F.G.O. Stuart F.G.O. Stuart F.G.O. Stuart

All Hands on Deck — Handling Security Issues

Building a service that unintentionally exposes millions of people’s user data or is open to all kinds of other security issues is, unfortunately, very quickly done. Reason enough to look at who’s going to be involved when responding to an issue.

A Historic Event

On April 10th, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic on April 10, 1912 was on its maiden voyage from the port in Southampton to New York City. At that time, the Titanic was the largest ocean liner in service. There were about 2,224 people on board.

Four days into the journey, on April 14, at about 9 am ship time, Captain Edward Smith received this message from steamship Caronia:

West-bound steamers report bergs, growlers, and field ice […]

A few hours later, at 1:42 pm, this message from steamship Baltic made it to the captain:

[…] Greek steamer Athenia reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today […]

The captain acknowledged both messages. But it wasn’t uncommon to see icebergs and field ice in that area in April. And it was also a general assumption that ocean liners weren’t at risk when hitting an ice berg.

Throughout the day, four more messages were received by the radio operators on board Titanic. At 1:45 pm:

Amerika passed two large icebergs […]

At 7:30 pm, a message from the Californian to the Antillian:

[…] Three large bergs 5 miles southward of us. […]

And at 9:40 pm from the Mesaba to the Titanic:

Ice report […]. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice.

These three messages got lost and never made it to the captain.

The sixth and final message which was about to be received by the radio operators on the Titanic at 11 pm from the Californian. The Californian was another steam ship which stopped nearby in the middle of the ice. However, the radio operator on duty at that time was still busy processing a backlog of messages from the day before. Instead of responding he, shut up the sending operator with:

Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race.

Cape Race was a radio station on shore, close by.

Ten minutes later, at 11:40 pm, after sighting an iceberg right ahead, the Titanic hit it starboard. Over the next 2 hours and 40 minutes, more and more water made its way into the hull.

The Titanic sank at 2:20 am on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1500 people.

A Present Company

Receiving Security Issue Report

Not as dramatic is receiving a notice of a possible security issue in a tech company or department. Usually, nobody’s life is on the line. But it may very well be in case of — for example — hospitals.

Support teams at companies receive several messages a day, be it support requests, spam, or reports of possible security problems. The people who receive those messages need to sort through them, assess and triage them, and process them appropriately.

When their triage of a security issue report is off, the report will not be classified as a potential security issue. It will instead pile up among the other bug reports.

But even when the triaging is right, the report needs to reach the team who is going to deal with it next: the security team, project managers, or product managers. And they need to act upon it.

Freeing Up Resources

Product and project managers will need to budget and plan for engineers to work on the problem. But the report might also go to a dedicated security team that will do a more in-depth analysis of the issue and will then communicate with the product and project managers or fixes it themselves.

Once assessed, if there is an immediate workaround that mitigates the issue in the short term, all other customers should be informed accordingly. That will again involve customer support or key account management.

Fixing The Security Issue

When the developers came up with a security fix for the issue, other parties in the engineering department will need to get involved as well: testing and quality assurance, technical writers and documentarians, and whoever else in the company that is involved in any regular change to a product.

Getting A Fix To Customers

Most of the positions mentioned so far are part of the “Engineering Department.” But they are not the only ones involved.

Looking at proprietary products where customers usually need to pay for an update, the sales department needs to get involved and decide if they are going to hand out an update for free or if they are going to charge customers for it despite the vulnerability. The product managers, in conjunction with the sales department, should also decide if and how much time and money they invest in backporting a security fix to older versions that may still be used by customers.

Dealing With The Fallout

Imagine one of these leaks that exposed millions of user data records. That’s a PR nightmare. The public relations office will have their hands full. And so does the marketing department. A product slogan like “your secure thing-y” can quickly become a mockery.

Furthermore, the legal department is going to be involved. The data protection officer will need to talk to the authorities and inform them about the leak.

In the case of a production company, if the bad press about the issue causes sales of products to go down, then the purchasing department should probably think about reducing the number of purchased parts.

What Do We Learn From The Disaster?

(Re)evaluate Requirements

While standards, requirements, guidelines, and such are great things, they can also be incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate.

At the time when the Titanic sank, British vessels over 10,000 tons needed to carry 16 lifeboats. The Titanic carried 20 and was thus well above the requirements. But the lifeboats only provided space for 1.178 people, just about half of the number of people on board the Titanic. And only a third of the total number of people fitting on the Titanic. But that should have been fine. Because lifeboats were meant to get people from one ship onto another that was in close proximity. Nobody expected an ocean liner to sink within 2 hours.

In today’s world, just because sending TANs for online banking via SMS is common practice, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Practice Makes Perfect

It’s also been documented that a lot of crew members had no understanding of the evacuation procedures. This is not only because of a lack of communication. But more importantly, because of the lack of practice. Even with 40 years on the job, captain Smith appeared to be paralyzed when he grasped the enormity of the problem.

Translating this into the tech world means we need to train ourselves for the case of a security incident. A documented procedure is excellent. But without practice, people will act in all kinds of ways, possibly irrationally.

Communication Is Crucial

And lastly, and most importantly, communication is crucial.

It’s been documented that captain Smith ordered his first and second officers to “put the women and children in [the lifeboats] and lower away.” But the officers interpreted it differently. One put men next to the woman and children when no women or children were around. The other one lowered lifeboats with empty seats.

As you can see, there can be numerous people involved when it comes to handling a security issue. And a lot of people mean a lot of communication. Clear communication is important in any company. But it’s crucial when it comes to handling security issues.