Do-Gooderitis

You know there are too many labor-saving devices in the world when you see the sheer number of professional do-gooders trying to solve problems hardly anybody else worries about. If you have a day job, having someone with too much free time tell you why you need to be concerned about "Making the World Better Through FOO" is often just about as irritating as those old TV commercials moaning about ugly yellow wax buildup on your kitchen floors (my solution: paint your kitchen walls yellow to match the floor).

 

There are, of course, many people who devote time and passion to making the world a better place. I'm not talking about them here. I am talking about the people who seize on something they care about without bothering to find out if there is an actual problem that needs to be solved. Or, if there is a "problem," asking what the cost is of fixing it and what one could do with those same resources that might solve a more pressing problem (a concept known as "opportunity cost" to economists). It's all you can do, when confronted with an earnest but clueless do-gooder, not to say, "Ask me if I care."

 

Where I live in Idaho, there are a couple of professional Do-Gooder Projects that engender a lot of whining in the local newspapers. One of them is the Relocate the Airport lobby. The claim is that we need to 1) build a new airport 2) with longer landing strips 3) so that larger commercial planes will fly here. (Never mind the fact that commercial airlines have said repeatedly they will not land larger planes here because there isn't enough demand to support it.) There isn't actually a problem the community needs to solve via a new airport, but we'd create a bunch of new problems, like people having to drive an hour or more to get to Sun Valley instead of the current half hour from Friedman Memorial Airport.

 

The other local Do-Gooder Project relates to "affordable housing." Mind you, there is no actual housing shortage in town: if you want to work here, you can easily find an affordable place to rent. Many people who work here who want to own property live in another county - where they can get a lot more land for a lot less money. The idea that anyone who works here - regardless of income - should be entitled to own a free-standing home isn't reasonable given market (and geographic) realities (e.g., the land around us is Bureau of Land Management land and cannot be developed). As one of my friends put it to a local Affordable Housing Do-Gooder: "You didn't live next door to your gardener in Marin, either."

 

My personal opinion is that a lot of these do-gooders retired early, miss running something and want to run everyone else in town by solving problems that don't exist.

 

There are Do-Gooder Initiatives in the IT industry, too, a number of which are in security.  Security Do-Gooder Initiatives sometimes come under the guise of a laundry list of 5,000 things that everyone should do to be more secure. Even if all 5,000 of those things are somewhat useful, just like New Year's Resolutions, they are likely to be more actionable and "accomplishable" if the list is shorter. Putting it differently, I know very well that I should eat less, exercise more, eat more nutritious food, read better books, improve my skate skiing technique by lengthening my glide and so on. I can't actually process 5,000 "should dos" so I try to parse them down to a smaller list of things that I can actually do that will also make the most difference to my health, my skate skiing, or whatever it is I am trying to improve upon. Many Do-Gooder Initiatives do not have any sense of "nobody can do everything all at once, so maybe doing something now and doing more later is a better way to slice the pie." The initiatives fail due to the expectations - and failure to prioritize - that they entail. You might actually just give up from the frustration of trying to comply with 5,000 "shoulds." 

 

(It turns out that the people who actually do make good on their New Year's Resolutions start with a small, actionable list instead of a 30-page life plan. A small list of things you can do and will do is better than a much larger list of things that you are never going to get to. Less really is more.)

 

The reality is that some things matter more than others if you are trying to make constructive change. If I drink a bottle of wine a night (I don't) and have 40 "better health things" I want to do, saving my liver might be among the most important ones. So maybe, trying to cut down to a glass or so a night would be the biggest payoff on my better health things list and I can skip the other 39 items or relegate them to next year. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Do-Gooder Initiatives that not only have too many things on the list; the list is not weighted at all for where the value is in making change. (Opportunity cost again: what could I do with the same resources that would have a bigger payoff?)

 

I wonder if a lot of Do-Gooders get out enough in the real world. Maybe they are academics who think "theory" is enough. ("Theory" of baking doesn't get you a pie.) Or think-tankers who are paid to develop secure Internet toaster protocols that they then want to standardize. (Does anybody really worry about who is accessing their bagels remotely?)

 

Whenever I participate in public-private partnerships where a lot of "improve security" initiatives are generated and where there is typically a broad tent of participants (a good thing, in general), I try to ask that the people putting the laundry lists together grab someone who is either a cost accountant or an economist to look at where the bang for the buck goes in what's being proposed. Because if they do not do that, these initiatives are doomed to fail. Or, they will be so expensive that nobody does them because they can't afford the entire megillah.

