FIR B2B podcast #125: Buyer Personas: Why They Matter; How to Create Them

We’re joined by Matthew Naffah, VP of Strategy at International Data Group, who has has been involved in developing buyer personas for many B2B clients. Personas have been around almost as long as the web itself, but lately they are taking on a more important role, particularly as buyers become more empowered in the buying decision.

Matt tell us about how to get started with building the right personas and understanding the level of details that are ideal, and you can err on the side of including too much or too little detail. He also talks about some of the more common mistakes marketers make in creating them.

Personas are most useful when used in conjunction with buyer journeys and content mapping. You need to nurture, adapt and grow all three elements interactively to optimize the experience for your potential customer base. You’ll also want to heed his advice when it comes time to get your management involved to renew and refund your marketing project too.

Here are some resources to check out:

You can listen to our podcast here:

The state of our elections security

The past week has seen a lot of news stories about hacking our elections. Today I take a careful look at what we know and the various security implications, which I cover in the last paragraph. It is hard to write about this without getting into politics, but I will try to summarize the facts. Here are two of them:

Russians have tried to penetrate election authorities in every statehouse but weren’t successful — other than Illinois at being able to compromise those networks. We have evidence that has been published in the Mueller report and more recently the Senate Intelligence Committee report from last week.

A second and more troublesome collection of potential election compromises is described in a report from the San Mateo County grand jury that was also posted last week. I will get to this report in a moment.

For infosec professionals, the events described in these documents have been well known for many years. The reports talk about spear-phishing attacks on election officials, phony posts on social media or posts that originate from sock puppet organizations (such as Russian state-sponsored intelligence agencies), or from consultants to political campaigns that misrepresent themselves to influence an election.

Much of this has already been published, including this timeline infographic from Symantec.

What is new though has little to do with technology failures and more to do with how we have structured our communications and threat sharing data. The Senate report says, “often election experts, national security experts, and cybersecurity experts are speaking different languages. Election officials focus on transparent processes and open access and are concerned about introducing uncertainty into the system; national security professionals tend to see the threat first. Both sides need to listen to each other better and to use more precise language.” The report goes on to document the security failings of 21 state election boards’ operations.

One of the issues has to do with the poor security surrounding electronic voting machines. As I said, this is a well-known problem. A University of Michigan computer science professor has been studying this for years. He purchased some of these machines on eBay and set up a demonstration of how easy it was to hack the votes. Digital voting can be solved, but not easily: Estonia has been voting electronically for years because every Estonian has a digital ID card that isn’t easily hacked. (You can read my experiences with using it here – non-residents can buy one but obviously can’t vote.) You can read more about Estonia’s experience with its online voting here. It shows that digital voting doesn’t increase the overall voting population, but has become more popular since its introduction.

What the Senate report doesn’t document is what has been done since it began its research several years ago. That is the purview of the San Mateo grand jury report which posits that social media accounts of county officials — both their personal accounts as well as their official business accounts — have been compromised in the past and could be used to disrupt elections. These accounts could be used to spread false information both before and after an election. This report is quite chilling and Brian Krebs has a lot more to say about it.

Let’s talk a little more about what the state and local election agencies are doing to better secure our elections. To understand how these agencies are trying to improve their security postures, you have to follow the money.

Several years ago, Congress appropriated $380 million for state grants to improve election security. All of this money hasn’t yet been spent, although it has been allocated to the states and you can see where it is eventually going here in a very confusing report from a federal entity called the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC). The EAC is in charge of distributing these funds. A better analysis from Pacific Standard can be found in this piece. The state election authorities must match five percent of their grants and spend it all before 2023. Most of these funds are being spent on phishing awareness education, doing regular patching and system updates, and according to this report from last year, “ensuring election results have auditable paper trails, have better built-in cyber defenses and can continue to operate resiliently after a digital attack.” Illinois, Wisconsin and New York are planning to dedicate all of these funding allotments to improving cybersecurity measures. The others have proposed a mix of cyber and non-cyber improvements.

The EAC also provides a collection of various tools and best practices for state and local elections authorities, and you might want to spend some time, as I did, visiting its website and seeing the quality of its advice. On the whole, it is sound, but the problem is getting the hundreds of local officials to act on it and to work together with the feds.

One of these tools is an open-source intrusion detection system called Albert that was first developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security several years ago and based on Suricata IDS project. This tool has replaced Snort and has become very popular in the commercial IDS world.

