“Approachable Threat Modeling” in Increment

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about this until now! Straight-up slipped my mind.

I have an article published in Increment, Stripe’s software engineering magazine. The latest issue is themed around Security, and in it I talk about threat modeling, particularly in a software-as-a-service context.  It’s based a lot on the work at Akamai that I talk about here from time to time.

From the article:

Threat modeling is one of the most important parts of the everyday practice of security, at companies large and small. It’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood. Whole books have been written about threat modeling, and there are many different methodologies for doing it, but I’ve seen few of them used in practice. They are usually slow, time-consuming, and require a lot of expertise.

This complexity obscures a simple truth: Threat modeling is just the process of answering a few straightforward questions about any system you’re trying to build or extend.

To read more, go check it out on the Increment site!

(Oddly enough, this is my first paid professional long-form writing ever. It was extremely good to work with Sid Orlando and team at Increment—I had the best first-time author experience I could possibly have hoped for. If you have stuff to write about which is related to their upcoming topics, I can’t recommend pitching them enough.)

How to Interview Your Prospective Manager

I’m in the process of negotiating offers for my next role now. One of the things I’ve learned the hard way is how important good management is—especially for me, since I’m kind of a hard case, but in general.  It’s said that people leave managers, not companies, and I know that that’s been true of my experience. It turned out that I got very lucky in my early jobs, and up until recently my first managers were my high water mark.

Unfortunately the traditional job interview doesn’t give much time over to learn about the person who would be managing you.  (Sometimes you don’t even meet with them.) While you as the candidate are always implicitly interviewing your interviewers, it’s nice to have time set aside to it.

Mudge had not yet signed on as the new head of security when I got the offer from Stripe, but the recruiting team had told me he was considering it, and I knew I didn’t want to sign on to a new team without talking with the person I’d be reporting to.

I knew Mudge only by reputation and vaguely at that, and I didn’t want to join a team only to have some new manager come in and clean house and install all their own people. I delayed accepting until Mudge was ready to talk, and then we had a long phone conversation where I effectively interviewed him as my new manager.  (He was great, it turned out. 🙂

Going through the process again now, I’ve come back to these questions, and I’m going through the same process with my new potential managers.  It’s proving extremely fruitful.

Here’s what I’m asking:

  • What is your vision for the organization?
  • Where do you see the organization fitting in the overall picture at the company?
  • Where do you want the organization to grow?
  • What’s your plan for scaling the organization?
  • What do you like in a manager?
  • What do you dislike in a manager?
  • How do you view your relationship with the people who work for you?
  • What is your philosophy of management?
  • What makes you excited to come to work every day?
  • Can you tell me about a specific time that you were wrong, and how you handled it?
  • You have two employees who don’t get along. What’s your approach?
  • Have you handled harassment complaints before (sexual or otherwise)? What happened?
  • You have an employee who’s struggling. How do you handle that?
  • What do career paths forward look like for this position?
  • How much support is here to present at conferences/other professional development?
  • What are your preferences around hours/work from home?
  • How much contact do you need from the folks who work for you?
  • What problems do you see facing the company over the next three years
  • What problems do you see facing the industry over the next three years?

Interviewing your prospective manager is absolutely something you can and should do, and these are questions I’ve found useful.

Is there something I’ve missed that you like to ask about?  Leave a comment!

Why Is It So Hard To Build Safe Software?

Asking aircraft designers about airplane safety: Hairbun: Nothing is ever foolproof, but modern airliners are incredibly resilient. Flying is the safest way to travel. Asking building engineers about elevator safety: Cueball: Elevators are protected by multiple tried-and-tested failsafe mechanisms. They're nearly incapable of falling. Asking software engineers about computerized voting: Megan: That's terrifying. Ponytail: Wait, really? Megan: Don't trust voting software and don't listen to anyone who tells you it's safe. Ponytail: Why? Megan: I don't quite know how to put this, but our entire field is bad at what we do, and if you rely on us, everyone will die. Ponytail: They say they've fixed it with something called "blockchain." Megan: AAAAA!!! Cueball: Whatever they sold you, don't touch it. Megan: Bury it in the desert. Cueball: Wear gloves.
XKCD #2030: “Voting Software”; used under the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Or, “Robert Graham is dead wrong”.

This XKCD comic on voting software security has been going around my computer security Twitter feed today, and a lot of folks have Takes on it.

It gets at something fundamental. What is it that makes software safety so hard?

A couple years ago, at the March 2016 STAMP Workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts I gave a talk titled “Safety Thinking in Cloud Software: Challenges and Opportunities” where I tried to answer that. (As always, I talk about work here but don’t speak on behalf of any former employer.) What follows is based on my notes for that talk.

Continue reading “Why Is It So Hard To Build Safe Software?”

Why I Won’t Work For Facebook

I just sent an unintentionally blistering response to a Facebook recruiter. Having invested the time in writing it, I remembered that I have a very disused blog, and perhaps people reading here would find it useful, either as fodder for your own such messages, or as a snapshot of my concerns regarding Facebook and fascism in America in 2018. If either of these apply to you, enjoy.

Continue reading “Why I Won’t Work For Facebook”

A Proposal For Some Fucking Software Liability

…It’s not a Modest Proposal, because that was originally meant in satire, however it’s been corrupted in these latter and debased days, and I’m quite serious here.

