Interview with Yassir Abousselham, Okta CSO

Interview with Yassir Abousselham, Okta CSO

I spoke to Yassir Abousselham, the CSO for Okta, an identity management cloud security vendor. Before joining Okta this past summer, he worked for SoFi, a fintech company where he built the company’s information security and privacy program. He also held leadership positions at Google, where he built both the corporate security for finance and legal departments and the payments infrastructure security programs, as well as at Ernst & Young, where he held a variety of technical and consultancy roles during his 11-year tenure.

When first started at E&Y, he worked for an entertainment company that hired them to examine their security issues. He found a misconfigured web server that enabled them to enter their network and compromise systems within the first 30 minutes of testing. This got him started in finding security gaps and when he first realized that security is only as good as your weakest link. “The larger the environment and more IT infrastructure, the harder it is to maintain these systems.” Luckily they weren’t billing by the hour for that engagement! He went on to produce a very comprehensive look at the company’s security profile, which is what they needed to avoid situations like what he initially found.

“The worse case is when companies do what I call check mark compliance assessments,” he said, referring to when companies are just implementing security and not really looking closely at what they are doing. “On the other hand, there are a few companies who do take the time to find the right expertise to actually improve their security posture.”

“To be effective, you have to design many security layers and use multiple tools to protect against any threats these days. And you know, the tools and the exploits do change over time. A few years ago, no one heard about ransomware for example.” He recommends looking at security tools that can help automate various processes, to ensure that they are done properly, such as automated patching and automated application testing.

Although he has been at Okta only a few months, they have yet to experience any ransomware attack. “The first line of defense is educating our employees. No matter how much you do, there is always going to be one user that will open an phished attachment. Hackers will go through great lengths to socially engineer those users.” Okta employs a core security team that has multiple functions, and works closely with other departments that are closer to the actual products to keep things secure. They also make use of their own mobile management tool to secure their employees’ mobile devices. “We allow BYOD but before you can connect to our network, your device has to pass a series of checks, such as not being rooted and having a PIN lock enabled and running the most updated OS version,” he said.

How does securing the Google infrastructure compare to Okta? “They have a much more complex environment, for sure.” That’s an understatement.

Working for an identity vendor like Okta, “I was surprised that single sign-on or SSO is not more universally deployed,” he said. “Many people see the value of SSO but sometimes take more time to actually get to the point where they actually use this technology. Nevertheless, SSO and multi-factor authentication are really becoming must-have technologies these days, just like having a firewall was back 20 years ago. It makes sense from a security standpoint and it makes sense from an economics standpoint too. You have to automate access controls and harden passwords, as well as be able to monitor how accounts are being used and be able to witness account compromises.” He compares not having SSO to putting a telnet server on the public Internet back in the day. “It is only a matter of time before your company will be compromised. Passwords aren’t enough to protect access these days.”

 

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