The Next Best Thing After "Secure by Design"

There is an old saying that goes like this: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Nothing personal against anyone in particular, but it seems to me that it perfectly represents the current state of cybersecurity across almost any industry. Although the cybersecurity tools are arguably becoming better and more sophisticated, and, for example, cloud service providers are constantly rolling out new security and compliance features in their platforms, the number of data breaches and hacks continues to grow. But why?

Well, the most obvious answer is that security tools, even the best ones, are still just tools. When a security feature is implemented as an optional add-on to a business-relevant product or service, someone still has to know that it exists to deploy and configure it properly and then operate and monitor it continuously, taking care of security alerts, as well as bug fixes, new features and the latest best practices.

The skills gap is real

Perhaps the most notorious example of this problem is the Simple Storage Service (better known as S3) from AWS. For over a decade, this cloud storage platform has been one of the most popular places to keep any kind of data, including the most sensitive kinds like financial or healthcare records. And even though over the years AWS has introduced multiple additional security controls for S3, the number of high-profile breaches caused by improper access configuration leaving sensitive data open to the public, is still staggering. A similar reputation stain – when their database installations were exposed to the whole Internet without any authentication – still haunts MongoDB even though they have fixed this issue years ago.

Of course, every IT expert is supposed to know better and never make such disastrous mistakes. Unfortunately, to err is human, but the even bigger problem is that not every company can afford to have a team of such experts. The notorious skills gap is real – only the largest enterprises can afford to hire the real pros, and for smaller companies, managed security services are perhaps the only viable alternative. For many companies, cybersecurity is still some kind of a cargo cult, when a purchased security tool isn’t even properly deployed or monitored for alerts.

“Secure by design” is too often not an option

Wouldn’t it be awesome if software just were secure on its own, without any effort from its users? This idea has been the foundation for “secure by design” principles that have been established years ago, defining various approaches towards creating software that is inherently free from vulnerabilities and resilient against hacking attacks. Alas, writing properly secured software is a tedious and costly process, which in most cases does not provide any immediate ROI (with a few existing exceptions like space flight or highly regulated financial applications). Also, these principles do not apply well to existing legacy applications – it is very difficult to refactor old code for security without breaking a lot of stuff.

So, if making software truly secure is so complicated, what are more viable alternatives? Well, the most trivial, yet arguably still the most popular one is offering software as a managed service, with a team of experts behind it to take care of all operational maintenance and security issues. The only major problem with this approach is that it does not scale well for the same reason – the number of experts in the world is finite.

Current AI technologies lack flexibility for different challenges

The next big breakthrough that will supposedly solve this challenge is replacing human experts with AI. Unfortunately, most people tend to massively overestimate the sophistication of existing AI technologies. While they are undoubtedly much more efficient than us at automating tedious number-crunching tasks, the road towards fully autonomous universal AI capable of replacing us in mission-critical decision making is still very long. While some very interesting developments for narrow security-related AI-powered solutions already exist (like Oracle’s Autonomous Database or automated network security solutions from vendors like Darktrace), they are nowhere nearly flexible enough to be adapted for different challenges.

And this is where we finally get back to the statement made in this post’s title. If “secure by design” and “secure by AI” are undoubtedly the long-term goals for software vendors now, what is the next best thing possible in the shorter term? My strong belief has always been that the primary reason for not doing security properly (which in the worst cases degenerates into a cargo cult mentioned above) is insufficient guidance and a lack of widely accepted best practices in every area of cybersecurity. The best security controls do not work if they are not enabled, and their existence is not communicated to users.

“Secure by default” should be your short-term goal

Thus, the next best thing after “secure by design” is “secure by default”. If a software vendor or service provider cannot guarantee that their product is free of security vulnerabilities, they should at least make an effort to ensure that every user knows the full potential of existing security controls, has them enabled according to the latest best practices and, ideally, that their security posture cannot be easily compromised through misconfiguration.

The reason for me to write this blog post was the article about security defaults introduced by Microsoft for their Azure Active Directory service. They are a collection of settings that can be applied to any Azure tenant with a single mouse click and which will ensure that all users are required to use multi-factor authentication, that legacy, insecure authentication protocols are no longer used and that highly privileged administration activities are protected by additional security checks.

There isn’t really anything fancy behind this new feature – it’s just a combination of existing security controls applied according to the current security best practices. It won’t protect Azure users against 100% of cyberattacks. It’s not even suitable for all users, since, if applied, it will conflict with more advanced capabilities like Conditional Access. However, protecting 95% of users against 95% of attacks is miles better than not protecting anyone. Most importantly, however, is that these settings will be applied to all new tenants as well as to existing ones that have no idea about any advanced security controls.

Time to vaccinate your IT now

In a way, this approach can be compared to vaccinations against a few known dangerous diseases. There will always be a few exemptions and an occasional ill effect, but the notion of population immunity applies to cybersecurity as well. Ask your software vendor or service provider for security defaults! This is the vaccination for IT.


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