Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Breaking out of the consulting wave

There are certain thresholds in the life of a company that must be crossed and, in so doing, fundamentally alter the business. In the world of boutique security consulting companies, one such period of change (and resultant growth) is when the task of managing client relationships and securing the next project or client shifts from being part of a senior consultant’s role and transitions in to the waiting hands of a dedicated sales organization.

Over the years I’ve observed first-hand just how difficult this transition can be for both the senior consultants and the executive management.

A critical driver for this transition is the way consultants are forced to divide their time and attention. When the consultant isn’t on a paid engagement they spend time responding to clients and prospects – writing proposals, responding to RFI’s, and scoping engagements etc. When they’re working on a client project, it’s heads-down on delivery – meaning that there’s far less time to engage with other customers or prospects, and limited attention can be applied to lining up the next consulting job. Visually, the cyclical nature of this business mode resembles a graph of out-of-phase waveforms transposed upon one-another.

If the red line represents the effort the consultant applies to “project delivery” over time, and the blue line in turn represents “business development”, it should be clear that low periods of non-delivery are countered with high periods of hunting for new work, and vice versa.

The problem with this cyclical work pattern is that a company typically only makes money if the consulting is delivering on paid engagements – and ideally you’d want the red-line to be horizontal and as close to 100% delivery utilization as possible.

If that wasn’t already an obvious problem, its effect on the business is then multiplied – as the task of securing business and constructing new proposals typically falls upon the most senior consultants. This in turn means that the most expensive people in the consulting organization, who typically command the highest rates from clients, are the most absorbed in this perpetual sales-delivery cycle.
I’ve heard time and again that “it’s just the way it is” and arguments such as:
  • As a technical consultancy, the client demands that they deal directly with the technical manager doing the delivery.
  • Scoping a job and preparing a technical proposal requires an expert consultant.
  • The onsite consultants know the customer the best. They’re always doing jobs for the client.
  • Our consultants are managing consultants, and that’s what they do.

The list of “why things can’t change” could go on ad infinitum, but the reality is that a consulting company cannot grow and scale beyond its senior consultants until it breaks out of the cyclical pattern – which is why this particular threshold is both so important and difficult for a company to transition.

Some things I’ve learnt over the years in navigating this business transition (and hopefully serve as some useful advice to other businesses seeking to cross the threshold) include:
  • The best security consultants, no matter how much they think of their skills at procuring and securing new business, are at best average farmers of an account (compared to a dedicated sales person). Yes, they typically understand the clients they do regular work for and are proficient at recognizing other opportunities within that client organization – however that pursuit and business development is limited to the client personnel they actually interact with during an engagement. The net result is that the client’s technical on-site folks love and adore the consultant and company, but most engagements are limited to a silo within the overall organization. For this reason the consulting company needs “hunters” – folks with the business development experience to identify other new people and opportunities in other parts of the same business.
  • Dropping in a “sales guy” in to the organization and letting them figure it out because they have a track record selling things is unlikely to succeed. Security consulting (in particular) is a very technical sell, and those tasked with hunting and closing in on new clients and projects need to not only also be technical, but need to be backed by deeper technical expertise. Consider the physical differences between an Olympic high-jumper and an Olympic shot-putter. Both sports require unique attributes, and are unlikely to triumph in the others field of expertise. While an Olympic decathlon medalist may be able to do both, they’re also unlikely to win against someone who specialized in just one of those sports.
  • Consulting managers are not sales people, they’re delivery coordinators and quality evangelists. Their role is often inglorious – as in-between chasing consultants for expenses and report deliverables, they spend much of their time apologizing to the client for things that didn’t go quite to plan and making the client happy again. Yes, they’re often the front line with existing customers and are core to delivering proposals to new clients, but their business development focus is (and should remain) blinkered to delivery.
  • In many cases the role of a consulting manager can morph in to that of a sales engineer (just never call them that!). When a consulting manager has no direct reports, they can serve effectively as the technical backup to the sales team – scoping engagements, constructing technical proposals, and being the technical evangelist is new client and prospect meetings. This “sales engineer” (SE) role is often a critical component to building and supporting a successful consulting sales team. The stronger these technical experts are, and the more years under the belt consulting they have, the more respect they tend to garner from prospective clients, and the easier it is to close deals. In many ways they add the technical credibility to the sale organization for technical clients.
  • Plan on building out a central team of technical authors. The technical author team provides the grease for easing a company through the transition period. By (slowly) removing some of the tedious consulting work – i.e. proposal generation, report proofing, and quality assurance on deliverables – the technical author team ensures a consistent quality of client-facing materials and eases the burden on the consulting and sales teams, and further frees up the time of valuable consultants. For global consulting companies or businesses that have consultants scattered around the world, the technical authorship team also helps overcome second-language frailties. Some caution needs to be maintained as these teams can be quickly overwhelmed with high workloads – which is why they should ideally report in to a senior consulting manager.
  • Senior and managing consultants who have been “managing accounts” often have compensation plans linked to closing client deals. The incorporation of a dedicated sales team means that compensation plans need to be reevaluated for those consultants. Ideally this type of conversation happens prior to the hiring and buildout of a sales team – and that the consultants concerned are party to how the transition will occur and how compensation can be changed. Since the monies associated with managing an account are not often insignificant, it is vital that those consultants are offered alternative means of “making their number”. Luckily the company has several tools at their disposal. First of all, since the purpose of employing a dedicated sales team is to grow revenue and increase the billable hours of senior consultants, there is typically scope to increase the base salaries of those consultants and to create a bonus payment structure based upon utilization and customer satisfaction levels. Alternatively, that important role conversion in to a consulting manager (i.e. SE) can be useful in a hybrid compensation model, where factors such as new clients versus lateral growth in an existing client are bonused differently.

