Sep 5, 2019 - Heather Simpson    

The difference transparency makes in security

What happens when you lift the veil around security?

This blog post is Unfiltered

We sat down with manager of strategic security, Robert Mitchell to talk about the impact of human error, the exponential benefits of transparency in security and more.


Robert Mitchell Headshot Name: Robert Mitchell

Title: Manager, Strategic Security

How long have you been at GitLab? I started in November 2018

GitLab handle: @gitlab-rmitchell

Connect with Robert: LinkedIn

Tell us what you do here at GitLab:

Strategic Security focuses on pro-active measures at scale that improve the security of GitLab for the company, the product or our customers. I develop and lead projects that improve or expand the security department’s capability to deliver a secure and reliable service. I also manage the security automation, threat intelligence and field security teams.

What’s the most challenging or rewarding aspect of your role?

GitLab moves so fast, every day is an adventure. I am constantly humbled and amazed at the level of talent within the company, and the energy that people bring to the table each day with the things they want to do. It’s immensely rewarding to me to be able to respond to our constant iterations, adding my own perspectives and experiences, and to be a part of the growth here. My biggest challenges are just keeping up with it all, for while GitLab is leading the world in managing remote work, timezones are difficult in any global organization, and working from Sydney, Australia means that the number of shared working hours I have with teams in the Americas and Europe is limited.

And, what are the top 2-3 initiatives you’re currently focused on?

I’ve been heavily involved in driving our Zero-Trust Networking initiative since starting at GitLab. The biggest area I’ve managed personally has been around our identity management and SaaS management processes. Identity and authentication are critical to us as an all-remote company - all our endpoint assets are remote and all our data is hosted in the cloud, so traditional infrastructure security controls don’t really apply to our security model. Therefore, ensuring that we have a strong and consistent method to identify users and ensure that we have visibility of where our data is critical to our business. Our Zero Trust blog post series makes great reading on our progress.

How did you get into security?

I was on the periphery of the BBS scene in Australia in the late 80s/early 90s in Australia. While not involved in any of the shenanigans detailed in Suelette Dreyfus’s excellent book about that era, the exploits of some of these characters were known to me at the time. I was always curious about what could and couldn’t be done on the Internet, but my formal involvement in IT Security really kicked off when I landed a job at Check Point Software in the late 90s. A lot has changed since the days when Firewalls, VPNs and stateful inspection were the key technologies, but many of the foundational principles from those days are still just as relevant today.

What is the most significant piece of security advice you could provide to a colleague or friend?

Human error is the most significant cause of security problems. So many of the security breaches that have come to pass in recent years inevitably have an element where a person with good intentions has made a decision with dire consequences. So when thinking about Security, don’t just think about the cool hack or the clever technology. Most likely, the vulnerability will be a person who will make the mistake that causes a breach, so everything you can do to educate, inform and remove the potential for the human side of a system to fail will make the greatest difference.

A simple example of this is passwords. A site like https://haveibeenpwned.com/ is a sobering read for how often people don’t set passwords that are effective, and a common human error is using the same password in multiple places, for convenience. Progressively more complicated password policies are not really a good solution here (because users can just come up with a more complex password they re-use everywhere!), but implementing a second authentication factor that is dynamic (e.g. Google Authenticator) is a simple control that is relatively user-friendly, and makes a massive difference to the risk of a breach.

From the perspective of your role, what’s GitLab doing better than anyone else in terms of security?

Transparency. Security has a tradition of encouraging secrecy and a culture of “need to know” which has discouraged collaboration and sharing of information for a long time. We are now seeing that allowing researchers and practitioners to share data about their knowledge and information has an exponential benefit, and that by being honest and transparent about the risks and problems that we have, we expose the problems more efficiently and ultimately get a better solution. While there is still a need to be responsible with disclosure and ensure that shared information does not expose people to unnecessary risks, GitLab is leading in showing that raising the veil around what is involved in securing a product and service actually results in a better quality product, and enhances trust rather than dilutes it.

What do you look forward to the most in security in the next 5 years?

There is a definite generational change in the air, with the evolution of Security in DevOps and more people with a coding/automation background getting into the Security space. What interests me particularly, is seeing how those fresh eyes can look at existing challenges around enforcing security controls, and how to use new models to attack age-old problems like large-scale log analysis and intrusion detection and response. In our own team we’re starting some great experiments using machine learning to analyse traffic logs for indicators of abuse, with some great initial successes and an ultimate goal of automating both detection and response of abusive behaviours. From a GitLab perspective, that’s doubly exciting because the learnings we get from this are things that we can feed back into our platform, thus allowing all of our customers to benefit!

Is there an area of security research you think deserves more attention? Why?

I have a strong belief that the human side of security is often neglected by technical teams, and by research. There has been some great research into social engineering within the last 5-10 years, but a lot of it is focused on the offensive side of social engineering, and nowhere near enough on the blue/defense side. Understanding why people make mistakes and course-correcting is an area that I believe is seriously under researched, and in terms of real benefit would make a massive difference to our industry. One of the few papers in this space is "The psychology of scams" (warning, it’s a long read!) but if you know of good work in this area, I’d love to read it.

Now, for the questions you really want to have answered:

What was the first computer you owned?

An Exidy Sorcerer! My father bought it when I was 7 years old. Killer Specs - 32KB (yes, KB!) RAM, Z-80 Processor, 2 (count them!) colours, no sound unless you did the parallel port mod (which we did, of course!). I taught myself BASIC and Assembler programming by copying programs by hand in books and finding all the typos. I still have a soft spot for vintage personal computers, we are spoiled by the amount of power we have available to us these days.

Gif or Gif? (Gif vs Jif)

Gif. Obviously…

What’s your favorite season?

Winter. I love the cold, although Australian winters are pretty mild in comparison to other parts of the world. If I had to dig myself out of several feet of snow every day, I might change my mind!

What is that one food, you cannot live without?

I’m a pretty massive foodie, and particularly love South East Asian food (Malay, Thai, Indonesian). Making me choose one food is too hard, but a world without Beef Randang, Nonya dishes and Thai Curries is too sad to contemplate….

When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing/how do you spend your free time?

I like to get out on my motorbike and go touring when time permits. The freedom of an open country road or a hill/mountain with a great twisty road is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s also a great way to meet interesting people and share their stories.

Photo by Orlova Maria on Unsplash

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