So You Want to be a Cybersecurity Professional? – Redux

At the end of last year I wrote a blog that proved to be my most popular yet, by several orders of magnitude. In So You Want to be a Cybersecurity Professional? I threw together some very high-level thoughts for those wishing to get into the field. However, it’s wasn’t until the last week or so that it occurred to me to question why this blog in particular resonated as it did.

On the assumption that it’s because there are literally thousands of people out there struggling to find their way into security, I figured I’d expand a little on the original.

With the proliferation of both certifications and U”niversity degrees, there are many avenues that attempt to fast-track cybersecurity careers. Add to this a ridiculous number of ‘new’ technologies all claiming to address a rapidly growing number of threats and regulatory compliance regimes, and you have a combination that could not be better planned to lead candidates to a career dead-end.

The new modus operandi for cybersecurity professionals seems to be; University degree > industry certifications > Technology. But if your ultimate goal is CSO/CISO you have derailed yourself even before you start. I do not know one CSO/CISO who is primarily focused on technology …not any good ones anyway. It’s the people and processes that give technology context, not the other way around.

No course on the planet can teach you people and process, that’s something you must to learn for yourself. In security, experience is key.

While technology is an indispensable aspect of security, the majority of the product and security vendors who say they are trying to help are actually causing enormous damage. In their mad rush to stake a claim to a piece of multi-billion $/£/€/¥ security industry (and still growing), they are developing technologies so far removed from the basic principles as to be almost unrecognisable. Not only are these largely inappropriate to most businesses, but far too fleeting and ethereal to ever be rely on as a career foundation.

While I assume most University degrees will cover the ages-old basics of governance, policy & procedure, risk management etc. (like the CISSP’s CBKs do), without a real-world understanding of their implementation you will never be able to put a technology into a context your clients or employer has the right to expect. Basically you will be lost in a never-ending cycle of throwing technology after technology at something that could likely be fixed by adjusting the very business processes you’re trying to protect. Technology can only enhance what’s already working, it cannot fix what’s broken.

So where should new candidates start? I have no issue with University degrees or certifications, but from my own experience it was starting out at the most basic level that gave me the greatest foundation. From firewall and IDS administrator, to a stint in a 24X7 managed security service security operations centre I received an education that has stood the test of time. Networking, protocols, secure architecture, system management, incident response / disaster recovery, and just as important; the power of great paperwork. There is no-one who appreciates a comprehensive set of procedures and standards as someone who has just taken down a client’s firewall.

For the next phase of my career I was, for want of a better word, lucky. PCI was just kicking off and the desperate shortage of QSAs meant it was relatively easy for me to become one and be thrown immediately in front of customers. I learned as much in the next year as I did in the preceding 5. Not technical stuff per se, though that was certainly part of it, but the soft skills necessary to provide a good service.

From that point forward I have stayed in consulting, as I am fully aware of that is where both my interest and skill-set lay. I am not technical, never have been, so I’ll leave that up to others. I have also never wanted to be a high-level executive, that’s too far removed from anything I have ever enjoyed. What this means is, I already know a CISO role is very likely not in my future, and I’m absolutely fine with that.

I have my own thoughts in what a CISO is anyway.

I’m not saying that CSO/CISO need be your goal, if you’re quite happy managing firewalls, that’s great, but you absolutely have to know what your goal is or you’ll flounder around the edges of security missing every boat that comes along.


  1. If you want to be a CISO, remember that the vast majority of the CISO function is just a series of consulting projects designed to help the business meet its goals. The final aspect of a CSO’s job borders of politics, so that had better be what you want.
  2. If you love technology, great, but get an understanding of how your technology(ies) fits into the client’s business goals before trying to shove it down their throats. And jumping straight out of Uni into a technology start-up may seem like a good move, but only 1 in 1,000 companies make any difference. Be prepared to fail many times.
  3. If consulting is your thing, stay high-level and stay with the basics. Be the person that your clients come to to solve their challenges, regardless of who ends up performing the actual remediation. A Trusted Advisor is a very rare thing, and very few ever earn it.