 

The one take-away lesson I got from my nerdy quantitative methods class in business school is that when you are trying to solve an optimization problem, you can't optimize on all parameters. Time is constrained. Resources are (ultimately) constrained. Answering the question, "How can do X while making best use of scarce resources?" means I need to take account of what I most want to accomplish and how valuable is it to me that I accomplish those things.

 

For example, there are security initiatives around "what metrics and artifacts at every stage of development you should produce to 'prove' assurance claims."  People measuring the assurance of software believe that there are things you ought to be able to produce and measure at each stage of development. However, there is a cost to producing metrics and artifacts. If the cost of producing these is greater than the value of more information, you shouldn't put the work in to produce them. Even if everything has some value, some things are more critical than others or provide greater value for the work you put into getting them. One of the way I tranche our metrics project is to look at a) what can we data mine today to give us security metrics? b) what else would we like to know (in some order)? c) what will it cost to get that information? and d) is the cost less than or greater than the benefit of the information?

 

If you are a small company, maybe you can't - in the beginning - do every single Best Practice Recommendation (or produce every single metric or every single artifact that anybody in a theoretically perfect world would want). But you can do something, and you'd be willing to do something if someone helped you by telling you what the most important things are to do first that make the biggest impact. Something is almost always better than nothing.

 

Even people who know they ought to do more in security - and are willing to improve - will fight tooth and nail if they are confronted with a "my way or the highway" mandate that takes little account of real world constraints.

 

For example, consider the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC), a recent initiative to mandate that US Federal agencies lock down their environments to a specific Windows configuration (which, as a matter of course, means packaged applications will need to run on those locked down Windows configurations). I have said often and publicly that I think one of the easiest things vendors can do to help improve security is to lock down default configurations - better security out-of-the-box, cheaper lifecycle cost for customers. I've also said that one of the things customers can do to be "smart buyers" is to insist that their vendors lock down default configurations: "You don't ask; you don't get." I don't have any issue with the goodness of this concept (and we have a company-wide initiative related to locking down default configurations). In that sense, FDCC is not a "Do-Gooder Initiative" the way I've defined it since it actually does address a problem that people worry about, that needs looking after.

 

The problem with the way FDCC has been mandated is that it did not, first of all, define what a "desktop" configuration is. Is it desktop software? Or anything installed on the Microsoft operating system (which can and is used on desktops)? There might be a huge (and legitimate) difference between the configuration of middleware or servers on Windows and the client piece of an application configured on Windows. There's certainly a big scope difference between "validating how client pieces of applications running on desktops are configured to run with FDCC" and "validating how every single component of every application that runs on Windows is configured with FDCC." What problem, exactly, is it that is being solved? "Desktops used to launch attacks?" or "locking down the Windows operating system for every single application running on it?" Nobody knows, especially since this is called a "desktop" configuration initiative, and nobody on the mandate side of this issue has yet answered that basic question.

 

Most vendors have product lifecycles such that they do not make configuration changes in anything other than a major product release. That is, when customers uptake patch sets, their expectation is that there won't be configuration changes that could break their existing applications. One time in almost 20 years at Oracle, I tried to change a configuration parameter in a patch set (for good security reasons). The configuration change broke all our business applications, so we backed it out before the patch set shipped and I've been apologizing to the release manager ever since. (We later made the configuration change in a major product release.) Unfortunately, FDCC was mandated without adequately taking into account vendors' product lifecycles. Some vendors simply will need more time to phase in needed configuration changes. A lot more, if your major release product lifecycle is years and not months.

 

Nobody was evil-minded here, but even people who support the idea of FDCC are dead in the water until they can get some basic questions answered and a dialogue going. Ideally, this dialogue should have taken place before FDCC was mandated. Industry (including Oracle) is still working to try to get clarification on the specifics of FDCC and also asking that in future these types of configuration mandates be developed with industry and with adequate phase-in that allows for product lifecycles. How you implement change is as important as what the change is if you want people to move the security ball down the field. Otherwise, even a worthy initiative like FDCC can sink into the morass of Do-Gooder Projects.

 

A better example (where really, "there is no there there," to quote Gertrude Stein) is the recent proposal to develop an ISO standard for vulnerability disclosure. I know of no vendor who thinks this is a good idea. For a start, what problem are we trying to solve? Does anybody think that we can come up with a one-size-fits-all standard for how long it should take to fix a security bug, the exact "rules" on how much information gets put into security advisories and the specific format of how that vulnerability information is expressed? Software vendors have different release cycles, customer bases, risk profiles, and more. (One-size-fits-all pantyhose, as any woman knows, only fits Hilda Mae Throckmorton of Muncie, Indiana.) There are plenty of industry guidelines for good practice on vulnerability disclosure already. Most of these acknowledge that you can't standardize this business practice any more than you can standardize apple-pie making ("Allspice? Death to infidels!"). There are also existing standards on vulnerability disclosure that vendors are adopting, such as the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). Oracle was an early adopter of CVSS and customers have told us that it's really useful to them.

