Re-Imagining Cyber Security

Tag: human factors

What is ‘Cyber’?

Recently, a very amusing website launched to ask a very simple question, “will using the prefix cyber make me look like an idiot?”  It predicated the response based on an answer to three questions: (1) Are you a science fiction author, (2) are you about to engage in dirty instant messaging, and (3) are you using the word to engage in scare mongering?  You can see the answer to my questions below based on my everyday usage of the word:

The site is obviously established to poke fun at the growing use of the word cyber to describe many subjects and items.  There are many in the computer security/information assurance field which agree with that premise and openly disagree with it’s use in any form outside of science fiction or dirty instant messaging.

I come from a background in academia and research.  I understand the importance of word choice and usage.  However, I am also aware of the need to adopt a new lexicon when an existing one is not enough.  I believe this is one of those cases.

I too used to abhor the use of the word cyber in the computer security/information assurance/network security domains.  However, as I matured in my understanding of the topic beyond the technical concepts of these fields and into the human factors and psychology of the field I knew these terms did not adequately describe the full scope of the analysis and operations to secure computer systems.

The word cyber is necessary.

It is necessary because this field is much larger than just securing technical systems.  It MUST also embrace analysis, psychology, human factors, and aggressive operations (hence the name of the blog – ActiveResponse), amongst others.

The other terms used in this area (e.g. Computer Security, Information Assurance, Network Security, etc.) are all fine and have their place.  But they lack one fundamental aspect: the human.

Cyber originated in our lexicon with Norbert Wiener in his seminal 1948 book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.  He took the word cyber from the Greek word  kybernetes, Greek for “steersman” or “governor.”   It was further adopted by science fiction authors into the cyberpunk and famously, cyberspace (by William Gipson).

Faced with the origin of the word, it has not been co-opted.  In fact, I believe it is a better term than others in many instances.  Primarily because it makes humans and operators the central focus of the activities we study – either their offensive exploitation of systems or our defensive reaction or preventative actions.  It is all done because computers are tools for humans to operate more effectively in any number of areas.  They have no inherit value outside of use by humans.  Many of us technical geeks forget that while we are digging into packets or studying architecture diagrams.

Therefore, I will keep using the word cyber proudly knowing that I am using it to keep the human as the central concept in intrusion analysis, information assurance, computer security, network security, or whatever else you want to define to enable humans to use information and communicate more effectively.

Security Must Not Forget the User

Hotel Internet Network Intrusion Detection System at Work

I received this message from my hotel Internet provider which took action to limit my access for 10 minutes to 56Kbs due to some unknown intrusion detection signature/heuristic.

I was both impressed that a hotel would have such a device in-line to protect the general Internet from aggressive and potentially damaging users and angered by the punitive action taken against my innocuous activity.

Like a well-trained security professional, I immediately took action to mitigate any damage to my system from unwanted malware.   I ran my security tools (anti-virus, software updates,  spyware/adware removal, etc.).  After those did not find anything I assumed a false positive, sucked up the slow Internet, went and read a book, and then returned to my ‘blazing fast’ 2Mbs Internet access.

It was not an hour later that I again received the message and punitive action.  This time I ran Wireshark and sniffed all the traffic to/from my laptop for the next hour and analyzed the output.  I found nothing of interest.  I was now convinced this was a false positive after using my years of security knowledge and forensic ability and finding nothing suspicious on my laptop.  (I am not going to assume there was nothing, but I can only go as far as I can).

Now I was just upset.  We in security like to think of ourselves as more knowledgeable than the average user about threats and mitigations.  We can find threats they cannot and we can furthermore mitigate those threats for them without their knowledge protecting them on the front-lines (e.g. Gateway, ISP, etc.).

However, we must also remember that computing systems are here for users – that is their entire purpose, to ultimately provide a benefit to human users.  Therefore, security must always take the user into account and include them whenever possible.

Security must begin and end with the user.  This means that when security is first envisioned it must understand the purpose of the system and the needs of a user.  If security were to make a system unusable, then there is no purpose in the system even existing and hence our existence as security professionals is questioned.  Second, this means that users must be included when possible in the security cycle.

We must help users help themselves!  Messages such as the one above (e.g. “There is a problem with your system”) do no good.  It does not help solve any problem.  It actually makes the problem worse because now the user must spend time trying to fix a problem that may or may not exist.

Second, it does not inform, increase the knowledge of, or educate the user in any way.  This message did not inform the specific detection (e.g. signature/heuristic), suggest effective mitigation, nor provide a suggested severity of the threat.

[important]We in the security community need to better incorporate human factors/user interface knowledge into security and integrate the user from the beginning to the end of our security engineering.[/important]


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