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