Regardless of your career goal, the basics of security will never change, and you will only be at the top of your game when what you are doing benefits everyone involved.

Finally, a warning: if you think anyone other than those making a career out of it care about security, you are mistaken. Not one, I repeat not ONE of my clients actually cares about security, they care about things ranging from genuine concern for their customers to just money. Security is only, and will only ever be, a means to an end. It enables a business, it does not direct one. It’s these things that you cannot learn from school or from technology alone.

Get a mentor, one who has been where you are and is where you want to be. And never, I mean NEVER follow the money.

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GDPR Fines

GDPR and Cybersecurity, a Very Limited Partnership

If a security vendor has ever told you that the GDPR is imposing fines of up to 4% of annual global revenue for data breaches, they are either:

  1. ignorant of the standard; and/or
  2. lying to you.

Being generous, they may not actually know they are lying, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) isn’t exactly easy to decipher, but even a cursory review tells a rather obvious story. I will attempt to address the following assumptions in the course of this blog:

  1. The GDPR is >95% related to enforcing the RIGHT to privacy, not the LOSS of privacy through data breach;
  2. The maximum fines for ANY organisation are 2% of ‘annual turnover’ for even the most egregious loss of data through breach, not 4%; and
  3. Fines are entirely discretionary, and an appropriate security program will significantly reduce any fines levied.

Wait, there are 2 types of privacy!?

Ask a lawyer in the EU what privacy is and s/he’ll likely quote Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

From a GDPR perspective, this equates to two of its three fundamental aspects. Grossly simplified these are:

  1. Explicit consent; and
  2. Legitimacy of processing.

In other words, the vast majority of the GDPR is concerned with obtaining explicit consent for the personal data collected, and then ONLY using that data for legitimate purposes in-line with the consent received.

Even when GDPR refers to ‘security’, it is more concerned with these two fundamentals than it is with security of the data itself. That is what they mean by “security of processing“.

However, from a cybersecurity professional’s perspective – and the third fundamental aspect of the GDPR – privacy also involves  loss. i.e. The data was stolen during a breach, or somehow manipulated towards nefarious ends. This is a very important part of the GDPR, Hell, it’s a very important part of being in business, but it should never be used to sell you something you don’t need.

Maximum fines?

Of the 778 numbered or lettered lines of text in the GDPR Articles section, there are only 26 that relate directly to data security (or 3.34%). These are contained within Articles 5, 25, 32, 33 and 34.

Per Article 83(4)(a) (a.k.a. ‘2% fines’) – “(a) the obligations of the controller and the processor pursuant to Articles 8, 11, 25 to 39 and 42 and 43;

While Article 5 is contained within Article 83(5)(a) (a.k.a. ‘4% fines’), all but one line refers to security of processing, not the security of the data.

So, if it can be assumed that if the maximum fine for ANY data breach, no matter how egregious, is 2% of the annual revenue from the previous year (in the case of an undertaking), that 2% is what the EU considers the maximum for a fine to qualify as “effective, proportionate and dissuasive” (per Article 83(1)). Therefore, a fine of €10,000,000 would be reserved for any organisation with revenue over €500,000,000 annually. Fines are never there to put you OUT of business!

It must follow that if 2% is the maximum, then fines will go down the less egregious is your offence. Everything you need to determine the level of ‘egregiousness’ is contained in the 11 lines of Article 83(2)(a) – (k). Words like ‘intentional’, ‘negligent’, ‘degree’, and ‘manner’ are bandied around, all of which can be answered by you.

In this spreadsheet, I have taken a stab at adding specific questions to each of the (a) – (k) line items. Answer them all truthfully and you’ll get an indication of what I consider to be an appropriate fine based on your annual revenue: GDPR Fine Worksheet. Caveat: I am NOT a lawyer, and this is based entirely on my own experience, not anything resembling known fact.

Finally, bear in mind that as per Article 58(2), there are many ‘corrective powers’ that a supervisory authority can resort to long before levying a fine, including simple warnings (Article 58(2)(a)). Fines should be considered as a worst case scenario in their own right, let alone the amount.

Appropriate security program?

