Tips-From-the-Trenches-Security-Design_Code42_Blog

Tips From the Trenches: Thinking About Security Design

Part of the success criteria for any security program is to ensure the process, control or technology utilized has some additional benefit aside from just making things “more secure.” Most controls we impose to make ourselves safer often come at the expense of convenience. But what if we took a different approach when thinking about them? A mentor of mine often starts a security design discussion by asking us to consider the following:

Why do cars have brakes?

Naturally, my first thought is that brakes allow the driver to slow or stop when going too fast. After all, a car with no brakes is dangerous, if not completely useless. However, when we consider that the braking system in the car enables the driver to go as fast as they want, the purpose of this control takes on a new meaning.

Changing perceptions about the controls we impose on security design within Information Security doesn’t come easy. Even some of the most seasoned infosec professionals will insist a particular control be in place without considering how the control impacts workflow, or worse, the bottom line.

“ As security professionals, we need to design controls that empower our business in the safest way possible, without getting in the way of where we’re trying to go. ”

Aligning controls and risks

Some of the most impactful security controls are the ones we don’t even realize are there. When designed correctly, they mitigate risk while providing a benefit to the user. The proliferation of biometric security is a great example of this. My mobile phone and computer offer the ability for me to access the device by simply touching or staring at it. Because I am much more focused on how convenient and easy it is to unlock my phone to look at cat pictures, I forget that these controls were designed as a security measure.

As a security professional, I do, however, need some assurance that the controls can’t be easily circumvented. For example, a quick search for exploits of fingerprint or face-recognition systems will show that they can be easily fooled with a 3D printer, some Play-Doh and a little time. However, when enhanced with an additional factor like a password or PIN, the authentication mechanism evolves to something much more difficult to compromise while being considerably easier for me to remember than a 16-character password that I have to change every ninety days.

In Information Security, this is why it’s important for us to consider how we design solutions for our environment. If all I’m protecting is access to cat pictures, is my face or fingerprint unlock enough? I’d say so. But for my Database Administrator (DBA) or Identity and Access Management (IAM) administrator to protect my company’s crown jewels? Definitely not.

Creating controls with a purpose

And this is what I think brings us to the crux of security design: as an end-user, if I don’t know why the control is there, I won’t use it or I might even try and go around it. Moreover, if I have no idea that it’s there, it better work without getting in my way.

Let’s return to the car example. My daughter just finished the process of getting her driver’s license. In doing so, just like her old man, she was subject to videos depicting the horrors of car accidents and negligent driving. Way back in my day, the message was clear: driving death was thwarted by seatbelts and the ten-and-two. For her, it’s not texting and driving and the eight-and-four. I have absolutely no idea how a seatbelt can help me avoid an accident, but I’m crystal clear why I need one, should it happen. If I ask her about texting-and-driving, she’ll be equally clear that it’s possible to kill someone while doing it.

Getting back to the topic of security design, if I don’t understand why I need the control, it’s better that I have no awareness it’s around. Just like an airbag, I need to trust it’s there to protect me. On the flip side, I definitely need to know the importance of buckling up or putting my phone in the glovebox so I can keep my eyes on the road.

Transparent security

And this is what excites me about what we’re building at Code42 with our Code42 Next-Gen Data Loss Protection solution. Transparent security.

In the traditional Data Loss Prevention (DLP) space, transparent security is not an easy task. More often than not, people just trying to do their jobs end up getting blocked by a one-size-fits-all policy. Our application, on the other hand, enables security administrators to come together in a way that gives the business what they want: protection for their best ideas without Security getting in the way.

Computers, just like cars, can be dangerous and yet, each of us can’t imagine a life without them. Their utility demands they be safe and productive. As security professionals, we need to design controls that empower our business in the safest way possible, without getting in the way of where we’re trying to go.