3 Tough Questions with Dan Houser

I recently spent some time discussion certifications, training, the future of the information security community and the “hacker conference” scene with Dan Houser. While I don’t agree with some of his views, especially about how hackers play a role in our community, I think his view points are interesting and worth a discussion. I also think his keen attention to sexism in our community is both timely and important for us to resolve. Here are my 3 Tough Questions for Dan.

A Short Biography of Mr. Houser: Dan Houser (@SecWonk) is Security & Identity Architect for a global healthcare company, with 20+ years experience creating security, cryptography and eBusiness solutions. He is a frequent speaker at regional and international security conferences, a Distinguished Toastmaster, published author, and serves on the (ISC)2 Board of Directors. Dan is passionate about professional development, teaching, motorcycles, Safe and Secure Online, advancing the role of women in Information Security, ethics, certification, and, most of all, his family.


Question #1: I know you are involved in a lot of professional organizations focused not only on providing continuing education for Information Security Professionals, but also on teaching information security skills to adults and children in the community. When Information Security Professionals come to training courses and seminars, we see they have a wide range of skills, various areas of interest and different levels of technical capability. Why do you think information security has so many problems with level-setting knowledge? Is it simply because there is such a large body of information that must be encompassed in order to be an effective security person? Or could it be the high rate of change present in the industry, or even a particular personality trait common to information security practitioners? Why is it so hard to build an Information Security Professional?


Mr. Houser: There are many reasons why it’s hard to build an Information Security Professional, (and there are some great clues in the awesome book “The Great Influenza” by John M Barry – this book is definitely worth a read!). In essence, we are building a new profession from the ground up, and 50% of the job titles you now see in information security (infosec) didn’t even exist 30 years ago. For example, my own job title didn’t exist 15 years ago: Sr. Security & Identity Architect. 

We can look to modern medicine as a parallel that began roughly 100 years ago. Although medicine has been practiced since someone first noticed bear grease on a wound seemed to help in healing, it’s only in the recent past that science was diligently applied to the practice of medicine. Law enforcement started experiencing the same thing when a scientific study of policing reversed a 4000 year old belief that patrolling was an effective deterrent to crime. The study showed that this practice in fact had a zero impact on crime prevention. Although I hope it won’t take us 4000 years to really move forward, we have to anticipate that there are a number of changes in our field that universities and corporations are finding difficult to track. One lesson we can learn from medicine is the advent of the “nurse practitioner”. This is a medical professional who has nearly the same skill in general medicine as a full M. D., but who only requires about half the investment in schooling. 

At this point, the information security industry does not have an undergraduate program, (at least one I’m familiar with), that can turn out graduates who are ready to jump right into InfoSec at a meaningful level. We also lack a journeyman/apprenticeship program in the profession. By studying our craft scientifically, encouraging professionalism, and understanding “what it is that makes a great Information Security Professional”, we will be able to determine the root studies necessary for competency, and get to train people on “the right thing”. 

We have to discard the notion that there is a single path to information security. We have to stop teaching InfoSec Professionals from curricula created to churn out developers, and understand the complete spectrum of pathways that lead to true information security. We need to understand what is valuable (and what is not).

I have made an impassioned plea, (and continue to do so), for an investment in scientific study of the information security profession; in particular to understand the root causes behind the lack of women in the field. Are they not finding the same on-ramps as men? Are they taking an off-ramp due to sexism, lack of opportunity, lack of fulfillment? We have no clue as an industry. We have some solid data showing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) issues with gender split, and that STEM isn’t engaging and keeping women in associated disciplines. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that is the root cause in the information security industry; we just pretend to believe it is so. Just as police practiced patrolling and doctors used blood-letting, because “everyone knows it helps”. 

Our profession is at the same point as breast-cancer research (note: not being crass, I lost my Mom to cancer). We are focusing so much on walks, runs, screening and exams that we have COMPLETELY lost sight of the fact that 18,000 women in the US die each year from breast cancer, and we have NO CLUE WHY. Frankly, that ticks me off. We must focus on understanding the cause before we can make any reasonable statements about a cure.

Through an actual scientific study of the development of the Information Security Professional – and I’m talking by actual PhD sociologists and psych folks, not geeks in InfoSec — we can learn the actual on-ramps and off-ramps in our profession. What creates a strong InfoSec Professional, why women don’t enter or quickly leave the InfoSec Profession, and how to start repairing the actual problems with the industry instead of fighting only symptoms. That will usher in a new age for creating Information Security professionals, and truly achieve gender equity in our field.


