Dan Stroot

Human Denial of Service Attacks

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3 min read

Suppose you have a service that responds to requests. A "denial of service" (DoS) attack is a type of threat where you flood the service with requests, overwhelming its ability to respond. New service requests are never acknowledged or completed, and are simply dropped by the service, because its ability to perform its function has been compromised.

It's a very simple attack that relies on the attacker's ability to "out scale" the service, causing resource depletion and ultimately failure of the service. We can depict it like this:

Attacker -("requests")-> Service

A "distributed" denial of service (DDoS) attack is the same thing, using multiple attackers to amplify the request flood. The more "distributed" the attack is (i.e. the more attackers) the more likely it is to succeed, and the harder it is to find and take down all the attackers.

Attacker ---\
Attacker ---|-("requests")-> Service
Attacker ---/

If you can't fend off the attackers, you need "buffers" and/or "rate limiters" that can fend off the attack by buffering or dropping spurious requests:

Attacker ---\
Attacker ---|-("requests")->[rate limiter]-[buffer]->Service
Attacker ---/

Now suppose you have a person, or department, in an organization who, being very nice and service oriented, dutifully accepts every single meeting they are invited to attend. Now suppose the person or department is inside the subsidiary of a large organization. It looks like this:

|  "Corporate"    |
| Human Resources |--"I'd like a meeting"--\
| Finance         |--"I'd like a meeting"--\
| Compliance      |--"I'd like a meeting"--\     +-----------------+
| Legal           |--"I'd like a meeting"--\     |  "Subsidiary"   |
| Procurement     |--"I'd like a meeting"--|---> +-----------------+
| Internal Audit  |--"I'd like a meeting"--/     |   Department    |
| Technology      |--"I'd like a meeting"--/     +-----------------+
| Risk            |--"I'd like a meeting"--/
| Etc.            |--"I'd like a meeting"--/

Can you recognize the pattern? Yes, it's a distributed denial of service attack.

Of course, none of the departments intend to cause a DDoS attack, nor do they even know it's happening. There is generally limited visibility across departments, so each thinks "it's just one meeting".

It gets worse:

.                                    +-----------------+
                                     |    Your Team    |
+-----------------+                  +-----------------+
|  "Corporate"    |                           |
+-----------------+                 "Can we have meetings?"
| Human Resources |--"meeting"--\             |
| Finance         |--"meeting"--\             v
| Compliance      |--"meeting"--\     +-----------------+
| Legal           |--"meeting"--\     |  "Subsidiary"   |                  +------------------+
| Procurement     |--"meeting"--|---> +-----------------+ <---"meetings!"-- | Vendors/Partners |
| Internal Audit  |--"meeting"--/     |   Department    |                  +------------------+
| Technology      |--"meeting"--/     +-----------------+
| Risk            |--"meeting"--/             ^
| Etc.            |--"meeting"--/             |
+-----------------+               "Can we have meetings too?"
                                   |                    |
                          +-----------------+   +-----------------+
                          |  Subs. Dept.'s  |   |   Committees    |
                          +-----------------+   +-----------------+

We can't have the people who actually "do the work" attend dozens or hundreds of hours of meetings per week. We need a spokesperson, or a leader, who will attend on their behalf, and who will respond appropriately for them, and who will let them know if anything important was discussed. This is exactly what happens - and why companies create hierarchy.

The worse the DDoS attack the deeper the hierarchy must be. The hierarchy is the "buffer" or "rate limiter" of the system.

In the middle of the hierarchy stack are the "professional meeting attenders". The middle managers who everyone wonders "what is their job?" and "why don't they accomplish anything?". Their job is simply to absorb the DDoS attacks so the people below them can work normally and respond to service requests. According to a study in Harvard Business Review, middle managers are the most disgruntled group in the workforce, do you wonder why?

Those at the top of the organization see their roles as 'agents of change' and they launch initiatives in their areas to 'make the business better' but of course this is the primary source of the DDoS attacks. These programs generate hundreds (thousands?) of hours of meetings each across the organization.

For example, the Harvard Business Review discovered that at one company a weekly executive meeting was consuming 300,000 hours of time annually. 1 weekly meeting took up 7,000 hours (headcount x hours x weeks). However, that forced 11 unit meetings (20,000 hours), forced 21 team meetings (63,000 hours) and forced 130 preparatory meetings (210,000 hours) in a chain reaction. Here's the kicker: that total doesn't even include the preparation time for the meetings!

Launching too many 'make the business better' programs at once inevitably makes it worse. It requires more layers of middle management to absorb the DDoS attack on its employees that ensues. Or they simply get overwhelmed, and the underlying services suffer resource depletion and ultimately stop responding.

This is the paradox of change, too little and you fall behind, too much and you overwhelm your capacity and slow everything down. The truly enlightened organizations have the right metrics and incentives that drive consistent change, innovation and excellence inside the business areas themselves. No meetings necessary.

Meetings should be like salt - a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.

— Jason Fried

If you think this looks sensationalized, or you think there is no person or department that everyone wants to meet with with sadly you are wrong. Everyone wants to meet with technology - all the time. Risk, compliance, legal, audit, finance, every committee, every operations area, every distribution area, countless vendors, countless consultants, etc. It's actually worse than I show above, and worse than you imagine.


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