The UNSECURITY Podcast – Episode 45 Show Notes

Welcome back for another quick recap of the week and another dose of UNSECURITY Podcast show notes. Hope you all had a great week!

For last week’s show, Brad was in studio while I was calling in from Sofia, Bulgaria. Brad was joined by Ryan Cloutier, an awesome return guest. As far as I could tell, it was another great show. I had some connectivity issues, but who doesn’t have connectivity issues in Bulgaria? Brad did a great job holding things together while we chatted about issues such as liability and speaking information security with “humans”.

Catch episode 44 here.

I was in Bulgaria to visit members of our SecurityStudio development team, check out the new office, and spend some time planning future releases of the software. Bulgaria is eight hours ahead, so timing with U.S. resources was interesting.

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The trip was very successful and we made significant progress on a number of fronts. While I was halfway around the world, Brad held down the fort. He’s a really good leader and I’m sure he has a bunch of things going on. I didn’t get to check in with him last week, so we’ll ask how he’s doing on the podcast.

Lots of other really cool stuff to share, but I’ll do that in another post or on the show.

Let’s do some show notes now.


SHOW NOTES – Episode 45

Date: Monday, September 16th, 2019

Show Topics:

Our topics this week:

  • Catching Up
    • More Mentor Program success
    • Civic duty example
  • vCISO Revisited
  • Book Announcement

[Evan] – Hi folks, welcome to the UNSECURITY Podcast. This is episode 45 and I’m your host, Evan Francen. Brad’s joining me as usual. Hi Brad!

[Brad] Brad politely says hello to me and by proxy all of our listeners. Good Brad.

[Evan] Man, this is two shows in a row where I’m out of studio. Today I’m stuck in Washington, D.C. for a meeting. Only one day, so that’s good. What’s up with you?

[Brad] Stuff and things.

[Evan] We haven’t recorded together in person the last couple of weeks, and I haven’t even been able to catch up with you. You cool if we catchup quick?

[Brad] Brad will probably say “yes”.

[Evan] Alright, let’s start with your week. Tell us what you’ve been up to.

Catching up

  • What Brad’s up to.
  • What I’m up to.
  • We have more Mentor Program success to talk about
  • One of our listeners is setting a great example for all of us in holding his local government accountable for security.

[Evan] Alright, lots of good things. We’re all in this together and there’s a job and place for everyone.

[Brad] Brad’s words of wisdom.

[Evan] We’re always grateful for feedback that we get from listeners. If you’d got some, email us at unsecurity@protonmail.com. One of the more popular topics in the past few months has been that of the virtual Chief Information Security Officer (or vCISO). We’ve received some great questions about how to become a vCISO. A couple of episode ago, we talked about what a good vCISO is, but we didn’t really talk about how to become one. Let’s do that.

How to become a vCISO discussion

  • If you’re new (less experience).
  • If you’re experienced (even existing CISOs)
  • What are the benefits to being a vCISO versus being a FTE CISO?

[Evan] Alright. Good perspective and good discussion. Thank you Brad.

[Brad] Brad’s gotta say something or we’ll have an uncomfortable silence here.

[Evan] OK, last topic before we get into some news. I want to announce something that I’m VERY excited about. You and I are going to write a book, right?

[Brad] Brad confirms. See if you can notice any change in the tone of his voice when he responds.

New book announcement and discussion

There’s a tie in here with vCISO too.

[Evan] I’m pumped about writing with you Brad. What better time than 4th quarter to get started?

[Brad] He’s lived through multiple 4th quarters, so he’ll laugh/cry.

[Evan] Let’s close this thing out with some news, eh?

News

Here’s our news for this week:

Closing

[Evan] There you have it. Thank you for another great show Brad!

A special thank you to our loyal listeners. We love your feedback and sincerely appreciate the fact that you join us each week. Send your feedback to us at unsecurity@protonmail.com. If you’re the social type, socialize with us on Twitter, I’m @evanfrancen, and Brad’s @BradNigh.

Talk to you all again next week!

The UNSECURITY Podcast – Episode 44 Show Notes

Welcome back for another quick recap of the week and another dose of UNSECURITY Podcast show notes!

Last week, Brad and I were back in studio together to record episode 43. It was a good show, where we covered some relevant topics such as (more fricken) incident response, vCISO questions, and how we (the good guys) can’t possibly do all the things that they (the bad guys) do.

Quick words about vCISO

  • It’s the future of information security leadership.
  • There are good vCISOs and less good (maybe bad) vCISOs, you need to learn the differences.
  • We got some great feedback this week from people who aspire to be a vCISO, which was really cool!

