There is no 'I know what I am doing' trump card in security

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Aug 2, 2013

NSA activities could make millions avoid US-based services.

We have all been there. To continue the product you're working on, you need to get some extra permission: a port needs to be opened, or perhaps some files need to be uploaded onto a protected system. You ask the IT department for this permission and, much to your frustration, they won't give it to you until you've explained in full detail why you need it, and even then they will have to check with their management.

"But I know what I'm doing. And my manager says it is fine."

Security is always a compromise and in many cases knowing what you're doing is indeed good enough. Today, most employees have web and email access which, even with appropriate protection in place, increases the risk of an infection. But this risk is generally deemed small compared to the importance of the employee being able to use the Internet.

In such cases, making sure they know what they're doing, and perhaps sending the employee on the occasional security training course, may be good enough.

But when it comes to access to areas that need to be properly secured, for instance because it is where customer credit card details or company secrets are stored, one shouldn't be able to play the "I know what I'm doing" trump card. Security policies are there for a reason, even if at times they can be the cause of much frustration.

I thought of this when I watched the keynote gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, gave at Black Hat earlier this week.

Defending the agency's surveillance activities, Alexander played the "they know what they're doing" trump card. His employees go on courses, he said, and the judges who have to decide on the legality of their actions know the constitution.

I have no doubt that Alexander rates his employees highly; indeed, even its strongest opponents will readily admit that the NSA attracts very clever people. I am even willing to believe that most people at the agency genuinely believe that their work has thwarted 54 terrorist attacks and that they "know what they're doing".

I know what I'm doing when I need that port to be opened. And I also know how important the project is that I am working on. But I am glad there are security policies in place that prevent me from doing these things too easily. Because I also know that I sometimes make mistakes, especially when I focus on a project that needs finishing.

The NSA is treading on the privacy of billions of Internet users. This is an extremely important area, where they should never be able to play the "I know what I'm doing" trump card.

I am not an American citizen and thus I don't have a direct influence over what the NSA does and how its actions are being checked. But I am a customer of many US-based Internet services.

If I, as an employee, constantly breach security rules because "I know what I'm doing", I will lose my job. And rightly so. Likewise, if the NSA continues to play that trump card, millions of Internet users may stop using US-based services. That would be bad for all of us. And it won't have done anything to prevent terrorism.

Posted on 2 August 2013 by Martijn Grooten

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