Skip to main content

The one question to ask a security team that will tell you if their company is secure

Well, okay, it won't actually tell you whether they are secure or not and there are other questions you could ask, but the point is you can tell a lot about a company's security by how they answer security questions. I was recently at a security round table and the conversation turned to third parties and how you can assure yourself of their security. Some advocated scoring companies or certifications, while others advocated sending questionnaires. The argument against questionnaires is that they are a point in time view of the organisation. However, you can ask process and policy based questions and you can tell a lot from how they answer.

So, what is the question that will reveal all? Well, as I said it's not one question as such, more a type of question. It should be about something basic, some security control you're sure they have because everyone does. For example:

Why do you have a firewall?

Probable answers:
  • "because everyone has one"/"because the course I went on said I should have one"/"because my last organisation has one and they are very secure" - bad answer, you're not thinking about controls or security, but instead just buying popular products or whatever the vendor sells you and undoubtedly have a false sense of security
  • "because our PCI/ISO/HIPAA/Other certification says we have to" - bad answer, you're ticking boxes and chasing compliance rather than actually trying to be secure
  • "well, a firewall is part of a secure layered architecture and enables segregation at the network level, restricting the ingress and egress... etc." - okay answer, at least you know what it does and may understand its limitations
  • "our threat modelling has identified threat actors and attack scenarios that can be mitigated, in part, by introducing a firewall at this location in our network" - good answer, you understand the technology, you are thinking how to deploy it, what technologies could help you secure your assets and what are the best projects/controls you can spend your limited budget on to reduce risk

I have done (and still do) many third party assessments and I do advocate asking them questions rather than just trusting someone else's word or a rating/certification of some sort, but I'm mostly interested in how they answer questions. I've seen too many 'compliant' companies say "We're secure, the U.S. Government uses us!" or "All the high street banks use our service!", yet fail close inspection and have glaring weaknesses or vulnerabilities.

Trust your own judgement; ask them a question. And if you're a third party, ask yourself the question... with all your controls.

Comments

Popular Posts

You say it's 'Security Best Practice' - prove it!

Over the last few weeks I have had many conversations and even attended presentations where people talk about 'Security Best Practices' and how we should all follow them. However, 'Best Practice' is just another way of saying 'What everyone else does!' OK, so if everyone else does it and it's the right thing to do, you should be able to prove it. The trouble is that nobody ever measures best practice - why would you? If everyone's doing it, it must be right.

Well, I don't agree with this sentiment. Don't get me wrong, many of the so-called best practices are good for most organisations, but blindly following them without thought for your specific business could cause as many problems as you solve. I see best practice like buying an off-the-peg suit - it will fit most people acceptably well if they are a fairly 'normal' size and shape. However, it will never fit as well as a tailored suit and isn't an option for those of us who are ou…

Coventry Building Society Grid Card

Coventry Building Society have recently introduced the Grid Card as a simple form of 2-factor authentication. It replaces memorable words in the login process. Now the idea is that you require something you know (i.e. your password) and something you have (i.e. the Grid Card) to log in - 2 things = 2 factors. For more about authentication see this post.

How does it work? Very simply is the answer. During the log in process, you will be asked to enter the digits at 3 co-ordinates. For example: c3, d2 and j5 would mean that you enter 5, 6 and 3 (this is the example Coventry give). Is this better than a secret word? Yes, is the short answer. How many people will choose a memorable word that someone close to them could guess? Remember, that this isn't a password as such, it is expected to be a word and a word that means something to the user. The problem is that users cannot remember lots of passwords, so remembering two would be difficult. Also, having two passwords isn't really…

Security is a mindset not a technology

I often get asked what I look for when hiring security professionals and my answer is usually that I want the right attitude first and foremost - knowledge is easy to gain and those that just collect pieces of paper should maybe think about gaining experience rather than yet more acronyms. However, it's difficult to get someone to change their mindset, so the right attitude is very important. But what is the right attitude?


Firstly, security professionals differ from developers and IT engineers in their outlook and approach, so shouldn't be lumped in with them, in my opinion. The mindset of a security professional is constantly thinking about what could go wrong (something that tends to spill over into my personal life as well, much to the annoyance of my wife). Contrast this with the mindset of a developer who is being measured on their delivery of new features. Most developers, or IT engineers, are looking at whether what they have delivered satisfies the requirements from t…