Quick words about good guys and bad guys

  • There’s a gap between what we can do and what they can do.
  • We have rules, they don’t.
  • We have ideas about how to close some of the obvious gaps (didn’t cover in the episode 43, but we’ll cover this somewhere in the future).

If you missed episode 43, you can always go back and nab it here.

Hoping you all had a great week. It was a short week, but if you’re like me, it only meant that we crammed more stuff into less time.

Most of my time this week was spent working with SecurityStudio partners find success in serving their clients. This is a blast because we create situations where everyone wins, and we do it together.

This week I started exploring the possibility of helping an incredible organization combat sex trafficking in the United States. The organization is SHAREtogether, and they’re doing amazing work. The organization is run by Jaco Booyens, the director of the movie 8 Days. If you get a chance, check them out and watch the movie (it’s been watched more than 2,000,000 times). If you feel more inclined, do more to help. Right now, my involvement is more exploratory, but I’m sure there will be more to this story before it’s all said and done.

Anyway, on the the show! Brad is leading the show this week, and he’ll have another returning


SHOW NOTES – Episode 44

Date: Monday, September 9th, 2019

Show Topics:

Our topics this week:

  • The security expert’s take on liability.
  • Speaking information security for “humans”.
    • What’s the problem?
    • Ideas for solving the problem(s).
    • Consequences of the failure to solve the problem.
  • Industry News

[Brad] – Brad can choose any opening he’d like. This is his show to lead. The standard one sort of goes like this…

Welcome to the UNSECURITY Podcast, episode 44. Joining me is my co-host, Evan Francen. Say hi Evan.

[Evan] I’ll say something here. Probably. Maybe I’ll stay silent to through Brad off, but now that it’s in the show notes, I think I let the cat out of the bag. Whatever.

[Brad] Also joining us today is a repeat guest. Ryan Cloutier is here in person. Ryan is an amazing information security expert with a noble mission. He was also on with us back in episode 27, back in May. Welcome Ryan.

[Ryan] Ryan’s a guy with something to say, so he’ll say something here.

[Brad] This week, Evan’s in Bulgaria. What’s going on over there, Evan?

[Evan] Stuff.

[Brad] It’s sort of funny. We’re beginning to think you don’t like Ryan all that much because last time he was on, you were in California. You got something against Ryan or what?

[Evan] Maybe.

[Brad] We brought Ryan on the show again because we love his perspectives on helping “normal” people, or as he likes to call them, “humans”, secure themselves better. Great mission, but before we cover that, let’s talk about some common questions we get about liability. Now, we’re not lawyers, so don’t think this is official legal advice, but we do work with lawyers pretty often when we investigate breaches.

Discussion about liability, from a security person’s perspective

[Brad] So, the key is to do the things that a “reasonable” person would do in your same circumstance. This leads to a whole bunch of questions that you should be asking yourself.

Now let’s switch gears a little bit. Ryan, you’ve got this deep desire to help “humans” secure themselves better, and this passion is shared with us here at FRSecure. You recently posted an open letter to the security community on Evan’s blog and you regularly speak to crowds all over the United States. Let’s talk about all this for a bit.

Discussion about Ryan’s mission and speaking “human”

  • What are some of the problems we’re facing when speaking “human”?
  • What ideas do we have for solving the problem(s)?
  • What are some of consequences of the failure to solve the problem?

[Brad] There’s so much we can do together, as a community, to do this better. Great discussion. What’s our one call to action?

[Brad] OK, on to this week’s security news.

News

Here’s our news for this week:

Closing

[Brad] Alright. Another great show. Thank you for joining me Ryan.

Evan, have a good time in Bulgaria. Bring me home a gift or something.

A special thank you to our loyal listeners. We love your feedback and sincerely appreciate the fact that you join us each week. Send your feedback to us at unsecurity@protonmail.com. If you’re the social type, socialize with us on Twitter, I’m @BradNigh and Evan’s @evanfrancen.

Talk to you all again next week!

Speaking “Human”: An Open Letter to Security Professionals on a Basic Approach to the Cyber Security Gap

A guest post by Ryan Cloutier. For more information about Ryan, see his profile page.

Most people find the topic of cyber-information security boring, if they have even heard of it at all. The primary cause for this is that digital citizens do not view cyber-information security or their “digital life” as being real or even directly impactful to their own physical life and personal safety. I believe this is due to how we as security professionals have discussed the topic of cyber-info security to non-tech savvy populations.

