[ISN] For an infosecurity career, get the technical basics first

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Fri Sep 24 03:35:20 EDT 2004


Opinion by Peter H. Gregory 
SEPTEMBER 22, 2004 

A reader recently asked me a thought-compelling question. He wrote, "I 
took up the Cisco Academy, thinking this will give me a strong 
foundation of networks and some security. Is this a good move in order 
to get to were I want to go?" 

My reader's question made me think of my own career and how I got into 
information security, years before security was cool or even 
recognized as a discipline at all. I'll take the rest of the space in 
this month's column to discuss this. 

Learn technology, then security 

The more training you can put on your resume, the more marketable you 
will become. Cisco Systems Inc.'s certification program supports this 
assertion. Only the upper crust of the world's network engineers is 
skilled enough to pass Cisco's highest certifications. And so it 
should be. But this isn't my main point. 

To truly understand security at the technology level, you must first 
gain expertise with the underlying technology. 

In order to thoroughly understand the security issues of networks, you 
must first thoroughly understand how networks -- and attached devices 
-- work. For instance, how is someone lacking any working knowledge of 
TCP/IP supposed to understand a syn flood or smurf attack? 

Let me also illustrate this with an analogy. Years ago, I was in the 
banking industry and received training on the makeup of U.S. paper 
currency -- how it is made and composed. How is this supposed to help 
bank tellers discern genuine currency from a counterfeit? If a teller 
is deeply familiar with genuine currency, when he receives a 
counterfeit bill, that teller will look at it and think, "Something's 
not right here." 

And so it is with security in the technology world. Without a deep 
understanding of the inner workings of networks, operating systems, 
databases, applications or whatever technology floats your boat, you 
can't become a security expert in any of those fields. 

Security experts are teachers 

Back to my reader's question about wanting to become a security expert 
in networks. I reassert that he, like others, must first become a 
network expert before he can become a network security expert. How 
else will he be able to understand -- at the lowest levels of greatest 
detail -- the real issues and what (if anything) can be done? How else 
can he truly understand a new threat and its consequences for his 
networks? How can he explain these concepts to other network experts 
with any degree of credibility? 

This touches another point: credibility. Good security experts are 
still relatively rare. In my opinion, a good security expert is one 
who can explain -- and even debate -- a security issue with a fellow 
technologist. Only an expert can spar with, not to mention persuade, 
another expert. A good network engineer probably won't be persuaded to 
embrace a concept if the person on the other side of the conversation 
doesn't understand the craft. Would you, a technologist, put much 
credence in arguments made by a so-called security expert who is the 
jack of all trades and the master of none, even if he had letters such 
as "CISSP" behind his name? I didn't think so. 

Let me end with another example. In the field of medicine, there are 
experts such as virologists who have the deepest understanding of 
biological viruses and how they work. If a virologist is to reasonably 
discuss or debate any issue with any other medical specialist -- or 
even a generalist for that matter -- the virologist had better have 
baseline expertise and knowledge on par with the other specialists. 
Otherwise, his arguments will be passed off as heresy. 

Here is the message to all aspiring security experts out there: You 
must first master the craft in the area that inspires you, whether 
that's networks, operating systems, databases, languages, whatever. Do 
your apprenticeship, get to journeyman level, and be excellent. This 
may take a few years. Along the way, read the security books, grasp 
the concepts. But there are no shortcuts if you want the credibility 
that is so necessary to make a positive difference in this world. 

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