Friday, August 29, 2014

How to spot a meaningless contributed article

What is a contributed article? They're the ones where the author works for a vendor or solution provider and not the publication. In other words, their day job is not as a journalist. I'm speaking from first hand experience as I've written a number for various publications and understand the process.

Contributed articles do not typically involve any form of payment. When they do, reputable publications will disclose this fact. More commonly, they are freely given to a publication based on a brief that was provided. For example, a publication may say they are interested in a contributed article about a new smartphone's features and the implications on digital security. A vendor's marketing and public relations team will then work with a subject matter expert (SME) on crafting such an article for submission. Of course, if the SME isn't really one, then nothing will save the article.

Naturally, the process results in content of varying quality. The worst ones are typically not written by the individual, but ghost-written by someone else (usually without sufficient domain expertise). The vendor spokesperson/SME simply gets the byline. These end up sounding generic and the reader learns nothing.

More commonly, the resulting article is an equal and collaborative effort between everyone involved. While this is marginally better, it still sounds unauthentic, somewhat generic and provides little value. Why? They keyword here is "equal". The SME needs to be the main contributor instead of simply providing their equal share of input.

The best contributed articles are the ones written by someone:
  1. With the necessary domain expertise.
  2. That knows how to write.
  3. That has the time to do it.
  4. Willing to allow an editor/reviewer to run their virtual red pens through it without getting offended.
  5. That is not blatantly trying to sell something.
Unfortunately, contributed articles tend to be mediocre or just terrible and that is a real shame, because there are lots of really smart people that could produce great content (with some help and editing) if they weren't under corporate pressure to be 100% "on message". The art of course, is to be "on message" subtly while still being able to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way.

So how do you spot a meaningless contributed article? They usually look like this...

Meaningless headline that was put here for click-baiting purposes

You know that issue that's been in the news this week? And that other bit of similar news from last week? Oh, and those other countless ones from the past few months? They're only going to get worse because of buzzword 1, buzzword 2 and buzzword 3. Oh, don't forget about buzzword 4.

That large analyst firm, their biggest competitor and that other one that tries really hard to be heard all agree. Here's some meaningless statistic and a bunch of percentages from these analyst firms that prove what I'm saying in the previous paragraph is right. I'm adding some independent viewpoints here people, so it's not just about what I'm saying, even though it is.

So what to do about all this? You should be really worried about solving the problem you may or may not have had but now that I've pointed it out, you definitely have it. You aren't sure? Well, then listen to this.

Here's an anecdote I may or may not have made up about some organisation that shall remain nameless but is in a relevant industry relating to what I'm trying to sell you, oh wait, that I'm providing advice on because you've got this really big issue that you're trying to solve but just don't know you need to solve it yet but will do once you've read this.

So how do you solve your problem? Well, the company I work for happens to have a solution for this problem that you've now got. I won't be so blatant as to tell you this, but you will no doubt look me or my company up that search engine thing and see what we do and put it all together and then contact our sales team who will then sell it to you so I can get paid.

Here is another anecdote I may or may not have made up about how an organisation has solved the issues I've so clearly laid out for you that can so easily be solved, as shown by this very real (or fictitious, nameless) organisation.

My word-limit is almost up so I'll tell you what I've already told you but just in a slightly different way. In conclusion, you're screwed unless you solve this really generic issue with the silver bullet that organisation x used. So, buy my stuff.
I'm not saying every article with these characteristics is terrible. But very often, the "I have a hammer to sell, so everything is a nail" articles are structured this way. They are generic and leave the reader with the feeling that they just read a bunch of random words. I for one, stop reading an article when it starts to smell like this.