Question #2: As you look to the future of information security, what do you see as the long term role of certifying bodies such as ISC2, ISACA, etc.? What about future roles of educational organizations such as OWASP, ISSA and the like?


Mr. Houser: I think that the future is bright for these organizations because we have a continued need for differentiating professionals from pretenders, and certification is the only mechanism I can currently see that allows us to know that an individual has attained a base level of competency in a stated area of expertise. According to Frost & Sullivan statistics, we’re going to be growing by nearly double in the next decade, which will create TREMENDOUS market pressures. We must find InfoSec professionals somewhere, and we must have mechanisms in place that allow us to determine whether or not they have the requisite skills. I see no other viable means of determining that cross-market other than certification. 

Additionally, Security and Audit professional certification authorities like (ISC)2, ASIS and ISACA provide a code of ethics that governs the membership. And that’s inherently quite valuable; to know that my peers have not only met an independent standard for competency and knowledge, but are also held to an ethical code of conduct for their behavior. With us doubling-down in the next decade, we’re going to have a lot of people entering the profession from other professions, and certifications will grow in importance. (ISC)2, ASIS and ISACA further promote professionalism through local chapter representation, which is another key way to tie together the complete package.

Educational organizations that provide solid educational experiences, such as ISSA, OWASP and Infragard, can also provide vital networking and educational programs in communities to broaden the reach of the InfoSec community. I’d also add that there are some non-traditional avenues that should be considered — such as LockSport/TOOOL, Make and Meetup IT communities who often fill in the edges of our BoK with valuable insights.


Question #3: What role does the “Not a Conference” movement like BSides, DerbyCon, NotaCon play in advancing Information Security?

Mr. Houser: Our profession is challenging the nature of information use, and the exceptionally difficult challenges we have in protecting intellectual property with an increasingly advanced foe in the face of mobile, big data, cloud and internationalization.  One challenge we have as an industry is understanding the role that non-traditional knowledge plays in moving the profession forward.  There is great excitement in the industry from less-formal means of sharing information, such as DefCon, BSides, NotaCon, DerbyCon — all great stuff.  Certainly, there is substantial value we gain from meeting in different ways to share knowledge with each other.  What we must be cognizant of is that these should become further pathways for intellectual pursuit, and not forces that hold us back – that we don’t lose sight in the “not-a-conference” up-the-establishment ribaldry that we are a serious profession with serious problems, and deserve to be taken seriously.  That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, but have to be careful that we aren’t sending the message that any rank amateur can do the work of a security professional. 

Sure, there is a lot of talent in the hacker community, just like there are uber-thieves.  However, at some point, the FBI agent who hangs out with organized crime becomes part of the problem, and can no longer be differentiated from the good guys, and have shredded their image and reputation.  Greyhat is dangerous in what it can do to your reputation and the professionalism we’ve fought very hard to achieve over the past 25 years.  There is also the issue that you absorb from associating with amateurs – sure it’s refreshing and great to feel the passion from those who do it for the love, but the unguided amateur sends the wrong message about the profession.  If anyone can do it, with the huge scarcity of Information Security folks right now, then why should they pay you a professional rate, when they can get an amateur for $12 an hour? 

The other big issue I see from greyhat conferences is that many provide glorification and validation of hacking, which I think is freaking stupid – this is like arming terrorists.  By glorifying hackers, you’re recruiting for them and filling their ranks with talented people that are then going to fight against you.  How stupid is that?!?!?  Hackers are roaches that should be squashed, not bred to make them stronger.  So, InfoSec professionals are advised to study from afar, and not wallow in the grey/black hat mentality.  What I see in some of the “not a conference” tracks is that the response to a hacker zero-day has undergone a subtle but important transition, from “Wow, that’s stunning”, to “Wow, you’re awesome”, to “What you do is awesome”… which is a whisker from “please hack more”.  By treating hackers like rock stars, you encourage their craft.  That’s nothing less than arming your enemy.  Even if you aren’t cheering, does your presence validate?  Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.  Careful, colleagues, you’re playing with fire, and we all may get burned.


Thanks to Dan for sharing his time with us and thanks to you for reading. I look forward to doing more 3 Tough Questions articles, and if there are people in the community you think we should be talking to, point them out to me on Twitter (@lbhuston) or in the comments.