Monday, February 20, 2017

Getting to know CISOs: Challenging assumptions about closing the cybersecurity skills gap

Last year I wrote a dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Science in Security and Risk Management in the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester in England. The title was: Getting to know CISOs: Challenging assumptions about closing the cybersecurity skills gap. The dissertation was submitted for examination in September of 2016 and in November it was approved by the examiners (who described it as ‘a meaningful and accessible, critically analysed report’ and also ‘a very pleasing piece of work’). I graduated in January, 2017.

That is when I decided to make the dissertation available to the public via the Internet and you can download it from here (PDF file). My primary motive for doing this is to enable any value that my work may provide – to the efforts to close the cybersecurity skills gap and advance the security profession – to be realized sooner, rather than later. After all, cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving field and many experts agree that the need to narrow the skills gap is urgent. Although the examiners said ‘elements of this dissertation are potentially publishable as journal articles and/or white papers’ I wanted to get the document out there in its entirety, and immediately. Of course, I may pull from, or build on, this work in peer-reviewed articles and white papers down the road, and it has informed several conference presentations that I have already delivered.

I should warn you that the dissertation is quite long – almost 25,000 words, although that count includes the 171 references. It runs to 68 pages but that includes screenshots of the survey instrument I used. Here is the Abstract to help you decide if you want to download the whole thing.


Pervasive criminal abuse of information and communication technologies has increased the demand for people who can take on the task of securing organizations against the increasing scope and scale of threats. With demand for these cybersecurity professionals growing faster than the supply, a problematic “cybersecurity skills gap” threatens the ability of organizations to adequately protect the information systems upon which they, and society at large, are now heavily reliant. This dissertation focuses on one barrier to closing the cybersecurity skills gap: the current paucity of knowledge about key work roles within the cybersecurity workforce – such as Chief Information Security Officer or CISO – and questionable assumptions about what it takes to perform such roles effectively. Putting resources into closing the cybersecurity skills gap without the benefit of objective research puts those efforts at risk, a possibility that has serious negative implications for society. The dissertation employs a review of the literature to map the dimensions of the cybersecurity skills gap and identify assumptions underlying different efforts to close it. Several hypotheses are formulated regarding current assumptions about the cybersecurity workforce and then tested through a combination of secondary analysis using data from a large cybersecurity workforce survey and primary research using a smaller dataset of people employed in advanced cybersecurity roles. The results tend to confirm that cybersecurity professionals exhibit characteristics and personality traits distinct from those of other workers and other IT professionals. Also confirmed is the high value that CISOs attach to soft skills like communication, relative to technical knowledge, or even information security degrees and professional certifications. The research implies that efforts to close the cybersecurity skills gap may be imperilled by a lack of research into the personalities and characteristics of effective cybersecurity professionals. The dissertation concludes with recommendations for further work in this crucial field of study.

Secondary motive 

A secondary motive for publication is to provide, for anyone contemplating a programme like the English university MSc that I went through, a concrete sample of the type of work that this encourages and enables. That is why I have included in the publication some of the appended elements, like the survey instrument, that often do not make it into journal articles. I did alter the formatting of the dissertation slightly, converting from A4 to US Letter (because I live in the US and know what a pain it can be to print A4 on a US printer). However, I should warn anyone quoting from this work that I left the UK spelling in place. On the plus side, in preparing the document for publication I was able to fix several typos that I missed earlier.

The degree programme itself, and my opinions about it, are the subject of several articles available online on my personal blog at The short version is that I found this distance learning graduate programme very rewarding, both personally and professionally. I have to say it was challenging to complete the work within the standard two years while keeping up with my full-time employment, but the university is very understanding about extending the time you take if circumstances warrant. For example, one of my peers who serves in the military of a European country, was assigned to the Middle East unexpectedly and took a six months extension to relocate. An international perspective was one of the unexpected benefits of the programme – the 33 graduates in my cohort came from many different countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

I will point out that the programme was relatively affordable when I started and became more so over time as the exchange rate of the UK pound shifted in favor of the dollar and some other currencies. I should also note that I have been very fortunate to work for a security software company (ESET) that believes in further education and offers a generous tuition reimbursement plan. Finally, while the push to complete this dissertation and the coursework that preceded it did consume many weekends and all of my paid vacation, I have to say it was worth it.