States can freely implement this tool and EAC will help them with security monitoring too. This is done with an operations center that houses both one for network-level events called the Multi-state Information Sharing and Analysis Center and one for election security events. It is run by the Center for Internet Security out of an office near Albany NY. Albert sensors are now monitoring election systems that will account for 100 percent of votes to be cast in the 2020 elections. In 2016, it was only covering a third of the votes cast.

Let’s turn from elections operations to influencing how we cast our votes. For that, I will talk about a new Netflix documentary called “The Great Hack,” which is now on its streaming service. I urge you to watch it with your whole family. It mostly follows two people that you might not have heard of and their role in the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal: Brittany Kaiser, a former CA employee and David Carroll, a college professor who tried to sue the company to gain access to his own data. If you can get past the annoying CGI opening credits, there is actually much meat to be gleaned here. The main thesis of the movie has to do with convincing a class of voters it calls the persuadables in swing districts to vote for a particular candidate, or not vote at all. If you don’t have time to watch the movie, you can get the main points from a TED talk by Carole Cadwalladr, one of the reporters featured in the film. Facebook knew about the abuses of its data collection and was fined by the U.S. government last week. (This article by Techcrunch summarizes these details.) Also, in last week’s news: Facebook agreed to pay two fines. First was a $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission, and a second $100 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was overshadowed but represents a more important penalty.

OK, that is a lot to grok, I admit. If you have made it this far, here are some action items for you as an individual. First, if you want to vote intelligently, consume social media carefully. Don’t repost without extreme vetting of the source; better yet, go to listen-only mode and steer clear of using social media entirely for politics. I realize that is a lot to ask. Some of you have already abandoned social media entirely. Others have selectively blocked friends who wax too often on political topics. Second, when you vote, if you can use a paper ballot do so, at least until the electronic machines have better protection. Finally, check the election security operations center website to see if your county or city elections authority is a member, and if not, urge them to join.

Password spraying attacks means you need a better password strategy now

Those of you in tech have probably used or heard of Citrix. The company has been around for decades and sells a variety of products, including remote desktops and network security. It is ironic that they experienced a security breach across their internal corporate network: the breach began last October and was only discovered in March. A series of internal business documents were stolen as a result of this breach. Think about that for a moment: if a network security company can’t detect hackers living inside their network for months, how can mere mortals do it?

The company recently concluded its investigation and to its credit has been very transparent about its process. They hired FireEye to analyze its logs and have since updated their endpoint protection with its product. This post describes what Citrix is doing to tighten its security, and how it has put together a committee to help govern security going forward. That is great. The post concludes by saying, “we live in a dynamic threat environment that requires a culture of continuous improvement.” Very true.

But what I want to call your attention to is how this breach initially happened, and that is through an attack called password spraying. This is a very simple attack: you start with a list of login IDs and pair them with a series of common passwords until you find a pair that works. The link above has suggestions of how to use common tools to help determine your own exposure, and if you are new to this term you should spend some time learning more about it.

But even if you aren’t part of a corporate IT department, it is high time for you to change your own personal password policy. It is likely that you are using a common password somewhere across your many logins. This isn’t the first time I have made this recommendation. But if a IT vendor that sells security products can get attacked, it means that anyone is vulnerable. And if your password can be easily found (such as in Troy Hunt’s HIBP database), then you need to be concerned. And you need to start by using a password manager and change your passwords to something complex and unique enough. Now. Today.

FIR B2B podcast episode #124: How to supercharge your website content

In today’s episode, we examine different ways you can supercharge your website content by using some time-tested strategies that we may intrinsically know but don’t always talk about.

The first reference is from an article in Entrepreneur Magazine about three big mistakes one consultant made when building a new site. The mistakes all revolve around not understanding a basic tenet: B2B requires quality, not quantity. He chose AdWords keywords that were too general and ended up spending money on clicks that didn’t generate any real leads. He didn’t understand that buyers need prompting to get further into his content and needed ways for potential customers to actually talk or chat in real time with someone who can get them more engaged and further up the marketing funnel. We suggest all sorts of improvements, including having a FAQ and using different content types, to increase engagement.

The second piece is from Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group, who was our guest way back on episode 12.  He talks about the importance of using serialized content to capture more attention. We need to understand that generating demand is all about cultivating and nurturing your potential customers. Start with a content audit to see what material you have that can be collected and serialize. Also examine some of the leading sites that Brenner talks about in this post. Paul has plenty of other great suggestions that he mentions in this episode, and you might want to also buy his book to get further details.

You can listen to our 14 min. podcast here.

