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The Ideal Security Professional

Aspiring or active IT professionals who work in the area of information security not only have lots of interesting job choices, they also have a lot of topics and ground to cover. They need to understand the security tripod: physical security, perimeter security, and software security, as well as access controls, authentication models, administrative and technical controls, and much, much more. In this article, you’ll take a look at relevant certifications, technical skills and knowledge, higher education, and subject matter expertise of greatest interest to employers.
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IT security has been a recognized specialty in the field since the mid-1990s, and the area has grown strongly in cachet and popularity, particularly over the past decade. An ideal IT security professional (also known as information security or infosec) usually comes with five or more years of progressively responsible experience performing system or network administration, where security concerns and activities comprise an important part of those job roles as well.

An ideal security professional possesses the following knowledge and skills, often at an advanced level:

  • Understands basic principles of computer and network security, including physical, software, and human security requirements and considerations.
  • Is well versed in formulating, analyzing, implementing, updating, and maintaining security policies, practices and procedures.
  • Understands secure protocols, services, transports, and so forth, including virtual private networks (VPNs), encryption, privacy mechanisms, public key infrastructure (PKI), IP Security (IPsec), and so on.
  • Understands key security services and devices, including screening routers, firewalls, proxy servers, content filters, network appliances of all kinds (antispam, antivirus/antimalware, and so forth), intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS), and how best to install, configure, and deploy such systems and services to properly comply with security policy dictates and regulatory requirements.
  • Observes and monitors security exploits, news, and events keenly and consistently to stay abreast of recent developments and to forestall perpetration of successful break-ins or use of vulnerabilities on the systems and networks for which he or she is responsible.
  • Works with users and managers to provide appropriate security services, technical training, technical support, and needs analysis to make sure that future growth and technology changes occur within a well-secured network and systems environment.

In addition, various specialties within IT security permit some professionals to focus in one of more of the following areas (ideal IT security professionals will at least be familiar with all of these areas, and many may have experience and expertise in one or more such areas):

  • Software development security: understands how to design, build, test, and verify software to avoid potential exposure, and to assess vulnerabilities in specific software packages, network services, operating systems, and runtime environments of all kinds. Able to apply best security practices and principles at all stages of the software development lifecycle.
  • Security audit: knows how to compare security policy as specified against security practices, procedures, and principles as implemented at all levels. This often involves various kinds of formal auditing processes and tools designed to find and remedy potential gaps in security, and to ensure that what’s present in the business environment matches what’s called for in policy documents.
  • Penetration testing: knows to how attack systems and networks from within and without to assess the security of software, systems, and human components in an IT infrastructure. Often a component of a security audit, penetration testing is the only way to objectively assess real security for systems and networks.
  • Computer forensics: understands how to image, scan, analyze and find potential evidence of criminal activity or various forms of misconduct on computers systems, hardware components, and network devices. Understands the rules of evidence and how to preserve evidence so that it will hold up if used in a court of law. Deep knowledge of computer operating system, application, and file system internals to uncover hidden, encrypted, or supposedly deleted files and data. Please note that our latest security cert survey lists 30 forensics-related credentials currently available.

A great many IT certifications fall under the information security umbrella, and an increasing number of graduate and undergraduate degrees (Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D.s in Engineering, Computer Science, MIS, etc.) also target information security (or information assurance, as it’s also sometimes called in the security field) as well. Ed Tittel conducts a regular survey of IT Security certifications for SearchSecurity.com, and his latest effort (dated May 2008) covers over 40 vendor-neutral certifications in this area, along with more than 30 vendor-specific information security credentials.

Key general information security certifications include the following:

  • The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (aka ISC2, pronounced “eye-ess-cee-squared”) has been and remains a nonpareil security certification for general practitioners and specialists alike. This credential has been around for over a decade, and it is a perennial favorite at or near the top of most “Top 10 IT Certification” lists in terms of frequency of attainment, level of pay, and attractiveness to both employers and professionals alike. [Note: Ed Tittel is the co-author of a CISSP study guide currently going into a fifth edition as we write this article.]
  • The Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) credential from the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) aims at IT professionals who design, build and manage enterprise information security programs. It’s only been around for about 5 years, but is gaining in popularity and mindshare among IT professionals. ISACA’s Certified Information Systems Audit (CISA) credential is also highly-popular and sought-after in the specialty arena.
  • At the entry level, CompTIA’s Security+, the SANS GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC), and the ISC2’s Systems Security Certified Practitioner all define useful and interesting “first-step” credentials for IT professionals interested in general information security certification. None of these credentials will suffice to put an IT professional into a full-time (or primarily focused) information security job, but they can be helpful in establishing some degree of familiarity and confidence with major topics in the information security field.

Specialty information security certifications tend to come in two primary forms. First are vendor-specific credentials that focus on security for specific systems, applications, services or platforms, or that teach IT professionals how to make the most out of various security-focused products or platforms. In this area, a great many vendors are active (see our survey for more details, but the list of vendors involved includes Check Point, Cisco, EnCase, IBM, Microsoft, RSA, SAINT, SourceFire, and Sun/Oracle). Second are various kinds of job-role-specific security certifications, mostly in the areas of security audit, computer forensics, penetration testing, and so-called “ethical hacking” (which is either a sub-field of software development security or penetration testing, depending on how it’s approached).

IT professionals seeking information security certifications have a great many options to choose from when zeroing in on credentials to boost their credibility and improve their employability. We encourage readers to do their homework to make sure programs are healthy and thriving, meaning that they are reasonably transparent to outsiders, show clear and convincing evidence of continuing growth and popularity, and that they are more than simply another way for a single training company or outlet to fill seats in their often-expensive classrooms. To that end, we recommend sticking to the best-known programs, and to making sure that you can recover a sometimes sizable investment in preparation, training, and testing before you commit to a lengthy or expensive credential of any kind.

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