Should IT security workers become professionals?

Its time for security workers to debate becoming a self-managing group

Lawyers, doctors and engineers are professionals. Now, with public confidence in IT ebbing as data thefts dominate headlines, its time for security workers to debate becoming a self-managing group.

That was the provocative call Tuesday from Dr. Richard Reiner, chief information officer of the security solutions division of Canadian carrier Telus at the first annual SecTor security conference in Toronto.

"There are more risks out there and our capability to manage them in most organizations is quite primitive," Reiner said.

"The technology environment continues to become more complex, the regulatory environment is fragmented and very complex to deal with. We have an economic environment in which the world in more interconnected and data flows are richer than they used to be, all of which makes security management harder and I think a lot of organizations are struggling."

Network attackers are no longer teenagers, he noted, but increasingly are members of organized crime.

There are a number of groups that try to certify IT security workers, such as the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC2). A number of IT vendors also have security certifications for their products. However, Reiner argued, such bodies are fragmented.

It doesn't help that industry and academics aren't working together to solve security problems, he added.

"We're closer to clowns and cat burglars" as an unregulated group, he said.

To meet the challenge, perhaps information security practitioners should be a member of a self-regulation profession, he said.

That would give employers confidence in who they hire, and the public confidence in businesses and governments they deal with.

A profession, he said, not only regulates its training and licensing, but also has ethical standards of conduct its members will have to obey.

The benefits of going this route include an improved level of status among the public and employers, the ability to control fees and the possibility that, in this time of IT staff shortages, more people would turn to information technology for a career.

Yet there are also pitfalls, he warned. For one thing, it would likely take decades for governments to pass the necessary legislation. Becoming a professional would mean giving up your personal code of ethics for the group's, oblige members to act in the public interest and be prepared to be disciplined by a ruling body -- which, he noted, can turn members against each other.

To get an idea of this, "ask a doctor what he thinks of the College of Physicians and Surgeons," Reiner said.

There's also the question of who would be required to join: "Defensive" IT security practitioners working for enterprises would be obvious, but what about "offensive" IT security people in police departments or intelligence agencies?

Opinions were mixed among four people in the audience interviewed after Reiner's speech.

Executives have governance over the information they collect, argued Denis Ernst, president of Ottawa data security and information firm DSI Now, so to ensure that governance is adequate, IT security workers should be professionals.

"The world of informatics has exploded and there's no standard of security," said RCMP Sgt. Pierre Bourguignon, a senior investigator on the Atlantic Region Integrated Technological Crime Unit, a division that investigates technology aspects of crimes. Having a controlling body is a good idea, he said.

However, Capt. Bruce Williams, an Ottawa-based Defense Department communications security officer, wondered if it would be better to include the many people working in security fields as professionals rather than limit it to IT workers.

For Carlos Andreau, chief information officer of the US Navy war college, professionalizing the industry is a move that should have been made years ago when the IEEE talked about making computer scientists self-regulating.

It's too late now, he said.

Despite all the questions, now is the time to debate this issue, Reiner said.

"If we as an industry don't know where we want to go," he warned, "someone else will decide for us."

Conference organizers hope to make October national security month in Canada. They're so confident about the success of the conference they've already booked a hall for next year's event.

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Howard Solomon

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