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 so that 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.
Nearly every time I write about a small to mid-sized business that has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars after falling victim to a malicious software attack, readers ask how the perpetrators broke through the victim organization’s defenses, and which type of malware paved the way. Normally, victim companies don’t know or disclose that information, so to get a better idea, I’ve put together a rough profile of the top daily email-based malware attacks over the past month.
Separate password breaches last week at LinkedIn, eHarmony and Last.fm exposed millions of credentials, and once again raised the question of whether any company can get password security right. To understand more about why companies keep making the same mistakes and what they might do differently to prevent future password debacles, I interviewed Thomas Ptacek, a security researcher with Matasano Security.
Ptacek is just one of several extremely smart researchers I’ve been speaking with about this topic. Below are some snippets from a conversation we had last week.
Google warned on Wednesday that hackers were launching targeted phishing attacks against hundreds of Gmail account users, including senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists. That story, as related in a blog post on the Official Google Blog, was retold in hundreds of media outlets today as the latest example of Chinese cyber espionage: The lead story in the print edition of The Wall Street Journal today was, “Google: China Hacked Email.”
The fact that hackers are launching extremely sophisticated email attacks that appear to trace back to China makes for great headlines, but it isn’t exactly news. I’m surprised by how few media outlets took the time to explain the mechanics behind these targeted attacks, because they offer valuable insight into why people who really ought to know better keep falling for these attacks. I also think a more complete accounting of the attacks may give regular Internet users a better sense of the caliber of scams that are likely to target them somewhere down the road.