Engagement Economics and Security Assessments

Posted September 29th, 2010 by

Ah yes, I’ve explained this about a hundred times this week (at that thing that I can’t blog about, but @McKeay @MikD and @Sawaba were there so fill in the gaps), thought I should get this down somewhere.

the 3 factors that determine how much money you will make (or lose) in a consulting practice:

  • Bill Rate: how much do you charge your customers.  This is pretty familiar to most folks.
  • Utilization: what percentage of your employees’ time is spent being billable.  The trick here is if you can get them to work 50 hours/week because then they’re at 125% utilization and suspiciously close to “uncompensated overtime”, a concept I’ll maybe explain in the future.
  • Leverage: the ratio of bosses to worker bees.  More experienced people are more expensive to have as employees.  Usually a company loses money on these folks because the bill rate is less than what they are paid.  Conversely, the biggest margin is on work done by junior folks.  A highly leveraged ratio is 1:25, a lowly leveraged ratio is 1:5 or even less.

Site Assessment photo by punkin3.14.

And then we have the security assessments business and security consulting in general.  Let’s face it, security assessments are a commodity market.  What this means is that since most competitors in the assessment space charge the same amount (or at least relatively close to each other), this means some things about the profitability of an assessment engagement:

  • Assuming a Firm Fixed Price for the engagement, the Effective Bill Rate is inversely proportionate to the amount of hours you spend on the project.  IE, $30K/60 hours=$500/hour and 30K/240 hours = $125/hour.  I know this is a shocker, but the less amount of time you spend on an assessment, the bigger your margin but you would also expect the quality to suffer.
  • Highly leveraged engagements let you keep margin but over time the quality suffers.  1:25 is incredibly lousy for quality but awesome for profit.  If you start looking at security assessment teams, they’re usually 1:4 or 1:5 which means that the assessment vendor is getting squeezed on margin.
  • Keeping your people engaged as much as possible gives you that extra bit of margin.  Of course, if they’re spending 100% of their time on the road, they’ll get burned out really quickly.  This is not good for both staff longevity (and subsequent recruiting costs) and for work quality.

Now for the questions that this raises for me:

  • Is there a 2-tier market where there are ninjas (expensive, high quality) and farmers (commodity prices, OK quality)?
  • How do we keep audit/assessment quality up despite economic pressure?  IE, how do we create the conditions where the ninja business model is viable?
  • Are we putting too much trust in our auditors/assessors for what we can reasonably expect them to perform successfully?
  • How can any information security framework focused solely on audit/assessment survive past 5 years? (5-10 years is the SWAG time on how long it takes a technology to go from “nobody’s done this before” to “we have a tool to automate most of it”)
  • What’s the alternative?

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Posted in Rants, What Doesn't Work | 3 Comments »

Observations on PCI-DSS and Circular Arguments

Posted February 26th, 2010 by

OK, so I lied unintentionally all those months ago when I said I wouldn’t write any more PCI-DSS posts.

My impetus for this blog post is a PCI-DSS panel at ShmooCon that several of my friends (Jack Daniel, Anton Chuvakin, Mike Dahn, and Josh Corman, in no particular order) were on.  I know I’m probably the pot calling the kettle black, but the panel (as you would expect for any PCI-DSS discussion in the near future) rapidly disolved into chaos.  So as I’m sitting in the audience watching @Myrcurial’s head pop off, I came to the realization that this is really 4 different conversations disguised into one topic:

