What can a US Army General teach us about security?

General

General Douglas MacMarthur said “never give an order that can’t be obeyed”. This is sound advice, as doing so can diminish the commander’s authority. If people want to do what you are asking them to do, but can’t, they would doubt your judgement in the future.

Despite the fact that most of us operate in commercial organisations rather than the US Army, there are some lessons to be learned from this.

Security professionals don’t need to rally their troops and rarely operate in command-and-control environments. Their role has largely shifted to the one of an advisor to the business when it comes to managing cyber risk. Yet all too often advice they give is misguided. In an effort to protect the business they sometimes fail to grasp the wider context in which it operates. More importantly, they rarely consider their colleagues who will have to follow their guidance.

Angela Sasse gives a brilliant example of this when she talks about phishing. Security professionals expect people to be able to identify a phishing email in order to keep the company secure. Through numerous awareness sessions they tell them how dangerous it is to click on a link in a phishing email.

Although it makes sense to some extent, it’s not helpful to expect people to be able to recognise a phishing email 100% of the times. In fact, a lot of information security professionals might struggle to make that distinction themselves, especially when it comes to more sophisticated cases of spear phishing. So how can we expect people who are not information security specialists to measure up?

To make matters worse, most of modern enterprises depend on email with links to be productive. It is considered normal and part of business as usual to receive an email and click on the link in it. I heard of a scenario where a company hired an external agency and paid good money for surveying their employees. Despite advance warnings, the level of engagement with this survey was reduced as people were reporting these external emails as “phishing attempts”. The communications team was not pleased and that certainly didn’t help establish the productive relationship with the security team.

The bottom line is that if your defences depend on people not clicking on links, you can do better than that. The aim is not to punish people when they make a mistake, but to build trust. The security team should therefore be there to support people and recognise their challenges rather than police them.

After all, when someone does eventually click on a malicious link, it’s much better if they pick up the phone to the security team and admit their mistake rather than hope it doesn’t get noticed. Not only does this speed-up incident response, it fosters the role of the security professional as a business enabler, rather than a commander who keeps giving orders that can’t be obeyed.



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