like that that make good motivational posters.

That’s simply the wrong mentality about security. Going back to the DDR – a lethal system with a long-term perspective and a massive intelligence network behind it – we see a highly effective system that nevertheless was defeated by those both determined enough and lucky enough. The leaders of the DDR did not scrap it until the DDR pretty much was no longer a going concern. With less ruthless security in place and a lack of long-term perspective and a failure to orchestrate all available intelligence sources, is it any wonder that IT security is such a problem for companies to get their arms around?

And if companies want to step up their potential penalties to include criminal charges, they cannot do so without first developing a proper concept of security. They will need to train employees in forensic procedures. They will need to get legal and HR involved more closely with IT – and to be more up-to-date on both the technology and the legal environment surrounding it. There will have to be decisions about what breaches must be allowed so as to collect proper evidence, and so on and so forth. We’re talking about the development of a corporate intelligence community.

And, even then, that’s no insurance. But, it’s a start. Most companies’ security policy is as effective as a substitute teacher ignoring all the students in the class. Some step up their game to that of a substitute screaming at all the students in the class. True security needs to have consequences, investigative procedures, and collections of data – and, even then, there will always be breaches. Security will not eliminate the problems, only reduce them.

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