The “Productivity Paradox” of IT, Security, and AV

By Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

This article orginally published in Commercial Integrator on October 29, 2019.

In the 1990’s, Erik Byrnjokfsson wrote a series of papers beginning with “The Productivity Paradox of Information Technology” (1993) where he analyzed the relationship between information technology (IT) and productivity. Initial studies showed that, on average, IT investments had increased greatly from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1990’s; but at the same time, there was no measurable increase in productivity due to the increased spending on IT.

In fact, some studies showed a drop in productivity over the previous two decades, especially in so-called white-collar jobs, even though the demand for professionals and computer-literate employees surged. Many attributed the negative correlation to mismanagement of IT.

As Byrnjokfsson and others dug deeper into the data, and as IT went from strictly transactional usage to being a daily part of everyone’s job in a typical office environment, it became apparent that the return on investment (ROI) of IT depended largely on the company that was implementing it.

The firms that were doing things the same old way they had done before, but adding IT to it, were becoming less productive. At the same time, other firms seemed to be capitalizing on their IT investments.

The differentiating factor was that these firms were not only implementing new technology, but they were also implementing organizational changes, aligning their business strategy with their software and hardware, and vice versa.

The old processes were revamped to better utilize the advancements in technology, and more efficiently. This sort of organizational change often required changes in management; or at least a change in attitude.

A similar Productivity Paradox can be said about information security: the more security that you have, the more it can seem to interfere with your work. Firewalls and malware detection can slow down network response time.

Periodic password changes and/or multi-factor-authentication (MFA) can be seen as a hinderance. But you have to take a step back to consider the potential impact of a data breach or ransomware attack, and how much productivity your firm would lose if your phones didn’t work, your servers were wiped clean and/or your data was held hostage for a few weeks.

Getting Over the Productivity Paradox

So companies must find the right balance: the systems have to be secured, but they also must be done so as efficiently as possible, and at the right cost. One analogy might be a padlock versus card key access through a door.

Both secure the door, but the padlock is seen as a greater inconvenience, while the card key costs more to implement. Retinal scans and other biometrics provide an even higher level of security, but cost a lot more than a key card reader.

AV systems and collaboration tools must also be chosen and implemented as part of a larger strategy, along with proper management and changes to processes. You can’t just buy a fancy new Surface Hub and put it in a conference room and hope it will make your workers more productive.

New collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack are drastically changing the workflow of many companies, but they won’t do it automatically. Managers need to present a clear vision of how to use these new tools, and be willing change the company’s processes, and possibly the structure, to better leverage the technology.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like these related posts:

Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities in Audiovisual Control Systems and Protocols

Design Principles For Secure AV Systems

Identifying Cyber Attacks, Risks, Vulnerabilities in AV Installations

 

Attack of the USB Killers: Coming to Your Clients’ Classrooms

What are USB Killers, and what does their existence say about the security behind your classroom/higher ed tech installations?

This article was originally published on Commerical Integrator on May 6, 2019

Last month, a former student of the College of St. Rose in New York pled guilty to destroying “66 computers as well as numerous monitors and digital podiums containing USB data ports owned by the College.” The damage was done using a “USB Killer” device that discharged high voltage pulses into the host device, physically damaging the host’s electrical system.

According to the court documents, the total losses due to the incident were 58,471 USD. A quick Google search shows that these “USB Killer” devices are readily available on websites like Ebay for around 40 USD.

Details of the “digital podiums” were not released, but any AV integrator who has done work in higher education institutions could probably guess they were lecterns or teaching stations outfitted with room computers, portable laptop connections, confidence monitors, control touch panels, media switchers, and/or playback devices.

The “numerous monitors” in the court documents could have been simple computer monitors, or larger wall-mounted flat panel displays often used for small-group collaboration.

Motive? Doesn’t Matter

The motives of the attacker are unclear, and in the end, are essentially irrelevant. What is relevant is that the same thing could easily happen at another university, K-12 school, company, or house of worship.

Security experts have shown that USB drives and cables can be built to perform HID attacks, launch command shells, download malicious payloads, and/or modify the DNS settings to redirect traffic.

But more importantly, any USB memory device (a.k.a. USB stick or thumb-drive) could contain files that are infected with malware.

One penetration tester that I spoke to said he often drops off a handful of infected USB drives at hospitals and medical buildings.

The USB drives appear to be harmless freebies, and eventually an employee uses one, opens the file, and the test payload is delivered.

He said that the USB drive attack vector is not as effective as email phishing campaigns, but it is still part of his testing.

When I first shared the College of St. Rose story, many #AVTweeps commented that little could be done:

“It’s hard to protect against physical attacks. If you do block the USB port or somehow protect it from electrical discharge, the attacker could smash it with a hammer.” – Leonard C. Suskin (@Czhorat)

“Without an option to disable the port completely for both data and power transfer, there is little anyone could do in this instance. With physical access, all bets are off…”Kevin (@kevin_maltby)

What Can Be Done About USB Killers

I agree that if someone is truly intent on causing damage, they will find a way, but I think there are still some things that can be done to minimize the impact and likelihood of a USB-based attack.

First, make sure that all members of your organization have signed a computer usage policy, and formally agree to not destroy computer hardware.

