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Thursday, July 26, 2007

10 Questions To Ask During An Information Security Interview

I’m getting ready to help screen some candidates for an information security consultant position, and I decided to jot down a few questions to ask. These won’t be the only questions being asked, of course, but just a few that came to mind. Anyway, I thought they were worth sharing.

The key here for me is not so much getting the perfect technical answer, but more so not getting a lame one. In other words, we’re looking to filter out those who don’t have the right skills and/or mindset rather than guarantee a good fit. I’ll highlight the things I’m looking for with each question.

  1. Where do you get your security news from?

    Here I’m looking to see how in tune they are with the security community. Answers I’m looking for include RSS feeds for solid sites like rootsecure, secguru, astalavista, whitedust, internet storm center, etc. The exact sources don’t really matter. What does matter is that he doesn’t respond with, “I go to the CNET website.” (and nothing else). It’s these types of answers that will tell you he’s likely not on top of things.
  2. If you had to both encrypt and compress data during transmission, which would you do first, and why?

    If they don’t know the answer immediately it’s ok. The key is how they react. Do they panic, or do they enjoy the challenge and think through it? I was asked this question during an interview at Cisco. I told the interviewer that I didn’t know the answer but that I needed just a few seconds to figure it out. I thought out loud and within 10 seconds gave him my answer: “Compress then encrypt. If you encrypt first you’ll have nothing but random data to work with, which will destroy any potential benefit from compression.”

  3. What kind of computers do you run at home?

    Good answers here are anything that shows you he’s a computer/technology/security enthusiast and not just someone looking for a paycheck. So if he’s got multiple systems running multiple operating systems you’re probably in good shape. What you don’t want to hear is, “I like to leave my computers at work.” I’ve yet to meet a serious security guy who doesn’t have a considerable home network.

  4. What port does ping work over?

    A trick question, to be sure, but an important one. If he starts throwing out port numbers you may want to immediately move to the next candidate. Hint: ICMP is a layer 3 protocol (it doesn’t work over a port) A good variation of this question is to ask whether ping uses TCP or UDP.

  5. How exactly does traceroute/tracert work?

    This is a fairly technical question but it’s an important concept to understand. It’s not natively a “security” question really, but it shows you whether or not they like to understand how things work, which is crucial for an infosec professional. If they get it right you can lighten up and offer extra credit for the difference between Linux and Windows versions.The key point people usually miss is that each packet that’s sent out doesn’t go to a different place.

    Many people think that it first sends a packet to the first hop, gets a time. Then it sends a packet to the second hop, gets a time, and keeps going until it gets done. That’s incorrect. It actually keeps sending packets to the final destination; the only change is the TTL that’s used. The extra credit is the fact that Windows uses ICMP by default while Linux uses UDP.

  6. Describe the last program or script that you wrote. What problem did it solve?

    This is a trick as well. All we want to see is if the color drains from the guy’s face. If he panics then we not only know he’s not a programmer (not necessarily bad), but that he’s afraid of programming (bad). I know it’s controversial, but I think that any high-level security guy needs some programming skills. They don’t need to be a God at it, but they need to understand the concepts and at least be able to muddle through some scripting when required.

  7. What are Linux’s strengths and weaknesses vs. Windows?
    Look for biases. Does he absolutely hate Windows and refuse to work with it? This is a sign of an immature hobbyist who will cause you problems in the future. Is he a Windows fanboy who hates Linux with a passion? If so just thank him for his time and show him out. Linux is *everywhere* in the security world.
  8. What’s the difference between a risk and a vulnerability?

    As weak as the CISSP is as a security certification it does teach some good concepts. Knowing basics like risk, vulnerability, threat, exposure, etc. (and being able to differentiate them) is important for a security professional.
  9. What’s the goal of information security within an organization?

    This is a big one. What I look for is one of two approaches; the first is the über-lockdown approach, i.e. “To control access to information as much as possible, sir!” While admirable, this again shows a bit of immaturity. Not really in a bad way, just not quite what I’m looking for.A much better answer in my view is something along the lines of, “To help the organization succeed.”

    This type of response shows that the individual understands that business is there to make money, and that we are there to help them do that. It is this sort of perspective that I think represents the highest level of security understanding — a realization that security is there for the company and not the other way around.

  10. Are open-source projects more or less secure than proprietary ones?

    The answer to this question is often very telling about a given candidate. It shows 1) whether or not they know what they’re talking about in terms of development, and 2) it really illustrates the maturity of the individual (a common theme among my questions).

    My main goal here is to get them to show me pros and cons for each. If I just get the “many eyes” regurgitation then I’ll know he’s read Slashdot and not much else. And if I just get the “people in China can put anything in the kernel” routine then I’ll know he’s not so good at looking at the complete picture.

    The ideal answer involves the size of the project, how many developers are working on it (and what their backrounds are), and most importantly — quality control. In short, there’s no way to tell the quality of a project simply by knowing that it’s either open-source or proprietary. There are many examples of horribly insecure applications that came from both camps.

The goal of these questions is to get a feel for how the person thinks and approaches problems — not so much how strong they are technically (that’s a different set of questions). My friend Arik put it nicely:

Don’t forget that security is mostly an attitude, or actually a way of life, and only secondly knowledge.

Posted by Daniel Miessler

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