Javvad Malik: One of the biggest challenges that companies are facing is securing at the same rate of innovation

Interview with Javvad Malik – Senior Analyst at 451 Research and blogger at http://www.J4vv4D.com

Could you start by telling us about yourself?

My first proper job was during my work placement year during my degree as an IT security administrator at NatWest Bank which, to be honest, I had no idea what this job was about. Actually, very few people knew what it was. But as a student doing a degree in Business Information Systems, I needed to specialise in something and so I went and took this job to see if I could make any sense of this field. I figured that this bank was a huge company and if things didn’t work out in IT Security, I could always explore opportunities in other departments.

Back in the day, there was around seven people in the security operations team for the whole bank, and only three for the monitoring team with whom we only had an intermittent communication. NatWest was then acquired by RBS and I remained in IT security for the next five years, during which I moved more to the project-side of security, as opposed to the operations-side. I had more interactions with the internal consultancy-team and their job appealed to me, because they didn’t seem to need to keep so up-to-date with all the latest technologies from a hands-on perspective and they made more money.. I was unable to make an internal move so I decided to get into contracting and stayed within financial services, where the majority of my roles involved arguing with auditors, resolving issues through internal consulting, being the middle-man between the business and pen-testers, project reviews, and the sort.

On the side, I got very interested in blogging. Blogs were the new fantastic boom readily accessible and cheap for everybody. Suddenly everybody with a blog felt like a professional writer, which I enjoyed, but found it a difficult area in which one could differentiate or bring a unique perspective to. I then tried video blogging, which I discovered was bloody hard, because it takes a lot of skills to help you look like a professional instead of like an idiot most of the time. But because I was among the first to get into this type of delivery mode, my profile was raised quite quickly within the security community, and perhaps to an even broader one. One of the advantages to video blogging that I uncovered was that people who watch you can somehow relate to you better than if they just read your work: they can see your body language, hear your voice, your tone, everything. The result is quite funny, because it often happens to me that when I go to a conference, somebody will greet me as if I’m their best friend. Because they see me so often on YouTube, they feel like they know me. It’s very nice when people acknowledge you like that, and it goes to show that the delivery channel really has that impact.

So because of this impact, one day, Wendy, the research director at 451 Research, asked me if I would be interested in becoming an analyst. In reality I had no idea what an analyst did. She said that I would have to speak to vendors and write about them, which sounded a lot like blogging to me. She immediately said, “yes, it is pretty much like blogging,” to which I then replied, “well, I have my demands. I do video blogging, I’d like to attend and speak at conferences and I don’t want any restrictions here, because I know that many companies impose restrictions around this kind of activity.”

Currently I’ve been an analyst for the past two years, which I have enjoyed very much and has allowed me to broaden my skillset; not to mention give me the opportunity to meet a ton of extremely talented people.

Where do you predict will the security field go?

When I was starting in the field, nobody really knew what security was. Then came the perception that it was all about hackers working from their mums’ basements. Then, they were assumed to be IT specialists, and then that they were specialists who didn’t necessarily know much about IT but who knew more about the risk and/or the government background and now everyone is just confused

Security itself is very broad. It is kind of like medicine: you have GPs who know a little bit about everything, which is the base level of knowledge. For complex cases they will refer you to other doctors who specialise in, say, blood, heart, eyes, ears, and other specific body parts. The same applies to security. You will have some broad generalists and others who are technical experts or those who are more into security development and can tell you how to use code more securely.  You then have non-technical security people, who know more about understanding the business, the risk, and how to implement security into it. You also get product or technology specific experts who are only there to maybe tune your SIEMs for you, forensics experts, incident-response specialists, and so on. You will find specialists with overlapping skills, just as you will find those who possess unique abilities as well. Security has exploded “sideways” like that. So you can call lots of people “security experts” but in reality they are very different from each other, which means that they are not necessarily interchangeable. You can’t, obviously, switch a non-technical person for a technical one. I believe that one of the signs of immaturity within the industry is that people still don’t recognize these differences, which often leads to lots of finger-pointing in situations like: “you don’t know how to code, how can you call yourself a security professional? You don’t understand what the business does. You’ll never be a security professional.” These kinds of things, I think, are the natural growing pains of this and any industry.