CSOonline: Best tools for single sign-on

I have been reviewing single sign-on (SSO) tools for nearly seven years, and in my latest review for CSOonline, I identify some key trends and take a look at the progress of products from Cisco/Duo, Idaptive, ManageEngine, MicroFocus/NetIQ, Okta, OneLogin, PerfectCloud, Ping Identity and RSA. You can see the product summary chart here.

If you have yet to implement any SSO or identity management tool, or are looking to upgrade, this roundup of SSO tools will serve as a primer on where you want to take things. Given today’s threat landscape, you need to up your password game by trying to rid your users of the nasty habit of reusing their old standby passwords.

I also look at five different IT strategies to improve your password and login security, the role of smartphone authentication apps, and what is happening with FIDO.


Do you really know where your XP lurks?

I was visiting an industrial firm this week and had a chance to walk around their shop floor to see their equipment. It was a mix of high and low tech, machines that cost several thousands of dollars sitting alongside some very primitive pieces of hardware. Unfortunately, these primitive things were PCs running Windows XP.

Now, I have a fond spot in my being for XP. Just playing that startup sound sends chills up my spine (well, almost). I spent a lot of time running it for various tests that I got paid to do back in the day when IT pubs paid for that sort of thing. I had a stack of VMs running various situations, along with a couple of real PCs that had different versions of XP that I maintained for years. It was only with some reluctance that I eventually gave them up. Since then I have rarely run any XP on anything, because it has been superseded by several newer (and supported) versions of Windows. It appears I am not alone: XP is still around: according to this report, it can be found on 3% of total PCs on consumer desktops, and I am sure that number doesn’t include those in industrial and embedded environments such as I witnessed this week. BTW, Microsoft ended support for XP five years ago, although earlier this year it did create a patch to fix the Bluekeep flaw for XP.

The XP PCs that I saw were used by the firm to control some of their pricey industrial machines. I have no idea the network infrastructure at this shop, nor how much protection was put in place to continue to use XP in their environment. But it almost doesn’t matter: if you have XP, you are basically hanging a sign outside your virtual door that says, “come on in and hack me.” It is just a matter of time before some bad actor finds and exploits these PCs. It is like leaving a jar of honey out. This post written to help consumers use XP more safely recommends, “stop using IE or go offline.” That is harder to do than you might think.

Most likely, replacing this equipment with a more modern version of Windows isn’t all that simple. The machinery has to be tested, and probably has code that needs to be rewritten to work on the newer Windows. And you will say, that is the entire point, and you would be right. But the firm isn’t going to stop using XP, because then they would be out of business. So they are in between a rock and a hard place, to be sure.

So here is a simple security test that you can try out in your business. How many endpoints do you have that are still running XP? Just take a census, using whatever automated tool you might have. Now walk around and see if you can find a few others that are hidden inside industrial equipment, or a printer server, or some other likely location. Do you have the right network isolation and protections in place? Can you do without an internet connection to these PCs? Why did your automated scanners fail to identify these devices? Can you get rid of them completely, or is the vendor still insisting on using XP for their equipment? I think you will be surprised, and not in a good way, what the answers are.

And for those of you that are running XP at home, do yourself a favor and take a trip this weekend to MicroCenter (or whatever is your local computer store) and buy yourself a new computer, and dispose of your old one (after first removing your hard drive). And if needed, conduct an appropriate memorial service to bid this OS a fond farewell.


RSA blog: Taking hybrid cloud security to the next level

RSA recently published this eBook on three tips to secure your cloud. I like the direction the authors took but want to take things a few steps further.  Before you can protect anything, you first need to know what infrastructure you actually have running in the cloud. This means doing a cloud census. Yes, you probably know about most of your AWS and Azure instances, but probably not all of them. There are various ways to do this – for example, Google has its Cloud Deployment Manager and Azure has an instance metadata service to track your running virtual machines. Or you can employ a third-party orchestration service to manage instances across different cloud platforms.

Here are my suggestions for improving your cloud security posture.

CSOonline: Evaluating DNS providers: 4 key considerations

The Domain Name System (DNS) is showing signs of strain. Attacks leveraging DNS protocols used to be fairly predictable and limited to the occasional DDoS floods. Now attackers use more than a dozen different ways to leverage DNS, including cache poisoning, tunneling and domain hijacking. DNS pioneer Paul Vixie has bemoaned the state of DNS and says that these attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. This is why you need to get more serious about protecting your DNS infrastructure and various vendors have products and services to help. You have four key options; here’s how to sort them out in a piece that I wrote for CSOonline..