We might as well be speaking Klingon when we approach a general population with convoluted technical jargon to educate on cyber security.

A favorite quote I heard once from a curmudgeon man after advising him “don’t click the link” was “Don’t click the link?! Listen asshole the whole internet is links!” I laughed but came to the realization that he wasn’t wrong and I then came to understand these three points:

1. We (Security Professionals) are the problem not the user.

We don’t have to go on like this. We can be the change. When educating anyone on cyber awareness, we can use better analogies and real world examples to describe the risk and issues with the behavior we want to see changed. For example, consider the awful security awareness training we must sit through once a year at work or when we get phished by the IT department and then must retake said awful training – it is viewed as a work issue and therefore only applies to the workplace.

2. Focusing only on cyber awareness in the workplace prevents meaningful behavior change. 

If you have the fortune as a Security Professional of managing to get behavior change in the workplace more often than not it is left at the workplace and forgotten about when they go home. However, if we change the conversation to focus on cyber security as a basic life skill, as a fundamental part of our daily physical life then we begin to see change. Today in 2019, most of the connected world uses their smart phone to conduct a large portion of their everyday life from communicating with their loved ones, to banking, shopping, learning, news, entertainment, dating, and so on. 

3. The world has changed but we have not changed with it or adapted our behavior to match. 

We are a society that has not changed our life skills to reflect our new “Digital Life” so when speaking to and training your clients please use relatable examples and common language. Realize that your audience may not be versed in technology nor are they all IT Professionals and as such you need to take the extra time to make it real and relatable. Once you apply this “Make it Real” approach you will see meaningful behavior change and you will have the added benefit of not only making your organization safer and more secure but you will have made the world and a new generation of humans safer and more secure. So I ask you fellow IT security and privacy professionals to please speak human and take the time to break it down. 

Join me in this mission to help make the world a better, safer and more secure place. 

THINGS you might consider adding: 

  • Take the same approach to educating about cyber security that you do when your uncle asks you to describe your job at the Thanksgiving dinner table. 
  • Take stock in what your closest non-technical friends and family don’t understand about cyber security – use this as your baseline to further craft your message into more relatable examples. 
  • Make it real – use examples from your every day life and inject humor into life lessons that will forever change the actions and behaviors of a generation that desperately needs these digital tools. 
  • Commit to spending time educating others outside of your professional work to not only evangelize security in the professional world but in every day activity- volunteer at schools, senior centers, and non-profits which are the unfortunate prime targets of cyber crime and scams. Use these interactions to further craft your message to be inclusive and targeted. 
  • Make an impact by leaving a meeting or speaking engagement with a line of people ready to come up and tell you their story – not leaving with a notebook of acronyms and confusion as they decide “cyber security is too technical for me to make changes in my daily life” 

 

Snake Oil Won’t Cure Your Security Illness

Part two in a three-part series about the information security industry money grab.

Introduction

NOTE: I covered some of these issues in my book; Unsecurity: Information Security Is Failing. Breaches Are Epidemic. How Can We Fix This Broken Industry?

In this series, I’ll focus on three types of money grabbers, those

  1. Who will do anything and everything for your money
  2. Those who sell snake oil
  3. Those who will sell you something regardless of it’s effects on your security.

There’s no doubt that the money grab is alive and well in the information security industry. Some companies and people in our industry will do everything they can to get their hands on your money. Some of them should get your money, while others should be put out of business because of their deceptive practices.

Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil

This stuff was amazing. A concoction, or “liniment” as Clark Stanley called it, that will cure just about anything; rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, “lame back”, lumbago, “contracted cords”, toothaches, sprains, swelling, etc. I don’t even know what half these ailments are, but I don’t know if I’d care either. This stuff will cure me of ailments I don’t even know I have, and it will protect me from future ailments. If I were alive in the 1890s, I might have bought some of this wonder juice.

When Clark Stanley started peddling his snake oil to the ignorant masses, there was nothing to stop him. There was no regulation to govern the safety and effectiveness of drugs until 1906. Nobody even knew what Mr. Stanley’s wonder-drug was made of until 1916, this was the year that the Bureau of Chemistry (later the Food and Drug Administration-FDA) tested Snake Oil and determined it was made from mineral oil, 1% fatty oil (assumed to be tallow), capsaicin from chili peppers, turpentine, and camphor.

People caught on, the jig was up, and Stanley eventually pled no contest to federal civil charges that were leveled against him.

