Parting thoughts 1: cybersecurity as a social science

Posted by   Martijn Grooten on   Dec 17, 2019

At the end of this month, I will step down as Editor of Virus Bulletin. This week, I will share some 'parting thoughts' in five blog posts, based on my experience working in the IT security industry.

One of the defining moments of this decade in security was the 2017 WannaCry attack. Most people working in security will remember where they were when they learned about the outbreak. (In my case: in a hotel room in Cracow, checking Twitter in the short break between the end of a conference and a post-conference party.)

It didn't take long for us to understand all the technical details: we know how the malware works. We know what the built-in kill switch does  We know how it uses EternalBlue to move laterally within a network to unpatched machines.

What we still don't understand are the processes that led to so many machines being vulnerable to EternalBlue, a patch for which had been released in March as part of Microsoft's widely advertised monthly patch cycle.

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Security is often seen as a very technical field, and certainly there are very technical aspects to security that play a crucial role, and we need experts that understand these aspects. But this is rarely where the big difference is to be made.

To make a real difference in security, you most of all need a good understanding of how humans and organisations work. Understanding how to implement a patching regime and how to ensure crucial logs are monitored is far more important than being able to understand what the patch does, or how the threats you are concerned about work in detail.

I have met people who are great at defending an organisation or a group of people, yet who can't program, read protocols or understand how cryptography works. They understand where to get the relevant information from and how to interpret it.

I have also met many people who are exceptionally good at one specific deeply technical thing, yet who didn't understand how that played a role in the wider security ecosystem. And that is totally fine – just as a footballer who is tasked with scoring goals doesn't need to understand how to run a football club or a competition to be good at her job.

Yet in security, we tend to worship these latter kinds of people and take their opinion very seriously, especially because of their technical skills, the perceived lack of which is often used to silence other voices in the debate. Perhaps because their skills are so impressive, we often fail to see that what they are voicing their opinion on isn't their field of expertise.

Like almost everyone in security I suffer from the occasional episode of imposter syndrome and as I am looking for new jobs, the various technical skills I lack often worry me. But as someone who has always approached security from a technical point of view ─ and who, incidentally, can program, read protocols and understands how cryptography works ─ what should really concern me is that humans and organisations are complicated. And that this is where I have a lot to learn. And I am hardly the only one.

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