Picking the right words to describe cloud assets is kind of important

The work of any given IT department is remarkably broad. And within each functional team, vocabularies around technology can be quite unique. This is fine when different groups don’t have to work together much, but when they get together to solve problems, one great challenge has to do with making sure specific IT terms mean the same thing to everyone.

And if that isn’t challenging enough, take traditional IT terms and then figure out how they all translate into the ‘cloud’. I’ll give an example. Take the distinction between IaaS and PaaS. The way this is often described is that with PaaS you don’t have to worry about patching an operating system. With IaaS, this is the customers’ responsibility, not the cloud service provider’s. But the scope of cloud is much bigger than the VM example. And not understanding this can have serious ramifications.

Let’s say you go out into cloud console for your tenant. (This would be the place where you log in to spin up a virtual machine, for example.) Whether you like it or not, the very moment you spin up a VM in the cloud you’ve created the beginnings of a network topology. Not knowing this can cost you dearly later.

Cloud infrastructure is not just VM’s. There’s a whole world of storage, networking and compute services, too, which we often overlook as being IaaS. Why does this matter? Because knowing and understanding this is also the beginning of securing it. Consider where each of these pieces live in a traditional on-prem model, and what controls are in place to protect the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of these assets. That same diligence has to be transferred to the cloud. For example, protecting your firewall configurations is not unlike protecting your security group configs on a subnet or VM instance.

Also, how do you track changes to these assets? Whatever diligence you apply in traditional IT models, this same diligence is required in the cloud. This includes reviewing and validating configurations on these virtual assets. Think about what would happen if any one of these virtual assets, like a subnet or a whole virtual network were to be deleted. Where would you be and what controls do you have in place to keep this from happening? And in the unfortunate case that it does happen, how would you know how it happened and who did it?

Because it is so much easier to set up infrastructure in the cloud, it is also that much easier to abuse said infrastructure either intentionally or unintentionally. Getting everyone on the same page around the vocabulary for cloud infrastructure is the beginning of fully understanding how to secure this environment. Let’s decide on our critical cloud vocabulary and make sure we all share the same deep understanding of the words we use to describe this environment.

Cybersecurity Risk and a Cadence of Communication

Risk is everywhere. What’s the probability that something bad will happen? And when it does happen, how bad will it be? For folks who work in security these are questions we ask every day, all day.

But it doesn’t stop there. After we get done asking these questions, we have to artfully communicate our approximations to decision makers. Sometimes this works. Mostly it doesn’t.

Part of the challenge is that our calculation of risk involves technology and gobs of technical know-how; the kind of in-the-weeds technical know-how that most business folks don’t find particularly useful. So there’s a translation process. As we translate, the meat of our risk evaluations can get lost. And decision makers don’t have time to get up to speed.

So herein lies the challenge. The business makes risk decisions, like, all the time, but since technological or security risk is hard to understand, they aren’t always arriving at their decision destination with the right knowledge. It a reasonable enough to suggest that they can be informed enough to make the right decisions?

I’d say it is. But we can’t have the presumption that a single email or a short briefing will suffice. It order to make communication around risk work, there should be a cadence of communication. It should not be the first time that a decision-maker is hearing about a given risk. Security pros can help decision makers build up a baseline of risk seen in a given environment so that when a risk report does surface, it actually means something. Without regular context for these types of reports, they’re just empty words. It security they may mean something, but that’s as far as the meaning goes.

How can you develop a cadence of communication within your organization?

English Major into Security Analyst

I’ve found it interesting to read about how people arrived in the field information security. Each person has a unique story to tell — no two paths are exactly the same, and some diverge considerably. Here’s my story.

I got off to a non-traditional start graduating from college with a major in English. From there I embarked in a random work history: dry cleaner, bakery, greasy spoon grill, cook, bus driver, book store, D.C. intern. I won’t go into all the details of all that, but I will take a moment to mark what I view as the true beginning of my IT career.

Hired as temp worker writing code in Excel VBA, (that’s right, Excel Visual Basic for Applications), I designed Excel reports that took loads of data and moved it around in a workbook for charts, graphs, etc. This was object oriented programming with a miserable IDE. I would have to plan when and how I made changes because it literally took 1-3 minutes to save. I worked on the boss’ daughters’ computer. I can still see colorful stickers plastered everywhere on the chassis.

I built odd things: reports that changed languages on the fly with the press of a button (within the workbook), an Excel workbook that doubled as a scantron form, and charts and graphs that built them selves dynamically. We delivered reports that ran very complex macros in large corporate network environments. I back to this now and it seems utterly INSANE…from a security perspective.

Getting used to programming concepts literally made my brain hurt. I spent many a lunch break on the room laying in a lawn chair holding on to my head. I also did .NET web development and started writing SQL queries, along with building out reports and integrations.

My next job required that I learn C# and even more SQL Server work. Here’s where I started doing stuff with credit card numbers: encrypting them, storing them, passing them around with APIs, etc. I’m not going to comment on best practices with any of that, but suffice it to say I studied PCI compliance aggressively. I also, learned what audits were like. And I learned about things like check digits, electronic check formats, and electronic check processing. All of this was my introduction to cyber security. It was my first foray into the imaginative world of threat modeling…and where things can go wrong with data.