Information security industry snake oil

There’s snake oil for sale in our industry. Don’t buy it. It doesn’t work (for you).

Thanks in large part to Clark Stanley, the term “snake oil” has become synonymous with products and services that provide little (if any) value, but are promoted as solutions to problems. The term is also used to refer to exaggerated claims made by salespeople.

You’d be naïve to think there aren’t products and services sold in our industry that don’t fit our definition of “snake oil”. There are two types of snake oil being peddled today, the kind that is overtly deceptive and the kind the covertly deceptive. Both are bad, and you need to watch out.

Overtly deceptive

Overtly deceptive snake oil is the kind that comes with claims that are so outrageous, you start to question everything you know about yourself. The claims seem so real, with seemingly genuine evidence, and fancy words, you ask yourself questions like “Could this possibly be true?” “Is everything I’ve known about these things been wrong?” “How could I be so wrong?” “Is my existence a joke?”

No, you’re not wrong. Your existence is not a joke. The claims are crazy.

Here are two recent examples.

World’s First Patented Unhackable Computer Ever

What?! Unhackable? This can’t possibly be true. Can it? Well, if we were to believe Pritam Nath, the CEO of MicrosafeX Company, then yes it is true. If you use your noggin and think about this for a minute, the answer is absolutely NOT! There is no “unhackable” computer. There is no “unhackable” anything. Mr. Nath is selling snake oil, and thankfully the jig was up before people fell for it.

You should read his claims on his Kickstarter fundraising page. The claims are laughable if they weren’t so sad and patently false. There were 36 reported “backers” of Mr. Nath’s snake oil before the campaign was cancelled. I’m guessing most of these people were in it for the fun, not because they took this thing seriously.

Time AI

Sounds cool. What is it?

AI is sexy, but if AI doesn’t get your juices flowing, how about “quasi-prime numbers”, “infinite wave conjugations,” and “non-factor based dynamic encryption and innovative new developments in AI”?

SOLD! Lots a big words solving cool problems that I don’t understand. Must be cutting edge stuff.

The company peddling this Time AI thingy is Crown Sterling out of Newport Beach, California. I’d never even heard of these guys before last week.

Last week, at Black Hat, Robert Edward Grant, the company’s Founder, Chairman, and CEO gave a talk titled “The 2019 Discovery of Quasi-Prime Numbers: What Does This Mean For Encryption?“. The talk was so overtly snake oilish that it prompted very strong reactions (outrage) from some people who were there.

Dan Guido, the CEO of Trail of Bits stood up during Mr. Grant’s snake oil pitch and shouted “Get off the stage, you shouldn’t be here!” “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Ballsy.

Here’s a video clip of the exchange.

Jean-Philippe Aumasson is a serious crypto guy, and the author of the book Serious Cryptography.

There was enough of an uproar to force changes at Black Hat, including removal of references to the talk from the conference website and a promise of better vetting of sponsored talks in the future.

More coverage:

These are two examples of obvious and overtly deceptive snake oil. There’s also the less obvious, covertly deceptive variety.

Covertly deceptive

Covertly deceptive snake oil is hard for the inexperienced and/or lazy security professional to identify. It’s the sort of snake oil where a salesperson or company claims that their product does something that it doesn’t or that it will solve a problem, but it won’t. This snake oil is hard to identify because you won’t know unless you know.

One tell for covertly deceptive snake oil is the prominent use of sexy buzzwords. Common sexy buzzwords/phrases include:

  • Artificial intelligence or “AI”
  • Blockchain
  • Digital transformation
  • Big data
  • Machine learning or “ML”
  • Nextgen
  • Data-driven

If someone uses a buzzword or phrase that you don’t understand, go find out what it means. Don’t just sit there and nod your head like you know. Discounting buzzwords and phrases won’t always work though. There are legitimate companies and products in the market using sexy buzzwords, but work as promised.

The key to protecting against covertly deceptive snake oil is to follow the advice in the closing (below); research, educate, and/or ask. Don’t ever rely solely on the opinions and research provided by the company or salesperson who’s selling, it’s biased.

Buyer beware

It’s you who makes buying decisions for you. No pressure, but every dollar you spend on security is one less dollar your organization can spend on fulfilling its mission, so you should get it right.

Don’t ever buy anything without doing one (or all three) of the following:

  1. Conduct in-depth research into the product and how it works.
  2. Educate yourself on the technology the product claims to use.
  3. Ask an unbiased expert for his/her opinion.

If we all made good purchasing decisions, the snake oil will dry up. You will need to do more work, but in the end it will save you.

