Categorizing Security Engineering Work

by alex_gaynor

There's a lot of different types of work that tend to get put into the bucket "security engineering". This goal of this post is to describe how I categorize different kinds of work, and why this is useful.

At the highest level, security work goes into one of four buckets:

  1. Work that prevents us from getting owned. In this bucket are things like fixing bugs as well fixing root causes so bugs don't appear. For example, adding an html_escape to prevent XSS goes in this bucket, as does changing template languages to one that HTML escapes variables by default.
  2. Work that lets us know if we've been owned. This bucket contains logging, monitoring, and alerting. For example, logging all outgoing TCP connections from your servers and alerting on unexpected hosts, or enabling HTTP Public-Key-Pinning in Report-Only mode.
  3. Work that reduces the damage if we get owned. This bucket contains defensive mitigations and things that reduce the value of assets you own. For example, storing passwords in your database with scrypt, and making sure the OAuth2 tokens you store have as limited scopes as possible both go in this bucket. This bucket sometimes bleeds into (1). For example, I work on Firefox's Sandboxing team, our work reduces the damage that can be done with a remote code execution vulnerability in Firefox's renderer process, but we also make it more difficult to own our user's systems completely, by requiring an attack have a second vulnerability.
  4. Work that creates more work. In this bucket we have audits, and bug bounties, red team exercises, and threat modeling . None of these activities improve your security directly, instead they generate work in one of the other buckets for your team to work on. For example, a red teaming exercise might discover that your monitoring does a poor job of caching lateral movement between servers, or a bug bounty might turn up a pile of XSS vulnerabilities that need fixing.

Those are the buckets, but why are they useful? First, because like breakfast, security requires balance. Over-investing in one bucket to the detriment of the others produces suboptimal results. Second, because otherwise you might implicitly mix them up. Several times I have seen teams that were overworked and unable to keep up with the bugs they know about think a bug bounty would solve their security problems. It won't, it will just generate more bugs that they'll be unable to keep to speed with. The flip side is that if you aren't sure of the weaknesses of your monitoring, a red teaming exercise can give you critical insights into how attackers view your systems, and let you better plan out the next round of work you need to do.

These buckets are neither universal nor perfect -- I suspect you can already think of work that fits into multiple buckets or which doesn't fit cleanly into any one of them -- nonetheless I've found them a useful system for quickly categorizing how a security team is spending its time, and where it ought to be spending its time.

Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.