Susan Sons on building security from first principles

The O’Reilly Security Podcast: Recruiting and building future open source maintainers, how speed and security aren’t mutually exclusive, and identifying and defining first principles for security.

By Courtney Allen
November 8, 2017
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In this episode of the Security Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum talks with Susan Sons, senior systems analyst for the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research (CACR) at Indiana University. They discuss how she initially got involved with fixing the open source Network Time Protocol (NTP) project, recruiting and training new people to help maintain open source projects like NTP, and how security needn’t be an impediment to organizations moving quickly.

Here are some highlights:

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Recruiting to save the internet

The terrifying thing about infrastructure software in particular is that paying your internet service provider (ISP) bill covers all the cabling that runs to your home or business; the people who work at the ISP; and their routing equipment, power, billing systems, and marketing—but it doesn’t cover the software that makes the internet work. That is maintained almost entirely by aging volunteers, and we’re not seeing a new cadre of people stepping up and taking over their projects. What we’re seeing is ones and twos of volunteers who are hanging on but burning out while trying to do this in addition to a full-time job, or are doing it instead of a full-time job and should be retired, or are retired. It’s just not meeting the current needs.

Early- and mid-career programmers and sysadmins say, ‘I’m going to go work on this really cool user application. It feels safer.’ They don’t work on the core of the internet. Ensuring the future of the internet and infrastructure software is partly a matter of funding (in my O’Reilly Security talk on saving time, I talk about a few places you can donate to help with that, including ICEI and CACR), and partly a matter of recruiting people who are already out there in the programming world to get interested in systems programming and learn to work on this. I’m willing to teach. I have an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel set up on freenode called #newguard. Anyone can show up and get mentorship, but we desperately need more people.

Building for both speed and security

Security only slows you down when you have an insecure product, not enough developer resources, not enough testing infrastructure, not enough infrastructure to roll out patches quickly and safely. When your programming teams have the infrastructure and scaffolding around software they need to roll out patches easily and quickly—when security has been built into your software architecture instead of plastered on afterward, and the architecture itself is compartmented and fault tolerant and has minimization taken into account—security doesn’t hinder you. But before you build, you have to take a breath and say, ‘How am I going to build this in?’ or ‘I’m going to stop doing what I’m doing, and refactor what I should have built in from the beginning.’ That takes a long view rather than short-term planning.

Identifying and defining first principles for security

I worked with colleagues at the Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research (CACR) to develop the Information Security Practice Principles (ISPP). In essence, the ISPP project identifies and defines seven rules that create a mental model for securing any technology. Seven may sound like too few, but it dates back to rules of warfare and Sun Tzu and how to protect things and how to make things resilient. I do a lot of work from first principles. Part of my role is that I’m called in when we don’t know what we have yet or when something’s a disaster and we need to triage. Best practice lists come from somewhere, but why do we teach people just to check off best practice lists without questioning them? If we teach more people to work from first principles, we can have more mature discussions, we can actually get our C-suite or other leadership involved because we can talk in concepts that they understand. Additionally, we can make decisions about things that don’t have best practice checklists.

Post topics: O'Reilly Security Podcast