Needles and the weakest link

My Haystack: Is finding that one needle really all that important? (Hint: Yes it is.)

Ed Adams raises some good points in his article, specifically around the increase in coverage of breaches (I’m still not 100% sure there is a true increase, or just more reporting) and the passive, reactionary response of “spend more on ‘x’ technology”. The reality, as pointed out is that there’s no way to guarantee the security of any system and the analogy of a “needle in a haystack” is quite an interesting one. Although the focus is on application security, the principles are useful to us all.

Extending that somewhat, we look at security as being a race – the attacker is looking for the needles, you’re trying to find them and remove them before he can get them. Getting rid of the obvious needles is our first task, but no matter what we do we can never be truly certain that there are none left. All we can do is reduce the probability of someone else finding one to such a degree that they give up. This is a reason why regular testing is so important – how else does one get to the needles first?

Unfortunately, attackers tend to come in one of two types. Some are opportunistic and will move on (compare someone checking out cars for visible money or valuables) to easier targets, others are focused on a certain goal. Depending on what type of attacker we face our level of “good enough” may change. Remember, you don’t need to outrun the lion, only the slowest of your friends…

Determined attackers also give another challenge. We often talk about weak links (another analogy) in a security process. What’s missed here is that there is always a weakest link – the television programme of the same name teaches us that even if everyone appears to be perfect, then someone must go. After removing (or resolving) that link, another becomes the weakest link and so on. The lesson is that we can never stop improving things – as Ed wisely says, new attack surfaces will arise, situations will change and our focus will have to adapt.

If we always see security as cost of doing business we can let it get out of control; building it into processes, training, applications and infrastructure will dramatically reduce that, but ultimately there’s a limit – it’s irrational to spend more on securing something than its value (whether that be in infrastructure, training or testing). This is why compliance and regulatory control has been such a boon for the security industry – it’s not perfect (by any means) but it focuses minds by putting a monetary value (in fines or reputation) to otherwise intangible assets.

Of course, the attacker has a similar constraint – there’s no point in spending more to acquire data than its value, but this is more difficult to quantify and shouldn’t be relied on from a defensive point of view; motives can be murky, especially if they’re in it for the lulz.

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