After that, I took a job that focused primarily on business intelligence. This involved more SQL Server in the form of SSRS, SSIS, and something new SSAS (SQL Server Analysis Services), which is basically an Excel pivot table on steroids (slight oversimplification, but a handy one for quick explanations). Then I did an awkward shift into Oracle’s business intelligence world. This pulled me into data warehouse development and fairly heavy development in OBIEE and the dreaded RPD file. I also did some work around analytics. And, in my spare time, reviewed classes on machine learning.

Through all of this, I remained interested in security, so when a security analyst opportunity showed up, I took it. I landed the job, I think, because of my applications development experience and my full exposure into the world of PCI compliance and threat modeling. Right away I dove into vulnerability management, which has me hitting nearly everything in the environment with packets. In addition to this, I now study cloud infrastructure and security at the same time I study OT/ICS security. And I am working out how to implement both at the same time. These two areas were once incredibly far apart, but in some ways, seem to be getting closer every day.

Through all of this, I maintain a fascination I’ve had with Linux for like 15 years. Every year Linux gets better and better and better.

I also maintain an interest in pen-testing. There is so much learn in this area that it keeps a person coming back over and over again to study new tools and approaches to seeing and validating vulnerabilities. So that’s my story for now. Hats off to you if you read this whole post and good luck on your info sec journey!

Wild West Hackin’ Fest: Affordable and Content-Heavy

John Strand, who owns Black Hills Information Security (BHIS), has a way clearing the fog of what passes for knowledge in the security industry. And he knows how to make his audiences laugh. It’s a kind of cathartic truth-laugh that brings people together. I remember the first time I heard him plug the Wild West Hackin’ Fest (WWHF). I made a mental note. This could be a good, small conference that offers a lot of value. Of course, I knew that there was a lot more to BHIS than its owner, but you can often tell the culture of events from the folks who run them.

So last summer, on our family vacation, I did some recon. We managed to stay a couple nights in Deadwood. Perfect chance to inspect the venue and get a good sense of what a conference here might be like. Yup, I could definitely see this: a security conference in Deadwood.

Not long after that trip I made plans to go. And I convinced a colleague to come with me. It wasn’t fancy. Don’t get me wrong. The Deadwood Mountain Grand Hotel was awesome, but the bulk of the sessions were basically in two large rooms and a stage, which were really part of one large room divided by curtains. But here’s the thing. I don’t need fancy. I need content. And that’s what we got. Session after session was loaded with content.

I remember a talk by Paul Vixie, one of the creators of DNS, that completely tied me in to the importance of DNS. And another talk by Jon Ham where his passion for forensics made me feel like there was a whole world that I’d been skipping over in my infosec career development. And Jake Williams was there too. His session was on privilege escalation. And I was like, “Wait, what?” — an eye opener indeed. Also memorable was a talk by Annah Waggoner. It was her first talk and she was inspirational. Doing a talk for the first time at an event like WWHF has to take courage. Which is another thing, WWHF is great about pushing, encouraging folks to present, especially those who haven’t done it before.

I’m not going to rehash every talk, but I do want to encourage people to go to this event. I’m very excited about going again this year! If you want an affordable, content-heavy, hands-on experience, Deadwood in October is the time and place for you!


How can you be a consultant in your own organzation?

We’ve all seen it, especially folks who work in IT, or any area where things are changing faster than they ever have been. We hire consultants to bring value, and they often do, but often not as much as we expect them to.

Just like anyone in our departments, these folks have their specialties and they don’t know everything about everything. The resulting gaps in knowledge can create painful obstacles on the way toward successful project completion. These are the “we don’t know what we don’t know” gaps. Knowledge gaps are challenging, but they also present huge opportunities.

Identifying knowledge gaps and diving into them head first is critical. You don’t know what you don’t know until you start asking yourself what you don’t know. I know, sounds dumb, but that’s where you have to start. If there is no one in your organization who can answer your questions or who can bring value to a high-demand subject area, then it’s time to start diving, digging, reading, watching, learning, asking, etc. This can mean reading books, experimenting with technology, and generally getting out of your comfort zone.

Sure, it’s a lot of work, but if you’re not doing this work, you’re not bringing value to yourself or your organization. As you start to dig, you’re bringing value to yourself because there are few things more rewarding than learning, and then sharing what you’ve learned. You’re bringing value to organization because they don’t know what they don’t know.

I get it, this process isn’t for everyone. All I’m saying is that the knowledge gap problem is solvable. No training budget? Okay, well, there is seriously more information online than you seriously digest in a billion lifetimes. Don’t know how to cull through that information? Well, you won’t know how until you start pushing yourself to sort it out. And the thing with learning is that once you learn something, it’s hard to feel like you’ve made any progress because now you know it and it doesn’t seem like a big deal. So don’t forget to take stock of the things you’re learning. You know more today than you did yesterday!

Also, a big part of learning is sharing what you’ve learned, even if it is nearly immediately after you’ve learned it. It’s like when you share knowledge, the knowledge you share finds a home in your brain.

The more you teach and share, the more you become a consultant in your own organization. You don’t know everything, but neither do your consultants!