How to Break Into Security


24
Jul 20

Thinking of a Cybersecurity Career? Read This

Thousands of people graduate from colleges and universities each year with cybersecurity or computer science degrees only to find employers are less than thrilled about their hands-on, foundational skills. Here’s a look at a recent survey that identified some of the bigger skills gaps, and some thoughts about how those seeking a career in these fields can better stand out from the crowd.

Virtually every week KrebsOnSecurity receives at least one email from someone seeking advice on how to break into cybersecurity as a career. In most cases, the aspirants ask which certifications they should seek, or what specialization in computer security might hold the brightest future.

Rarely am I asked which practical skills they should seek to make themselves more appealing candidates for a future job. And while I always preface any response with the caveat that I don’t hold any computer-related certifications or degrees myself, I do speak with C-level executives in cybersecurity and recruiters on a regular basis and frequently ask them for their impressions of today’s cybersecurity job candidates.

A common theme in these C-level executive responses is that a great many candidates simply lack hands-on experience with the more practical concerns of operating, maintaining and defending the information systems which drive their businesses.

Granted, most people who have just graduated with a degree lack practical experience. But happily, a somewhat unique aspect of cybersecurity is that one can gain a fair degree of mastery of hands-on skills and foundational knowledge through self-directed study and old fashioned trial-and-error.

One key piece of advice I nearly always include in my response to readers involves learning the core components of how computers and other devices communicate with one another. I say this because a mastery of networking is a fundamental skill that so many other areas of learning build upon. Trying to get a job in security without a deep understanding of how data packets work is a bit like trying to become a chemical engineer without first mastering the periodic table of elements.

But please don’t take my word for it. The SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md. based security research and training firm, recently conducted a survey of more than 500 cybersecurity practitioners at 284 different companies in an effort to suss out which skills they find most useful in job candidates, and which are most frequently lacking.

The survey asked respondents to rank various skills from “critical” to “not needed.” Fully 85 percent ranked networking as a critical or “very important” skill, followed by a mastery of the Linux operating system (77 percent), Windows (73 percent), common exploitation techniques (73 percent), computer architectures and virtualization (67 percent) and data and cryptography (58 percent). Perhaps surprisingly, only 39 percent ranked programming as a critical or very important skill (I’ll come back to this in a moment).

How did the cybersecurity practitioners surveyed grade their pool of potential job candidates on these critical and very important skills? The results may be eye-opening:

“Employers report that student cybersecurity preparation is largely inadequate and are frustrated that they have to spend months searching before they find qualified entry-level employees if any can be found,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. “We hypothesized that the beginning of a pathway toward resolving those challenges and helping close the cybersecurity skills gap would be to isolate the capabilities that employers expected but did not find in cybersecurity graduates.”

The truth is, some of the smartest, most insightful and talented computer security professionals I know today don’t have any computer-related certifications under their belts. In fact, many of them never even went to college or completed a university-level degree program.

Rather, they got into security because they were passionately and intensely curious about the subject, and that curiosity led them to learn as much as they could — mainly by reading, doing, and making mistakes (lots of them).

I mention this not to dissuade readers from pursuing degrees or certifications in the field (which may be a basic requirement for many corporate HR departments) but to emphasize that these should not be viewed as some kind of golden ticket to a rewarding, stable and relatively high-paying career.

More to the point, without a mastery of one or more of the above-mentioned skills, you simply will not be a terribly appealing or outstanding job candidate when the time comes. Continue reading →


29
May 20

Career Choice Tip: Cybercrime is Mostly Boring

When law enforcement agencies tout their latest cybercriminal arrest, the defendant is often cast as a bravado outlaw engaged in sophisticated, lucrative, even exciting activity. But new research suggests that as cybercrime has become dominated by pay-for-service offerings, the vast majority of day-to-day activity needed to support these enterprises is in fact mind-numbingly boring and tedious, and that highlighting this reality may be a far more effective way to combat cybercrime and steer offenders toward a better path.

Yes, I realize hooded hacker stock photos have become a meme, but that’s the point.

The findings come in a new paper released by researchers at Cambridge University’s Cybercrime Centre, which examined the quality and types of work needed to build, maintain and defend illicit enterprises that make up a large portion of the cybercrime-as-a-service market. In particular, the academics focused on botnets and DDoS-for-hire or “booter” services, the maintenance of underground forums, and malware-as-a-service offerings.