There is no such thing as 100% security, so the more you can demonstrate that your security program is appropriate to the levels of risk, fines should be the least of your problems.  As long as you have everything from senior leadership buy-in, to incident response, to disaster recovery and breach notification – you know, the basics! – it is not a foregone conclusion that fines will even be considered.

Go here for more on what a security program should look like: What is a Security Program?

In conclusion…

In the UK, if you are an organisation that processes personal data and you were already a) complying with the Data Protection Act (DPA), and b) doing security properly, GDPR compliance would require only relatively minor adjustments. For those that weren’t, you have a lot of work to do now once the supervisory authority has the powers that GDPR bring to bear, and not much time to do it in (May 25, 2018).

That said, don’t do anything for compliance alone. Do it for the business, do it properly, and compliance will fall out the back end. So while it is reprehensible that security vendors are trying to exploit the GDPR for profit, if you fall for it it’s entirely your fault.

By the way, if you’re a business that is predominantly centered around the processing of personal data, the Article 58(2)(f) – “to impose a temporary or definitive limitation including a ban on processing;” can take you offline indefinitely. And yes, you can be fined on top of that.

I hate to say it, but don’t do anything until you’ve spoken to a lawyer.

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ISO 27001 Certification

How to Begin Your ISO 27001 Certification Project

There are many consultants with significantly more ISO 27001 experience than I have. And type “how to begin ISO 27001” into Google and you’ll get ~8.2 million hits. So what makes me think I can do any better?

Actually, I not saying I can, but I am saying that my style of consulting seems to be conducive to getting such difficult projects off the ground quickly. Or at all for that matter. No security project is more difficult that implementing an ISMS.

In last week’s blog; ISO 27001 Certification, Is It Really Worth It? I stated that the top 5 reasons that ISO certification projects fail are:

  1. Grossly underestimating the level of effort;
  2. Doing it just to land a big contract (or for marketing purposes);
  3. Tying the certification to an overly aggressive deadline;
  4. Ignoring the expert help; and
  5. Having no business goals in mind.

It follows therefore that to make certification a success, you must overcome these challenges at a minimum. Sadly, nothing I say from this point point forward will be in any way new. Some of what I have to say has been said dozens of times by me, and thousands of times by my peers and betters.

The Challenges

  1. Grossly underestimating the level of effort – Symptomatic of one thing; asking the wrong questions. If you had asked the right people the right questions you would KNOW just how difficult an ISO certification project is. No certification should be undertaken lightly, but there are more than enough ISO experts out there to make the level of effort abundantly clear.
  2. Doing it just to land a big contract (or for marketing purposes) – While I can empathise with this one, allowing what amounts to greed to provide the entire impetus for something that requires a fundamental shift in culture is naive at best. The promise of a big contract can, and often does, provide the initial business case for ISO certification. But to then focus entirely on doing just enough to land that project is a total waste of time and effort. Many good consultants will rightly walk away from such projects. It’s our reputation too.
  3. Tying the certification to an overly aggressive deadline – Usually an extension of 2 above, and will invariable derail the project before it begins. If all you’re focused on is a looming deadline, nothing will be done properly, nor will it be sustainable. Remember, ISO certification requires 6 month health checks, an unsustained ISMS will result in the removal of your certification. Quite right too.
  4. Ignoring the expert help – You don’t go to the doctor and tell them you have a brain tumour. You tell them you have a headache and let them do the rest. So why would you hire an ISO expert them argue with every step of the way just because you don’t like what you hear? A good consultant will not ask you for anything they already have, or they do not need, so either do the work or stop the project if it’s too much.
  5. Having no business goals in mind – Contracts, even very large ones, are not business goals, they are a means to achieving a business goal. Done correctly, an ISMS can enable almost every goal you’d care to mention. Done correctly. Before you begin your project, find out what your CEO’s goals are and map the ISMS efforts to them. Miss this step and you will fail every time.

I use the word ‘recommend’ very carefully, but I HIGHLY recommend that you put all the relevant stakeholders through a 1 day ISMS training session to set the scene. Without this context, you will have no support.

If the CEO can’t even make an appearance at this session, that will tell you all you need to know about how your project is going to go.

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