Friday, March 3, 2017

It's Time to Compete in Information Security

One of the recurring messages I hear from family and friends when I talk to them about information security is, "this is a really big problem, so how do we help people understand, and how do we fix it?" In considering this question, I've also been considering how the general population learns about anything new, and how those new things become trends which later become the standards by which we live. You see, once the consuming public understands something, and demands it, they will tolerate nothing less. I think the answer then is, in product advertising. I think the answer is, it's time providers made information security a competitive topic and advertised it as a competitive advantage over their competition. I think we need to drive consumer understanding by putting the topic directly in front of them in as broad a means as possible. Everyone in our nation consumes, so why not engage everyone in their common practice and force the question upon them: "would you choose the products from provider a or b if you knew one had stronger information security practices than the other? Here's what's at risk if you don't choose wisely."

If you are a consumer who assumes information security is baked into every product and service you purchase, you aren't alone in that assumption, and unfortunately you are gravely wrong. In general, product and services providers, heck, nearly every organization out there except the top few (Fortune x lists), considers information security a nuisance; something they must fund, like car insurance, in order to enter the market and provide goods and services. In fact, I've heard the term "insurance" used countless times by organizations as they describe how they view Information Security. The security program is there just in case. Therefore, InfoSec is generally funded or supported in a minimal way to satisfy regulatory controls or external inquiries, but falls far short of actually addressing security challenges. That places you, the consumer, all of us, at considerable risk. You see when you provide someone your information, whether that be sensitive credit card numbers, or pictures you post online, or information about yourself etc., you are placing your personal security, health, and wealth in that third party's hands. Criminals are out there, constantly trying to access that information so they can sell it for a profit. Identity theft, stolen credit cards, product fraud and other consumer impacts are simply the tip of the iceberg. Worse, some nations are out there stealing that information to drive strategic advantage over other nations in the international trade debate. As we become increasingly dependent on connected systems and data via the Internet, we are placing our way of life and often times our own safety and security into the hands of the providers who connect us with those services. Yet for the most part, those providers view Information Security and Systems Security as a cost of business that must be tightly controlled, else it negatively cut into profit.

There is far more at stake here than you realize. What if your smart phone stops working. The phone works fine, but the interconnectedness of all your apps suddenly stops. Think about that for a minute. Think of all the things you do on a daily basis via your smart phone, tablet, or computer. Think about all the things in your home, work, or school locations that use the Internet or networking in some way. Think about email, what if it's gone? Not just consumer email, but enterprise email as well. What about traffic lights? Grocery store registers? Meters and pumps that control water purification and distribution? What if your bank suddenly freezes all your financial assets because someone impersonating you just transferred a bunch of money to a terrorist organization? What if someone posing as you purchased illegal goods or content via the Internet, and the FBI happened to be monitoring? What if your company suddenly finds themselves up against new competition who keeps delivering exactly the same products and much lower costs to your intended customers? What if your personal emails are suddenly leaked onto the public Internet? What about voice conversations? What if you are battling a medical or personal issue that you haven't informed anyone of, and your records, your medication purchase history, suddenly gets posted to social media? What if someone else is watching your home security camera system or your baby monitor? What if that message you just texted to your friend about how much you hate your boss, suddenly gets forwarded to your boss? What if media outlets stop broadcasting via cable, the radio, or Internet? What if you are in the air and your aircraft's flight control system can no longer connect to GPS information?

We are far more dependent upon technology and interconnectedness that we recognize...and most of those organizations providing the services we are dependent upon view Information Security as a nuisance.

