Tag Archives: Opinion

The Contrition of a Security Practitioner

The Encarta World Dictionary says that Contrition is “the deep and genuine feelings of guilt and remorse”. Having been involved in information security for 20 years, now, I think I can sincerely say that many security practitioners would say this is how they feel about the early days of their careers.

Why, you ask? Well, in my case, I started my career doing work for large financial institutions and governments. Back then these sorts of customers often had a “security at any price” mantra. While one would need to assess the risk of a system to secure it, these sorts of customers would also plan to mitigate as many of the identified risks as possible.

For these customers this was not necessarily a bad approach, but that had more to do with what was at risk than it did with the approach being a sound one.

Today the world is a different place; security is something that even the smallest businesses need to consider. This change did not occur overnight. It was gradual and I guess this is where the contrition comes in.

You see many applied the same approaches that worked with those financial and government customers with Fortune 500 and later Fortune 1000 companies. While in some cases this was appropriate, in most cases it was not.

The modern security practitioner needs to take a more holistic look at the business and platform they are servicing to understand its schedule and technological needs along with what the immediate business risks are.

Beyond that, the breadth of the role has changed and expanded. Security practitioners are now commonly responsible for Compliance, Reliability and Privacy, as well.

This puts the security practitioner in an interesting position; with this more complete view they can now help improve:

  • time to market, by recommending solutions that are risk-appropriate for the business;
  • engineering efficiencies, by identifying areas where work is being done inefficiently;
  • systems and processes, by identifying gaps and potential failure points that can negatively impact the business;
  • how teams allocate their scarce resources, by identifying opportunities where they’ll do the most good, based on risk vs. return.

This represents a significant shift from a decade or two ago, and requires the security practitioner to no longer simply be an outside expert but become part of the development team they support.

This is one of the reasons the Security Champion model is used in many teams here at Microsoft. While it has its challenges, as a member of the feature team a champion has the opportunity to have and share these more holistic insights as I called out above.

A good example of this is the application of cryptography to solve business problems. Cryptography is a powerful tool, but it’s often misapplied, introducing fragility and operational overhead that can be avoided; I think this is best summed up by this quotation:

If you think cryptography will solve your problem, then you don’t understand cryptography… and you don’t understand your problem. — Bruce Schneier

So, my ask of you as an engineering manager is to have a formal Security Assurance program for your team and as a software engineer incorporate your security specialists early and often. They either have direct experience in the areas I discussed here, or are in the position to bring those resources to your aid … to not only help you secure your offerings, but to do so in record time, as well.