/sep 29, 2008

(ISC)2's Newest Cash Cow: The CSSLP Certification

By Chris Eng

Last week, during the OWASP AppSec 2008 Conference, the people behind the ubiquitous CISSP certification announced their latest creation -- the Certified Software Security Lifecycle Professional (CSSLP). In front of a captive audience waiting for a 42" plasma TV to be raffled, the  Executive Director of (ISC)2  outlined this new certification designed to appeal to application security professionals. To his credit, Mr. Tipton stated very clearly that the CSSLP is not intended to measure one's technical skillset. Unfortunately, it's inevitable that employers will treat it as such.

You can read all the details on their website (except for the part about the certification not being a measure of practical skills). From what I can tell, the CSSLP is just the CISSP with different CBKs, or Common Bodies of Knowledge. As with the CISSP, they are going for broad knowledge, not depth. Starting in June 2009, you can get certified by taking a paper exam, likely a multiple choice test similar to the CISSP. Why June? Because the test isn't even written yet -- I've heard from several sources that they are actively soliciting their existing pool of CISSPs to help write test questions.

Ah, but what if you can't wait that long and want to get certified right away? You're in luck. If you act before March 31, 2009, you can get grandfathered in without even having to take the exam! That's right, they call it the CSSLP Experience Assessment, and here are the requirements:

Upload a resume
  • Upload a resume showing three years of experience related to software security, or four years if you don't have a college degree
  • Write short essays (500 words maximum) discussing four CBKs of your choice
  • Get a CISSP to vouch for you
  • Pay $650

Let's examine these requirements one at a time. 

Three years of experience. (ISC)2 doesn't provide any requirements on depth of experience, other than citing the broadly-defined CBKs. Considering they are targeting everyone from software developers to security assessors to business analysts (yes, really), chances are they are going to accept any experience that is even tangential to the SDLC or software security. 

Short essays on four of the CBKs. I asked the (ISC)2 exhibitors specifically what they are looking for to satisfy this requirement, and they said the essays should be a general discussion of the CBK topic, optionally citing your personal experience in that area if you have any. This messaging is not quite aligned with the website guidance, which states that the essays should be "Accomplishment Records" which are self-reported descriptions of experience. Either way, with a maximum essay length of 500 words, it's pretty obvious that substance is not (ISC)2's first priority. Here's one data point for you: I spoke to someone who has already submitted the CSSLP Experience Assessment, and he said it took about an hour to write the essays. 

Get a CISSP to vouch for you. Actually this can be any (ISC)2 certified person, not just CISSPs. Contrary to what you'd expect, though, the person isn't vouching for your skillset so much as they are confirming that the attestations on your resume are accurate. 

Pay $650. You knew it was coming. After all, there is money to be made. How is it that qualifying for the CSSLP through professional experience should cost $650? If you're taking the written exam, fair enough, (ISC)2 does incur the cost of administering and grading that exam (even though the Scantron machine is probably paid off by now). But $650 for the submitted-online Experience Assessment? If we assume that the person reading these essay submissions makes a rather generous $100k per year, then $650 accounts for roughly a day and a half. Will it really take that long to read a maximum of 2,000 words and pass judgment? Of course not. (ISC)2 wants to get as many people as possible to qualify based on "experience", seeding the initial pool of CSSLPs and netting them $650 per head for doing next to nothing.

As Lee Kushner stated during his OWASP AppSec presentation (7 Habits of Highly Effective Career Managers), "the more people who own a cert, the less relevant it becomes." Irrelevant -- that's exactly what the CISSP has become, and it's exactly where the CSSLP is headed. Meanwhile, (ISC)2 will sit back and watch while you and your employers continue to fill their coffers.

In closing, let me acknowledge that this blog entry probably comes across as judgmental. I accept that. I'm not ranting against the idea of certifications, though admittedly I'm not a fan of them either. I am disappointed that (ISC)2, an organization with tremendous influence, could have created something more meaningful but chose not to. Why bother when people will just fork over the cash anyway?

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By Chris Eng

Chris Eng is Chief Research Officer at Veracode. A founding member of the Veracode team, he is responsible for all research initiatives including applied research and product security, as well as advising on product strategy and M&A. Chris is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and serves on the review board for Black Hat USA. He is also a charter member of MITRE's CWE/CAPEC Board. Bloomberg, Fox Business, CBS, and other prominent media outlets have featured Chris in their coverage. Previously, Chris was technical director at Symantec (formerly @stake) and an engineer at the National Security Agency. Chris holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California.