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Trustworthy systems, trustworthy vendors, and how to identify them

By John Stewart, senior vice president and chief security officer, Cisco, special to Network World
December 13, 2012 01:49 PM ET

Network World - 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.

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