Note:
For the record, I NEVER allowed my articles to be ghost-written, much to the frustration of the people managing the whole process. The problem this introduced was that content could not be churned out as quickly because I became the bottleneck. I wouldn't even agree to have someone else start the article for me. I had to start it from scratch and have final approval on it (once my drafts were run past a set of editors and reviewers of course). This made for more authentic, balanced content while still maintaining some level of being "on message", which kept marketing happy.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Doing business in Asia: five etiquette tips

I contributed a piece in Australian BRW late last month that had nothing to do with IT Security, but I thought this may be of interest to those of you out there new to doing business with Asia and would like somewhere to start.

It's quite general, but large mainstream publications want content that will appeal to the masses, not niche pieces that few people will care about. So, if you're an expert on Asia, none of what I've written will be new.

Here's a teaser:
"Business etiquette in western countries is similar enough that we get away with most things. The little quirks are normally overlooked or forgiven, using the “not from around here” explanation. Asia however, is a slightly different animal."
Check out the full article on BRW. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

RSA Conference 2014 redux


If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed a heightened volume of Tweets from me during the RSA Conference in San Francisco. It was great catching up with many of you based stateside that I rarely get to see in person. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to attend sessions and live-Tweeted the ones that were interesting. Therefore, I'm not going to regurgitate/organise my Tweets into thoughts here. I will however, highlight a few key points that I felt were important.

NSA, NSA, Snowden, NSA

This was an RSA conference where everyone was talking about the NSA. First, there were the well-publicised boycotts from speakers. Then came the competing conference. Then there were the protesters. RSA Chairman Art Coviello opened the conference and addressed it up front (right after William Shatner's song and dance). Stephen Colbert closed the conference with an NSA-heavy keynote (incidentally, he was hilarious). And in a show of courage or stupidity depending on your perspective, the NSA even had a booth on the expo floor.

There were many stories written about this during the conference, so just use your search engine of choice. But if you don't feel like searching, check out the New York Times' Nicole Perlroth and her blog post detailing some of the NSA-focused activities. My Tweet stream was also relatively NSA-heavy, so go check that out too.

Damage control

There were many US Government speakers from various departments and they all had one thing in common: they were in damage control mode. Essentially, it boiled down to these points:

  1. We assumed everyone knew we do the whole electronic surveillance thing. We didn't know it would be such a big deal and we're sorry, but we have to do it. And by the way, better it be the US Government than some foreign hostile nation. They're all just pissed that we're so much better at it than everyone else.
  2. We must work on collecting only what we need instead of absolutely everything. But if you've ever tried to do this, you know it's easier to collect everything instead of being selective.
  3. We, the US Government, want to work more closely and cooperatively with US companies on making the Internet, technology and the real world safer for all.

Encryption

How do we make life more difficult for governments to spy on us? Encryption. Sure, governments have quantum computers working at cracking encryption measures, but they really don't like having to do it. It was a topic of discussion during the cryptographer's panel and made in relation to the NSA. Bruce Schneier has mentioned it on many occasions and reiterated his sentiments during his session at the conference.


I said it in my IT security predictions for 2014 and I've mentioned it on television.
Start with encryption. It won't fix all your security issues, but it's a good start and a good countermeasure for issues beyond the NSA and government spying.

Privileged user controls

Despite the fact that Snowden's been the poster child for the fact that privileged users can do a lot of damage, there wasn't a great deal of noise (compared to the NSA and government spying), except in sessions relating to industrial control systems. In every session I attended where industrial control systems were a topic of interest, privileged users came up as a primary focus area. Often, industrial control systems are tied to users directories (usually Active Directory) and most attacks simply aim to compromise an account within the directory. Once compromised, an attacker will escalate privileges until they have sufficient access. In other words, the more "administrative" the account, the quicker the compromise. In short, at the very least, organisations must secure and monitor privileged accounts in directories and operating systems.

Internet of Things (IoT)

You didn't need to attend the conference to know IoT is big in 2014. While I don't believe many are doing anything in terms of IoT, I don't discount the fact everyone wants to talk about it. It became clear in listening to some IoT-focused sessions that the biggest challenge in securing the IoT at the moment lies with the ignorance and complacency in the manufacturing process, particularly with device manufacturers.

