The Flatline Cohesion Principle

This week’s CCSP class pointed out that one of the multiple-choice answers in my book of practice tests included the term “flatline cohesion principle.” They asked me what it meant, and I had to admit that I had no clue…maybe it meant that I was drinking too much scotch when I wrote the book?

Turns out, it was a nonsense term I invented as a distractor from the correct answer to that specific question. So we discussed the idea, and decided we had to come up with a definition for the completely blank term.

The consensus was that it should mean: “When you write a book of practice tests that may or may not have complicated, misleading questions in it, then use your class to crowdsource how worthy the material is for study purposes.”

I do like this. But I am very open to alternative uses for the term. If someone comes up with something better, put it in the Comments section, and I’ll send you a free copy of the book. I will be the sole judge of what constitutes “better.”

In the meantime: everyone should follow the flatline cohesion principle.

And many, many thanks to this week’s CCSP class participants: y’all were awesome, and I think you’re all gonna to conquer the exam.

Letting Off Steam

            Valve is a company that makes computer/video games; they also run the Steam game distribution platform, which is an online store/licensing portal that sells games made by other companies. This week, Valve announced it would no longer curate titles on Steam, and allow any game producer to host any title in the store, for sale to the public (with the notable exceptions of games that contain illegal content and those are “straight up trolling”). [You can read the announcement at:]

            This is fascinating, and definitely a reaction to recent public attention focused on one game that Valve took off the Steam platform (and simultaneously banned the game producer), a first-person shooter that simulated mass murder at a school, called Active Shooter. While I’m not sure how that game would run afoul of this new policy (is Active Shooter straight up trolling or illegal content? if neither, why is it still banned?), it seems very interesting to me that Valve chose to modify their approach to hosting titles as a result.

            I am a gamer. And I am interested in maximizing free speech. Valve’s decision therefore delights me greatly. Opponents of Valve’s decision (including writers from disparate sources, such as game review websites and Forbes) kind of puzzle me, and somewhat infuriate me. Their arguments seem to constitute two lines of thought: 

1) By allowing anything, Valve is taking a political stance that endorses everything.

2) By allowing anything, the online store will be swamped with material customers don’t want, such as games that include topics that bother some people, including racial bias, violence, and sexuality. Customers won’t be able to find what they want, because of all the material they don’t want; this will be particularly disturbing to sensitive customers who are offended by those topics.

            Trying to make sense of these criticisms, I draw these two conclusions:

1) I can’t possibly understand why the political stance of “allowing everything” is ugly or wrong: the entire purpose of having a free society (much less a free online store) is so that conflicting ideas and perspectives are allowed to exist (and maybe flourish)....even if most of us don’t particularly like them. Having freedom so that we can all like the same things isn’t freedom, it’s a sheep farm.

2) I don’t think the people saying this A) are gamers and B) understand how the Internet works. To explain in detail:

            A) Gaming is a participatory mode of entertainment unlike any other form of mass media: books, movies, music are all projections of the creators (writers, directors, musicians, singers) at the audience in a unilateral communication; the audience does not communicate with the artist or influence the art. (The notable exception: choose-your-own-adventure books, where outcomes are decided by readers.) In gaming, the player must take part in the activity in order to determine progress/outcome. The artist(s) can present content, but the game doesn’t actually do anything unless the player is utilizing it-- a game without a player is a title screen, and no different from wall art. In terms of recreation, this makes gaming more akin to, say, sports, than literature (with the obvious advantage that gaming does not favor only those with the biological birthright biases of ability, size, speed, etc.).

            So in order to be “affected” by a game (no matter how sensitive you are), you have to actually play the game...which is a conscious choice, and includes the option of stopping at any time. You, the player (or potential player), have full control over whether any selection from that medium, any game, affects you, personally. You have no control over whether someone else can play it or if they are affected, and nobody else has control over whether you play it or are affects. You. You alone are in charge. Compare this to, say, the television turned to full volume in the airport waiting areas: I have no choice, as an audience member, to voluntarily not participate: if I want to isolate myself from that communication, I have to take active steps (using headphones/earplugs, purposefully not looking in that direction) to insulate myself from the message.

