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Talk Is Cheap: Why the Security Industry Needs to Improve Its Bedside Manner

Computer security relies upon the expert, but sadly many experts can communicate only with each other and not with their customers. Michael Kemp explores an often-overlooked aspect of security practice, namely communicating with clients so that they can be assured of expertise instead of being awed by it. It's time to get rid of the charlatans and the buzzwords and start making sense of security!
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"Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken."—Bertrand Russell

The computer security industry is one built on a foundation of expertise. Most people have little or no interest in what security professionals actually do for a living, and indeed their only exposure may be when supposed experts stick themselves in front of news cameras and prophesy doom (remember Y2K?) or comment on the nefarious activities of computer criminals (as defined and vilified by the news media).

Although modern business pays lip service to the concepts of computer security, most senior executives are not so much concerned with stack overflows as they are with minimizing risk (and thus maximizing profits) for their enterprises. You might get turned on by Jikto; Bob in accounting almost certainly won't. And so what? Well, sadly although the preceding statements seem incredibly self-evident with just a little thought, most professionals in the computer security industry (and those trying to break into it) just don't "get it."

This lack of awareness is seriously impacting not only on industry credibility but also almost certainly has the potential to impact the long-term financial future of the computer security field. (Is that the distant sound of cheering blackhats?)

Although the provision of "expert" security services is all well and good, the time of the expert may have to come to an end if computer security is ever going to gain a firm footing in corporate culture and beyond. This article briefly examines why certain aspects of the "expert" model for selling security products and services might well have negative ramifications for the entire industry, and what security professionals can do to ensure that they don't just end up "singing to the choir."

Compounding Confusion

Computer security is a multilayered beast that encompasses everything from bedroom obsessives to corporate cartels. Depending upon the aims and objectives of the security practitioners, their methods of taking a service, product, research, or rampant self-publicity to market usually has one overriding similarity: a concentration on their expert status.

In much the same way that when your car breaks down you may choose to get in repaired at a garage by "expert" mechanics (instead of your slightly crazed cousin who just happens to own a wrench set), security practitioners often bank on the fact that their expertise will sell. Although this is certainly true, it is a model that is not without its limitations. The security industry is littered with charlatans and self-publicists who may talk a good game and profess to be experts, but would struggle to install—let alone run—nmap. If you work in the industry, these individuals (and the companies they often represent) are easily spotted, but to the end customer, sorting the wheat from the chaff can be a challenging process.

This confusion is largely the fault of the security industry itself (and the legions of hobbyists who made the industry in the first place). Just as auto mechanics use language that is completely unfamiliar to anyone who lacks a deep understanding of internal combustion engines, security "specialists" often use language that may obfuscate client understanding. Granted, many clients are becoming more technically adept, but there still exists little knowledge of what specialist terms actually mean outside the specialists themselves.

Don't believe me? Try explaining malformed character injection next time someone asks what you do. Now imagine that the person asking the question is responsible for managing a department in a financial institution and hasn't got half an hour to waste while you explain what encoding is. Because technical security specialists may not be adept at explaining themselves (indeed, many may feel an automatic response dictating that they shouldn't, for fear of letting the genie out of the bottle), many security providers have been invaded with marketing types. Although marketing may be a laudable profession, in relation to security services and products, sadly it all too often resembles the pitch of a corny snake oil seller (or, worse still, the doom-laden prophecies of a particularly gloomy seer).

Yes, security addresses risks in enterprise environments, but it cannot prevent the sky from falling if that's what the sky feels like doing. Because experts employ specialist language that is then "translated" by marketing types, it is possible for less-than-reputable individuals or companies to establish themselves in the marketplace by simply repeating what they have heard elsewhere. Not only does this do a disservice to their clients, but it obviously has negative ramifications for the security industry as a whole.

Software and hardware are increasingly complex beasts, with their interactions, functionalities and interfaces becoming increasingly more challenging to secure. The challenges that face a security professional are also becoming increasingly fraught, and the vectors deployed by attackers are certainly increasing if not in complexity, than in sheer levels of tenacity.

The composition of (and thus the threats to) networks and applications is becomingly increasingly complex—and thus probably less secure. It is an arguable assertion, but perhaps the biggest challenge is to explain all this adequately not just to the customer but also to society as a whole.

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