Beware of People Who Do Everything

Part one in a three-part series about the information security industry money grab.

Introduction

NOTE: I covered some of these issues in my book; Unsecurity: Information Security Is Failing. Breaches Are Epidemic. How Can We Fix This Broken Industry?

In this series, I’ll focus on three types of money grabbers:

  1. Those who will do anything and everything for your money,
  2. Those who sell snake oil, and
  3. Those who will sell you something regardless of its effects on your security.

Sometimes the money grabbers grab your money intentionally, but rarely do they do it with malicious intent.

There’s no doubt that the money grab is alive and well in the information security industry. We’re in the midst of the Cybersecurity gold rush, and there are thousands of companies fighting for their piece of your pie.

Cybersecurity gold rush

First, a quick comparison between the famous California gold rush and our cybersecurity gold rush.

The California gold rush looked like this: $10 million in 1849, $41 million in 1850, $75 million in 1851, and $81 million in 1852 (peak). After 1852, the rush gradually declined until 1857, then leveled to about $45 million per year.

The cybersecurity gold rush looks like this: $3.5 billion in 2004, $114 billion in 2018, $124 billion in 2019, and $170 billion by 2022. We haven’t exactly leveled off yet, but that day will come.

The truth about the cybersecurity gold rush; if you’re not one who’s making money, you’re probably one who’s spending it.

Spending well or not

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How confident am I that I’m spending my information security dollars wisely?
  • Am I getting the most value out of every dollar I spend?
  • Where do I get answers?

If you seek answers from a money grabber, you’re in for a rude awakening. Maybe not immediately, but soon. Money grabbers are biased, they’ll give you answers with a bias to sell you something.

So, how can you tell a money grabber from a trusted source of good information? It starts with understanding who the players are in our industry.

The Players

There are four players (or roles) in our industry; manufacturers, vendors, partners, and practitioners. Each of the players serve a very important role in making our industry function, and one player cannot effectively exist without the others. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one player is any better than another, they’re all critical.

Let’s break them down.

Security Manufacturers

Security manufacturers provide innovative hardware and/or software designed to solve real-world information security problems. They are critical to the information security industry because they make the tools we all use to secure ourselves.

Security manufacturers have three responsibilities to our industry:

  1. Understand the problem they’re trying to solve enough to make an effective hardware and/or software solution.
  2. Make an effective hardware and/or software solution that solves a problem.
  3. Sell the hardware and/or software solution to people in order to make money.

The manufacturer obviously needs to make money in order to satisfy investors and stakeholders. They’ll also need the capital to make more products. Stop the cycle and the manufacturer dies.

All fine and dandy.

Problems arise when a manufacturer attempts to play other roles, like giving you non-product related advice. It only seems logical that the advice you’d receive would be biased by one of their primary motivations which is to sell you their products. A manufacturer wants to sell you things because they want your money. What they sell you might solve a problem, but if it doesn’t, that’s ultimately your problem. The worst practice is convincing you that you have a problem that in reality doesn’t exist.

Even if a manufacturer solves a problem for you, you need to ask yourself if it was the right problem to solve. Was the risk significant enough to warrant a reallocation of resources (personnel, time, money, etc.)?

A manufacturer is probably not the best place to ask your questions about where you should spend your next information security dollar. They’ll certainly have an answer, but it won’t be unbiased, and it may not be in your best interest.

Security Vendors

Security vendors are an interesting bunch. They don’t make products, they sell them. We need vendors though. We need them because they’re closer to our problems than most manufacturers, and they know products better than partners (up next). They give manufacturers a distribution and support channel, so the manufacturer can go back to what they do best, making things.

Vendors represent products made by the manufacturers, and probably provide support for the products too. Vendors are usually specialists in the products they represent and are the “go to” people for making sure your products operate the way their intended to operate.

Advice from a vendor might be closer to the truth, but it will still be significantly biased. Vendors get paid for selling products, and they only represent their suite of products. Vendors, like manufacturers, want to sell you something. Ultimately, they want your money. Solving problems will be limited to the products they carry and advice probably won’t take other creative possibilities into account. Security vendors usually don’t innovate much and are more likely to go with whatever the herd is doing.

Security vendors are the best place to go for advice about a specific suite of products, but are not the best place to go for unbiased expertise.

Security Partners

A true security partner is a consultant without bias, but someone without bias is a pipe dream.  The truth is, nobody is without bias, but good partners do their best to be a trusted advisor to clients with as little bias as possible. Good security partners who understand the importance of their role (in the industry and to their clients) are product agnostic. They strive to make recommendations based on what’s best for the client.

