How Can Playing Poker Teach Us to Make Better Security Decisions?

This article is my first contribution to The Analogies Project. (Original)

Good poker players are known to perform well under pressure. They play their cards based on rigorous probability analysis and impact assessment. Sounds very much like the sort of skills a security professional might benefit from when managing information security risks.

What can security professionals learn from a game of cards? It turns out, quite a bit. Skilled poker players are very good at making educated guesses about opponents’ cards and predicting their next moves. Security professionals are also required to be on the forefront of emerging threats and discovered vulnerabilities to see what the attackers’ next move might be.

At the beginning of a traditional Texas hold’em poker match, players are only dealt two cards (a hand). Based on this limited information, they have to try to evaluate the odds of winning and act accordingly. Players can either decide to stay in the game – in this case they have to pay a fee which contributes to the overall pot – or give up (fold). Security professionals also usually make decisions under a high degree of uncertainty. There are many ways they can treat risk: they can mitigate it by implementing necessary controls, avoid, transfer or accept it. Costs of such decisions vary as well.

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Not all cards, however, are worth playing. Similarly, not all security countermeasures should be implemented. Sometimes it is more effective to fold your cards and accept the risk rather than pay for an expensive control. When the odds are right a security professional can start a project to implement a security change to increase the security posture of a company.

When the game progresses and the first round of betting is over, the players are presented with a new piece of information. The poker term flop is used for the three additional cards that the dealer places on the table. These cards can be used to create a winning combination with each player’s hand. When the cards are revealed, the player has the opportunity to re-assess the situation and make a decision. This is exactly the way in which the changing market conditions or business requirements provide an instant to re-evaluate the business case for implementing a security countermeasure.

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There is nothing wrong with terminating a security project. If a poker player had a strong hand in the beginning, but the flop shows that there is no point in continuing, it means that conditions have changed. Maybe engaging key stakeholders revealed that a certain risk is not that critical and the implementation costs might be too high. Feel free to pass. It is much better to cancel a security project rather than end up with a solution that is ineffective and costly.

However, if poker players are sure that they are right, they have to be ready to defend their hand. In terms of security, it might mean convincing the board of the importance of the countermeasure based on the rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Security professionals can still lose the game and the company might get breached, but at least they did everything in their power to proactively mitigate that.

It doesn’t matter if poker players win or lose a particular hand as long as they make sound decisions that bring desired long-term results. Even the best poker player can’t win every hand. Similarly, security professionals can’t mitigate every security risk and implement all the possible countermeasures. To stay in the game, it is important to develop and follow a security strategy that will help to protect against ever-evolving threats in a cost-effective way.

Images courtesy of Mister GC / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Developing your team through coaching

We discussed improving team productivity previously. I received a few comments regarding this topic, which I decided to address here. I would like to cover the question of developing your team members through coaching.

I remember attending a workshop once, where the participants were divided into two teams and were presented with a rather peculiar exercise. The facilitator announced that the goal of this competition was to use newspaper and tape to construct a giraffe. The teams would be judged on the height of the animal: the team who will manage to build the tallest one wins.

teamwork and securtiy - exercise as a distraction

There are many variations of this exercise, but they all boil down to the same principle. The real aim is to understand how people work together. How they plan, assign roles and responsibilities, execute the task, etc.

In the end, everyone had a chance to discuss the experience. Participants were also presented with feedback on their performance. But can people’s performance be improved? And if yes, what could have been done in order to achieve positive and lasting change?

The answer to these questions can be found in coaching.

Coaching is all about engaging people in an authentic way. There might be different opinions on the same problem, which doesn’t necessarily mean that there is only one universal truth. How much do you appreciate and respect what other people think?

Coaching, however, is not about knowing all the answers, but about listening, empathising and understanding others. Here are some example questions you can use:

  • What is happening in your life and career?
  • What’s going well?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • What do you need to do to get there?
  • What is the first step you would take today?

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The last thought I would like to mention here is about giving people time to reflect. Some silent and alone time can yield unexpected results. Our brain is bombarded with enormous amounts of information on a daily basis. Finding time to quiet your mind and slow down can help you to listen to your inner voice of intuition.  This can help you come up with innovative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.