The business transformation from 100% consultants to a mix of consultants and dedicated sales personnel can be perilous if not managed carefully. The senior consultants need to be well informed and actively participate in the transition, and the sales team built gradually from a nucleus of experienced sales professionals that have come from consulting businesses that had already successfully transitioned.

Any transition will take time. The senior consultants in particular must be gradually weaned off their account management responsibilities, and replaced with ones that drive a higher utilization rate for them and any other consultants they may lead. The worst thing a leadership team can do is to expect the transition to happen overnight. Instead, they should anticipate the process being a 3-9 month transition; the end result is worth it though.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Hacker Hat-trick at TalkTalk

For the third time this year the UK broadband provider TalkTalk have seen their online defenses fall to cyber attackers.

While the company has been quick to notify their customers of the breach (it was observed on Wednesday this week and reported the following day) and are currently working with law enforcement, details are still relatively sparse. Given the very short period between detection of the attack and public notification, it is unlikely any significant cyber forensics exercise has been conducted… so it’ll likely take those tasked with the investigation a couple of weeks to get a solid understanding of the scope of the breach and what was likely touched or stolen by the attackers.

Regardless, the stories currently being published as to the nature of the breach and what has actually been stolen are confusing and the details often contradictory (see Business Insider, The Telegraph, BBC, and AOL). It would appear that the names, addresses, dates of birth, email addresses, telephone numbers, TalkTalk account information, and credit card and/or bank details of some 4,000,000 subscribers may have been stolen and that the data may not have been (completely?) encrypted… or maybe the encryption keys were similarly stolen.

Claim for the latest hack are also being attributed by some to a Russian Islamist group (referred to as the “Th3 W3b 0f H4r4m”) who has posted a claim online along with samples of the data purporting to have come from the TalkTalk site (see Pastebin -

Some stories refer to there being a DDoS attack or component. A DDoS attack isn’t going to breach an internet service and result in data theft, but it’s not unheard of for attackers to use such a mechanism to divert security teams and investigative resources while a more focused and targeted attack is conducted. It’ll be interesting to see if this actually happened, or whether the DDoS (if there was one) was unrelated… although it would be difficult to tell unless the attackers really messed up and left a trail of breadcrumbs – since DDoS services can be procured easily over the Internet for as little as $50 per hour from dozens of illicit (but professional) providers.

If there are lessons to be learned so far from this hat-trick breach, they include:
  • Hackers are constantly looking for easy prey. If you’re easy pickings and you get a reputation for being a soft target, you should anticipate being targeted and breached multiple times and likely by different attackers.
  • There should be no excuse for not carefully encrypting customer data, and using cryptographic techniques that make it impractical for attackers that do breach an organizations defenses to profit from the encrypted data they stole.
  • Calling an attacker or the tools they use “sophisticated” and expecting the victims of the breach to consul themselves with the knowledge that the organization charged with protecting their data was defeated by a supposedly more advanced adversary is wrong. It simply underlines a failure to understand your adversaries and invest in the appropriate security strategies.
-- Gunter Ollmann

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ambulance Chasing vs Neighborly Support

The evolving world of Internet Security has a tendency to be a complex and bemusing arena for the professionals that make their living from it. The rapid development and deployment of immature technologies, the growing size and sophistication of systems, the unwanted attention and migration of organization crime, and the near religious fervor some devote to the ethical quandaries of the Internet, mean that few security topics are neither simple or devoid of opinion.

One area of topic guaranteed to crop up in a weekly discussion of Internet security is the topic of “ambulance chasing”. It’s a topic capable of dividing a room; initiating a prompt and well-rehearsed ethics debate, and causing more than a few veins on people’s foreheads to swell and pulsate.
Now that breach disclosures are a daily occurrence and the frequency of “mega breaches” seem to have hit their stride of monthly broadcasts, much of the security industry really does need to put on its big-boy pants and overcome the philosophical debate of whether reaching out to a breach victim and offering to work with them to understand, overcome, mitigate, or remediate, is in fact “ambulance chasing” or more akin to being neighborly and professional.

