Are InfoSec vendors ‘sowing confusion’ and selling ‘useless’ products?

Security vendors are doing just swell but how much do they do - outside of selling products - to help the world become a safer place? CSO Online investigates.

Good work behind the scenes

Security providers often get a bad name, for reasons we’ll go into, but the vast majority are doing an enormous amount of good.

Aside their products being used to protect millions of consumers and businesses, vendors help law enforcement by sharing threat intelligence, and taking down criminal infrastructure (like botnets). Research teams give fresh insight on new and old malware through publications like these, and their own blogs.

They provide free tech, like free decryption tools against ransomware, and have researchers disclosing vulnerabilities responsibly. They provide world-class training through bodies like SANS and ISC2, or contribute to OWASP.

Jennifer Stephens is CEO at security consultancy IoActive, which has developed a fine reputation for disclosing vulnerabilities, especially with connected cars. She stresses the importance of corporate responsibility.

“One hundred percent of our revenue is from the security services we deliver, but we also conduct thousands of hours of research a year that we do entirely on our own dime.

“The output of our research alerts consumers to security risks and provides vendors information that enables them to make their products more secure, whether they choose to work with us to do so or not.” She added that the firm’s Advisory Services practice provides strategic guidance on how to continually improve the organization’s security posture “long after our engagement is done.”

“Finally, many members of our team are prolific speakers, writers, bloggers and advisers that give free talks around the country, participate in or lead security chapters or projects within their communities or associations.”

Marcin Kleczynski, co-founder and CEO of Malwarebytes, said in an email to CSO that its focus is beyond just technology.

“Our entire company is dedicated to protecting consumers and businesses from the most dangerous cyber threats, but effective protection against these threats often necessitates far more than technology solutions.

“So, our Malwarebytes Labs team works hard to discover and educate the public on the latest dangerous exploits and attack methods, documenting them on our blog with advice for how consumers and businesses can best navigate the threat landscape. We have even gone as far as working with law enforcement to shut down some tech support scammers and cyber criminals using our labs research.”

The increased collaboration with law enforcement is becoming more commonplace; in July, the Dutch National Police, Europol, Intel Security and Kaspersky Lab joined forces to launch an initiative called No More Ransom, to spread the word about the threat of ransomware, while May saw Europol and F-Secure sign an memorandum of understanding to share cyber-crime information.

Late last year FBI, Interpol, Microsoft and ESET partnered to take down the infrastructure behind the Dorkbot botnet which infected 1 million computers with malware.

Do some vendors spread FUD and sell ‘snake oil’?

For all its notable efforts, the vendor community does often receive criticism for spreading fear around the security threat in the hope of selling more products.

It’s not unusual for journalists to receive press releases warning of cyber-warfare, ‘cyber armageddon’ or a critical infrastructure attack (note: research currently suggests pesky squirrels are more likely to take down your local power grid, rather than China’s PLA Unit 61398).

Some vendors are also quick to latch onto breaking vulnerabilities or attacks, and will happily over-play the threat. Others have been accused of making hyped-up boasts about “unbreakable” or uncrackable products.

There is an argument that this fear factor is required, but many argue it has an adverse effect - pushing the customer away, while also highlighting the futility of the very security products they are trying to sell.

Amar Singh, former CISO at News International and SABMiller, says some vendors are better than others.

“I would say there are good apples and bad apples; some vendors are into doing right thing, but no doubt some vendors are...only focused on sales and pedalling their products. They make extraordinary promises.

“Yet, I know some vendors who say ‘No, this isn’t product what you are looking for’.”

Malwarebytes’ Kleczynski admits it's hard for vendors to educate end users “not as ingrained in the space as we are” on the security threat, but downplayed suggestions of vendors “overstating the threat”.

“I don’t think that by painting a clear picture of the nature and consequences of cyber threats is "overstating the threat." It’s important to use examples of very real consequences of cyber-attacks to educate consumers and businesses and give them an opportunity to learn that the threat of cyber-attacks is real and can have very real consequences.”

Stephens, though, suggested FUD is an age-old problem.

“Selling FUD is an unfortunate legacy and reality in the industry. It’s rooted in the fact that the need for security hasn’t always been the recognized and acknowledged organizational priority that it’s become almost universally today. So selling FUD was how you “made it important” to decision makers. That’s no longer the case.

“But because it is such a high priority issue now, the use of FUD to appeal to a far more security-conscious society seems to be enduring and even proliferating as a selling tactic. It’s especially distressing when there are so many legitimate security threats now and they’re often difficult to filter or distinguish amongst all the FUD noise.”

But does FUD help to drive awareness?

In moderation, FUD does have its place, in particular in justifying security measures and budgets to management.

Mimran says this will continue: “The main go-to-market strategy for security vendors has always been FUD, and although it does not sound right versus showing the real value of products and services, still we are in the field of security.

“The field of security and the focus on threats is based on risk management and the natural emotions involved in risk management are naturally fear and uncertainty.

“Until the cyber-security industry will mature, FUD will still be the main root message behind marketing of cyber-companies. There are early signs of maturity in different companies but still the vast majority is still focused on actual threats and their damage which is basically FUD.

Singh agreed, but added that customers are “partly to blame”.

“The problem is, as consumers always look for panacea to a problem, and the problem with cyber is it is not binary. It’s not black and white. Humans have a problem with the concept of a grey area.

“Vendors are fighting a losing battle because if they say ‘my product may protect you’, many consumers may not buy product. So have to go overboard and make a promise not fully true. It’s an education issue definitely.”

He added customers don’t spend time on understanding who will use the products, or what they are trying to protect.

“Part of the problem in IT is customers have no idea what they want - they get promised the world, but they don’t understand the terminology. It’s a similar thing with cyber.”

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