Partners also want your money, but they won’t make money if they betray your trust. Trust is what keeps them honest.

Advice from a security partner must be as unbiased and as objective as possible. Security partners are good at creating or finding innovative solutions to problems because they’re not tied to any specific product or suite of products. One problem with a security partner is they may not have the deep knowledge about any one particular product like a vendor or manufacturer may have. Partners try to compensate for this by establishing working (not selling) relationships with vendors and manufacturers.

Security partners are the best place to go for advice about solving your information security problems with as little bias as possible. A security partner would be the best place to start for answers to most information security questions.

Security Practitioners

The hard-working security people who bust their asses everyday to make their workplace and the world a better place. Security practitioners make (or influence) buying decisions and they’re the ones who live with the fruits (or consequences) of their decisions. Most security practitioners don’t have time to research everything and need others to assist them in fulfilling their own personal mission.

Security practitioners deserve, and should demand respect at all times.

OK, now you know the roles/players. Where’s the money grab?

Beware of People Who Do Everything

I’m speaking to the security practitioners now.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could go one place for everything? A one-stop shop. Seems like a great idea and a real benefit, but it’s ignorant to think that there wouldn’t be an undercurrent of bias that could hurt you and your organization.

  • A manufacturer is biased to sell you their products.
  • A vendor is biased to sell you something out of their suite of products.
  • A partner couldn’t even sell you products if they wanted to. A partner cannot be a one-stop shop even if they want to be.

If you’re comfortable with the bias and you’re comfortable with the inevitable waste of resources, you’ll be comfortable with the one-stop shop approach. It’s lazy and wasteful, but it’s your security program.

If you’re not comfortable with the bias and wasted resources, you might have a little more work cut out for you. The right thing is to use each player for what they were designed for. A manufacturer for buying their products, a vendor for buying from their suite of products and product support, and a partner for the best advice.

Problems come when a player doesn’t understand their own role. When a vendor tries to be a partner too or when a partner tries to be a vendor too. Worse yet is the player who tries to be manufacturer, vendor, and partner. If you didn’t know any better, the “we do everything” player has you by the neck.

In my experience, the most common offender of their role, almost like an identity problem, is a vendor. Many vendors grew their business through other means, maybe selling printers and copiers, maybe doing information technology (IT) work, or maybe reselling networking equipment. The vendor resells things, but as a matter of survival and as margins decrease, they look for new streams of revenue. One common stream of revenue is security consulting services where the market is relatively immature and where a vendor can realize more significant margins.

Two problems with the vendor who plays partner:

  1. The bias problem. I’ve already covered this, but it’s a significant problem. I’ve witnessed many occasions where a vendor has sold things to a client that were clearly biased by the fact that the vendor sells those products. It’s only natural that a vendor would sell products, but it’s the practitioner who pays the price.
  2. Good at some things, but an expert in no things. Nobody can be the best at everything, you can only be the best at one thing or maybe a few things. A vendor who sells copiers, installs Cisco networks, builds data centers, and recycles old equipment, is not likely to be an expert in information security. Information security requires a specialized skill set, and you will get what you pay for. Unfortunately, it’s the practitioner again who pays the price.

Vendors aren’t bad. Partners aren’t bad. Manufacturers aren’t bad. Things can get bad when one player tries to play multiple roles. These multi-role players do it because it’s in their best interest, not necessarily because it’s in your best interest.

Things can get bad for you when you play into a multi-role player’s hand. You wouldn’t know the difference unless you were paying attention. Spend every information security dollar like it’s precious, because it is. One wasted dollar is one less dollar to spend on other more productive and enjoyable things.

Before I close, and one last time, there is nothing wrong with manufacturers, vendors, or partners. They’re all critical. It just helps if you know who they are, and better yet, if they know who they are.

Robocalls Are Dumb, You’re Not

Your cell phone buzzes, you look down and see “No Caller ID”, “Unknown” or maybe a weird number you don’t recognize. Do you answer, or do you just let the call go to voicemail?

Some people, myself included, will let these calls go to voicemail. It’s not a bad idea to ignore calls from numbers you don’t recognize.

Some people answer, they listen, and they follow the caller’s instructions, even if the caller is nothing more than a machine.

So, let’s say you’re one of the people who answers. The machine with a human voice tells you some urgent and potentially bad news. The machine tells you if you don’t want things to get worse, you’d better “press one” or call the phone number provided. Your mind starts to race, and you begin this internal dialog with yourself:

Oh crap!