In our world of supply and demand, what consumers demand, providers supply. Providers won't provide what people don't want or aren't willing to pay for. When one provider steps forward and boldly advertises something that catches the attention of the consuming public, it ignites a fire that spreads throughout the industry, sparking competition, and replacing the old with new. Take the iPhone for example. Say what you want to about Apple, but they created a demand that became a new standard of living in the US and globally. However, as I'm sure you can attest, often times as a consumer, you may not be willing to purchase something until your understanding of it changes. Just because something is new and advertised, doesn't mean it will stick. Sometimes, when understanding takes root, it creates a paradigm shift, and everything changes. I recall back in the early 2000s, ordering books online from, back when that's what basically all they sold. I recall friends and family members making fun of me for shopping online rather than in traditional stores. I dared them to try it for themselves. The rest is history. Now Amazon is part of the life of almost every American, and we are no longer satisfied with 10 day shipping times. You see, what you know influences what you do. In fact, I believe that what you know or understand, is reflected in what you will do. It's a cause and effect relationship. Before you understood something, what seemed totally unreasonable or unnecessary to you, becomes a requirement and a new expectation, or a new assumption moving forward, once you understand it. Now, thanks to Amazon Prime, my kids are challenged with learning to wait more than 2 days to receive anything new they ordered or was ordered for them. It's a new standard of living, and a new set of expectations. They, and I, won't tolerate 5-10 business day shipping any longer. I believe that if we can establish common understanding of the security topic and use that understanding to drive consumer demand, then we can really address the problem, because consumers will demand it. The first challenge though, is understanding. You may think you understand the risks because your hear about security in the news, or read about the latest big data breach online. However, I challenge you on that. I think you are aware of some of the impact...but you lack understanding.

Consumers have been inundated with a constant stream of bad "cybersecurity" news from the media over the past decade. The escalating trend of breach after breach, growing larger and larger, has effectively elevated the cybersecurity issue to a mainstream discussion within our nation. We are generally aware, however as I recently wrote about in another post, I believe one of the largest challenges facing us in the information security (InfoSec) discussion today is, we have a broad and increasing sense of awareness on this topic, but a general lack of understanding. What I mean by that is people are generally aware that data and information systems protection is a problem, but they don't understand the depth of the problem, nor what it takes to fully address it. Worse, they assume that what they are aware of is all there is. When you don't fully understand something, you will naturally make a lot of assumptions about it. The media and entertainment industries haven't helped. In fact, I believe they have hindered this understanding. Based on my conversations with people in life, I believe this lack of understanding has led to three dangerous assumptions among consumers; first that those providing products and services they are dependent upon, are naturally doing whatever it takes to address the security problems we face, second that there is simply nothing that can be done about the information security problem and we should just accept things as they are, and third that the bad cybersecurity news is just more background noise from the news media and isn't really a major problem - it's just hype. Regardless of which of these assumptions consumers hold to, this "awareness" causes them to assume that those providers understand the problem and would naturally do whatever it takes to address it, and whatever they provide is sufficient.

However, this lack of understanding also permeates the provider side (product and service organizations). Organizations and corporations recognize that they must do something with regard to protecting sensitive data, including the data their customers provide them. These organizations are driven by producing something that others will consume. That means they look to their consumers to define the requirements for the products or services they will provide. That means guardians of our sensitive data and the systems we're dependent upon for everyday life, are looking to the consumer to establish the requirements for those products and services. When consumers are ignorant, they won't set the right expectations of their providers. When consumers are ignorant, and have a basic level of awareness about the security topic, they will be satisfied with their providers implementing minimal security capabilities that satisfy this basic consumer awareness. This minimally compliant approach falls short of actually fixing the problem.

I'll give you an example. I recently worked for a software company who developed software for the general public. They were what those in the industry call a "business to consumer," or B to C, company. Due to increasing security issues their consumers were experiencing (they became aware of the real problem), they were directly faced with the question, "what should we do, and how far should we go?" They decided to put the question to their customers and developed various examples and simulations that demonstrated various depths of security features that their customers could benefit from. They found that among the sample customers they engaged, the majority actually provided negative feedback when they interacted with the models that had more security features built-in. This translated in business terms to potential loss of customers if they moved to an approach that adopted more security into the product. However, for those customers who were impacted by the low state of security in product, they were willing to tolerate a different, more secure experience, because they now understood the problem. In fact, I recall hearing of customers being surprised by the lack of security in the product, asking, "why didn't you do x already?"

I believe it's time providers started generating a demand for improve information security, by directly advertising and educating their customers on the topic. I think it's time information security became competitive advantage. I think it's time organizations stepped forward and fully exposed the security problem, but demonstrating how they have solved it and their competitors haven't.

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