In examining these businesses, the academics stress that the romantic notions of those involved in cybercrime ignore the often mundane, rote aspects of the work that needs to be done to support online illicit economies. The researchers concluded that for many people involved, cybercrime amounts to little more than a boring office job sustaining the infrastructure on which these global markets rely, work that is little different in character from the activity of legitimate system administrators.

Richard Clayton, a co-author of the report and director of Cambridge’s Cybercrime Centre, said the findings suggest policymakers and law enforcement agencies may be doing nobody a favor when they issue aggrandizing press releases that couch their cybercrime investigations as targeting sophisticated actors.

“The way in which everyone looks at cybercrime is they’re all interested in the rockstars and all the exciting stuff,” Clayton told KrebsOnSecurity. “The message put out there is that cybercrime is lucrative and exciting, when for most of the people involved it’s absolutely not the case.”

From the paper:

“We find that as cybercrime has developed into industrialized illicit economies, so too have a range of tedious supportive forms of labor proliferated, much as in mainstream industrialized economies. We argue that cybercrime economies in advanced states of growth have begun to create their own tedious, low-fulfillment jobs, becoming less about charismatic transgression and deviant identity, and more about stability and the management and diffusion of risk. Those who take part in them, the research literature suggests, may well be initially attracted by exciting media portrayals of hackers and technological deviance.”

“However, the kinds of work and practices in which they actually become involved are not reflective of the excitement and exploration which characterized early ‘hacker’ communities, but are more similar to low-level work in drug dealing gangs, involving making petty amounts of money for tedious work in the service of aspirations that they may one day be one of the major players. This creates the same conditions of boredom…which are found in mainstream jobs when the reality emerges that these status and financial goals are as blocked in the illicit economy as they are in the regular job market.”

The researchers drew on interviews with people engaged in such enterprises, case studies on ex- or reformed criminal hackers, and from scraping posts by denizens of underground forums and chat channels. They focused on the activity needed to keep various crime services operating efficiently and free from disruption from interlopers, internecine conflict, law enforcement or competitors.

BOOTER BLUES

For example, running an effective booter service requires a substantial amount of administrative work and maintenance, much of which involves constantly scanning for, commandeering and managing large collections of remote systems that can be used to amplify online attacks.

Booter services (a.k.a. “stressers”) — like many other cybercrime-as-a-service offerings — tend to live or die by their reputation for uptime, effectiveness, treating customers fairly, and for quickly responding to inquiries or concerns from users. As a result, these services typically require substantial investment in staff needed for customer support work (through a ticketing system or a realtime chat service) when issues arise with payments or with clueless customers failing to understand how to use the service.

In one interview with a former administrator of a booter service, the proprietor told researchers he quit and went on with a normal life after getting tired of dealing with customers who took for granted all the grunt work needed to keep the service running. From the interview:

“And after doing [it] for almost a year, I lost all motivation, and really didn’t care anymore. So I just left and went on with life. It wasn’t challenging enough at all. Creating a stresser is easy. Providing the power to run it is the tricky part. And when you have to put all your effort, all your attention. When you have to sit in front of a computer screen and scan, filter, then filter again over 30 amps per 4 hours it gets annoying.”

The researchers note that this burnout is an important feature of customer support work, “which is characterized less by a progressive disengagement with a once-interesting activity, and more by the gradual build-up of boredom and disenchantment, once the low ceiling of social and financial capital which can be gained from this work is reached.” Continue reading →


7
Aug 12

How to Break Into Security, Miller Edition

For this fifth edition in a series of advice columns for folks interested in learning more about security as a craft or profession, I interviewed Charlie Miller, a software bug-finder extraordinaire and principal research consultant with Accuvant LABS.

Probably best known for his skills at hacking Apple‘s products, Miller spent five years at the National Security Agency as a “global network exploitation analyst.” After leaving the NSA, Miller carved out a niche for himself as an independent security consultant before joining Accuvant in May 2011.

BK: How did your work for the NSA prepare you for a job in the private sector? Did it offer any special skill sets or perspectives that you might otherwise not have gotten in the private sector?

Miller: Basically, it provided on the job training.  I got paid a decent salary to learn information security and practice it at a reasonable pace.  It’s hard to imagine other jobs that would do that, but if you have a lot of free time, you could simulate such an experience.

