Trustworthy systems, trustworthy vendors, and how to identify them

It's sad but true that some of the world's best minds in computing have dedicated themselves to creating new ways to attack information technology infrastructures. The assaults have resulted in a significant cost factor in enterprise computing, influencing the purchasing decisions both for general-purpose processing, storage and networking products and for specialized security hardware, software and services.

This raises the question: To what extent do security concerns guide information technology investment decisions?

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While IT decision-makers have few illusions about the immunity of products from determined attacks, they do want products that incorporate the latest security features, that do not contain deliberately designed-in security vulnerabilities, and that have not been tampered with in the manufacturing and distribution supply chain.

Offerings that meet these requirements are called trustworthy products and systems. The trustworthy-system concept sets a high bar for security. The system, along with its subsystems and components, must incorporate good security design practices, features and execution standards. Adherence to security standards and practices needs to be proven to the satisfaction of the purchaser, either through the product vendor's own quality assurance processes, or validated by an impartial and knowledgeable third party.

The trustworthiness assurance process extends well beyond the primary vendor's own design, manufacturing, distribution and service practices. Primary vendors must also take responsibility for the trustworthiness of components and subsystems externally sourced from subcontractors and OEM suppliers.

The trustworthiness assurance process occurs over the full life cycle of the product, from initial design concept to eventual decommissioning. Along the way, the product must be operated and maintained in full fidelity, with best practices prevailing at all times over the course of the solution's lifecycle. This includes timely software updates, patches, any required standards re-certifications, or even early removal from a production environment should the product be recalled or unexpectedly decertified for commercial or public sector use.

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Trustworthy vendors

Vendors play central roles in the trustworthy-systems concept. A product -- even one that meets all formal validation and certification criteria -- cannot be considered trustworthy unless it is sold and supported by an equally trustworthy vendor. How does one recognize a trustworthy vendor? The perception of trustworthiness results from external reputation factors, the vendor's observable behaviors and, ultimately, the buyer's own experience of dealings with a vendor. [Also see: "Do resellers and partners trust their vendors/manufactures less and less?"]

External validation can encompass both formal and informal criteria. Formal criteria can consist of industry certifications relevant to IT security, membership in approved-vendor lists (such as the GSA schedule), industry analyst rankings, customer references and independently validated customer satisfaction ratings. Some reputation indicators may have only indirect relevance to a vendor's information technology expertise -- for example, credit ratings or appearances on "best places to work" surveys can indicate vendors with high standards of fiscal probity and employee relations practices.

Then come individual and often highly subjective one-to-one business relationship factors. Markers here can include overall transparency, a willingness to provide product certification and validation information, responsiveness and forthrightness in dealing with business and technical problems encountered over the life cycle of a solution, and a general history of fair dealing.

The logic of system and vendor trustworthiness

At first it might appear that system and vendor trustworthiness can exist independently from each other. The trustworthiness of a system can be evaluated and certified according to objective, technical criteria. Vendor trustworthiness hinges on human perceptions of a vendor behavior, regardless of whether these perceptions come from third parties (analysts, customers, credit rating firms, best-places-to-work magazine stories), or the buyer's own experience. But the reader will quickly recognize that positive, independently verifiable belief in system trustworthiness can be fatally undermined by any perceptions of vendor untrustworthiness.

The logic here is that while system trustworthiness can be validated, vendor trustworthiness must be earned and constantly renewed in the eyes of the technology purchaser. When vendor trustworthiness breaks down, so does that of the products and services the vendor sells.

Trustworthiness reputations are inherently fragile. A scandal, quality breakdown, media exposé or bad behavior in a business relationship can shatter trustworthiness perceptions and taint anything the vendor has touched in the purchaser's IT infrastructure. When it comes to trustworthiness, "What have you done for me lately?" is really a very fair question.

Trustworthiness does not mean immunity from security attacks or breakdowns. Trustworthiness offers, at best, the preconditions for successful operation of an IT infrastructure in the face of an increasingly dangerous global threat environment. Threats mutate rapidly. In parallel, trust in systems and vendors must be renewed and reinforced every day. While trust alone cannot save IT infrastructure owners, they are completely lost without it.

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