Here again is the download link for the dissertation in PDF format: Getting to know CISOs: Challenging assumptions about closing the cybersecurity skills

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Amazon Echo Dot echo effect: Alexa and the accidental dollhouse orders

Earlier this month I was involved in a technology news story that went a little bit viral, at one point threatening to become a virtual virus, self-propagating across the airwaves. This chain of events was created by voice recognition technology which is now being installed in millions of homes around the world. I have written about the technology on We Live Security, a site to which I urge you to subscribe if you are into all things cybersecurity. This article is the back story, which some may find interesting.

The heart of this particular thing/story was a spoken phrase, a phrase which you should avoid speaking out loud if you are within hearing distance of an Amazon Echo device like the one on the right. The phrase is: "Alexa, order me a dollhouse."

When the morning TV news program on station CW6 in San Diego reported that a young girl had accidentally used her parents' Amazon account to purchase a very expensive dollhouse via Alexa, the news anchor Jim Patton said: "I love the little girl saying ‘Alexa order me a dollhouse.’” As soon as Jim said that, the phones at the TV station started ringing. Viewers were calling to complain that their Alexas had tried to order dollhouses. In other words, a whole lot of people had been awoken to the fact that the current generation of Alexa devices will take orders from anyone: they use voice recognition technology to understand what people say, but not to distinguish who is saying it.

Later that Thursday morning, CW6 called ESET, the US headquarters of which are in San Diego, and asked if I could comment on this phenomenon. I said yes because I was already doing research on digital devices with voice recognition including, oddly enough a doll called "My Friend Cayla". Reporter Carlos Correa and I chatted for a while and a number of my comments about Alexa-type devices, but not all, were reported on air that evening. That story, which was a story about a story about Alexa, was rapidly syndicated and picked up around the world. Within a few days, the logo cloud of media sites that were quoting me looked a bit like this:
For the first 24 hours I was not aware that the story was spreading. Then I got a ping on Twitter from Oludotun "Dotun" Adebayo at the BBC. Could he talk to me in the early hours of Monday, his time, late Sunday my time? At that point I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into Alexa, starting with the installation process. At about 11PM on Saturday night I ordered the Amazon Echo Dot you see above. It arrived at 10AM on Sunday morning.

By the time I spoke with Dotun it was clear to me just how easy it was for someone to 'accidentally' buy something with an Amazon Echo. The magic word is not dollhouse, it could be drone or hoverboard; the "magic" is Alexa, which triggers a response from these devices. In the default configuration, the state of the system if you simply take it out of the box and plug it in following the installation instructions, is a. linked to your Prime account, and b. prepared to place orders with a simple verbal confirmation (using your "1-Click" settings as default payment method and shipping address).

And to be clear, Alexa will offer to ship you products even if you are not talking about buying something. For example, suppose you say, "Alexa, what's the best hoverborard?" The response will be a recitation of the product listing for the top rated hoverboard currently offered for sale on Amazon, immediately followed by an offer to ship it to you. If you say no, Alexa will then describe another product and offer to ship that. You need to say something like "Alexa cancel" or Alexa stop" to terminate the conversation. It so happens that the dollhouse ordered by the young girl that sparked the story was the second offering, suggesting that she had refused the first offer to send her a dollhouse.

Where does the story go from here? Hopefully, all Echo owners are now familiar with the "microphone off" button that stops the device listening (see picture on right - probably worth clicking before you go out, especially if you tend to leave the TV or radio on). And I'm sure many folks have been changing the default settings, turning off automated ordering or protecting it with a PIN.

At some point Amazon may enable two Echo features that could further reduce problems. First, allow owners of the devices to set a custom trigger word. At least that would enable you to talk about Alexa without waking her up. Second, but harder, would be to limit the voices to which Alexa responds, namely authorized users only. Of course, all of these things would add "friction" to the customer experience, which Amazon may be loath to do.

One question remains in my mind: Did Amazon ever consider that TV broadcasts would trigger the device? The CW6 experience was random, an accident. But if you intentionally broadcast the right words with the right timing you could trigger a mass ordering of products. And while Amazon has said it will accept returns of all 'accidental' orders, you can't use your Echo to cancel purchases. You have to go to the Amazon website or mobile app. Imagine a malicious broadcast that ordered expensive baby carriages, not the easiest things to return to sender. Does Amazon have an algorithm to detect that? Would some percentage of the orders be undetected until they turned up on doorsteps? How much would that cost in terms of dollars and good will?

