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Security: better to be proactive or reactive?

As an industry we've been reactive since our conception. Always trying to figure out how the hacker got in, what did he hook and what did he use. And then worrying about fixing only the very same way the hacker got in and awaiting for someone more clever to hack again and teach something to the victim's security analysts, for them to rebuild their defense.

Then we talked over and over about prevention.

We should educate developers, talk about how to avoid social engineering, prioritize risk, be compliant to industry regulations and laws, have a security program, run tests before pushing to production and ... the hacker still got in.

Holy shit, right?

We've spent millions, and the preventive efforts aren't preventing? Actually they are preventing many others, but we usually don't see. In some sense it renders all security efforts useless, although they're not. All that matters are those hackers that got in once again. That's the so called "arms race". Defese raises the bar, so does the attacker.

So, can we prevent to the fullest or should we contain the damage instead?

Prevent to the fullest is somewhat dumb. It's like the laws being ahead of technology. First technology takes place than we find a way to regulate it. That would be great if justice could foresee such thing, protect all people data in advance per say, but it doesn't work like that. As justice is born from evil, defense is born from attacks, and guess who develop a new attack first: attackers or defenders? Attackers.

Is it time to minimize the attacker impact as soon as he got in instead? It's easier said than done, but it's possible. That's what anomaly detection can do for you, for example. It's not a silver bullet, you need to train it and machine learning is just a baby when it comes to security, but it's indispensable to minimize impact. Moreover it's hard to focus on attribution, it's better to focus on responding instead. That's why Bruce Schneier, the famous infosec guru, bet on his incident response product and ended up being acquired by IBM. But really, how many unknown events will you be able to handle? How much intel you'll got from those incidents? Is really this "firedrill" strategy the best way? That's hard to say. You simply can't predict that well.

But actually there's a third option. Instead of preventing or containing, you can focus on trusting your application to bug hunters and pay for findings, as long as you have cash that is. It's pretty much the strategy of launching a product and gathering feedback, although when this "feedback is collected", it's already too late.

However this way you will focus on fixing only real world attacks. Still, it's somewhat a shameful thing to put vulnerable applications on production and rely solely on bug hunters to find bugs before attackers. Shameful because of the disrespect with customer data and your own data / reputation. In the end it's still insecure. Bug hunters should only be considered "an extra help" and nothing else.

In the end of the day we've noticed, or some of us at least, that there is no silver bullet. Nothing much new here, but the bottom line is to combine everything.

Combine every possible strategy. Do your best to secure that very toxic asset, the data. And remember that applying preventive security, reactive security and real world attacks may not suffice. That's the eternal security challenge we're always struggling to solve.

Thank you very much.

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