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An Elephant in Ballet Slippers? Bringing Agility To Cyber Security

As enterprise IT and development teams embrace Agile concepts more and more, we are seeing an increased need for cyber security teams to be similarly agile and able to adapt to rapidly evolving environments. Cyber security teams that will not or cannot make the necessary changes will eventually find themselves irrelevant; too far removed from the function and flow of the organisation to provide meaningful value, resulting in an increased risk for the organisation and its interests.

So, how do we fit the elephant (cyber security) with ballet slippers (agility)?

Firstly, in an age of devops, continuous integration and continuous deployment it is critical to understand the evolving role of the cyber security team. The team’s focus on the on rigorous definition, enforcement and assurance of security controls is giving way to active education, collaboration and continual improvement within non-traditional security functions. This is primarily because the developers, the operations team, the sysadmins have all become the front-line for the security team. These teams spend their working life making decisions that will impact the security of the product & platforms and ultimately the security of the enterprise. Rather than risk being seen as the ‘department of no’ the cyber security team needs to embrace the change that agile development brings and find ways to improve the enterprise through enhancing the skills and capabilities of these teams.

First and foremost is education. If the devops team don’t know or even worse, don’t value security controls and secure practices then the systems they develop and maintain will never be secure. It is the role of the cyber security team to ensure that all members of the development and operations team understand that security doesn’t need to be difficult, it can be implemented well if it is inherent to the development process. This is typically achieved through ongoing training and education, both formally and informally.

Secure development and devops training courses are widely available and are absolutely a valuable part of the toolkit, but they tend to be rather static in nature and often bad habits tend to creep back in over time. Informal education through peer review, feedback and information sharing is far more consistent and reliable as long as there is a clear security ethos that can be established for the team to work from. This is particularly the case for the senior members of the team passing on their knowledge to newer or less experienced members.

Security champions are crucial in filling this role. Ideally a security champion is a member of the security team that works with the development team on a daily, even hourly, basis. One of the most important parts of this role is that the security champion needs to be able to ‘speak geek’ and understand the challenges facing the team when trying to rapidly develop applications. A background in development or devops means that they can speak from experience and be empathetic when dealing with the development teams. The security advice they provide needs to be pragmatic, weighing up the relative risks and benefits, and it needs to be delivered in a way that is meaningful to the rest of the development team.

An ability to get their ‘hands dirty’ and actually assist in aspects of code development or systems maintenance is definitely a bonus. The security champion also needs to drive the implementation of tools and services to support the rapid identification, assessment and remediation of security vulnerabilities in code or platforms. Wherever possible these security tools need to be seamlessly built into the existing development, deployment and testing tools (think Bamboo, Jira, Jenkins, Circle CI and Selenium) so that security assessment becomes transparent to the overall development and deployment processes. The security champion should also responsible for bringing a cyber-security context into the design stages of development. This is often best achieved by flagging stories (Agile-speak for detailed use-cases) as ‘secure’, meaning that particular attention needs to be paid to that component — user input, authentication, database calls, connections to external systems/APIs will all require additional analysis.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, it is critical that organisations develop a culture of security. Insecure practices must be considered as a real no-no in the day to day business behaviours. A good comparison is the nature of OH&S (Occupational Health & Safety) practices in the workplace today. 15–20 years ago your typical workplace was not as safe as they are now. Instances like trip hazards, puddles of liquid and the like weren’t necessarily seen a big issue.

Nowadays staff recognise them as a safety risk and have been trained to respond accordingly or raise the issue with someone who will. Cyber security needs to arrive at the same point. Staff need to be aware of what constitutes ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ cyber security behaviours, and feel confident in calling out unsafe practices.

Observing a team member sharing a password or leaving a workstation unlocked, shouldn’t be something that is seen as normal practice — it needs to be identified as a risk and addressed immediately, with the security team being part of the solution to the problem. Pointing out an insecure practice but not providing a practical solution will only alienate the security team. As staff become aware and feel confident in calling out unsafe activities, with the support of the security team to address, the it becomes part of the cultural DNA and is more readily passed on to new team members and new initiatives.

Agile development does present a number of challenges to a cyber-security team. Trying to adhere to the same practices and controls that were implemented 5–10 years ago is ultimately destined for failure as the rate of change is too rapid in order for them to be effective. Adapting practices to maintain relevancy to the evolving environment is the only way to remain effective and best protect the organisation and its customers.

Article by Craig Searle, Chief Apiarist, Hivint

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