And of course, buying things is not the only thing these devices can do. They can control thermostats and door locks and all manner of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Pair that with the malicious broadcast scenario and you have some frightening possibilities. (I have been writing and talking about abuse of the IoT at We Live Security and other places.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A quarter of a century of computer and network security research and writing

Twenty-five years ago this month McGraw-Hill published a book I wrote about computer and network security. And the first thing I tell people about this book is that I did not put the word "complete" in the title! That was the publisher's decision. Because if there was one thing that I learned in the three years during which I researched the book it was this: there will never be a "complete book" of security.

The second thing I tell people is that The Stephen Cobb Complete Book of PC and LAN Security was not a big seller. Indeed, it was a complete flop compared to some of the other books I wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s. My best seller...

Thursday, October 13, 2016

More about the cybersecurity skills gap

I recently presented a paper titled "Mind This Gap: Criminal Hacking and the Global Cybersecurity Skills Shortage, a Critical Analysis." The venue was Virus Bulletin, a premier event on the global cybersecurity calendar that is particularly popular among malware researchers (for the story of how "VB" achieved this status, see below).

Papers and Slides

When your proposed paper is accepted by the VB review committee, you first have to submit the paper, then deliver the high points in a 30 minute presentation at the conference, which takes place several months later. In this case, the elapsed time between paper and presentation was very helpful because it allowed me to incorporate some of the findings from my postgraduate research into my conference slides, which are available for download here: Mind This Gap.

The VB conference papers are published in an impressive 350 page printed volume. However, the conference organizers have kindly given me permission to share my paper - which is only 8 pages - here on the blog:
As you may know, I've been studying various aspects of the cybersecurity skills gap this year, I put together a short white paper about the size of the gap:
Later this year I hope to publish the full results of my postgraduate research which looks at some of the assumptions behind efforts to close cybersecurity skills gap.

A note about Virus Bulletin

Monday, September 26, 2016

Email account breached? There's a website for that

Recent news that half a billion Yahoo accounts have been compromised has prompted me to again tell friends about a great website for exploring the effect of security breaches on your online accounts. The site is called: haveibeenpwned and I encourage you to explore it.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Surveys galore: cybercrime wave, government prodding, and more

One of the biggest problems with fighting cybercrime is knowing how much of it there is. If you or your organization have been a victim of cybercrime - and a recent study said that 80% of organizations have* - then you know there is too much of it. Indeed, another recent survey suggests that 69% of US adults agree their country is experiencing a wave of cybercrime.** This state of affairs has many people thinking that the government is not doing enough to fight cybercrime. How many? About 63% in a recent survey.***

And right there, in that short paragraph, you see how important it is to measure the problems you are trying to solve, whether it's "how big is that gap in the planking that's letting water into the boat?" or "to how big is that gap between the number of people we need to fight cybercrime and the current supply?" That latter question has been preoccupying me a lot this year and it's a tough one to answer, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. After all, this gap is causing serious problems for many organizations. According to a CSIS/Intel-McAfee survey more than 70% of enterprises had suffered losses that they attributed to lack of skilled security professionals.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Sizing the Cybersecurity Skills Gap: A white paper

Whether you're in charge of the security of your organization’s data and systems, or working in IT security, or looking for a career, it is hard to ignore headlines like this: “One Million Cybersecurity Job Openings in 2016.” The term “cybersecurity skills gap” is now being used as shorthand for the following assertion: there are not enough people with the skills required to meet the cybersecurity needs of organizations. (You will also see cyber skills gap as a short form of cybersecurity skills gap, but some people also use cyber skills gap for the broader lack of people with skills like coding, networking, etc. so I often use cybersecurity skills to avoid ambiguity)

But is this gap real? Is the million missing people claim true? The security industry has a shaky record when it comes to numbers, something I talked about at Virus Bulletin last year in the context of cybercrime (see paper and video of session here). At this year's Virus Bulletin in Denver I will be presenting a paper about efforts to address the cybersecurity skills gap. I am also studying aspects of the problem for my MSc dissertation (see CISO Survey).

