Interview with the ISSA Journal

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I’ve been interviewed by Geordie B Stewart for the ISSA Journal.

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I’ve been interviewed by Javvad Malik about my career in InfoSec

I’ve been interviewed by Javvad Malik about my career in Information Security. He published the interview on his website

The difference between Leron and anyone else that has ever asked for advice is his willingness to learn and take on board as much knowledge as possible and then apply it. In a few short years, not only was Leron able to complete his MSc, but he landed a job (while turning down other offers), spoke at events, and wrote a book. Achieving more in 3 years than most people do in 10.

So, the roles are now reversed. I needed to catch up with Leron and pick his brains about his journey and see what I could learn from him.
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The Psychology of Information Security book reviews

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I wrote about my book  in the previous post. Here I would like to share what others have to say about it.

So often information security is viewed as a technical discipline – a world of firewalls, anti-virus software, access controls and encryption. An opaque and enigmatic discipline which defies understanding, with a priesthood who often protect their profession with complex concepts, language and most of all secrecy.

Leron takes a practical, pragmatic and no-holds barred approach to demystifying the topic. He reminds us that ultimately security depends on people – and that we all act in what we see as our rational self-interest – sometimes ill-informed, ill-judged, even downright perverse.

No approach to security can ever succeed without considering people – and as a profession we need to look beyond our computers to understand the business, the culture of the organisation – and most of all, how we can create a security environment which helps people feel free to actually do their job.
David Ferbrache OBE, FBCS
Technical Director, Cyber Security
KPMG UK

This is an easy-to-read, accessible and simple introduction to information security.  The style is straightforward, and calls on a range of anecdotes to help the reader through what is often a complicated and hard to penetrate subject.  Leron approaches the subject from a psychological angle and will be appealing to both those of a non-technical and a technical background.
Dr David King
Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College
University of Oxford

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The Psychology of Information Security – Resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour

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In today’s corporations, information security professionals have a lot on their plate. In the face of constantly evolving cyber threats they must comply with numerous laws and regulations, protect their company’s assets and mitigate risks to the furthest extent possible.

Security professionals can often be ignorant of the impact that implementing security policies in a vacuum can have on the end users’ core business activities. These end users are, in turn, often unaware of the risk they are exposing the organisation to. They may even feel justified in finding workarounds because they believe that the organisation values productivity over security. The end result is a conflict between the security team and the rest of the business, and increased, rather than reduced, risk.

This can be addressed by factoring in an individual’s perspective, knowledge and awareness, and a modern, flexible and adaptable information security approach. The aim of the security practice should be to correct employee misconceptions by understanding their motivations and working with the users rather than against them – after all, people are a company’s best assets.

I just finished writing a book with IT Governance Publishing on this topic. This book draws on the experience of industry experts and related academic research to:

  • Gain insight into information security issues related to human behaviour, from both end users’ and security professionals’ perspectives.
  • Provide a set of recommendations to support the security professional’s decision-making process, and to improve the culture and find the balance between security and productivity.
  • Give advice on aligning a security programme with wider organisational objectives.
  • Manage and communicate these changes within an organisation.

Based on insights gained from academic research as well as interviews with UK-based security professionals from various sectors, The Psychology of Information Security – Resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour explains the importance of careful risk management and how to align a security programme with wider business objectives, providing methods and techniques to engage stakeholders and encourage buy-in.

The Psychology of Information Security redresses the balance by considering information security from both viewpoints in order to gain insight into security issues relating to human behaviour , helping security professionals understand how a security culture that puts risk into context promotes compliance.

It’s now available for pre-order on the UK, EU or US websites.


Thom Langford: Security risk is just one of the many types of risks a business faces on a day-to-day basis

Interview with Thom Langford, Director of security risk management

Could we start with your personal story: your beginnings and how you got to where you are.