For many folks, the prospect of contacting a victim and explaining what you could do to help them evokes a vision of seedy lawyers prowling the halls of hospitals looking for the latest motor accident patients.

The vast majority of security professionals I know (ranging from consultants to analysts, and sales to engineers) genuinely see their occupation as a calling and passionately want to help make the Internet a better place. However, for one reason or another, the prospect of reaching out to someone that hasn’t already reached out to them and explicitly asked for help is too often interpreted as a breach of some unwritten rule… a kind of “invasion of personal space”.

For sure, as a professional they’re offering your skills and expertise for a price. However, to interpret the actions of pro-actively reaching out to a victim as some slimy underhanded means of gaining business is naive and outdated. Amusingly enough, the majority of security consultants I’ve known or worked with other the years are only too capable of identifying new victims that they or their company could help, but may grudgingly to pass it on to a “sales guy” – thereby keeping their hands clean and distancing themselves from what they perceive as ambulance chasing sleaziness.

I don’t see it that way and as advice to consultants that want to grow their career and move on to becoming business leaders (with the reputation and salary to go with it), get over your inhibitions and reach out to those organizations and contacts yourself. Forget the term “ambulance chasing” and instead think in terms of supporting a neighbor down the road.

Look at it this way. You’re an expert locksmith. Every day you walk your dog down the street and you notice how poor many of the locks are (and how many are missing). Then one day a house down the street is burgled. You see the flashing lights outside, police dusting for fingerprints, and a substandard lock was clearly dismantled and exploited by the criminal to gain entry. Do you ignore the incident and hope the victim will Google locksmiths later and contact you, or do you rush home to make a call to your sales guy and tell them your neighbors address and leave it in their hands? Or, as a professional confident in your skills and expertise, approach the victim, introduce yourself and what you do, and offer to help them if and when they’re ready?

Think about it from the perspective of the victim too. Would you rather hunt and peck looking for someone to help? Would you prefer a sales guy cold calling you and pimping all their products? Or would you respond most favorably to a local expert from down the street who approaches you directly and offers to help there and then?

In a world of daily breaches and vulnerability disclosures, more people need help than ever before. As a security professional, if you’re waiting for them to reach out to you and ask for your help, you’re doing a disservice to both them and yourself. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Experian Breached; T-Mobile Customer's Loss

The last couple of days has seen yet another breach disclosure - this time it's Experian, and the primary victims are 15m T-Mobile customers in the US. It was interesting to note T-Mobile's CEO, John Legere, publicly responding to the breach and the effect on his customers. He's angry, and rightfully so. I'm sure there are a bunch of other credit bureaus now lining up to secure new business.

Some personal thoughts on the breach and it's effects:

  • As is so often the trend now, professional hackers and cybercriminals are investing in the long game – stealthily taking control of a network and the data it contains over weeks, months and even years. Instead of opportunistic zero-day exploitation against lists of potential vulnerable targets, hackers carefully probe, infiltrate, and remove evidence of compromise against specific targets. Their end game is perpetual access to the target. The difference is as stark as killing the cow for today’s BBQ, or silently milking it for years.
  • While many organizations now employ encryption and cryptographic techniques to protect personal customer data. Many of the techniques employed are dated and focus predominantly on a mix of data-at-rest protection (to combat theft of hard drives or backup cassettes) and SQL DB data dumps – threats that, while severe, are not common targets of prolonged infiltration and stealthy attackers. A critical failure of many of these legacy approaches to data encryption lies in key management. Access to the keys used to encrypt and decrypt the data is a primary target of todays hackers. Unfortunately organizations have great trouble finding secure methods of protecting those keys and still often operate at a level of obfuscation equivalent to leaving the keys under the doormat.
  • The data stolen in this attack on Experian’s T-Mobile customers – which includes address details, date of birth, social security numbers, driver license numbers, and maybe passport numbers – is very valuable to cybercriminals. These aggregated personal details can reach as much as $200 per record on various underground forums and locations in the darknet. Stolen identities that include address, SSN, and drivers license details are commonly used in the creation of new online financial accounts – as the professional cybercriminals seek to launder other stolen monies from around the world.
  • Constant vigilance is mandatory when it comes to combating professional cybercrime who are in for the long game. It is critically important that organizations continually probe, assess, and monitor all Internet accessible services and assets. Annual penetration testing and quarterly scans didn’t work against this class of threat a decade ago, they most certainly provide less protection and assurance today. Organizations need to be vulnerability scanning their web applications and infrastructure continuously on a 24x7 timetable, must deploy breach detection systems that monitor network and egress traffic, and practice incident response on a monthly basis.

I'm sure that new details will filter out over coming weeks and, if history is anything to go by, the odds are that the victim count will continue to grow.

-- Gunter