H4cked Off: Pity the CSO

10 Jun 2011

This week a sizeable chunk of masonry detached itself from the building opposite the Computing offices and plummeted to the Soho streets below.

Fortunately a parked car was the only casualty. I understand there will be no legal repercussions for the building owners, because they're now intending to appoint a chief masonry officer.

Similarly, my four year old son would ordinarily be in grave trouble for refusing to listen to me last night when I told him it was time for bed, but I understand he's looking at appointing a chief behavioural officer, so that's the end of it.

This being a security blog, hopefully by now most of you have realised I'm talking about the recent actions of secure token specialists RSA, and consumer tech giants Sony.

Both firms have seen their brands dragged through the mire of late as a result of security failings. Both have since sought to wipe away the mud and restore a bit of gleam through the creation of a new role, that of the chief security officer.

In both cases, the role will, at least initially, be a bit of a poisoned chalice. Perhaps not on the scale of anyone hapless enough to allow himself to be put in charge of the England football team, but a sticky wicket nonetheless.

In the case of corporate behemoth Sony, much appears to be wrong. I've written recently about the persistent nature of its data breaches so I won't go into detail here. But suffice to say if its security policies were a hard hat, I wouldn't stalk the streets of Soho in it just at the moment.

When a large and disparate corporation with myriad servers storing presumably countless petabytes of data suddenly and unexpectedly finds itself targeted by the world's hacking elite, the pain is going to be deep and enduring.

There's no security switch that it can flip to ‘on'. Given the sloth's pace of Sony's response to its security troubles, it seems apparent that it had either no, or at best severely deficient, policies in place for dealing with breaches.

And RSA is little better. It too has been accused of a ponderous response to its attack, which it describes as ‘extremely sophisticated' and others describe as ‘fairly basic, you just weren't very well prepared'.

The point is it takes time, certainly months, to improve security across an organisation. The larger the enterprise, and the more disparate its services, the more likely those months roll on into years.

Multiple security solutions need to be implemented to create that mystical ‘layered approach' that security evangelists like to preach.

Penetrate one layer? Here's another. Accessed our network? Well done, you won't find anything though. Found something? Tough, it's encrypted. Found the encryption key? Fire the chief security officer...

And that's why it's a poisoned chalice. In the short term these appointments are an attempt to reassure customers that similar troubles won't happen again. And if they do? Well you've got a nice scapegoat installed to take the bullet.

Stuart Sumner, chief reporter, Computing

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