Complacency is the Enemy of Security

We're often asked the difference between different products and why we might recommend one solution over another.

Rather than giving details on particular computer products, and pros and cons between two different virus scanners / firewalls / computers / laptops etc. we thought that it might be more helpful to give some insight as to our general thought processes and illustrate this.

As an example please consider the two videos linked below. They're also quite short (less than 60 seconds each) and amusing in themselves so do have a watch.

Video 1:

The first here is a video of a tourist who 'crosses the line' and lays a hand on a member of the Royal Guard.

What happens when a tourist touches a member of the Queen's Grenadier Guards

Video 2:

The second video below here also shows a security guard, here in the context of an office building lobby. In fact here are two guards that you can see in the video - one crouching in the foreground (hands up) and another approaching on the carpet behind.

In contrast note what the approaching guard does when his colleague is 'shot'.

So - what's the point here?

Both of the videos show someone in the role of 'providing patrol and security' but the training and reaction are very different to a situation. To be clear we're not suggesting that either are right or wrong, but they are definitely very different.

The first video could be seen as a potential overreaction but this is trained response to a threat and maintaining a clear line which should not be crossed. We suspect that the tourist got quite a shock. You don't see the tourist's reaction on film but you can make a pretty good guess.

The second video shows the guard running away pretty quickly and comments on the YouTube video liken the reaction to playing 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. As you see in the video this was a staged prank and an effective one at that. The reaction is not necessarily wrong though. Hopefully the guard is going to call for help / police / armed backup / check CCTV and grab a gun etc. rather than just to uselessly become the next victim given what he's just seen and heard in front of him. Of course he might equally be heading straight out of the door and planning to go home; we'd like to think not though.

Both of these are providing security around a building and assurance for the tenants and visitors to help maintain and assure a safe environment. In very different ways. Both are more effective than many reception / security guards in an office environment who often provide only token levels of security. You've probably noticed buildings where a 'guard' is absorbed in playing solitaire and around whom a seven year old would run rings in a chase.

This is the difference between ticking boxes and providing value and much of the value of a guard, like the value of insurance or an army, is not in the work they do, but what they can do if needed, which means it is less likely you'll need them. Good security obviously has a more powerful deterrent effect.

Companies recognise this in their implementation of security. It goes to the core of the company's values; do you only pay lip service, or are you thorough? Much of the time you may not notice the difference unless you are looking for it. We say time and time again that there is no such thing as total security, only different levels of risk management and mitigation.

In some city firms the security office is manned by staff who may be entirely ex army and indeed sometimes ex special forces. You'll not notice on the door but you will if you try anything untoward and in the subtle, but very real, difference in the level of attention paid to things. This is a deep skill in itself. Guarding anything from an office to nuclear weapons requires dedication and focus to do well, evaluate the risks and pull against the natural human instinct towards complacency over time.

Are we digressing again here? Yes, probably... to bring the comparison of security guards back more to the world of IT and subtle differences, the point is that when at Onega we consider solutions, we look for what is the best long run solution for a challenge, that will serve a business and provide for value and service. In considering IT systems, we look at many aspects of capital cost, performance, reliability, robustness, running costs and serviceability. Aesthetics are also considered and sometimes people choose preferences of good looks over functionality or serviceability as their conscious choice which is fine if trade-offs are accepted. From cars to aircraft, to computers to anything else, there are almost always trade-offs made in any decision; it is just a matter of getting the balance right.

Currently in IT there is an increasingly mature trend towards swapping traditionally capital investments for regular periodic subscriptions. An example of this might be Microsoft's 'Surface as a Service' offering but in software, client computing and server side computing the trend is present and it allows for the traditional cost bump to be smoothed out over time; so that you can have a high quality solution and pay for it as you enjoy it with reduced barriers to entry.

When Onega look at a product, we do of course consider cost. We are a business ourselves and we have to balance the books. However we invest where we need to and appreciate that some things can be very much a false economy. The difference that an extra £100 investment can make to your enjoyment of a computer over three years can be between smooth service delivery and frustration. We've learned many things the hard way and we try to share the benefit of our experience so that you can avoid repeating mistakes and errors we may have made. We do of course sometimes make mistakes, but we learn from them.

As a case of false economy in point, consider backup systems. The purpose of these is to keep your vital company information safe and in some cases, also doubling as Business Continuity solutions. You really don't want to be choosing a backup solution based on price. Among the criteria here are: how well does it work; is it reliable; how quickly and easily can we get things back when we need them; how is it monitored; how is the data encrypted; how do we obtain support for the system; how many copies of data are maintained; how far back will it retain our backup data; does it cover everything we need backed up; are air gaps enforced; how stable is the company providing the service? Price of course is a factor, but it should probably be a secondary factor to the first questions. A good solution that might cost £30 a month is likely to be much, much better business value than a poor solution that just about does the job for £19 a month. In this hypothetical example the £11 extra a month in cost would arguably be worth way more than that in peace of mind alone.

So for any system, when we are considering recommendations from Onega, we are looking to help provide solutions that will stand up to the task and deliver when needed rather than something that will disappear like Sonic just when you need it.

No one likes being let down.

No one likes being let down.

Back to the title of our post here (after a slight case of ADD);  Complacency being the Enemy of Security.  Complacency is very hard to prevent, but procedures and reality checks / external audit and baselines can help greatly. Arguably the role of a security professional is primarily countering complacency everywhere it creeps in.. which it does.

There are some tricks that can be learned from the people who protect some of the nation's most critical assets, again imperfectly but still relatively robustly and relatively successfully. We're talking about the high bar of protecting nuclear assets, domestic or military. Imagine the awesome responsibility of guarding a nuclear reactor or live missile defensive systems. If you were tasked with this role, you'd obviously understand the serious nature of the role and the possible implications of a breach of security. You'd be very much 'on your guard' on day 1, but on day 2 (allow some leeway on timing here), you'd likely think 'no one stole / launched our nuclear weapons yesterday, so I can relax a bit' - maybe read a good book, check out X-Factor, kitten videos on YouTube or read the paper, play solitaire, wave through the maintenance engineers or take a long break for coffee etc. and so it goes until one day something happens and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach when it's too late to do anything about it.  Thankfully it is relatively hard to do anything useful with quantities of nuclear material without being picked up by the eyes and ears of intelligence, but for every time the backstop comes good, comes the day closer when it misses one.

So to prevent complacency we have a number of routes. Training and reinforcing on why we have security and the importance of the items we are looking to protect, learning from incidents that others have experienced and share with the community, implementing institutional anti-complacency measures with audits and penetration exercises, rotation of staff roles so that your attention-deficit burnout is minimised. Some of these measures can be equally applied to corporate environments and can uncover convenience hacks from staff that might undermine or bypass security measures for example.

At Onega, we've accumulated a good deal of knowledge on security and we've spotted enough loopholes in our time to know that, if we consider them too much, we'd just run for the caves. We do like the challenge of a security audit though and helping companies to look for low-hanging fruit or potential unbalanced security practices. Checklists and standards can help greatly on this, though their application and evaluation can be done with the thoroughness of the Queen's guard or the run away guard, we try to aim for the former of course in any security evaluation. The cost of doing an evaluation is insignificant compared to the potential cost of not doing one.