(I am less of an expert on this than other things I blog about, although more knowledgeable than some; no warranty expressed or implied, &c.)

Today, basically all software comes with a blanket waiver of liability. The owners and coders of it do not express or imply any warranty, etc, blah blah blah, if it kills you, you pay your own funeral bills, and also you’re dead. And this leads us to situations where we have insulin pumps running consumer-grade software which hit its end of life four years ago at the ripe old age (for a piece of consumer-grade software) of fifteen.

The NSA hoarding vulnerabilities angle on this is a red herring, and I wish people would drop it. As nice as it would be for the US government to invest more than they do today in defense of software, there’s always going to be an interest in offense against software, and if it’s not the NSA’s vulnerability stockpile getting breached, it’s the Bad Guys’®, however we define them today. Even with some kind of MLAT for software vulnerabilities, the Bad Guys® do not sign or abide by those treaties, and unlike building nuclear weapons, exploiting software at this scale is still the province of bored and clever CS undergrads. We must proceed from the assumption that big tranches of vulnerabilities in our software and exploits for those vulnerabilities exist and might get exposed all at once.

There’s been much speculation, basically all of it (including this) ill-informed about the various legal frameworks already in place, both for software and other more established engineering products, about what effect some nebulously expressed change in the liability laws or case-law around software would have on the industry and practice of software production.

And my modest contribution is this:

All software does not need a fucking warranty. It’s fine that your shitty Javascript framework is shitty, and you shouldn’t be rung up on charges of criminal negligence if a shitty and obvious bug in your shitty Javascript framework kills somebody because your Javascript framework got used in a medical radiation device.

The people who should be rung up on charges of criminal negligence are the people who decided to integrate your shitty Javascript framework into their shitty medical radiation device. Consumer software is different than safety-critical software, and everything about using one for the other is wrong.

There are many different lines within the software ecosystem you can draw, and probably we will need to draw all of them, but safety-critical versus consumer (and then industrial control, and god knows what else) are some important fucking distinctions.

If requiring this kind of liability of the people who make medical devices causes them to prefer to use upstream Javascript framework providers who are also willing to take on this kind of liability, then, well, bully for everybody.

The other obvious players in this are the insurance industry, who have so far entirely punted on insuring software against this liability, probably because there’s no money in it, probably because nobody is going to get sued, probably because there are no laws requiring that somebody who integrates a shitty Javascript framework into a medical radiation device and kills half a dozen people do some jail time, yet, which is a real fucking shame, because purely from a Hammurabian moral perspective they probably should have hot sand driven under their fingernails.

I don’t know what about the economics of medical devices today causes them to be such a shitshow that this liability regime isn’t in place already, although I assume it’s much like the shitshow of other electronic devices (eg. Android phones), where it’s a commodity market without a way of valuing security, and integrators cobble together whatever shit they can to check the feature boxes the marketing and sales departments want and keep their customers buying new shit fast enough to keep the company from going bankrupt, but not fast enough to give them margins such that they can afford to build not-shitty medical devices, because it’s apparently unreasonable to expect that these companies and the people working for them should value not killing other people who have no choice but to submit themselves to the tender ministrations of the healthcare industrial complex.

Possibly a liability system for safety-critical devices would cause them to rethink their shitty life choices, and, more importantly, realign their market so that they could act on what the goodness in me compels me to assume is the non-shittiness within their hearts.

This anyway is my best explanation for the health insurance industry of today, who have for most of my life been rapacious bastards who will put you on the streets for pre-existing conditions including depression, which is only the natural state of all beings confronted with the enormity of the problem of evil in the world, and who are now championing not going back to the bad old days, because there is a bit of humanity left in their Grinch hearts after all. (And also regulation like this is actually better for business, but shh, don’t tell the capitalists that, it confuses and frightens them.)

And obviously we need legal frameworks such that medical devices can get certified on one version of your shitty but liability-insured Javascript framework and reasonably accept and deploy security patches to same and remain (slightly-less-)shitty and also liability insured without a godwaful and too-expensive recertification process, which is apparently part of the problem here as of today, although obviously any such certification system might also quite reasonably be concerned that the security patches not introduce yet other bugs, and balancing that will be an interesting trick.

Reliable sources (the guy who runs the certification company) inform me that we can do this for airplane avionics software, and it’s only (what I presume is) the lack of a (regulated-to-be-)level playing field in the medical device industry which makes this hard today, so it seems plausible that some medical, legal, and technical folks inspired by aviation and other safety-critical industries could sit down and create some proposed legislation which Congress could adopt with minimal editorial oversight which would result in a better medical device industry, fewer hospitals crippled by ransomware attacks, lower insurance premiums, and fewer fucking dead people.

It’s not like people aren’t working on this: (link to I Am The Cavalry) (link to Cyber-ITL) (link to Engineering a Safer World).  Somehow this work hasn’t made the requisite impact yet, and maybe WannaCry will open people up to it, and maybe it won’t, but a mob of people with torches and pitchforks at their legislators’ offices asking “what are you doing about medical device cybersecurity” won’t hurt.

Because any sober and fundamentally good-hearted person can see that it’s past fucking time we fixed this.