Far too many do not implement (or care about) basic security practices in delivering a product. Many use default settings, which are often insecure. In addition, they often reuse the same insecure software components in updated versions. Beyond this, there is difficulty patching existing devices, particularly in trying to figure out how to do this without user intervention. We can't even get this right for existing computing devices. How are we expected to get it right for devices with in-built computers most are not aware of and cannot access easily through a usable interface? This is why it's relatively easy to hack cars.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Australia's new Privacy Principles - things to consider

Effective today (12th March 2014), Australia's Information Privacy Principles and National Privacy Principles will be replaced by 13 Australian Privacy Principles (APPs). Here are the important points to note:

  • Applies to all organisations that turn over more than $3 million per year and collect personal data.
  • Fines up to $1.7 million for breaches.
  • Organisations must be transparent about how they collect, use and store personal data.
  • Organisations cannot collect data “just in case they need it”.
  • If personal data is disclosed to a 3rd party, the organisation disclosing the data is responsible for ensuring the 3rd party understands their obligation and that the consumer knows about the disclosure.
This effectively gives the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) teeth as the fines are now significant when compared to previous legislation. For example, Australian Telecommunications giant Telstra has only been fined a measly $10,200 AUD for their recent violation.

Mindful collection and sharing

The days of "we'll ask for the information in case we need it" are gone. Organisations need to think about what they really need to achieve the task at hand and collect only what they need. As consumers, we should be able to sign up for online services in a shorter amount of time instead of frustratingly getting stuck on a submission form which constantly complains we haven't filled in certain fields.

Marketing programs and processes need to be reviewed to ensure personal data is not being inappropriately shared with 3rd parties. Many companies disregard the flow of information and the lack of visibility & understanding around how this is done, sometimes through no fault of their own. The number of technology integration points involved is challenging, but as privacy is now tied to financial penalties, this is a huge risk to businesses and should be addressed urgently through the involvement of IT departments and potentially external assistance.

If information is justifiably shared outside of the organisation, they will need to have the ability to determine if an overseas 3rd party they are disclosing personal information to also complies with the privacy act. This is a function many organisations will not have and will need to be included as part of their risk management program.

Personal information

In all things privacy-related, things tend to be up for debate, none more so than the term "personal information". The safest way for organisations to tackle this ambiguity is to assume data can be tied together from various sources, even when not immediately obvious as to how, to form context that can be tied to an individual. For example, an IP address is a potential identifier of an individual when combined with information from the relevant Internet service provider.

Personal data can also be stored in unexpected locations that organisations may be unaware of, the most obvious being application logs. IT departments need to perform an internal audit of the information applications use and ensure they are not subject to inadvertent personal data leakage through logs as a result of log file settings.

There is also additional administrative overhead in dealing with personal information and its access. The right technologies and a properly implemented reliance on external information providers can help. For example, power can be given to individuals to have complete control over the information stored about them through self-service portals. In addition, there may not be a need to store certain pieces of information. Standards exist (e.g. pick your favourite federated identity standard) that allow a relying party requiring information about an individual to ask for it from an identity (or attribute) provider and use it in flight without having to store the information on disk.

Beyond the more mature federated identity standards, there are emerging ones such as User Managed Access (UMA) that place more power in the hands of consumers (i.e. the rightful owners of the data). While not yet supported in many technology stacks, the concepts are sound and organisations would do well to adopt the thinking behind what UMA is attempting to achieve in the longer run.