  1. The Cost-Benefit Assessment of replacing credit card # and CVV2 with something else–maybe chip and pin, maybe something entirely different–and what responsibility does Visa and Mastercard have towards protecting their business.  This calls for something more like an ROI approach because it’s infrastructure projects.  Maybe this CBA has already been done but guess what–nobody has said anything about the result of that analysis.
  2. Merchants’ responsibility to protect their customers, their business, and each other.  This is the usual PCI-DSS spiel.  The public policy equivalent here is overfishing: everybody knows that if they come back with full nets and by-catch, they’re going to ruin the fishery long-term for themselves and their peers, but they can’t stop the destruction of the fishery by themselves, they need everybody in the community to do their part.  In the same way, merchants not protecting card data mess over each other in this weird shared risk pool.
  3. Processor and bank responsibility.  Typically this is the Tier-1 and Tier-2 guys.  The issue here is that these guys are most of the processing infrastructure.  What works in PCI-DSS for small merchants doesn’t scale up to match these guys, and that’s the story here: how do you make a framework that scales?  I think it’s there (IE, the tiers and assurance levels in PCI-DSS) but it’s not communicated effectively.
  4. Since this is all a shared risk pool, at what places does it make sense to address particular risks?  IE, what is the division of roles and responsibilities inside the “community”?  Then how do you make a community standard that is at least reasonably fair to all the parties on this spectrum, Visa and MasterCard included?

PCI-DSS Tag Cloud photo by purpleslog.

There are a bunch of tangential questions, but they almost always circle
back to the 4 that I’ve mentioned above:

  • Regulatory capture and service providers
  • The pitfalls of designing a framework by committee
  • Self-regulation v/s legislation and Government oversight
  • Levels of hypocrisy in managing the “community”
  • Effectiveness of specific controls

Now the problem as I see it is that each of these conversations points to a different conversation as a solution and in doing so, they become thought-terminating cliches.  What this means is that when you do a panel, you’re bound to bounce between these 4 different themes without coming to any real resolution.  Add to this the fact that it’s a completely irrational audience who only understand their 1 piece of the topic, and you have complete chaos when doing a panel or debate.

Folks, I know this is hard to hear, but as an industry, we need to get over being crybabies and pointing fingers when it comes PCI-DSS.  The standard (or a future version of it anyway) and self-regulation is here to stay because even if we fix the core problems of payment, we’ll still have security problems because payment schemes are where the money is.  The world as I see it is that the standards process needs to be more transparent and the people governed by the standard need a seat at the table with their rational, adult, and constructive arguments on what works and what doesn’t work to help them do their job to help themselves.

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Posted in Public Policy, Rants | 1 Comment »

Security Automation Developers Conference Slides

Posted July 2nd, 2009 by

Eh? What’s that mean?  Developer Days is a weeklong conference where they get down into the weeds about the various SCAP schemas and how they fit into the overall program of security automation. 

Highlights and new ideas:

Remedial Markup Language: Fledgeling schema to describe how to remediate a vulnerability.  A fully automated security system would scan and then use the RML content to automagically fix the finding… say, changing a configuration setting or installing a patch.  this would be much awesome if combined with the CVE/CWE so you have a vulnerability scanner that scans and fixes the problem.  Also needs to be kept in a bottle because the operations guys will have a heartattack if we are doing this without any human intervention.

Computer Network Defense: There is a pretty good scenario slide deck on using SCAP to automate hardening, auditing, monitoring, and defense.  The key from this deck is how the information flows using automation.

Common Control Identifier:  This schema is basically a catalog of controls (800-53, 8500.2, PCI, SoX, etc) in XML.  The awesomeness with this is that one control can contain a reference implementation for each technology and the checklist to validate it in XCCDF.  At this point, I get all misty…

Open Checklist Interactive Language: This schema is to capture questionaires.  Think managerial controls, operational controls, policy, and procedure captured in electronic format and fed into the regular mitigation and workflow tools that you use so that you can view “security of the enterprise at a glance” across technical and non-technical security.

Network Event Content Automation Protocol:  This is just a concept floating around right now on using XML to describe and automate responses to attacks.  If you’re familiar with ArcSight’s Common Event Format, this would be something similar but on steroids with workflow and a pony!

Attendance at developer days is limited, but thanks to all the “Powar of teh Intarwebs, you can go here and read the slides!

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Posted in NIST, Technical | 3 Comments »

Why We Need PCI-DSS to Survive

Posted June 9th, 2009 by

And by “We”, I mean the security industry as a whole.  And yes, this is your public-policy lesson for today, let me drag my soapbox over here and sit for a spell while I talk at you.

By “Survive”, I mean that we need some kind of self-regulatory framework that fulfills the niche that PCI-DSS occupies currently. Keep reading, I’ll explain.