I was always interested in computers. My first computer was a Sinclair Spectrum 48K. I’ve always had a technology fascination. I got very much into this during school and university, and my first job was as a VAX/VMS operator, running overnight batch jobs. It was a physically tiring job, as we had to print 70,000 to 100,000 pages at night to have them delivered to the client and a 24-hour shift system, which got me to learn how to work under pressure. I then got into PCs in a big way, and moved from supporting Autodesk CAD products, to being an IT manager for a small systems integration company in Swindon. When the company was bought out by Coopers and Lybrand and subsequently merged with Price Waterhouse, to become PwC, I became known as a “builder of things”. I built a retail solutions centre, both the technology and the physical environments, from the ground up.

I subsequently built a client showcase development centre in Heathrow, a fast-track product delivery centre in London, and was also doing client work in Swansea building an innovation centre. Again, this included building both the IT as well as the physical environment: buildings, walls, the electrics and the soft furnishings, everything, basically.

I then moved to Sapient as an IT and facilities manager, which was a bit of an odd combination, although a natural move given my previous experience. I was doing that job for a number of years, initially for London and then for our global offices, when I noticed a gap in our capabilities around security, disaster-recovery and business continuity. I then spoke to one of our C level executives, and he agreed. He broadened the scope somewhat further and then asked me to start 10 days later. So it was a very rapid move for me into security. Even though I had already had a strong background in physical and IT security, this was a very different world for me. I tried to get qualified very quickly, which is something that is very difficult when you have little to no budget, which happens when you start mid-year.  So I basically begged, borrowed and stole everything. We brought together a team and got a CISO on board and that’s basically where we are today. Right now I am the acting CISO. I am responsible for teams based out of India and North America, working to strengthen our security posture both internally as well as to the industry.

You are responsible for risk management. What is your view on risk management in general? How do you think is your view different from others, if at all?

I think everybody has a view on risk management, and it is not always a good one. Traditionally, risks are seen as bad and that have to be removed. They never change and the same risks are going to be there all the time.  This was, at least, my perspective in the beginning. Everything is static and you live in the world of Excel spread sheets: you list your risks in them, you list what you are going to do about them, how you are going to measure them, and then you decide whether you’ve fixed them or not. Nobody was able to tell me whether a risk was acceptable or otherwise. This was basically as far as I saw, within my responsibility: to act as the conscience of a company, because that was my job. That attitude has changed for me a lot in the last 4 years. If you are the conscience of the business, the business will be stifled quite dramatically because of your security implementations.  Actually, all you are doing is reducing their ability to work effectively because you don’t see the big picture of how the business operates.

Security risk is just one of the many types of risks a business faces on a day-to-day basis: socioeconomic, financial, geopolitical, legal, personnel, everything has to be taken into account. To say that a business cannot carry out an activity based on one aspect or one facet of risk, I think, is the entirely wrong thing to do. You should act more as an enabler and to become more of a yes person than a no person.

When identifying risks you will probably need the help of different stakeholders. How do you identify these different stakeholders? How do you manage the relationship with them? How do you get people to speak up?

Risk in security is just one facet of security in any business. So any enterprise should have a risk committee that is composed by a delivery group, a legal group, a financial group, etc. As long as you are measuring your risks in the same way, whether it’s in ordinal numbers or any kind of format that makes sense, those risks will be filtered as they rise up through the organisation. So if you have, for instance, 1000 security risks on your risk register, a single figure of risks should be reaching the very top of the organisation. Any more than that is an indication of people not being empowered enough to deal with risks as they emerge. Not everybody in the organisation will be able to address a risk, and so therefore, it needs to be escalated.

Escalation is not a bad thing: it’s about getting people who are better qualified or more capable or have more authority of dealing with something than you are. Not because you are incapable, but because they are in a better position than you to do so. So from the thousands that arise at the very bottom level, only a few will reach the higher levels, where they can be better dealt with.

As far as stakeholder management, it is much easier to deal with senior level stakeholder management and just seeing the very tip of the iceberg. As long as they are empowering everyone else and they can be sure that they have the tools to deal with the bulk of it all, the easier it is. This way you don’t have to deal with this vast spreadsheet concerning every single case. By empowering everybody in the organisation, it is easy for them to see why it is important to deal with risks directly. If the people at the top levels don’t want to deal with the stuff that reaches them, they basically delegate it to somebody else back down, in which case, it is being dealt with in the end.