Summary

Australian organisations need to treat personal data like they would financial information. For example, there are a raft of measures dictated by the PCI-DSS standard regarding the storage and usage of credit card numbers. While the number of credit card data breaches have proven PCI-DSS alone does not prevent breaches, existing data protection standards are a good start for organisation struggling to deal with the implications of the new privacy principles. Organisations would do well to adopt many of the same measures dictated by security standards in protecting personal data as a start. As they understand the requirements and data flows over time, more sophisticated security and access management measures can be implemented to round out an evolving security program.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Moving beyond incident identification

I made a few IT security predictions for 2014 last last year, but I want to highlight item number 3 as it's become particularly relevant:
"Security departments will shift their focus from incident identification to incident reaction and management"
We're only a week into 2014 and the two highest profile IT security stories so far are related to incident reaction and management (a.k.a. response).

While the acquisition of Mandiant by FireEye technically completed in 2013, it was only announced in 2014. To quote the New York Times article:
"Mandiant is best known for sending in emergency teams to root out attackers who have implanted software into corporate computer systems."
The other piece of news was that Bruce Schneier has joined Co3 systems. In his own post on the matter, he states:
"...there have been many products and services that focus on detection, and it's a huge part of the information security industry. Now, it's time for response."
The true value in security monitoring, and by association Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), lies in moving beyond incident identification/detection. SIEM technologies have become much better over the past few years at using data analysis techniques to translate raw data and events into useful information that security departments can understand and hopefully act on.

Unfortunately, few organisations have the resources available to react to incidents adequately and in a timely manner let alone attempt to manage them. Incident identification/detection without the ability to respond is akin to having an alarm on your house go off that only your neighbours can hear. Even if they are around, how many actually care enough to do something about it?

The best alarms don't make any noise, but lock the house down so that no one can leave while simultaneously sending an alert to have a professional incident response team dispatched to the premises to deal with the threat while the incident is in-progress. Of course, it would have been better if they hadn't been able to enter in the first place, but we'll leave access management discussions for another day. Security departments need to work on the presumption that bad guys will get in somehow.

While the latter option sounds more like a military operation, it's how organisations need to be thinking about security incidents in 2014. At the very least, security departments need to have properly thought out, documented incident reaction and management procedures that anyone can follow with minimal training. While not every incident response person can be the IT security equivalent of a Navy SEAL, at least have a security guard on staff and augment with external assistance by using tools or service providers.

As I said in my predictions article:
"The focus when dealing with threats up to this point has been on the identification of them. Vendors spend large sums of money expounding the wonders of their tool’s collection and analytical abilities. It has become a game of “my feature is better than your feature” and “my analytics are better than your analytics”. Ultimately, it is pointless identifying a threat when there is no path forward to manage the incident, deploy the appropriate responses and counter the threat through remediation."

Monday, January 06, 2014

Why crooks love gift cards and how retailers are to blame

It’s the holiday season and there are those that don’t feel like thinking about particular gifts can cop out by gifting a gift card. For those that have never used one, it’s relatively simple. The card number combined with an access code is usually enough information for a gift card to be used for a purchase. This is how it usually works when making online purchases. At the actual physical store, the use of a gift card typically requires the user to also be in possession of it.

Fraud liability lies with the purchaser

Gift cards are designed with convenience in mind with no regard to security or indemnity. If your bank issued a card with the PIN printed on it, you would immediately cut it up, cancel it and change banks. Unfortunately, this is exactly what most retailers do with gift cards.

Both the number and the access code are displayed on the actual card (both physical and virtual versions). This is all one needs to make a purchase using the card. The anonymous nature of gift cards is just as much of a problem. Crooks love anonymity because at no point can a transaction be linked back to them.

To add to the mess, most retailers have a statement in the fine print to “treat the card like cash as we cannot process refunds in the event of theft or loss”. We would not tolerate this type of behaviour from financial institutions, yet that’s exactly what we do each time we buy a gift card. At least financial institutions will indemnify cardholders from loss or theft. Retailers simply say “too bad, your loss, not our problem”.

Because retailers do not care enough to accept responsibility, at no point will they ever attempt to investigate the crime and the criminals that stole your gift card details get away scot-free.