Project Planning

What is the difference between two photos below?

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Yes, you are right – without the mist we can see the building more clearly. Something similar is happening with our projects: early in the initiation stage, there is a lot of uncertainty. It is really hard to estimate time and cost requirements, especially when the scope of work is not clearly defined.

However, it is still important to come up with an estimate, even if it is very high-level. Ideally, we have to define a way to manage the scope, schedule, requirements, financials, quality, resources, change, risks, stakeholders, communications, etc. Later in the project we can progressively elaborate on the plan to make it more accurate.

As far as an initial estimate for a timelines goes, even creating a list of activities and understanding dependencies can dramatically reduce the fog.

Plan

Try engaging your team members: ask them how long they think certain work packages might take to complete. Organise a workshop to discuss and capture the dependencies and risks. Make sure you have buy-in from your team and everyone is aware of the critical path

Yes, things can and will change, but having a plan helps you to become more aware of the potential impact of this change on budget, scope or quality. Ultimately, a good plan can help project managers put things into perspective and monitor and control projects more effectively.


The Analogies Project

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I’m passionate about helping people understand security better. In my experience, using analogies has proved to be one of the best tools to help them learn. People have a far better and long-lasting understanding when they can relate to an experience that illustrates the concept they are to comprehend. Describing situations and possible outcomes can be just as easily done by telling stories: They are not only pleasant to read, hear or imagine, but they also transfer knowledge in the most effective way.

That’s why I decided to contribute to The Analogies Project.

Here’s what their website say about about the project:

Mission
The aim of the Analogies Project is to help spread the message of information security, and its importance in the modern world.
By drawing parallels between what people already know, or find interesting (such as politics, art, history, theatre, sport, science, music and every day life experiences) and how these relates to information security, we can increase understanding and support across the whole of society.

Why use analogies?
Many aspects of information security are highly technical and require a deep specialist knowledge. However, we know that all security depends ultimately on the awareness and preparedness of non-specialists.
Information security professionals cannot rely solely on technology to protect their organisations. They must engage with senior management and users in a way that their message is understood, fully appreciated and implemented. In this way they can drive changes in attitude and behaviour that will make the organisation more secure.
To do that, they must find a new language to get their points across to the non-specialist. And this is where the Analogies Project comes in….
Our past is littered with examples of how the prosperity or decline of individuals, enterprises, governments and nation states has depended to a greater or lesser extent, on the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information. By using storytelling, analogies and metaphor we can transform these real life events into powerful tools for engagement.

Please feel free to check out my profile and read my analogies.


Discussing Ethical Hacking at the University of Bradford

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I was invited to deliver a lecture on ethical hacking to the graduate students at the University of Bradford. We started off by discussing basic principles and approaches and concluded covering specific tools and techniques.

The students, with various backgrounds ranging from mobile application development, to communications and networks actively participated in the discussion. I was also very happy to share some case studies and real-world examples around vulnerability, threat and risk management.


Find out how security controls affect productivity in your company

 

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To expand on my research on the human aspect of security, I created a simplified model to highlight the relationship between productivity and security. The main hypothesis, is that there is a productivity cost associated with the security controls.

The interactive simulation was created and is available at http://www.productivesecurity.org. It allows users to implement their own security policies and observe the relationship between risk reduction and impact on productivity cost. Easy to understand visual feedback is available immediately for the users. This helps to understand security managers’ perspective when implementing security controls in a company.

The creation of the model was inspired by research conducted by Angela Sasse and her colleagues at the University College London.

Please get in touch if you have any feedback or would like to discuss the underlying research findings.


Back to School

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This week I was really happy to be back at the University College London where I got a degree in Information Security from. I was invited to the Technology & Entrepreneurial Start Ups Insight session organised by the Management Science & Innovation Department. I met many bright students interested in technology, including current MSc Information Security students. It was very interesting to find out how the curriculum changed to address modern industry trends and needs.

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The day after I was proud to represent KPMG at the UCL IT and Technology Careers Fair. It comes as no surprise that there were many students interested in starting a career in the information security field. I was happy to help out with some suggestions, especially remembering that I attended the very same event some years ago.


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