Wait. Maybe this is a scam.

But what if it’s not? What if I really am in trouble?

It couldn’t hurt to press one, could it?

Ah hell, I can’t chance it. I don’t need any trouble. I should take care of this right now.

I’ve got to find out what’s going on.

After pressing one, a man, a real one this time, gets on the phone and tells you it was smart for you to take this seriously. The conversation goes something like this:

Man: This is John, from the Department of Social Security Administration. May I ask who’s on the line?

You: This is Jane Doe, and I got this call that something is wrong or something about criminal charges.

Man: Yes, thank God you took this matter seriously ma’am.

You: So, what happened?

Man: It looks like your identity is being used to commit felonious acts. These acts are tied to you, and you will be charged with a crime if you don’t act.

You: What do I need to do?

Man: We need to file your paperwork right away to stop the charges. We can mail the paperwork in, but I fear that the courts won’t get it in time. Our other option is to file your paperwork over the phone. This is the best way to make sure this matter gets squared away fast, before you get hauled into court.

You: OK, what do you need?

Man: We need to verify your identity.

You agree, so he proceeds to ask you questions about you. He asks for your name, your address, your age, where you work, and of course, your Social Security number. You give him everything he asks for, and the call ends with some mysterious, but official sounding close.

You’ve been scammed. Sometimes the crooks are targeting your identity (like this example), and sometimes they’re targeting your money directly. Sometime both.

Robocalls are dumb, but they must be working, at least some of the time. There are real victims, or the scammers wouldn’t waste their time. In 2018, there were more than 26 billion robocalls placed to phones in the United States, a 46% year-over-year increased volume. (Hiya Robocall Radar 2018 Report)

This got me thinking, why? The reasons are simple, because it’s cheap for the scammers and it works. People must be falling for these dumb scams. Attackers wouldn’t go through the trouble if these scams weren’t effective, right?

People take the bait, either through ignorance or through a moment of weakness.

Just this week, the FCC adopted new rules to combat robocalls. You might think, “great, let’s shut these sumbiches down!“. Hold your enthusiasm just a minute. Do you really expect the Feds to protect you? Actions by the FCC might help curb the problem, but at the end of the day, this falls on you. Only you can prevent yourself from being scammed.

It’s baffling to think that someone would fall for a robocall scam, but rather than sitting here shaking my head, let’s go through some examples and try to help someone.

Call Number One – Social Security Number Suspension

Here’s the text of the call:

We found some suspicious activity, so if you want to know about this case just press one thank you. This call is from the Department of Social Security Administration. The reason you have received this phone call from our department is to inform you that we just suspend your Social Security number because we found some suspicious activity, so if you want to know about this case just press one thank you.

The message continues and repeats.

Here’s the audio:

Here’s the skinny.

  1. You will NEVER receive a call from the “Department of Social Security Administration”. Besides, the actual name of the agency is just “Social Security Administration” not the “Department of Social Security Administration”.
  2. The Social Security Administration DOES NOT monitor your number for “suspicious activity”.
  3. The Social Security Administration DOES NOT suspend your Social Security number.

DO NOT PRESS ONE.

Call Number Two – Legal Consequences

Here’s the text of the call:

Social Security number the (unintelligible) received this message, you need to get back to us to avoid legal consequences. To connect call immediately, press one.

The message ends.

Here’s the audio:

Here’s the skinny on this one.

I don’t even know what the hell the message says really. All I know is that I don’t like legal consequences. Guessing you don’t either. The fact is, you are not facing any legal consequences, and even if you were you’d be served in writing and probably in person. Nobody calls you to tell you that you’re going to suffer legal consequences on a voicemail, at least nobody who’s legitimate.

DO NOT PRESS ONE.

Call Number Three – Legal Proceedings

Here’s the text of the call:

legal enforcement action filed on your Social Security number for criminal activities. So, when you get this message, kindly (unintelligible) as soon as possible on our number that is 210-361-9633 before we begin with the legal proceedings. Thank you.

Here’s the audio:

The skinny.

A “legal enforcement action filed on your Social Security number for criminal activities”?! This is so preposterous, I’m having trouble thinking of something to write in response. You will NOT receive a recorded call telling you of impending legal proceedings because of criminal activities using your Social Security number. If there were such a crazy thing, you’d be notified in person and in writing.

DO NOT CALL THEM BACK. (Side note: I did. Got a busy signal, so I’m guessing they already got taken down by the carrier/law enforcement).

