Threats: Stan the Security Czar

Our previous posts looked at the stereotypical threat of hackers. Let’s now look at some less obvious threats:

What?!? The security guy is listed as a threat to system security?

Stan the Security Czar
Absolutely. Stan is knowledgeable. He knows that the world is filled with evil. And he is determined to protect his company from it.

There is a famous saying: The only truly secure computer system is one that is powered down, ground into a powder, melted down into slag, cast into a concrete block, and dumped into the deepest ocean trench. Even then you can’t be completely sure…

The challenge is that many things done to harden a computer system make the system more difficult to use. And the Law of Unintended Consequences always comes in to play. For example, to make passwords resistant to brute force attacks, you need to make them long and have them include different types of characters. And, for some reason, you need to change passwords regularly.

So, the answer is to require 16 character passwords with upper case, lower case, numbers, and special characters, containing no dictionary words, and to change them every 30 days – right? Ummm, no. This actually massively reduces security – we will talk about this more in a future post.

As another example, how about setting the inactivity timer in an application, which forces you to re-enter your username and password, to five minutes? Or perhaps two minutes or even one minute? After all, you can’t be too secure! Far from being effective security, this will result in computers being thrown off the roof of the building and lynch mobs looking for the person responsible! As well as a significant drop in productivity.

An excellent discussion of the behaviour of Stan the Security Czar occurs in the book “The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win” – this is an excellent book which I encourage everyone to read. It shows how a focus on technology, without taking into consideration the power of people and processes, can be very expensive and actually reduce effective security.

To bring things into a sharp focus, recall our premise that the reason for IT is to support the generation of business value, and that business value comes from people using applications to transform data. Anything that interferes with any part of this reduces the value of IT – and heavy handed security approaches can massively impact the business value of IT. Without careful consideration of human and business factors, Stan is likely to do things that hinder use of computer systems and actually reduce overall security in the name of improving security. The challenge in dealing with Stan is to achieve appropriate security while maintaining the business value of IT.

Next: Threats: William the Manager

About Russell Doty

A technology strategist and product manager at Red Hat, working on the next generation of open source systems.
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