So filtering is one approach, which is about empowering people at various levels of the organisation to recognise and deal with the risks as they feel appropriate and qualified to do so.

There are two main trains of thought in information security, namely, compliance-based and risk-based. What’s your approach, and why do you think is it more beneficial?

I think compliance is extremely useful, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Let’s say that you are using ISO 27001, for example, where measuring risk is a core part of it. But if all you are trying to do is to get the certification, you’re only engaging in security theatre. You’re only doing what is required to get the auditor happy and you are ticking things off and writing procedures, but nobody really knows anything about it. Nobody is paying any actual attention to it, apart from that one day in which you make sure that the right people are in the right office, and the auditor has that long lunch that you need, etc. So it’s a start, but it is not the way to go.

Whereas a proper risk-based approach will actually make that conversation continue way beyond the initial compliance. It’s a bit of an old argument “compliance doesn’t equal security”, which it can be if it is taken in the right sense and with the right approach. But all too often, organisations will stop at compliance and not continue with real risk-based security. An example of that is a risk register that is only looked at once a year: that is compliance. A risk register should be looked at on a regular basis to ascertain that risks haven’t changed, or if likelihoods haven’t changed, or if exploitations have changed, if risk appetites have changed within the organisation, for example. If it becomes a living and breathing document, then you are looking more at a risk-based approach to security. If it’s just a mechanical once-a-year, tick-tick-tick format, then you are in a compliance environment.

What should companies do in order for them to shift from this traditional compliance approach to the risk-based one?

I think that it is about coming back to understanding what are the benefits of security and the objectives of the business. If you can connect the benefits of your security program to the ability for a company to sell more of its products, to safely enter riskier markets (because they are able to handle their data more securely), to give confidence to their clients, to bring confidence to the industry (or to whatever regulatory body that looks after them), then that’s when you can actually get more done as a result of your security program. If you are just doing security for security’s sake, we go back to being just a conscience again.

So it’s about connecting your security programme to the goals of the business. If you haven’t even read your company’s annual report, how do you know what your security programme is supporting? If you haven’t attended a shareholder meeting or an earnings call, you can’t really know what you are doing. You only have to do this a few times to get your bearings. If you don’t understand what the core purpose of the business is, how can you actually align your security with it? It’s like IT giving out computers with Linux and Open Office when the company actually needs Windows with Microsoft Office. Linux and Open Office are perfectly acceptable approaches, but the choice for them is not aligned with the business’ needs, which probably include cross-compatibility and other functions that only Microsoft Office can do. If you don’t know what the business needs from security, you need to find out: talk, listen, read, whatever it takes to find out what it is that the business needs from you.

Let’s say that you are assigned as security manager within a company. What are the first things that you would do in your first weeks?

You need to talk: you talk as broadly and as highly as you need to understand where you are standing and what is required. Talk to as many people as possible. For instance, if you are in a manufacturing plant, you start by talking to the people on the shop floor and see how they operate. Talk to the shift leaders and the managers there. If you are consultancy, start by talking to the programme directors, to the business development people and to the partners. It doesn’t matter where you are: start talking from the ground upwards, so you actually understand what it is they do and how they do it, what they need and what they know.

These conversations might be very short, or you might run into people who don’t know much, in which case you are starting with a blank slate and you can bring your own influence onto them. If the floor leader tells you that smokers are leaving the shop doors open to go have their cigarette break, well, that’s a problem you have already identified. It’s a small issue, but potentially important. If you start solving their problems, perceived or otherwise, then you start to build fanatical advocates for security.

If you understand that the CFO’s primary goal is to ensure that he’s able to get reports and the payroll out on a monthly basis, then you can start focusing more on the integrity and availability of the data. You can then prioritize for a disaster-recovery and business continuity, so that they have the confidence that what you are actually doing is helping them do their job more easily and they are able to sleep at night. If you CFO is staying awake the night before payday because he’s not sure if his Oracle systems are going to stay up and running overnight, then that’s a problem that you can fix. So you need to communicate, talk and listen: in fact, listen twice as much as you talk, because you’ve got two ears and one mouth, and find out what peoples’ problems are, perceived or otherwise.