Call Number Four – Chinese

The text of this call is all in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese. So, I did some translation work*. Here’s what I think it says:

这里是中国领事馆文件通知您有一封重要文件尚未领取中有任何疑问请按铃 查询

in English:

Here is the Chinese Consulate Document to inform you that there is an important document that has not been received. Please feel free to ring your query.

Here’s the audio:

The skinny.

I don’t speak or understand Chinese, so there was no real chance of this one working on me. This is an automated caller though, and there are an estimated 2.9 million people in the United States who do speak Chinese and as many as 1.2 billion people worldwide who also speak Chinese.

One joy of the robocall for scammers is they can reach thousands of phones automatically. It’s no skin off their back if they reach someone who doesn’t understand. Eventually, they will.

Not sure how effective this sort of call is with the Chinese speaking community, but like I said earlier, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work (at all).

(Another side note: Now that I think a little more, maybe this last one wasn’t a scam. My wife is travelling to China next month. WAIT. See, here’s rationalization. Irrational rationalization. No, it’s a scam and I will ignore it.)

TIPS

The first tip is the most important one, so I’m going to shout it. Ready?

  1. NEVER, EVER GIVE OUT ANY SENSITIVE INFORMATION THROUGH ANY COMMUNICATION CHANNEL WHERE YOU DIDN’T INITIATE THE COMMUNICATION.

You get that? I’m going to shout it again. This time I want you to really think about it.

  1. NEVER, EVER GIVE OUT ANY SENSITIVE INFORMATION THROUGH ANY COMMUNICATION CHANNEL WHERE YOU DIDN’T INITIATE THE COMMUNICATION.

Communication channels include phone calls, emails, popups, text messages, and even in-person. If you initiate the phone call, not at the prompting of someone else giving you the phone number to call, you are most of the way there in protecting yourself from scams.

2. Ignore phone calls that originate from phone numbers you don’t recognize. Ignore them, and get on with your day. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message.

3. Be skeptical. You don’t need to be paranoid, but be skeptical.

4. Slow down. Don’t react without giving your mind time to think and process what’s going on. Taking 10 minutes to think things through will not put you in danger, but just the opposite.

5. Ask someone you trust. If you’re not sure whether a phone call or message is legit, ask someone. They’re not tied to the events emotionally in the same way you are. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.

There you have it. You can probably come up with some additional tips along the way, but these are the basics. Master the basics people.

 

 

Must have more data…

So, I wrote the first book, Unsecurity based more on experience and less on research. It was easy (well, not “easy”) because the audience for the book were the people in my own tribe (information security people). It was like writing a book to myself.

Now I’m writing the second book, and the audience has changed. It’s a book written to and for non-information security people whom I’ve affectionately called “normal” people. This doesn’t mean that a normal person isn’t awesome or exceptional, they are.  It’s just the word I chose to reference people who aren’t information security folks. Maybe “the masses” is a better reference. We’ll see what makes it into the book.

Anyway, I have a problem. Sort of.

The Problem

I had a revelation while I was writing this book. It came to me while I was writing about how we (security people) make the mistake of assuming we know what the masses think. Even worse, we sometimes tell the masses what the masses think. It’s wrong!

Well, I was about to make the same mistake that I was rebuking other security people about.

STOP!

Don’t you think it makes better sense to ask the masses what they think about information security rather than to assume I know what they think? This book will make a lot more sense and be much more helpful if it uses the same language that the masses use and addresses their concerns!

The Solution

The best way I know how to get answers to the questions I have was to create a simple survey, one that can be completed in five minutes or less. So, I did.

So far I’ve received more than 500 responses to the thirty question survey, and the data is awesome! As I’ve mulled through some of the preliminary data, it’s amazing to see what people think! Who’d a thunk?

500 results gives the survey a lot of credibility. The margin of error is ~5%, which is great! Wouldn’t it be great to get a margin of error of <=3%? I think so, and the only way to get there is to ask for more responses. This is where I’m asking for your help.

Would you be so kind as to take this survey (it’s a safe link) and send it to as many of your contacts as you feel comfortable? The survey link is here:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/security_for_normal_people

The better the data, the better the book. That’s the theory at least.

I’ll be writing more about the upcoming book in future articles. I think it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to help a lot of people!

THANK YOU!

P.S. The word map you see as the “featured image” in the title is mapped from the raw input (answers without any filters or changes) to the question “What could information security experts do to help people better?” (in the survey).