 

It is unwise (no, make that "really stupid") to try to standardize what is in effect both a business process and a set of business practices. Ira Gershwin (who knew he was a security maven?) penned the perfect lyric that applies to this Unneeded Standard Attempt: "You say po-TAY-to, I say po-TAH-to, let's call the whole thing off."

 

I offer one last example that isn't quite in line with Do-Gooder Initiatives but relates to what problem to solve and at what price. It's also a big pet peeve of mine: I get a lot of phone calls from vendors trying to shill their security products to Oracle. (Though I do not have operational security responsibility - wonderful, capable colleagues look after that - vendors assume that since my title is "CSO," I am the person who buys Cool Security Products for the IT department.)

 

I hate to mention how many cold callers do not even do basic homework before trying to sell me true love and security happiness. My favorite was the cold caller who said his firm had expertise in securing Oracle Applications deployments. I had to point out to him that, "Uh, we are Oracle, we run on Oracle Applications, and since we build the software, we'd be unlikely to hire a third party to 'securely deploy' it for us." Or, the vendors selling solutions that run on a non-Oracle database. You know, that's just a religious problem for us: we are not going to deploy a third party security solution that runs on <insert name of competitor database here>.

 

My basic pet peeve is the people who do not think about the customer perspective before they launch into their "cure cancer, raise the dead, protect against every attack known to mankind with zero false positive" shill. They claim this shill will only be "twenty minutes of your time" (only "twenty minutes" is measured on a calendar, not a watch).

 

Forthwith, here is my script for parsing through shill-meisters as quickly as possible:

 

1. "What problem does this solve?" (If you can't articulate that in 25 words or less, do not waste my time or anyone else's.)

2. "Is it a problem we are worried about or care about solving?" (Secure remote bagel access is not something that concerns me, so forget the 'Internet Toaster Protocol' pitch.)

3. and 4. "Does it address the problem better, cheaper or faster than what I am doing now? How much better, cheaper or faster?" (If it doesn't, why would I switch from something that may not be sexy or "a breakthrough technology" but gets the job done? I don't have an electric salad tosser, either, because the salad spinner I have - or a pair of tongs - works just fine and has fewer moving parts.)

5. "How can it be broken?"  (Especially for a security product, knowing and being honest about how it can be broken is important. A claim of "zero false positives," for example, should cause anyone to run screaming in the opposite direction.)

 

Do-Gooders, the next time you come up with A Cause, a small request. Please, in the interests of making it a better world without wasting everyone else's time, use your skills on a problem that really needs a solution (or on a better, faster, or cheaper way of solving an existing problem), not on a solution in search of a problem to solve.

 

For More Information:

 

Book of the week: Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts by Robert Kaplan (who also wrote Imperial Grunts). If you want to know what the military really does, this is a great read. Robert Kaplan was embedded with a number of different types of units, in multiple services, around the globe: special forces, marines, aviators, and submariners. A really cool read. Mahalo nui loa, all you soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines for keeping us safe.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Hog-Pilots-Blue-Water-Grunts/dp/1400061334

 

We aren't going to have "oldies" rap stations anytime in the future. If anybody has written a more clever lyric than Ira Gershwin (OK, maybe Cole Porter) I have yet to hear it. Songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Songs_with_lyrics_by_Ira_Gershwin

 

Totally off topic, but Go! Airlines has just done a web page where you can book your next interisland trip totally in Hawaiian. E ola mau ka 'olelo Hawai'i (May the language of Hawai'i live!).

 

Check it out at:

 

http://www.lelegowau.com/

 

Comments:

We are going through the process of dealing with "do-gooderitis" on my current project. It seems to run in recurring cycles of about 9 months. We are seeing behaviors very similar to what you describe above. From an anthopological (or political) viewpoint it is very interesting... there is the security guru (consultant) who is always trying to scare people into more, more, more... the possibility of an IG audit... changes in the interpretation of current laws by the courts...and the current budget that has already been cut several times...how do we measure risks? "Definitions are the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration." Ayn Rand. "An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translation of a concept into measurement of some kind." - W. Edwards Deming Getting agreement is tough!

Posted by Fred on July 09, 2008 at 11:04 PM PDT #

I and others call this the Good Guy Badge. Of course if Ms. Rand were alive today Atlas would be using a hammer not shrugging.

Posted by tct on April 21, 2009 at 03:18 AM PDT #

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