In the midst of all this work I accumulated some observations about the size of the cyber skills gap and wrote them up in my spare time, in the form of a paper titled Sizing the Cyber Skills Gap. I hope folks find this useful.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Effective CISO Survey: A call for participation


Are you a CISO? Do you work for or with a CISO?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, please consider taking the 12 minute survey I am conducting for my MSc in Security and Risk Management at the University of Leicester in England. Your participation would be greatly appreciated and you can get an early copy of the resulting report. To get right to it, the survey starts here:
Why am I doing this? To find answers to this question: What do you need to be an effective Chief Information Security Officer? This is the subject of my dissertation, a piece of original research about 15,000 words in length, conducted in Leicester's Criminology Department, pictured below (it may look like Hogwarts, but it ranks among the world's top universities).

University of Leicester, Department of Criminology
(I kid you not, I took this myself on my first visit)
The question about what it takes be an effective CISO is not merely academic, it is also of immediate practical importance. Right now, under-staffed crews of information security folks are struggling to hold the line against criminal activity in cyberspace. And there are not enough people in the education and employment pipeline to fill all of the open defensive positions. 

This situation is referred to as the "cyber skills gap" and later this month I will be releasing a white paper in which I examine the claim that there are one million unfilled cybersecurity positions globally (there will be a link on this page). In the US alone the gap could be as big as 200,000. This situation, which has been building for some time, has caused many countries to begin pouring money into cybersecurity education and workforce training. However, some of these funds may be wasted because there has been very little research into what a cybersecurity career is like. What does success look like? What is job satisfaction like? What personality traits are a good fit for cyber roles, and so on. On the bright side, by studying these questions we may find ways to close the skills gap and make cyberspace a safer place (hmm, I wonder if optimism is an important trait).

I decided to devote my dissertation to one small part of this cyber research gap: what it takes to do the top job, to be the person who manages information security for the organization: the CISO. My research led me to create the Effective CISO survey, which is carried out through SurveyMonkey but accessed via a website I created at, all of which has passed the university's ethics review process.

If you want further verification, or have any questions about this project at all, please email my university email account which is stcnn at, where nn = is a two digit number, the one you get when you multiply four by itself. The address is also displayed beneath the university logo at the top of the page.

So, if this survey subject is of interest to you, and you would like to get an early look at my results, and you have about 12 minutes, please consider participating at


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

20 years of CISSP, ELOFANTs and other cybersecurity acronyms

This article is about some things I don't know, and some other things that you might not know.

For example, I don't know who was the first person to pass the exam to become a Certified Information System Security Professional or CISSP (pronounced sisp). The CISSP website says the certification program was launched in 1994.

(That means if someone tells you they've been a CISSP for more than 25 years, and the current year is 2016, then they may be fibbing.)

I became a CISSP in May of 1996, something that I wrote about recently in an article on We Live Security: What the CISSP? 20 years as a Certified Information Systems Security Professional. The CISSP qualification has served me very well over the last 20 years, so I felt obliged to address some of the reasons some people criticize it, and did so in that article. Those criticisms not withstanding, I would encourage anyone who meets the experience requirements for the CISSP to apply for, pass the test for, and then maintain CISSP certification (you need to earn continuing education credits every year to stay certified).

The place to start learning about CISSP is the website of the issuing body, the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium. This non-profit organization is known as (ISC)2 which is pronounced “I-S-C-squared” because the name contains two each of those three letters, which is cute but sometimes a pain for typographers and search engines.

Another cybersecurity acronym that's been on my mind lately is CISO, as in Chief Information Security Officer, a title often used to designate the person most directly responsible for the organization's information system security. I am studying CISOs as part of my studies at the University of Leicester. I will soon be launching a survey on the subject (that I will link here when it goes online).

Of course, a lot of CISO's have certifications from (ISC)2 and that reminds me of something else I don't know, the answer to an interesting question, one that is not asked during the six hour CISSP exam: Is (ISC)2 an acronym?

Seriously, I don't know the answer, but speaking of acronyms and unknowns, I coined an acronym for an unknown a few weeks ago: ELOFANT. Those letters stand for Employee Left Or Fired, Access Not Terminated. (Those letters also account for the image at the top of the article.) I wrote about ELOFANTs here.

The point of coining this acronym was to draw attention to the fact that one of the biggest risks to company networks and data are people who have departed the organization but still have access to some of all of its data: ELOFANTs. Here are a few data points to back that up:
ELOFANTs are not a new problem, but these days they may be a bigger problem than in the past thanks to the proliferation of apps that companies use, particularly cloud-based sharing and collaboration apps, credentials for which might not be centrally tracked like corporate network access usually is. So let me leave you with a couple of questions to which your organization's CISOs should know the answer: how do you determine what access to the organization's data a departing employee has, and how do you revoke it?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Jackware: coming soon to a car or truck near you?