Next, consider remoting all computers in locked data closets, and always lock classroom podiums and AV credenzas to minimize access.

Use card-keys or biometric scanners to allow limited access to server rooms, and add IP cameras to these rooms so you can prove who actually did the deed. This is called attribution, and is often a challenge in cybersecurity.

USB attacks should also be outlined in your cyber-awareness training, so that everyone knows to not use random USB drives or charging cables they find.

Last but not least, you should have an incident response plan that anticipates USB attacks, and communicate that plan, so everyone knows what to do in case of a “USB Killer” attack. It may seem unlikely, but it’s certainly possible, and it is best to be prepared for it.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like these related posts on PKaudiovisual:

Design Principles For Secure AV Systems

Identifying Cyber Attacks, Risks, Vulnerabilities in AV Installations

5 Steps to Better Cyber Risk Management

The Best Data Breach Incident Response Plans Require These Steps

Know Your Audience, #AVtweeps

Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge by Paul Konikowski

I shared this joke earlier today on Twitter, during an #AVinTheAM online chat:

“An Architect, an IT Director, and an AV Professional walk into a bar…

[The AV Professional could be a consultant, integrator, or manufacturer]

The Architect orders a Vodka Sour, the IT Director orders a Rum and Coke,

The AV Professional says they need to standardize their user experiences,

orders three Long Island Ice Teas, and then asks, ‘who’s paying for these?'”

I hope I don’t offend any architects or IT people with my humor, the joke is really on the AV professional. He or she may think they are making both the Architect and the IT Director happy, by incorporating both their drink ideas into the triple order of Long Islands. There are many roads this joke could lead us, but today, we will talk about knowing your audience when meeting about an AV project.

In practice, meetings with architecture firms, IT departments, music ministry leaders, fitness instructors, technical directors, general contractors, or higher education universities, have some similarities, but each group has their own priorities and lingo.

Dropping lofty buzzwords like “user experience” and “agile workspaces” may not be as effective as using the words that they use; ask about their typical meetings, or classes, rehearsals, services. You are basically asking them about the current user experience, but in their words.  Ask them what meeting spaces are the most popular, and why.

Discuss any trends you are seeing in flexible work or education environments. Ask them if they have any divide/combine spaces, but instead, use the term “airwalls”. How often do these rooms get combined or separated? How do the systems work when combined or separated? And how well do they work for the typical room usage?

If you discussing a church, house of worship, or auditorium, say “sound board” when asking them about the FOH (Front of House) mixing position. See what I did there?

If a client or work contact uses an acronym you don’t recognize, don’t be afraid to ask them what it means, to them. Don’t assume they know your acronyms either.  You might say OMP meaning Operations & Maintenance Plan, and they may instead hear:

Office Managing Partner

Occupational Maternity Pay

Open Market Purchase

or a dozen other meanings for the acronym OMP.

And if you audience includes Millennials, they may think, for a second, that you meant

One Moment Please

because that is how OMP is used in SMS messaging and other text chat platforms! So don’t be afraid to spell out your acronyms and ask them about theirs. Some companies have so many acronyms that they develop a glossary page for them. Ask for a copy!

The other thing to ask about early on is timeline.  Architects and consultants will use acronyms like SD, DD, and CD to describe the Schematic Design, Design Development, and Construction Document phases of their drawing sets. Owners and end-users are more concerned with the commissioning and occupancy. Each has its own deadline.

What if you are going to a meeting with an architect, owner’s rep, IT department head, furniture vendor, plus various engineers from other trades?  Who are the others in the room? How do you know your audience if you have never met any of them?

Do your homework. Start with the meeting planner, and then the other people invited, looking up each one on LinkedIn or Google.  Look at their current job descriptions, but also at their work history, where they went to school; what did they study?  Read their most recent posts, and ask yourself, what drives them? Whenever possible, ask your coworkers if they have ever worked with the other people invited to the meeting.

When the meeting starts, try to quietly jot down the names of any “special guests” you may not have anticipated, and then look them up on LinkedIn or Google afterwards. Ask for business cards for anyone who has one, especially any electrical engineers.  You need to keep your coordination within proper channels, by communicating through the client, the architect or project manager, but you can address them by name in your correspondence, “Following up on the question raised by XYZ…”

Circling back to the joke I made about the architect, IT director, and the AV professional: all are highly technical people, but with different strengths. The IT Director may be able to talk at length about bandwidth, IP addresses, firewalls, and cyber-security, while the architect may be more concerned with determining the electrical and backing needs, and the BTU load of the AV racks, so they can coordinate with their HVAC and MEP engineers.  Furniture vendors need to know what holes to provide in the tables for microphones and table boxes.  They all love dimensions!  Coordinate using AutoCAD or Revit, or markup PDFs using Bluebeam or similar.

By determining your audience in advance (or during a meeting, or sometimes after) you can tailor your communique and deliverable to each, making each one happy. You might also find yourself being a bridge between different people involved in a project. By speaking their own dialects, you can connect them like the boroughs of Manhattan.

And maybe Long Island :)

Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge by Paul Konikowski
Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge by Paul Konikowski

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these other articles on PKaudiovisual.com:

Technology and Green Buildings

Your Conference Rooms Are So Trendy!

The Anatomy of an AV Integration Project

Resume of Paul Konikowski, CTS-D