Dark Reading: Understanding & Defending Against Polymorphic Attacks

I first wrote about polymorphic malware four years ago. I recall having a hard time getting an editor to approve publication of my piece because he claimed none of his readers would be interested in the concept. Yet in the time since then, polymorphism has gone from virtually unknown to standard practice by malware writers. Indeed, it has become so common that most descriptions of attacks don’t even call it out specifically. Webroot in its annual threat assessment from earlier this year reported that almost all malware it has seen had demonstrated polymorphic properties. You can think of it as a chameleon of malware.

In this post for Dark Reading, I describe how polymorphism has gotten popular with both attackers and defenders alike, the different approaches that the vendors have taken, and some suggestions on keeping it out of your infrastructure.

What becomes an online museum most?

Those of you of a certain age might remember a print ad campaign for the Blackgama fur company that ran for many years, beginning in the 1960s with this image of Lauren Bacall wearing one of their mink coats.

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I am riffing on this theme after visiting the National Cryptologic Museum outside the NSA offices in suburban Maryland this week. I remembered the ads because of my overall experience with the museum, and its relationship between its physical plant and the online and other publications that the historical arm of the NSA has produced.

As long-time readers recall, last summer I visited Bletchley Park in the UK. It was a great day spent at the complex and I learned a lot. Sadly, the NSA’s museum was a disappointment. And it made me realize that what makes a great museum when you first go to the actual building is part of what makes for a great online museum experience. Unfortunately, the NSA museum has neither.

Many of the world’s greatest museums have played catch-up when it comes to their websites. This is more than getting their catalogs digitized, then getting them redone with higher resolution or newer imaging technologies. It is more than organizing their collection for visitors, academics and other specialists that want to search them for their own research or just personal interests. It is also more than having something that is visually attractive to leverage the latest curatorial trends.

These great museums have also had to embrace technology in their actual buildings, something that I first wrote about for the NY Times when I visited the Abe Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill. back in 2008. At that visit, I got to see first-hand a variety of things that are normally used in theatrical productions or rock concerts, such as spotlights, one-way mirrors and sophisticated sound systems to tell the story about Lincoln’s life and times. From this piece, I wrote for HPE’s blog about how the best code developers are learning to hone their craft and improve their user experience from these innovative museum designers. For example, augmenting the visuals with other sensory experiences, understanding the consequences of context switching when it comes to tell your story and so forth.

That is why the NSA museum stands out, but not in a good way. It is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, cryptology and its origins and use in the modern era. Check. It is located near the NSA, an interesting place in its own right. Check. It has plenty of classic stories about some key developments, going back to the Revolutionary War and how codes and encryption played a role in the birth of our country. Check. It has several Engima units on display, showing the evolution of the machine that you can actually touch. Check. It is dull as dishwater and has exhibits that looked like they were created back when the Apollo program was in its heyday. Big fail.

The best part of the museum wasn’t any of the exhibits but a tour that I happened upon led by a docent. Turns out he was a former Russian linguist that worked for the NSA for many years. His stories were great, and he answered all my questions with interesting personal insights (and correctly, I might add). I only wish he had a better physical plant to show his visitors.

For example, one exhibit is about how the Soviets bugged our buildings in Moscow. It begins with this object that is on display in the museum: it looks like a nicely crafted wooden replica of the US government seal. It was given to then U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman back in 1945 as a gift from Soviet children. It hung in the Ambassador’s residence for seven years, until a bug was found inside the carving. While what is shown is a replica, you can open a special hinge that was installed by the museum so you can see where the bug was located.

This story was a nice precursor to a major operation that took place in the 1970s called The Gunman Project. At that time, we found out the Soviets had increased their bugging program and put technology into 16 different IBM typewriters in our Moscow embassy offices to record the documents that were being prepared. I saw the Great Seal replica (and engaged with opening and closing it) at the museum, I took home a pamphlet about Gunman that I read avidly on the flight home. I tried to find an online copy of this document, I did find the text here. The document was nicely produced and I learned a lot from it. Now contrast that information with this link to another Gunman story, this one produced by two private Dutch crypto enthusiasts. It actually is a much better explanation, and even with the pictures included in the original NSA pamphlet, this latter piece is 1000% better and more engaging.

So if you are interested in the history of crypto, my suggestion is to forgo the actual visit. The NSA is working on building a new museum, but that could take years. In the meantime, read some of the supporting materials on their website or better yet, check out other entries at the online Crypto Museum. Second, if you are going to design a new museum, think of how the online and actual physical presence have to work together to build the best visitor experience.