And the “Why” is a magical phrase, everybody say it after me: self-regulatory organization.  In other words, the IT industry (and the Payment Card Industry) needs to regulate itself before it crosses the line into being considered for statutory regulation (ie, making a law) by the Federal Government.

Remember the PCI-DSS hearings with the House Committe on Homeland Security (AKA the Thompson Committee)?  All the Security Twits were abuzz about it, and it did my heart great justice to hear all the cool kids become security and public policy wonks at least for an afternoon.  Well, there is a little secret here and that is that when Congress gets involved, they’re gathering information to determine if they need to regulate an industry.  That’s about all Congress can do: make laws that you (and the Executive Branch) have to follow, maybe divvy up some tax money, and bring people in to testify.  Other than that, it’s just positioning to gain favor with other politicians and maybe some votes in the next election.

Regulation means audits and more compliance.  They go together like TCP and IP.  Most regulatory laws have at least some designation for a party who will perform oversight.  They have to do this because, well, if you’re not audited/assessed/evaluated/whatever, then it’s really an optional law, which doesn’t make sense at all.

Yay Audits photo by joebeone.

Another magical phrase that the public policy sector can share with the information security world: audit burden.  Audit burden is how much a company or individual pays both in direct costs (paying the auditors) and in indirect costs (babysitting the auditors, producing evidence for the auditors, taking people away from making money to talk to auditors, “audit requirements”, etc).  I think we can all agree that low audit burden is good, high audit burden is bad.  In fact, I think that’s one of the problems with FISMA as implemented is that it has a high audit burden with moderately tangible results. But I digress, this post is about PCI-DSS.

There’s even a concept that is mulling around in the back of my head to make a metric that compares the audit burden to the amount of security that it provides to the amount of assurance that it provides against statutory regulation.  It almost sounds like the start of a balanced scorecard for security management frameworks, now if I could get @alexhutton to jump on it, his quant brain would churn out great things in short order.

But this is the lesson for today: self-regulation is preferrable to legislation.

  • Self-regulation is defined by people in the industry.  Think about the State Bar Association setting the standards for who is allowed to practice law.
  • Standards ideally become codified versions of “best practices”.  OK, this is if they’re done correctly, more to follow.
  • Standards are more flexible than laws.  As hard/cumbersome as it is to change a standard, the time involved in changing a law is prohibitive most of the time unless you’re running for reelection.
  • Standards sometimes can be “tainted” to force out competition, laws are even more so.

The sad fact here is that if we don’t figure out as an industry how to make PCI-DSS or any other forms of self-regulation work, Congress will regulate for us.  Don’t like PCI-DSS because of the audit burden, wait until you have a law that requires you to do the same controls framework.  It will be the same thing, only with bigger penalties for failure, larger audit burdens to avoid the larger penalties, larger industries created to satisfy the market demand for audit.  Come meet the new regulatory body, same as the old only bigger and meaner. =)

However, self-regulation works if you do it right, and by right I mean this:

  • The process is transparent and not the product of a secret back-room cabbal.
  • Representation from all the shareholders.  For PCI-DSS, that would be Visa/MasterCard, banks, processors, large merchants, small merchants, and some of the actual customers.
  • The standards committee knows how to compromise and come to a consensus.  IE, we can’t have both full hard drive encryption, a WAF, code review, and sacrificing of chickens in the server room, so we’ll make one of the 4 mandatory.
  • The regulatory organization has a grievance process for its constituency to present valid (AKA “Not just more whining”) discrepencies in the standards and processes for clarification or consideration for change.
  • The standard is “owned” by every member of the constituency.  Right now, people governed by PCI-DSS are not feeling that the standard is their standard and that they have a say in what comprises the standard and that they are the ones being helped by the standard.  Some of that is true, some of that is an image problem.  The way you combat this is by doing the things that I mentioned in the previous bullets.

Hmm, sounds like making an ISO standard, which brings its own set of politics.

While we need some form of self-regulation, right now PCI-DSS and ISO 27001 are the closest that we have in the private sector.  Yeah, it sucks, but it sucks the least, just like our form of government.

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Posted in Public Policy, Rants | 11 Comments »

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