Skynet or The Calculor?

Technology-based companies can either be organized around silicon (computers), or carbon (people). Depending on which type of company you are, security practices are, by necessity, different. So why then do we delude ourselves into thinking that there is one perfect set of security practices?

In a silicon-based organization, business processes are predominantly driven by predefined rules, implemented in computing systems (think: call centers). Where humans serve a role, it is often as an advanced interactive voice recognition (IVR) system, or as an expert system to handle cases not yet planned for (and, potentially, to make your customers happier to talk to a human). Security systems in this type of a world can be designed to think adversarially about the employees — after all, the employees are to be constrained to augment the computing systems which drive the bulk of the business.

In a carbon-based organization, business processes are organized around the human, and are typically more fluid (think: software engineering, marketing). The role of computers in a carbon-based organization is to augment the knowledge workers, not constrain them. The tasks and challenges of a security system are far different, and require greater flexibility — after all, employees are to be supported when engaging in novel activities designed to grow the business.

Consider a specific problem: data leakage. In a silicon-based organization, this is a (relatively) simple problem. Users can be restricted in exporting data from their systems, consumer technology more advanced than pen and paper can be banned from the facility, and all work must be done in the facility. Layer on just-in-time access control (restricting a user to only access records that they have been assigned to), and you’ve limited the leakage … to what a user can remember or write down. And that’s still a problem: twenty years ago, I worked in a company that used social security numbers as the unique identifier for its employees. Two decades later, a handful of those numbers are still rattling around in my head, a deferred data leakage problem waiting to happen.

Now compare that simple scenario against a knowledge worker environment. People are very mobile, and need to access company data everywhere. Assignments show up by word of mouth, so users need quick access to sources of data they had not seen before. Users are on multiple platforms, even when performing the same job, so system and application management is a challenge. Interaction with customers and partners happens rapidly, with sensitive data flying across the wires. Trying to prevent data leakage in this world is a Herculean task. Likely, given the impossibility of the task, most security implementations here will reduce business flexibility, without significantly reducing business risk.

But what can the enterprising security manager do? First, understand your business. If it’s a silicon-based organization, you’re in luck. Most security vendors, consultants, and best practices guides are looking to help you out (and take some of your money while doing so). If, on the other hand, you’re in a carbon-based business, you’ve got a much harder task ahead of you. Most solutions wont help a lot out of the box, and risk acceptance may be so endemic to your organizational mindset that changing it may well feel impossible. You’ll need to focus on understanding and communicating risk, and designing novel solutions to problems unique to your business. Sounds hard, but take heart: it’s not like the silicon-based security team is going to get it right, either.