Martin Ruskov: People follow examples, not advice

Interview with Martin Ruskov – Researcher in Exploratory Learning

Martin Ruskov recently completed his PhD on Educational Serious Games in the Information Security Research Group at UCL. As part of his research he developed a prototype for participatory information security, based on the Conjunction of Criminal Opportunity framework (a holistic crime prevention framework). The prototype is currently being used in graduate classes on security at UCL and Oxford University. Martin has previously worked in the broader field of interactive media and has been involved in teaching in leading organisations across Europe.

What problems do you see with human behaviour and security compliance?

People follow examples, not advice. In other words, for them it is important to see that management take security policies seriously by taking the lead in compliance, not only say so, but later circumvent them. This is a general management issue which was summarised very well by Chris Argyris for HBR in 1991 but there is growing evidence (as in the yet unpublished work at UCL’s Information Security Research Group ) that this is an important issue and subsequently awareness and behaviour of management needs to be addressed.

When management is compliant and transparent about it, the rest will follow. However, this is an expensive process, not only financially, but again in broader resources, with delayed returns.

Finally people are inclined to seek easy answers. Unfortunately reality is complex and very often a simple rule how to handle certain situations cannot be written. The challenge is to find a balance between personal responsibility and judgement on one hand, and efficiency on the other.

Can game-based learning help to resolve this issue?

I am far from convinced that game-based learning is the way to address awareness and behaviour change at the level of senior management.

However, game-based learning and captology have suggestions that show how attention can be attracted, ideas can be explored, and potential solutions can be advocated and encouraged.

How to improve security awareness trainings?

Complex issues require extensive discussion, and feedback about practice as a way to be grasped. It is my strong belief that these are activities that require a lot of effort on behalf of facilitators, trainers or lecturers.

I believe that a sensible way to try to optimise awareness training is to try to automate trivial issues when there exists the desired clear-cut yes or no answer, so that resources can be dedicated to lengthier and confusing discussions about complex topics.

How to improve usability of security controls?

This is a very difficult issue. Ease of use usually means less need for the users to deeply comprehend the underlying mechanisms. As an illustration we can use personal computers, for example usability paradigms in the OSX vs Linux operating systems . Whereas OSX has always the coolest interfaces, presets and skins, it leads people into an Instagram-like mainstream fashion where superb content can be produced with minimal effort. Linux, on the other hand gives users complete control. This leads on one hand to much higher threshold to entry, but on the other to much more experimentation and learning in the process of doing. Ideally we would want professionals (in this case CISOs, and information security officers in general) to be able to work out everything themselves, but in fact we can rarely afford the necessary resources (e.g. time and money) for that. Academia takes this approach – both in mathematics and project management many professors would ask students first to work out a method by hand before they engage with the tools that automate it, but again with academia one of the biggest challenges is that the curriculum is overloaded and not flexible enough to meet new challenges.

How companies should change their approach to information security management?

I believe a continuous iterative approach would provide valuable insights of the issues in context. Information security is an arms race between attackers and preventers. It is difficult to involve in it employees who have other primary tasks, but security managers should be ready to accommodate contributions from volunteering employees. It is much more productive and efficient to collaborate with the people willing to engage, which would hopefully lead to wider engagement from others. Hopefully such an approach would lead to broader awareness culture among employees, while yet maintaining their focus on their main professional goals.


Mo Amin: You can transform technology but how do you transform people?

Mo Amin – Information Security Professional

Can you please tell us a little bit about your background?

Long ago in a galaxy far far…oh ok…ok…Just like a lot of people in IT I got asked the same question “My PC has died, can you help me?” When you say yes to one person it’s a downward spiral…and before you know it you’re THE computer guy! Even now I (depending on my mood) will help out. So this was my first real experience in building rapport with clients, charging for my time and to a certain extent being held accountable for the service I provided.

I taught me a lot and was a catalyst in helping me to land my first role in desktop support. I was part of a small team which allowed me to get involved in some network and application support too. Whilst doing my day role I was involved in a couple of investigations, which got me interested in information security and through a few lucky breaks I slowly moved into the field. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in a number of areas ranging from operational security through to consultancy. However, I’ve always intrinsically enjoyed the awareness and education side of things.

