Window Snyder on the indispensable human element in securing your environment

The O’Reilly Security Podcast: Why tools aren’t always the answer to security problems and the oft overlooked impact of user frustration and fatigue.

By Courtney Allen
September 28, 2017
Road work Road work (source: Pixabay)

In this episode of the Security Podcast, I talk with Window Snyder, chief security officer at Fastly. We discuss the fact that many core security best practices aren’t easy to achieve with tools, the importance of not discounting user fatigue and frustration, and the need to personalize security tools and processes to your individual environment.

Here are some highlights:

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Many security tasks require a hands-on approach

There are a lot of things that we, as an industry, have known how to do for a very long time but that are still expensive and difficult to achieve. This includes things like staying up-to-date with patching or moving to more sophisticated authorization models. These types of tasks generally require significant work, and they might also impose a workflow obstacle to users that’s expensive. Another proven and measurable way to improve security is to review deployments and identify features or systems that are no longer serving their original purpose but are still enabled. If they’re still enabled but no longer serving a purpose, they may may leave you unneccessarily open to vulnerabilities. In these cases, a plan to reduce attack surface by eliminating these features or systems is work that humans generally must do, and it actually does increase the security of your environments in a measurable way because now your attack surface is smaller. These aren’t the sorts of activities that you can throw a tool in front of and feel like you’ve checked a box.

Frustration and fatigue are often overlooked considerations

Realistically, it’s challenging for most organizations to achieve all the things we know we need to do as an industry. Getting the patch window down to a smaller and smaller size is critical for most organizations, but you have to consider this within the context of your organization and its goals. For example, if you’re patching a sensitive system, you may have to balance the need to reduce the patch window with the stability of the production environment. Or if a patch requires you to update users’ work stations, the frustration of having to update their systems and having their machines rebooted might derail productivity. It’s an organizational leap to say that it’s more important to address potential security problems when you are dealing with the very real obstacle of user frustration or security exhaustion. This is complicated by the fact that there’s an infinite parade of things we need to be concerned about.

More is not commensurate to better

It’s reasonable to try to scale security engineering by finding tools you can leverage to help address more of the work that your organization needs. For example, an application security engineer might leverage a source analysis tool. Source analysis tools help scale the number of applications that you can assess in the same amount of time, and that’s reasonable because we all want to make better use of everyone’s time. But without someone tuning the source analysis tool to your specific environment, you might end up with a source analysis tool that finds a lot of issues, creates a lot of flags, and then is overwhelming for the engineering team to try to address because of the sheer amount of data. They might conceivably look at the results and realize that the tool doesn’t understand the mitigations that are already in place or the reasons these issues aren’t going to be a problem and may create a situation where they disregard what the tool identifies. Once fatigue sets in, the tool may well be identifying real problems, but the value the tool contributes ends up being lost.

Post topics: O'Reilly Security Podcast