What will probably happen going forward is that as things become increasingly interconnected and peoples’ whole lives more and more online, you will have more and more of a visibility of security. Additionally, we will see the need to extend the capabilities outside of the enterprise into the consumer space. We are already seeing an overlap between personal and corporate devices. So I think that everything will kind of bleed into everything else: some areas will become operationalised, others will be commoditised, but I think that there will continuously be a need for security that will always have to be there. What that will look like will probably be different to what we see today.

What kind of challenges do you think will the companies face in the future in terms of security?

One of the biggest challenges that companies are facing is securing at the same rate of innovation. Every company wants to be the first one to develop a new way that they can hook in with their customers. Whether this is in the form of being the first in developing a new app that can enable consumers to do banking, or to do payments and inter-payments, and so on, which sometimes comes at the cost of security. Balancing this business case between the perceived benefits and the security risks of it can be very challenging. The speed at which businesses want to and need to innovate, because that’s what the market is forcing them to do, is making security cost-prohibitive.

The other challenge is that the business model for many companies lies almost exclusively in advertising revenue. Nearly every mobile app or social media site or other online service that is free is typically generating either their primary or supplementary revenue by selling user information. With so many companies trying to grab data and sell to the highest bidder – we have a big challenge in educating users in terms of what security risks lie as well as trying to enforce good security practises within the vendor space but without breaking business models.

How would you say companies should then approach this challenge in the first place?

The way that companies typically “solve” this challenge is by burying their head in the sand and outsourcing the problem. So they will go out to another company and ask them: “can you offer us a secure platform to do it?” To which they answer, “of course we can. Just give us your money.” The challenge is that companies and individuals don’t appreciate that poor security choices made today may have an impact that will not be immediately felt, but perhaps in a few months’ or years’ time. Sadly, by then, it’s usually too late. So this is what both companies and individuals need to be careful about.

Returning to the point about security professionals being very diverse, what’s the role of security professionals from the risk governance and compliance perspective? Can you elaborate more on the security culture within a company and how can it be developed?

Security culture is a very difficult thing: it is not impossible but it relies on understanding human behaviour more than technical aspects. Understanding human behaviour means understanding personality types and how they respond to different environments and stimuli, which can be more challenging that understanding technical aspects.

The general observation that I can make about human behaviour, regardless of the personality type, is that people don’t tend to be aware of what they are giving up. The best and most prevalent example would be how much in demand mobile apps are and how insecure they are, because people unknowingly give away lots of data in order to have access to them. Chris Eng from Veracode makes an excellent analogy by saying that “people usually don’t care what they are agreeing to as long as they can still fling birds against pigs.” This is the crux of it. People don’t think it makes much of a difference if they give their email address away, or if they let the app access their GPS data or their contacts, because they can’t perceive a direct impact.  The problem is that this impact might not be felt until ten years’ time. So if you are giving data to Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, for example, you can’t really predict what will happen later on. In the last year Facebook acquired both Instagram and Whatsapp. So now you have a single company that holds all of your photo data that you maybe didn’t want on Facebook, along with all the stats on your behaviour that you’ve been feeding to Facebook, along with the people you are chatting to, and so on. So now Facebook has an incredible amount of information about you and can target and market a lot better. Someone could also use all this data for any purpose. I’m not saying that Facebook or other companies gather users personal data for malicious purposes, but it reminds me of the saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

How can you make people change their behaviour?

You have to make it real and personal for them. You have to make that personal connection. In security we tend to say: “we have 50,000 phishing emails that come through every day, and people click on them.” But to the individual user, that doesn’t really have that much of an impact. Are we making this information personal? The communication methods and the techniques that we need to change behaviour are there, we don’t need to reinvent it with security people who don’t understand how communication necessarily works or who are not the best communicators to begin with.

We can remember how 15-20 years ago, nobody cared about recycling, because nobody really cared about the environment. It was just a few people in Greenpeace with long hair and who smelled a bit funny who were trying to stop the oil companies from drilling into the sea, for example. Now, you go into any office and you find 10 bins for every different type of recycling material, which everybody now uses. It’s been a long-term campaign which finally created that social change, and which now makes it unacceptable for people to behave in another way. As you walk on the street, you will see that very few people, if any, throw wrappers on the floor. They usually hold onto them until they get to a bin and then they dispose of them. We need to adopt the same practices to change behaviour in security and in many cases that means actually letting people who know how to market and communicate do that for us instead of trying to do it all ourselves.

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