Moving Parts Unknown

It is a major challenge for businesses of all sizes, and one that will only loom larger and larger, how information technology is increasingly complex, essential, and opaque. One can read almost every day about a firm that got both more and less than in bargained for from an IT contractor. These must only be the tip of the iceberg, as you are able to read about them in the media only where they boil over into lawsuits (like Hertz v. Accenture recently) or when they are intrinsically public (as in the case of

A recent example involving Siemens, an independent contractor, and some subsequent criminal trouble is a great case study in these challenges.

The short story is that a contractor (allegedly) hid a bit of sabotage in their own code in hopes of generating more demand for follow-on work. Siemens noticed they had a problem but didn’t have a real great time figuring out what it was and they were greatly displeased when they did. This is all out in public only because of the ensuing criminal complaint against the contractor.

The idea of hiring a contractor for certain purposes, at least in spirit, is that you need some standard functionality and you don’t want to distract everyone in your organization with the details of how it is getting done under the hood. This presents some danger and requires some trust, however, as it leaves room for malicious action that will be quite difficult to detect - the metaphor “under the hood” only takes us so far and many of us are better equipped to recognize an extra widget bolted to our car engine than we are to sniff out malicious surplus code.

This an introduction to a subtle, structural challenge in cybersecurity: there are administrative and economic pressures driving decentralization in how code is generated, yet the end product can be very opaque and difficult to audit. And every indication is that these are trends which will continue for a while…