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Q&A: Oracle's security head talks from the trenches

By , IDG News Service
May 24, 2005 10:59 AM ET

IDG News Service - Although no longer in the U.S. Navy, Mary Ann Davidson has placed herself on the front lines of an escalating war. It's not a battle between nations, or over land or principle, but instead a fight for information - perhaps yours.

As chief security officer (CSO) at software vendor Oracle , Davidson is in charge of making sure that customers' data stays safe. Even if you're not one of Oracle's customers, who include critical infrastructure providers in the government, financial services and telecommunications sectors, it's possible that some of your data is being stored in Oracle software.

With so much sensitive information to protect, Oracle has been working to diminish the number of vulnerabilities in its software while delivering fixes in a way that makes it easier for customers to manage them. But just as major software vendors like Oracle are ramping up their defenses, hackers, lured by the profit potential in selling data, are becoming even more skilled at their attacks.

Amid the growing conflict, Davidson made a stop in London last week, where she debriefed IDG News Service (IDGNS) on Oracle's plan of attack. The CSO talked not only about her latest defense - software auditing - but also about a little-known technology world where military history is used to plot strategy and security researchers roam like mercenaries. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

IDGNS: What can the vendors do to make their software more secure?

Davidson: One of the problems I see is that communications software has poor auditability. There isn't a standard for data capture and the format that it's represented in. Industry won't solve this problem by itself so we have to get standards bodies like the National Institute of Standards for Technology (NIST) to take this on, then all of a sudden industry would have something to work with. Governments and large procuring bodies could push this by making it a procurement requirement.

IDGNS: Why is auditing important?

Davidson: It's important for a lot of people from a regulatory standpoint to not only show they did the right thing but to prove it. And on the larger scale I look at what the [U.S.] defense department is doing and say look there's no way I can figure out what the bad guy is doing because there's no auditing records.

IDGNS: I notice from your bio you were an officer in the Navy Civil Engineer Corp. What strengths do you bring from that experience?

Davidson: I read a lot of military history and a lot of those lessons apply. One of my development teams thought I was insane recently when I asked them 'Okay, how did the Marines take Guadalcanal?' I was talking about the strategy of identity management. What does that have to do with anything? You don't try to hold everything. If you hold everything, you defend nothing. In Guadalcanal, they took the piece that was strategic, which was the airstrip.

IDGNS: What's the airstrip of Oracle's database software then?

Davidson: Maybe the airstrip is the database. There's a great line that's making the rounds: it's the data, stupid. That's really what you are trying to protect.

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