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FBI's Freese: It's time to stop blaming hacking victims

The infosec industry needs to express more empathy for hacking victims and engage in less public shaming.

That was the message from  Don Freese, deputy assistant director of the FBI and former head of the bureau’s National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force (NCIJTF), at the (ISC)2 Security Congress this week. In his opening keynote discussion with Brandon Dunlap, senior manager of security, risk and compliance at Amazon, Freese focused on the importance of proper risk management in building a strong enterprise security posture.

But he reserved a portion of his talk to confront an oft-criticized and occasionally ugly practice of the infosec industry: blaming and shaming hacking victims.

In discussing the lack of communication and trust between security professionals and the rest of the enterprise, including C-suite executives, Freese talked about what he called an “unhealthy sense of superiority” in the cybersecurity field, which can lead to victim blaming.

“Certainly the FBI struggled with this in our culture,” Freese said. “The FBI was rightfully criticized in the last decade for victimizing people twice in cyber [attacks]. We certainly don’t do this when there’s a violent crime, when somebody is involved in a terrorist incident, or something like that. We don’t rush in and blame the victim. [But] we do it, and we have done it, in cybersecurity.”

That practice, Freese said, not only harms relationships with people inside an organization as well as third-parties, but it makes the difficult process of solving the problem of a cyberattack even harder.

“You’ve got to be willing to humble yourself a bit to really understand what’s going on with the victim,” he said.

Freese went on to say the situation at the FBI “is absolutely getting better.” But his point remained that the bureau as well as the infosec industry in general needs to do less victim-shaming in order to build better relationships and lines of communications.

Freese is absolutely right. The pile-on that ensues in both the media and social media following the latest breach can be alarming. This isn’t to say companies like Equifax shouldn’t be criticized for some of their actions – they absolutely should. And we shouldn’t let “breach fatigue” take hold and allow these events to be completely shrugged off. But there’s a line where the criticism becomes so wanton that it’s both self-defeating and self-destructive, and industry professionals as well as the media should at least make good faith efforts to find that line and stay on the right side of it.

And blaming hacking victims may have detrimental effects that are more tangible than we would like to believe. Freese’s words this week echoed Facebook CSO Alex Stamos’ keynote at Black Hat 2017 this summer.

“As a community we tend to punish people who implement imperfect solutions in an imperfect world,” Stamos said. “As an industry, we have a real problem with empathy. We have a real inability to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we are trying to protect. It’s really dangerous for us to do this because it makes it very easy for us to shift the responsibility for building trustworthy, dependable systems off of ourselves [and] on to other people.”

In short, security professionals may be making a hard job even harder. But the issue may go beyond shifting responsibilities and breaking down relationships. As someone who’s done his fair share of criticizing enterprises and government agencies that have suffered catastrophic breaches or committed seemingly incomprehensible errors, I’ve often wondered about the larger effects of negative media attention on a victim organization as well as the industry as a whole.

More specifically, I’ve wondered if the constant flow of embarrassing headlines and negative news regarding the latest data breaches and hacks act as a contributing factor in one of the industry’s biggest problems: the workforce shortage. Perhaps filling jobs and promoting the infosec profession to a younger and more diverse population is harder because no security professional wants the next breach headline on their resume and no one wants to take the fall as disgraced CISO; a college student considering a future infosec career may see the swirl of negativity and shaming around the dozens of companies that fall prey to threat actors each month and think that both outcomes are not just probable but inevitable.

Infosec careers offer steady employment and good pay. But in the event of a breach, these careers also offer massive stress, negative publicity and, in some cases, damaged reputations and job losses. I’m reminded of what Adobe CSO Brad Arkin said during a presentation on his experiences with the Adobe data breach in 2013; Arkin said he was so stressed dealing with the fallout of the breach, he grinded his teeth to the point where he cracked two molars during a meeting.

Yes, the pay for infosec jobs may be very good. But for a lot of people, that may not be enough to justify the costs.

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