As 2016 rolls on, look for headlines declaring it to be "The Year of Ransomware!" But what kind of year will 2017 be? Will it be "The Year of DDos" or some other form of "cyber-badness" (kudos to my ESET colleague Cameron Camp for coining that term). Right now I'm worried that, as the years roll on we could see "The Year of Jackware" making headlines.

What is jackware?

Jackware is malicious software that seeks to take control of a device, the primary purpose of which is not data processing or communications, for example: your car. Think of jackware as a specialized form of ransomware. With ransomware, the malicious code encrypts your documents and demands a ransom to unlock them. The goal of jackware would be to lock up a car or other piece of equipment until you pay up. Fortunately, and I stress this: jackware is currently, pretty much, as far as I know, theoretical, not yet "in the wild".

Update: Jackware in the news...

Unfortunately, based on past form, I don't have much faith in the world's ability to stop jackware being developed and deployed. So far the world has failed abysmally when it comes to cybercrime deterrence. There has been a collective international failure to head off the establishment of a thriving criminal infrastructure in cyberspace that now threatens every innovation in digital technology you can think of, from telemedicine to drones to big data to self-driving cars.

Consider where we are right now, mid-May, 2015. Ransomware is running rampant. Hundreds of thousands of people have already paid money to criminals to get back the use of their own files or devices. And all the signs are that ransomware will continue to grow in scale and scope. Early ransomware variants failed to encrypt shadow copies and connected backup drives, so some victims could recover fairly easily. Now we're seeing ransomware that encrypts or deletes shadow copies and hunts down connected backup drives to encrypt them as well.

At first, criminals deploying ransomware relied on victims clicking links in emails, opening attachments, or visiting booby-trapped websites. Now we're also seeing bad guys using hacking techniques like SQL injection to get into a targeted organization's network, then strategically deploy the ransomware, all the way to servers (many of which aren't running anti-malware).

The growing impact of ransomware would also seem to be reflected in people's reading habits. Back in 2013, one of my colleagues at ESET, Lysa Myers wrote an article about dealing with the ransomware scourge. For the first few weeks it got 600-700 views a week. Then things went quiet. Now it is clocking 4,000-5,000 hits a week and the war stories from victims keep rolling in.

But how do we get from ransomware to jackware? Well, it certainly seems like a logical progression. When I told Canadian automotive journalist David Booth about ransomware on laptops and servers, I could see him mentally write the headline: Ransomware is the future of car theft. I knew David would see where this could be headed. He's written about car hacking before, going deeper into the subject than most of the automotive press.

The more I think about this technology myself, the more I think that the point at which automotive malware becomes serious jackware, and seriously dangerous, will be the conjunction of self-driving cars and vehicle-to-vehicle networks. Want a nightmare scenario? You're in a self-driving car. There's a drive-by infection, silent but effective. Suddenly the doors are locked with you inside. You're being driven to a destination not of your choosing. A voice comes on the in-car audio and calmly informs you of how many Bitcoins it's going to take to get you out of this mess.

Why give the bad guys ideas?

Let's be clear, I didn't coin the term jackware to cause alarm. There are many ways in which automobile companies could prevent this nightmare scenario. And I certainly didn't write this article to give the bad guys ideas for new crimes. The reality is that they are quite capable of thinking up something like this for themselves.

Can I be sure there's not some criminal out there who's going to read this and go tell his felonious friends? No, but if that happens it's quite probable that his friends will sneer at him because they know someone who's already done a feasibility study of something like jackware-like (yes, the cybercrime underworld does operate a lot like a fully evolved corporate organism). We are not seeing jackware yet because the time's not right. After all, there's no need to switch from plain old ransomware as long as people keep paying up.

Right now, automotive jackware is still under "future projects" on the cybercrime whiteboards and prison napkins. Technically it's still a stretch today, and tomorrow's cars could be even better protected, particularly if FCA has learned from the Jeep hack and VW has learned from the emissions test cheating scandal and GM's bug bounty program gets a chance to work.

Unfortunately, there's this haunting refrain I can't quite get out of my head, something about "when will they ever learn..."