Digital gift cards are less secure than physical ones

While gift cards are not secure for the reasons already mentioned, digitally-delivered cards are worse. With physical gift cards, the most blatant, practical example of fraud involves crooks cloning inactive cards from stores and subsequently waiting for them to be activated through a legitimate purchase.

The best way around this particular method of fraud is to cover the access code on each card with a layer that can be scratched off, which many retailers have implemented. This is a simple, yet effective way to reduce the risk because if a card has a visible access code, you know it’s been compromised. Unfortunately, the digital version of this “scratch layer” is often non-existent.

The most common method of retrieving a digital gift card involves accessing a URL. To understand why this is a problem, consider the fact that often, the URL to retrieve a gift card is derivable, even if encryption is used in the actual URL pattern. It is not too difficult for a skilled attacker to get the standard URL pattern by legitimately ordering a card and subsequently performing a brute-force attack, similar to how passwords are cracked, on the parts of the URL that change to retrieve other gift cards.

The digital equivalent of a “scratch layer” would be to make the retrieval URL accessible exactly once. This way, one would know upon an attempt to retrieve the card if it has already been compromised through its URL and contact the retailer to report the issue immediately instead of finding out after the card has already been used. Once a card has been used by the fraudster, it is too late and there is no recourse for the victim.

No protection against insiders

As is the case in many organisations, the insider with access is a huge risk in this particular context. Credit card numbers are partially protected through PCI-DSS requirements that mandate encryption of stored card details and audit of access. Gift card details however are not subjected to the same rules and thus can be stored in clear text and not be monitored when accessed without regulatory consequences for the retailer.

Organisations tend to ignore security when they are not liable in the event of a security incident. In the case of gift cards, no liability lies with the retailer. This means employees of a retailer storing gift card details in the clear have relatively easy access. In addition, even if the retailer happens to have audit mechanisms tracking access to databases storing gift card details, the fact that consumers are expected to “treat gift cards as cash” is a sure sign that a retailer will not spend precious dollars to investigate any potential internal fraud with gift cards.

Too many third parties involved

Another trend that contributes to the problem is the use of third parties to administrate and issue gift cards. For example, many large retailers in Australia use the same third party company to do this. The problem with third parties is that access to data is now expanded to people not directly associated with the responsible retail organisations.

As gift cards are not subjected to the same standards as credit card information, employees of the third party company potentially have full access to gift card details of multiple retailers and can exploit this access for personal profit much more easily than if they were attempting to steal credit card numbers.

No regulation, no deal

Gift cards are effectively cash cards. Retailers have said so themselves in an attempt to indemnify themselves from liability in the event of fraud. The problem is that they are indemnifying themselves at the expense of fraud victims, also known as customers. The relationship in this instance is completely one-sided in favour of retailers.

Financial institutions dealing with credit card details are not afforded the same cop-out liability statement. In fact, it is the opposite. Financial institutions are held liable in the event of fraud and we as consumers are protected.

Imagine if we were told that whenever we use a credit card, we assume all the risk? Mastercard, Visa and American Express would go out of business very quickly. Why are retailers not subjected to the same rules?

It is time we woke up and realised exactly how unprotected we as consumers are when we buy gift cards. If you feel the need to buy a gift card for someone else, do what Asians do instead and put cash in a red packet.

In Asia, giving a red packet to someone implies you are wishing them good fortune. Giving someone a gift card however, means you couldn’t be bothered. You may also have just gifted them a worthless piece of plastic which they will resent you for when they try to use it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

IT security predictions 2014

It's prediction season again and I've written a piece for CSO Australia.

Here's how it starts...
"2013 was the year of Edward Snowden and the NSA spying revelations. We also faced a deluge of data breaches with an increasingly large amount of information compromised. The emerging trends that appeared on the radar in 2012 such as Cloud, Mobility, Social and Big Data became key challenges for organisations in 2013. These will continue to be important in 2014, but what will they evolve into? What other things do we need to consider?"

Click through to the article for the predictions. Got an opinion? Comment or Tweet me.