Creativity in a New Discipline
We are experiencing a time of great creativity in computer security and must seize the opportunity presented by our current situation while we can. The diversity of backgrounds represented by today’s security practitioners may be a high-water mark. Consider that today’s security thought leaders were trained in fields as diverse as biostatistics, divinity, economics, and cognitive science, and thus bring with them interesting new perspectives on the security challenge. This leads to creative interplay in the field and has resulted in interesting progress, including the emergence of economic theories of security, an embrace of risk management, an emphasis on process-driven approaches (versus product sets), a shift toward software security, the rise of security engineering, and so on. As the worldwide security paradigm shift from guns, dogs, and concrete to networks, information systems, and computers continues unabated, we must leverage this time of creative diversity for all it’s worth.
A number of young researchers joined the computer security field in the mid-1990s, changing the focus of security research from spookware and national defense (think crypto, multilevel security, communications monitoring, and the like) to commercial systems and commerce. This movement away from military-oriented research was driven in part by the widespread public adoption of the Internet and the growing trend of e-commerce. With money at stake, security quickly became as relevant to business as it was to national defense. This influx of â€œnew bloodâ€ shook up the scientific security research community and continues to have far-reaching effects that are only now affecting commercial security—the commercialization of firewalls, the rise of antivirus technology, and the adoption of modern security platforms, such as Java and .NET, were all predicted and spearheaded by new thinkers in the security research community.
Where Today’s Security People Come From
Only a handful of people working in computer security today started their careers in the field. In fact, academic programs expressly designed to train security practitioners are a recent phenomenon and remain rare.
Interestingly, it may be in this dearth of “qualified” people trained in security that a critical opportunity can be found. Though few practitioners have academic security training, they most assuredly do have academic training in some field of study. That means that as a collective, the computer security field is filled with diverse and interesting points of view. This is exactly the sort of Petri dish of ideas that led to the Renaissance at the end of the Dark Ages.
Diversity of ideas is healthy, and it lends a creativity and drive to the security field that we must take advantage of. A great example of this can be found in the new subfield of software security. Only five years ago the notion that bad software might be a major root cause of security issues was not common. Today, software security is the subject of keynote talks at the RSA security conference, and
we all seem to agree that we have a software problem to solve. This change was partially due to the involvement of programming languages people (once found only at obscure academic conferences like OOPSLA) in the security field. Such involvement resulted in the creation of modern languages like Java and .NET that include security models in their very design. When languages are declared â€œsecure,â€ things get interesting! The evolutionary arms race between attackers and defenders jumps a level, new avenues for security design emerge, and dusty but thorny problems (think â€œbuffer overflowâ€) become less relevant to the next generation of systems.
Where Tomorrow’s Security People Will Come From
These days, academic and professional training programs are being put in place to train the next generation of security professionals. Soon, standard curricula will be developed, and students will be required to understand the same core set of concepts. This will certainly help to solidify the field of computer security, but at the same time, there is a danger that generalization may lead to a homogenization of security. Instead of the creative soup afforded by a multiplicity of points of view spanning many fields, security runs the risk of becoming staid and static. If we are careful to avoid complete homogenization of the field, we can retain the benefits of diversity while building a solid academic discipline. One way to do this might be to encourage those students seeking computer security degrees to study widely in other supposedly unrelated disciplines as well. Another is to ensure that outside perspectives remain welcome in the field and are not dismissed out of hand. Computer security must remain an inclusive discipline in order to retain its creativity.
In any case, we must take advantage of the situation we find ourselves in now. Computer security is, in fact, experiencing an important rebirth, and now is the time to make great progress. We must pay close attention to different ideas, embrace change, and help security continue to evolve even as it begins to crystallize.