“Think Like an Attacker” is an opt-in mistake

I’ve repeatedly spoken out against “think like an attacker.”

Now I’m going to argue from authority. In this long article, “The Obama Doctrine,” the President of the United States says “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected.”

So let’s think about that statement and what it means. First, it means that the multi-billion dollar analytic apparatus of the United States made a mistake, a serious one about which the President cares, because it impacted his foreign policy. Second, that mistake was about how people think. Third, that group of people was a society, and one that has interacted with the United States since, oh, I don’t know, someone wrote words like “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” (And dig the Marines, kickin’ it old skool with that video.) Fourth, it was not a group that attempts to practice operational security in any way.

So if we consider that the analytical capability of the US can get that wrong, do you really want to try to think like Anonymous, think like 61398, like 8200? Are you going to do this perfectly, or are there chances to make mistakes? Alternately, do you want to require everyone who threat models to know how attackers think? Understanding how other people think and prioritize requires a great deal of work. There are entire fields, like anthropology and sociology dedicated to doing it well. Should we start our defense by reading books on the motivational structures of the PLA or the IDF?

The simple fact is, you don’t need to. You can start from what people are building or deploying. (I wrote a book on how.) The second simple fact is repeating that phrase upsets people. When I first joined Microsoft, I used that phrase. One day, a developer grabbed me after a meeting, and politely told me that he didn’t understand it. Oh, wait, this was Microsoft in 2006. He told me I was a fucking idiot and I should give useful advice. After a bit more conversation, he also told me that he had no idea how the fuck an attacker thought, and if I thought he had time to read a book to learn about it, I could write the goddamned features customers pay for while he read.

Every time someone tells me to think like an attacker, I think about that conversation. I appreciate the honesty that the fellow showed, if not his manner. But (as Dave Weinstein pointed out) “A generalized form of this would be ‘Stop giving developers completely un-actionable “guidance”.’ Now, Dave and I worked together at Microsoft, so maybe there’s a similar experience in his past.

Now, this does not mean that we don’t need to pay attention to what real attackers do. It means that we don’t need to walk a mile in their shoes to defend effectively against it.

Previously, “Think Like An Attacker?,” “The Discipline of “think like an attacker”,” and “Think Like An Attacker? Flip that advice!.” [Edited, also previously, at the New School blog: “Modeling Attackers and Their Motives.”]

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