Why Conflicts Solve Many Security Problems: About Attacks and Mistakes

One of the most interesting jobs in my career was the management of the Security in a big bank. It was an interesting job but also a very stressful job.

When you are responsible for Security you are always fighting against two forces. The first force is the Outside Attacker. The other force is your Boss.

When “Things Go Terribly Wrong” your Boss will be very angry.

When “Nothing is Happening” he will reduce your budget or he will tell you to stop “boddering people” with all the things you do to “Prevent that Terrible Things will Be Happening”.

People don’t like Security Measures.

One of the most spectaculair activities was “The Simulated Attack“. We paid people to attack our Systems and we hoped we could stop them. I can tell you one thing. They always succeeded! Personnally I am convinced it will be much easier to attack a bank than 10 years ago. I still know “How They Did It” and I know it is almost impossible to prevent “This to Happen”.

If you know a little bit about the way payments are processed the only thing you have to do is to change a software-program. “This” can be done on many levels in the IT-Infrastructure. When you do “this” on a “deep level” you need a lot of technical expertise. You can also do it in a simple way. Just sell yourself as a programmer to a contracter or sub-contracter.

The funny things is that you can also Attack a Bank without the intention to Attack the Bank. Just “Make a Vital Mistake” and Complete Systems Stop Working. Soon I discovered that “Preventing Small Mistakes” was much more important than “Preventing a Big Attack”.

The most important reason is that when somebody wants to Attack a Bank you just cannot stop them without Stopping the Bank.

You need to take so many “Counter-Measures” that everybody (Personel and Customers) is simply stopped in everything they want to do.

One of the people that inspired me the most was Prof.dr. Willem Albert Wagenaar. He showed me that it is almost impossible to prevent mistakes.

When you want to Prevent a Mistake you Have to  Change the System Not the People.

Many Security systems are Symbolic Systems. You are not allowed to exceed a speed-limit when you drive a car. It would be much easier to block the car to exceed the limit.

The only thing you can do is to “design” systems that are resistant to the things “you don’t want to happen”. But Beware of the “Total Blocking Effect”.

A very effective way to do this is to “Create a Conflict”.

When you don’t want somebody to spend money without permission make Two persons responsible for the decision to spend the money. When you want to prevent that your personnel is treated badly make one person responsible for the Care of the personnel and another for the Use of the personnel. When you want High Quality and Speedy Delivery make one person responsible for Quality and the other for Speed.

The most important thing you have to do to make this work is to give them Equal Power. When you don’t do this one of them will become the Slave of the Other. When you give them Equal Power they have to Negociate the Two Conflicting Forces.

A Projectmanager needs a Very Special Expert to reach his goals in time and the Expert is very tired or sick or his father is dying. The  solution is to talk with the Customer and explain the problem to him. Perhaps he wants to postpone the project for a few days.

A bad solution is to waste the Expert (he will make mistakes) or to use an unexperienced employee (he will make mistakes). When they make mistakes the project has to be postponed and the Customer will loose his faith in your competence.

When the Opponents are unable to solve the conflict give a third party (The Wise Judge) the Power to Decide and write down “How He Solved the Conflict”.

This will prevent the next one.

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