Thursday 17 August 2017

Best of the BSides - A friendly security conference in Manchester


Today I attended a great little conference in Manchester called BSides Manchester. This was a free conference about security ran by members of the security community in a similar way to TestBash. In fact the whole event was a bit of a “SecurityBash” in so many respects, which is awesome and I recognised many familiar topics, concerns and ideas. Whether you're experienced with security or a newbie, I highly recommend this conference. I went along with no expectations, just hoping to learn as much as I could, expose my brain to new ideas and even if I didn’t pick it all up immediately, it could give my brain a place to start. Not only did I actually learn quite a bit but I also noticed that there was a great deal of similarities to testing so I thought I’d talk about the conference from that angle.

The similarities and parallels to testing

In no particular order:
  • The security community seem to be very keen to promote leaner and more effective ways of improving security such as getting involved earlier and trying to be involved in discussions about new projects or approaches. This is exactly the same as with testing in general and both are frustrated when they are only asked for their opinion very late in projects. Perhaps this is the biggest area we share in common and maybe we could share our experiences and lessons with each other. Perhaps we can also be allies on this, for example where a tester has managed to get involved in the project early, we could be advocates for involving security professionals earlier too and vice versa.
  • Carolyn Yates gave a great talk on the bowtie method which is very applicable to testing too and reminds me of how we look to use examples like mind-maps to effectively visualise our work. She also made the point that “not all tools need be programs, sometimes they can be visual aids” which I think as testers we can certainly appreciate too.
  • There was a great talk by Collette Weston about echo chambers - in particular the difficulty for women and other industry minorities to break into the InfoSec industry and community and what can be done about it. I think we can all agree this is an issue across the software industry as a whole too and while I feel testing is a little bit better in this regard, it’s definitely not as good as it could be. This talk also prompted a great discussion about how some companies had started trying to diversify their security personnel (including hiring people with biology degrees) and I know in testing its well appreciated that we benefit greatly for our diverse backgrounds.
  • In two separate talks by Ian Trump and Charl Van Der Walt there were discussions of what the future might hold and how artificial intelligence and the advance of technology will shape the industry and the work of security professionals. It seems obvious but I found it quite re-assuring to know that it’s not just testers who are wondering how these advances will affect their jobs. There was also discussion of the effects of automation and whether people were really considering these effects on the loss of jobs and how humans interact and use the automation. This echoes the concerns I’ve heard many testers raise and reminds me of my old blog post on this subject.
  • Naturally there were several more technical talks focusing on particular types of hacks, attacks and penetration tests. This included discussions of how to defend against these attacks too. The mindsets and techniques that security professionals use to find and report these exploits is exactly the same as how testers find and report bugs. I think we have a lot in common on this subject (as, well, it is a form of testing) and I think we could do more to engage with the security community and share our experience - just as much as we can learn a lot from them too! All the things we talk about in testing were present here - such as trying to turn exploits into the most damaging problem they could find to justify and explain to companies why they need to fix it. I believe as testers we can also become more effective at general testing by learning about these exploits too - both in helping raise security issues earlier but also giving us more ideas for other kinds of testing. Perhaps we could share our knowledge, approaches and experience of exploratory testing with them.
  • Another common theme of the conference was that security was not really a technological problem, but a people problem. This is of course not a new revelation, there are many historical quotes and philosophical discussions, for example, “a bad workman blames his tools”, “pick the right tool for the job” and so on. However, as humans we clearly find it difficult to keep these lessons in mind and it is easy with bias to miss that we are making assumptions about our problems. As testers I feel we should be very aware of this too and typically many challenges we face are nothing to do with the particular technologies involved. Many software bugs are caused by humans and machines are simply doing as they are told, the same applies for security exploits.

The differences

Of course, for all our similarities, there are also differences:
  • As part of the discussion about diversity in the industry from Collette’s talk, there was also discussion about autism and how there was a general belief that many “black hats” may have struggled at school, dropped out and only picked up hacking because they had no other options. It was pointed out that because many companies require specific levels of education (such as GCSEs), it meant there was no way for these individuals to become security professionals. Why is this different to testing? Well in the testing industry I don’t feel we have such a specific concern with autism (though it will definitely also affect the testing industry and community too!), I feel our concerns are more about increasing awareness of testing as a possible career in the first place!
  • I think this one is probably obvious but the security community is more naturally technically focused and capable, in tandem with the above point, most people seem to join the industry because of their interest in it and interest in technology. As such, while there is diversity, I get the general impression the diversity of backgrounds is a lot more acute as opposed to the very broad backgrounds of testers. As a result I feel testers tend to be less technically focused and more a balanced spread of soft skills to go with the technical subjects. That said, the conference did feature plenty of talks that were more about the soft skills, although probably a different balance compared to some testing conferences.
  • I feel that the security community is even more aware of justifying their testing and explaining the effects of the exploits they find than the average tester because of both the ethical act of the testing and it’s very technical nature. Not only must they be very careful in not breaking laws or damaging a company but they also have to be very good at explaining why they think something is a significant problem and helping the company fix it. I think as testers we have a lot we can learn from this, not because we don’t do a good job of this, but our testing is a lot safer and doesn’t always require as much explanation. However, I think this will change over time if we get more involved with DevOps, challenging requirements and testing in production.

You should go to!

All in all, it was a great conference, I took a lot away and enjoyed myself. It was very reassuring to see so many similarities to testing and seeing ways in which we could work together. I hope to go to some other conferences in other areas around software development like Programming, Project Management, UX, Business Analysis, Operations and Systems Administration and continue learning from them. Maybe even to begin talking about testing at their meetups and conferences and see more sharing across our disciplines.

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