            Gamers understand this, and relish it-- it is one of the great joys of games. There are many thousands of games I have never played, nor ever will-- those do not affect me in any way, much the same way the millions of sandwiches eaten by other people only affect those people, and not me. There is food on this planet I do not like, and would probably cause me intestinal distress: I don’t have to eat that food, and can choose not to.

            Now, is it possible that the title of a particular game offends someone, and just seeing it on a screen bothers someone? Or that hundreds of these titles, listed together, scrolling across a screen, might be distressing to a viewer? Like, if every title in a list of hundreds contained racial/religious epithets, or swear words?

            Maybe that would be bothersome to someone...or maybe it would inure that person to those words, causing those words to lose power. But that’s not really here nor there, because we go to point....

            ....B) The Internet is the best shopping market ever devised. I can find almost anything I could possibly want, in a moment, without the trouble of leaving my couch. Steam makes full use of Internet possibilities, allowing a shopper to search for particular terms (or filter out particular terms), see only titles that are preferred, or limit content in any number of ways. So not only does a gamer not have to play a particular game (or genre of games), but the gamer does not even have to see a given title or type of title.

            Those that complain Steam will be overwhelmed with undesirable games, making it difficult for shoppers to find the games they (the shoppers) like, don’t really want to shop. Because that’s what shopping is: making a choice from among options. The complainers want someone else to make the choice for them (and for all gamers) by limiting the possible options. I find that sad; when an adult wants to forego the power of their own choices, they limit themselves (and when they want to impose it on everyone, their limiting all of us).

            Might Steam get inundated with cheap, callous, crass games made by halfhearted or greedy developers less concerned with quality gameplaying experiences than turning a quick buck? Might that make it harder for a shopper to find the gems hidden in piles of dross? Possibly. But that same description could be used for major production houses right now, easily. And sifting through a bunch of crap to find a treasure is one of the great joys of one of my favorite shopping formats: the flea market. I have found some items of great value (both relative and financial) for amazing prices at flea markets...and I have spent hours in flea markets where I’ve seen nothing but crap and not made a single purpose. Did the latter experience harm me in any way? You could argue I lost the value of those hours, but that would be predicated on the assumption I didn’t receive enjoyment and entertainment value from those hours

            I assure you, I did.

            Finally, just to offer a couple thoughts on the public outrage over the specific game that started the whole conversation: Active Shooter. I am not sure why the idea of a simulation that mimics a tragedy, or where the player can pretend to be an awful person, or where entertainment is derived from violence is something to revile. I and my friends have pretended to be Nazis, done faux atrocities, and taken pleasure in murder for decades...and those were just board/tabletop games: Axis and Allies, Dungeons and Dragons, and Clue. Oddly, it has never meant that I actually want to invade Poland, slaughter hobgoblinoid people, or would take delight at a dinner party in which someone was bludgeoned to death with a heavy plumbing tool.

Ditching the ALE

At this point in my career, I deliver a lot of certification prep content, through teaching and writing. And I see certain things that were included at the outset of the industry as guidelines and suggestions that just aren't applicable anymore (or at least, not applicable in the same way as when they were proposed). My primary customer is ISC2, for the CISSP and CCSP certs, but I've taught ISACA and CompTIA certification prep courses in the past, and many of them suffer from the same problems. While I can't say for certainty exactly why all the major INFOSEC certifications suffer from the same blind spots, I can guess: most of the test writers have the same training in the same fundamental concepts, get the same certifications (from multiple vendors), and have received that content from their predecessors, and will pass it to the next generation in kind.

This leads to the possibility of stagnancy in content and approach. Which isn't terrible, for certain fundamental security concepts (say, defense-in-depth/layered approach/multiple redundant controls, or the use of two-person integrity), but there are other notions/ideas that are simply treated as sacrosanct in perpetuity, instead of being re-examined for validity, assessed as nonsense, and thrown onto the trash pile of history.

Today, I want to talk about one of the latter: the ALE formula.

