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Seven Steps to Software Security

Just common sense

As you may well know from other safety courses, modern safety-at-work practices are all about common sense. However, there is more to this than first meets the goggled eye.

Readers of my age and above will remember that, in the pre-global melt down days when Sir Jimmy Savile ran British Rail, there were two kinds of snow: good snow, that didn't land on railway tracks, and bad snow, the ‘wrong kind of snow’ in the jargon of the day, that did.

So it is with common sense.

There is a kind of common sense that tells you not to daisy-chain half a dozen of your four-way extensions from one mains socket, even though this enables you conveniently to power 12 or 15 PCs from one switch. This is the right kind of common sense.

Then there is the common sense that tells you that it is quite ok to use a small stepladder to change a light bulb in your office, as you have been doing without any injury for nearly 15 years - the alternative being to wait in the gloom for a week or so until Maintenance chooses to relinquish for a few minutes their luxuriously appointed den (where they like to linger browsing porn and drinking sugary tea) and get around to bothering to wheel up their ultra-safe portable scaffolding thing.

But this is the wrong kind of common sense.

How, I hear you asking, does one tell the difference between the two kinds of common sense?

To discover this, we have to apply a third kind of – you guessed it! – common sense, called meta common sense. Meta common sense tells us that the way to distinguish between the right kind and the wrong kind of common sense is the same way that we can tell the difference between the right kind and the wrong kind of medicine.

We all know that medicine that tastes pleasant and doesn’t hurt is no good. In the words of the wise old classical physician and senior consultant Hippocrates, ‘nil dolorundum nil advantagum’ (which can be roughly translated, according to the NHS website, as ‘No pain, no gain’). The right kind of medicine is the stuff that tastes disgusting, or is painful to administer.

So it is with common sense. If your common sense leads you to do the easier thing then you can be pretty confident that it is the wrong kind of common sense, and should not be heeded. This is why the superficially safe stepladder is bad, and the confrontation with the work-shy layabouts of Maintenance is good.

How to think safe

For all our evident concern of us Safeties on your behalf, and our fondness for vivid and disgusting imagery with which we urge you to adopt our ways (‘after an eyeful of molten metal, you don’t get a second chance to put on the visor’), I know that, for some of you, there lingers a suspicion of our motivation.

Let me be plain. You suspect that your average safety professional – a person, perhaps, such as myself – is the grown-up version of the little Mummy’s girl or boy who was too scared to go on the big slide at the recreation ground. You suspect that she or he was in the habit of calling over her or his aforementioned parent to get it everybody else thrown off the slide, and thus was able to spoil playtime for everybody, under the deliciously non-reproachable cover of Doing The Right Thing.

Needless to say, this is completely untrue. We are ordinary members of society, just like you, who take no pleasure whatsoever in catching you trying to sneak through the shortcut, fining you £60 and making you walk back round the long way. As old-fashioned schoolteachers used to say, it hurts us more than it hurts you.

The psychological trouble, I think, with being saved by a modern safety campaign is that, for most of the time, one only being statistically saved. It is a no-brainer to offer the long term lease on one’s ovaries, if one is lucky enough to possess a matched pair, to, say, the handsome RNLI captain who has just hauled one’s sorry arse out of the dark-and-stormy drink. It is rather a different matter conjuring up that kind of gratitude to the be-clipboarded twerp with a voice like EL Wisty who just reprimanded one for letting go of the guard rail of a walkway on which a light aircraft could easily be landed without inconvenience to either its occupants or nearby pedestrians.

Yet this is exactly what you must do.

Most of us play in the National Lottery, or indulge in some other high-risk financial exercise – for example, owning a personal pension. You remember the fantasy mindset that you adopt when you fill in your ticket, or adjust your monthly contribution? This is exactly the way you must think when obliged to fill in two pages of forms to borrow the company vacuum cleaner, or wear steel toe-capped boots when doing the washing up. If you work hard enough at this, you will soon reduce yourself to a gibbering wreck, and so attain a state of Safety Nirvana.

Right, that’s the end of the general introduction. I will be passing among you all in the next few minutes with some helpful leaflets: Collapsed metaphors – the silent killerHere’s looking at you, kid! (looking big and clever in your high vis workwear) and Redundant semicolons – the silent killer.

After that I will take you through the course proper, and finally we will finish up, as all safety courses do, with an unfailable multiple-choice test, complete with irrelevant questions taken from a different course (‘You notice petrol leaking out of the tank across the forecourt. Do you a) go home and tell you girlfriend about it b) go down the pub and tell your mates about it c) perhaps report it to the appropriate authority if you get around to it d) report it immediately to the appropriate authority’).

I look forward to welcoming you to Safety at The Register community. And remember, let’s be careful out… can’t I? Oh, all right then.®

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