BK: The U.S. Government, among others, is starting to dedicate some serious coin to cybersecurity. Should would-be cyber warriors be looking to the government as a way to get their foot in the door of this industry? Or does that option tend to make mainly sense for young people?

Miller: For me, it made sense at the beginning, but there are some drawbacks.  The most obvious drawback is government pay isn’t as competitive as the private industry.  This isn’t such a big deal when you’re starting out, but I don’t think I could work for the government anymore for this reason.  Because of this, many people use government jobs as a launching point to higher paying jobs (like government contracting).  For me, I found it very difficult to leave government and enter a (non govt contracting) industry.  I had 5 years of experience that showed up as a couple of bullet points on my resume.  I couldn’t talk about what I knew, how I knew it, experience I had, etc. I had a lot of trouble getting a good job after leaving NSA.

BK: You’ve been a fairly vocal advocate of the idea that companies should not expect security researchers to report bugs for free. But it seems like there are now a number of companies paying (admittedly sometimes nominal sums) for bugs, and there are several organizations that pay quite well for decent vulnerabilities. And certainly you’ve made a nice chunk of change winning various hacking competitions. Is this a viable way for would-be researchers to make a living? If so, is it a realistic rung to strive for, or is bug-hunting for money a sort of Olympic sport in which only the elite can excel?

Miller: In some parts of the world, it is possible to live off bug hunting with ZDI-level payments.  However, given the cost of living in the US, I don’t think it makes sense.  Even if you mix in occasional government sales, it would be a tough life living off of bug sales.  If I thought it was lucrative, I’d being doing it!  For me, it is hard to imagine making more than I do now as a consultant by selling bugs, and the level of risk I’d have to assume would be much higher.

Continue reading →


17
Jul 12

How to Break Into Security, Bejtlich Edition

For this fourth installment of advice columns aimed at people who are interested in learning more about security as a craft or profession, I reached out to Richard Bejtlich, a prominent security blogger who last year moved from a job as director of incident response at General Electric to chief security officer at security forensics firm Mandiant.

Bejtlich responded with a practical how-to for a security novice looking to try on both attacker and defender hats. Without further ado…

Bejtlich: Providing advice on “getting started in digital security” is similar to providing advice on “getting started in medicine.” If you ask a neurosurgeon he or she may propose some sort of experiment with dead frog legs and batteries. If you ask a dermatologist you might get advice on protection from the sun whenever you go outside. Asking a “security person” will likewise result in many different responses, depending on the individual’s background and tastes.

Rather than try to devise a thorough curriculum that provides balanced coverage of the dozen or more distinct disciplines that one might call “digital security,” this article covers one aspect: magic. More specifically, this advice strives to dispel the notion that digital security is a realm where only magicians can perform superhuman feats involving computers and data. Rather, the point is to provide a way for beginners to get a feel for convincing a computer to take actions probably not expected by its original programmers. For those with a more technical inclination, the article provides a means to watch what is happening at the network level.

Continue reading →


9
Jul 12

How to Break Into Security, Grossman Edition

I recently began publishing a series of advice columns for people who are interested in learning more about security as a craft or profession. For the third installment in this series, I interviewed Jeremiah Grossman, chief technology officer of WhiteHat Security, a Web application security firm.

A frequent speaker on a broad range of security topics, Grossman stressed the importance of coding, networking, and getting your hands dirty (in a clean way, of course).

BK: How did you get started in computer security?

Grossman: For me it was…I could hack stuff and I did it in my spare time and someone offered me a job — which was Yahoo. But before that, I was just a UNIX admin. I was thinking about this question a lot, and what occurred to me is that I don’t know too many people in infosec who chose infosec as a career. Most of the people who I know in this field didn’t go to college to be infosec pros, it just kind of happened. They followed opportunity.

BK: You might have seen that the last two experts I asked had somewhat different opinions on this question, but how important is it that someone interested in this field know how to code?

Grossman: It’s tough to give solid advice without knowing more about a person. For instance, are they interested in network security or application security? You can get by in IDS and firewall world and system patching without knowing any code; it’s fairly automated stuff from the product side. But with application security, it is absolutely mandatory that you know how to code and that you know software. So with Cisco gear, it’s much different from the work you do with Adobe software security. Infosec is a really big space, and you’re going to have to pick your niche, because no one is going to be able to bridge those gaps, at least effectively.

BK: So would you say hands-on experience is more important that formal security education and certifications?