What is it that you are working on at the moment?

I am working with Kai Roer of The Roer Group to help develop the Security Culture Framework. Essentially, the framework aims to help organisations to build a security culture within their business, as opposed to simply relying on topic based security awareness. Making sure that organisations begin to build a security culture into their business is something I believe in strongly. So when Kai asked if I’d like to help I was more than happy.

Let’s talk for a moment about information security in general. What do you think are the biggest challenges that companies are facing at the moment?

I think that one of the biggest challenges is educating staff on the risks that the business faces and getting people to understand and relate to why it is that we are asking them to adopt secure practices. The problem revolves around changing the attitude and overall culture of an organisation. In my humble opinion, this is the biggest challenge. The difficulty lies in changing behaviour because you can change technology but how do you positively change the behaviour of people?

What is your approach or proposed solution to this challenge? What should companies do?

I’ve always learned by seeing something in action or by actually doing it. Obviously, within the context of a busy organisation this isn’t easy to do.  However, as information security practitioners, professional or however we label ourselves we need to be more creative in our attempts to help those that we work with – we need to make awareness more engaging. I think it’s important to have workshops or sessions in breakout areas where staff can come along see how quickly weak passwords are cracked, what can happen if you click on that dodgy but enticing looking attachment. It’s about visualising and personalising threats for people, for example, if you plan your awareness programme carefully you could map your corporate security messages for the home environment and provide your staff with a “Top 10 of do’s and dont’s” Make it creative and engaging and the messages that you give for their home environment they will begin to bring them back to the office.

Lots companies offer security awareness training, which doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. What do you think about these trainings? Should they be changed in some way in terms of targeting, or accounting for individuals’ particular needs, or focusing on behaviour?

The problem is that most of this is simply topic based awareness, in that it’s not seeking to change behaviour. There seems be to be a lot of generic content that applies to everyone in an organisation. Sadly this is a tick-box exercise for the purposes of compliance. Awareness should be unique to your organisation where you cater for different personality types as best you can.  Some people actually like reading policies where as some prefer visual aids, so the ways that individuals learn needs to be better understood. The process of educating your staff should be a sustained and measured programme; it needs to be strategic in its outlook.

What about communication?

Better engagement with the business is what we need to be doing. Our relationships with the likes of legal, HR, finance, marketing, PR should be on an everyday basis not only when we actually need their expertise. These departments usually already have the respect from the business. Information security needs to be seen in the same light.

How do you identify the relevant stakeholders and establish communication with them, and further propagate the whole process of communication within the organisation?

Grab a copy of the organisation chart and start from there. Your job is to introduce yourself to everyone. In my experience doing this over a coffee really helps and preferably not in a meeting room, because it is better to create a new business relationship in a social context, wherein the other person gets to understand you, firstly as a human being and secondly as a work colleague. Most importantly, do this at the beginning and not two months down the line. Building relationships at the very beginning increases your chances of being in the position of asking for last minute favours and paves the path for easier collaboration, as opposed to having to ask for people’s help when they don’t even know you. Usually people are open and honest. They may have a negative image of information security, not because they don’t like you, but most likely because of the interaction they’ve had in the past.

So let’s say that you have joined a new organisation that has a very negative preconception of information security because of a bad previous experience. Once you have already identified all the key people you have to work with, how do you fight this negative perception?

You need to find out what was done previously and why the outcome was negative in the first place. Once you’ve established the actual problem, you have to diffuse the situation. You need to be positive, open and even simple things like walking around and talking to people – show your face. Visit different departments and admit any failings, you need to do a PR and marketing exercise. In a previous role I’ve actually said

“I know what went wrong the last time, I know we screwed up. I want to ask you what you want to see from the information security department from now on.”

People are ready to engage if you are, be personable and be professional. It’s surprising how much positive and usable feedback you actually get.

The majority of the time, people will tell you,

“I just want to be able to do my job without security getting in the way”.

Once you have these sorts of conversations going you begin to understand how the business actually functions on a day-to-day basis. It’s at this stage where you can be influential and change perception.