If you don't what it is, consider yourself lucky. Then consider yourself unlucky, because if you're going to go get an INFOSEC cert, I can tell you for damn sure that it's going to be one of the things you're going to have to learn and memorize whether you like it or not.

Simply put, it's an approach to estimating the cost of a given type of negative impact as the result of security risk being realized. We teach INFOSEC practitioners that this value determination can be used to weigh the possible costs of controls to address a particular risk, and figure out whether or not to spend the money protecting against it.

Which is a good idea: spending too much on addressing a particular threat is just as bad as not spending enough...and, arguably, sometimes worse, because spending too much leaves you with a false sense of security and a lack of money, where not spending enough just means you have some of that risk left.

But the ALE formula is not really the best tool to accomplish this in our realm of INFOSEC, for many, many reasons. And we should stop requiring its use, and teaching it to newbies.

Why? Well, for starters, let's talk about the potential cost of a single type of incident, known in the formula as the SLE.

It's worth noting that the ALE formula works great in the physical security universe, where tangible assets can be mapped to specific losses. If I'm trying to secure a retail space selling goods that are of a particular size, shape, weight, and cost, I know some discrete, objective information about those assets. I know how many can be stolen at one time, by a single person picking them up and walking off with them. I know the amount (number and dollar value) of my inventory, based on another limiting factor: the footprint of my retail space and storage area. I know the various access points to get at my inventory: the doors/windows/loading areas. All these things can be defined and somewhat limited.

With electronic data as assets, all this numeric determination goes out the window (I mean, not the literal window, like tangible assets, but a metaphorical window, because the determination is impossible). I can't really know how many "data"s a person can steal at any given moment, because the size of files or objects or characters don't really have any meaning in the physical universe-- a flashstick that weighs less than an ounce can carry one file or a thousand files, and any given file can contain one character, or a million characters, and all of this fits inside one person's pocket, anyway (and that person doesn't need any exceptional muscles to carry even the heaviest flashstick).

So trying to determine the monetary impact of a single security event involving data is impossible, unlike the impact of a single security event involving physical assets. If someone steals one spoon in a retail environment, we know the cost of that spoon (and we actually know several costs: the wholesale cost we paid to get the spoon, the retail cost of what we would have realized in revenue if we sold that spoon, and the logistical cost of getting that spoon to the retail location)...but if someone steals a file, the value of the information in that file can vary wildly. A file might contain a photo of the user’s pet kitten (which is of value only to the user, and then only arguably at that, if the user has a copy of the photo), or it can contain the privacy data of the target organization’s entire customer base, and the relevant monetary impact can stretch into the range of millions of dollars, as the result of statutory damages assessed against the organization, or the loss of market share, or direct fraud on the part of the perpetrator using that information, and so on.

Sure, insurance companies in recent years have created various approaches to assigning value to data, but these are all just gibberish. Take, for instance, the idea of “average file cost”-- even if we were to determine the midpoint of value between the kitten photo and the customer list, that medium value would be meaningless when we suffered an actual loss: if we lost the kitten photo, and the insurance claim paid the amount of “average cost,” we’d be receiving far more in cash payout than the thing was worth, and if we lost the customer list the “average cost” claim payout would be far less than the damage we’d suffered. And what’s the size/value of an “average” file, anyway? How many files are there in a given business environment? The concept is absolutely pointless.

When the SLE is just a fictional construct, the entire ALE formula is ridiculous. We could use just this argument to eliminate the wretched thing from our industry. But there are even more reasons why ALE is stupid in the INFOSEC world-- and I’ll get to those in subsequent articles.



I Can't Believe This Just Occurred To Me...

...who gets your digital library when you're dead?

If I have tangible creative works, like hardcopy books, CDs, and yes, even vinyl albums, then I can give them to my heirs/assignees.

Can I do that with my Amazon video library? My iTunes music library? Any of the various ebooks I have floating around in the ether?

I have never read the entire ToS for any of these systems/ I don't recall if it was mentioned. Does anyone know? Please feel free to explain, in the Comments.

If we don't get a definitive answer in a couple weeks, I'll interview someone who might actually know (like an intellecutal property attorney), and post the results here.

But I am now fascinated by this topic.