Grossman: The question is are people being hired into entry level security positions straight out of school? I think somewhat, but that’s probably still pretty rare. There’s hardly anyone coming out of school with just computer security degrees. There are some, but we’re probably talking in the hundreds. I think the universities are just now within the last 3-5 years getting masters in computer security sciences off the ground. But there are not a lot of students in them.

BK:  What do you think is the most important qualification to be successful in the security space, regardless of a person’s background and experience level?

Grossman: The ones who can code almost always [fare] better. Infosec is about scalability, and application security is about scalability. And if you can understand code, you have a better likelihood of being able to understand how to scale your solution. On the defense side, we’re out-manned and outgunned constantly. It’s “us” versus “them,” and I don’t know how many of “them,” there are, but there’s going to be too few of “us “at all times.  So whatever your solution is or design criteria, you’re going to have to scale it. For instance, you can imagine Facebook…I’m not sure many security people they have, but…it’s going to be a tiny fraction of a percent of their user base, so they’re going to have to figure out how to scale their solutions so they can protect all those users.

Continue reading →


2
Jul 12

How to Break Into Security, Schneier Edition

Last month, I published the first in a series of advice columns for people who are interested in learning more about security as a craft or profession. In this second installment, I asked noted cryptographer, author and security rock star Bruce Schneier for his thoughts.

Schneier: I regularly receive e-mail from people who want advice on how to learn more about computer security, either as a course of study in college or as an IT person considering it as a career choice.

First, know that there are many subspecialties in computer security. You can be an expert in keeping systems from being hacked, or in creating unhackable software. You can be an expert in finding security problems in software, or in networks. You can be an expert in viruses, or policies, or cryptography. There are many, many opportunities for many different skill sets. You don’t have to be a coder to be a security expert.

In general, though, I have three pieces of advice to anyone who wants to learn computer security:

  • Study: Studying can take many forms. It can be classwork, either at universities or at training conferences like SANS and Offensive Security. (These are good self-starter resources.) It can be reading; there are a lot of excellent books out there — and blogs — that teach different aspects of computer security. Don’t limit yourself to computer science, either. You can learn a lot by studying other areas of security, and soft sciences like economics, psychology, and sociology.
  • Do: Computer security is fundamentally a practitioner’s art, and that requires practice. This means using what you’ve learned to configure security systems, design new security systems, and — yes — break existing security systems. This is why many courses have strong hands-on components; you won’t learn much without it.
  • Show: It doesn’t matter what you know or what you can do if you can’t demonstrate it to someone who might want to hire you. This doesn’t just mean sounding good in an interview. It means sounding good on mailing lists and in blog comments. You can show your expertise by making podcasts and writing your own blog. You can teach seminars at your local user group meetings. You can write papers for conferences, or books.

Continue reading →


25
Jun 12

How to Break Into Security, Ptacek Edition

At least once a month, sometimes more, readers write in to ask how they can break into the field of computer security. Some of the emails are from people in jobs that have nothing to do with security, but who are fascinated enough by the field to contemplate a career change. Others are already in an information technology position but are itching to segue into security. I always respond with my own set of stock answers, but each time I do this, I can’t help but feel my advice is incomplete, or at least not terribly well-rounded.

I decided to ask some of the brightest minds in the security industry today what advice they’d give. Almost everyone I asked said they, too, frequently get asked the very same question, but each had surprisingly different takes on the subject. Today is the first installment in a series of responses to this question. When the last of the advice columns have run, I’ll create an archive of them all that will be anchored somewhere prominently on the home page. That way, the next time someone asks how they can break into security, I’ll have more to offer than just my admittedly narrow perspectives on the matter.

Last month, I interviewed Thomas Ptacek, founder of Matasano Security, about how companies could beef up password security in the wake of a week full of news about password leaks at LinkedIn and other online businesses. Ptacek’s provocative advice generated such a huge amount of reader interest and further discussion that I thought it made sense to begin this series with his thoughts:

Ptacek: “Information security is one of the most interesting, challenging, and, if you do it carefully, rewarding fields in the technology industry. It’s one of the few technology jobs where the most fun roles are well compensated. If you grew up dreaming of developing games, the laws of supply and demand teach a harsh lesson early in your career: game development jobs are often tedious and usually pay badly. But if you watched “Sneakers” and ideated a life spent breaking or defending software, great news: infosec can be more fun in real life, and it’s fairly lucrative. Continue reading →