Want Better Infosec? Limit Functionality and Visibility

We humans are great at exploiting and expanding new technologies, but we often jump in with both feet before we fully understand the ramifications what we are doing. I cite the Internet itself. The ARPANET and the TCP/IP suite were entities designed to enable and enhance communications between people, not restrict them. The idea of security was ill considered from the beginning and was never a part of the design. Unfortunately, by the time we realized this fact, the Internet was already going great guns and it was too late to change it.

The same thing happened with personal computers. Many businesses found it was cheaper and easier to exploit this new technology than to stay with the main frame. So they jumped right in, bought off the shelf devices and operating systems, networked them together and voila! Business heaven!

Unfortunately, there was a snake in the garden. These computers and operating systems were not designed with businesses, and their attendant need for security, in mind. Such commercial systems have all kinds of functionalities and “features” that are not only useless for business purposes, they are pure gold for hackers.

As with the Internet, once people understood the security dangers of using these products, their use was ingrained and change was practically impossible. All we can do now, at least until these basic flaws are corrected, is try to work around them. One way to make a good start at this is to limit what these systems can do as much as is possible; if it doesn’t have a business function it should be turned off or removed.

For example, why should most employees have the ability to browse the Internet or check their social networking sites on their business systems? Few employees actually need this functionality, and those who do should be strictly limited and monitored. Almost all job descriptions could get by with a handful of websites (white listing), and those that truly do need full Internet accessibility should have their own subnet. How many employees in these times don’t have a smart phone in their pocket? Can’t they go to Facebook or check their bank account on that?

There are also many other examples of limiting the functionality of business devices and applications. USB ports, card readers and disc players are not necessary for most job descriptions. How about all those lovely services and features found in many commercial software applications and operating systems? Why not turn off as many of those as possible. There are lots of things that can be disabled using Active Directory.

In addition to limiting what systems and people can do, it is also a very good security idea to limit what they can see. Access to information, applications and devices should be strictly based on need to know. And in addition to information, users should not be able to see across the network. Why should a user in workstation space have the ability to see into server space? Why should marketing personnel have access to accounting information? This means good network segmentation with firewalls, logging and monitoring between the segments. Do whatever you can to limit what systems can see and do and I guarantee you will immediately see the security benefits.

Nuance Detection: Not Always an Electronic Problem

This month’s theme is nuance detection. As Brent stated in his blog earlier this month, “the core of nuance detection is to extend alerting capabilities into finding situations that specifically should not exist, and if they happen, would indicate a significant security failure.” When IT oriented people think about this, their minds naturally gravitate to heuristics; how can we establish reliable “normal” user behavior and thereby more easily catch anomalies? And that is as it should be.

But it should also be noted that these “situations that should not exist” are not limited only to cyber events that can be detected and monitored electronically. There are also programmatic and procedural situations that can lead to system compromise and data breach. These need to be detected and corrected too.

One such possible programmatic snafu that could lead to a significant security failure is lack of proper access account monitoring and oversight procedures. Attackers often create new user accounts, or even better for them, take over outdated or unused access accounts that already exist. These accounts are preferable as there are no active users to notice anomalous activity, and to intruder detection systems everything seems normal.

I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring the access account creation, monitoring and retirement process. The account initiation and approval process needs to be strong, the identification process needs to be strong, the monitoring and retirements processes need to be strong and the often ignored oversight process needs to be strong. A failure of any one of these processes can lead to illicit access, and when all is said and done access is the biggest part of the game for the attacker.

Another dangerous procedural security problem are the system users that make lots of errors with security repercussions, or that just can’t seem to follow the security rules. Maybe they are harried and stressed, maybe just forgetful. Or perhaps they just think the whole “security thing” is just a waste of their time. But whatever the reasons, these foci of security incidents need to be detected and corrected just like any other security problem.

And once again, there should be regular processes in place for dealing with these individuals. Records of security and compliance errors should be kept in order to facilitate detection of transgressors. Specific, hierarchical procedures should be put in place for addressing the problem, including levels of discipline and how they should be imposed. And once again, there should be an oversight component to the process to ensure it is being carried out properly.

These are just a couple of the programmatic and procedural security situations that demand detection and correction. I’m sure there are many more. So my advice is to look at your security situation holistically and not just from the high tech point of view.


Detection: Humans in the Loop a Must

Detecting incidents is probably the most difficult network security task to perform well and consistently. Did you know that less than one out of five security incidents are detected by the organization being affected? Most organizations only find out they’ve experienced an information security incident when law enforcement comes knocking on their door, if they find out about it at all that is. And that can be very bad for business in the present environment. Customers are increasingly demanding stronger information security measures from their service providers and partners.

In order to have the best chance of detecting network security incidents, you need to record and monitor system activities. However, there is no easier way to shut down the interest of a network security or IT administrator than to say the word “monitoring”. You can just mention the word and their faces fall as if a rancid odor had suddenly entered the room! And I can’t say that I blame them. Most organizations still do not recognize the true necessity of monitoring, and so do not provide proper budgeting and staffing for the function. As a result, already fully tasked (and often times inadequately prepared) IT or security personnel are tasked with the job. This not only leads to resentment, but also virtually guarantees that the job will not be performed effectively.

But all is not gloom and doom. Many companies are reacting to the current business environment and are devoting more resources to protecting their private information. In addition, the security industry is constantly developing new tools that help streamline and remove much of the drudge work from the monitoring and detection tasks. And I surely recommend that businesses employ these tools to their full effect. Use log aggregation tools, parsers, artificial intelligence and whatever else is made available for these jobs.

However, it behooves us not to rely on these new magic bullets too much. As can be easily demonstrated from the history of security in general, there has never been a defense strategy that cannot be overcome by human cleverness and persistence. This continues to be demonstrably true in the world of information security.

My advice is to use the new tools to their maximum effectiveness, but to use them wisely. Only spend enough on the technology to accomplish the jobs at hand; don’t waste your money on redundant tools and capabilities. Instead, spend those savings on information security personnel and training. It will pay you well in the long run.

Network Segmentation versus Network Enclaving

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, network segmentation is the practice of splitting computer networks into subnets using combinations of firewalls, VLANs, access controls and policies & procedures. We have seen that the primary reason for segmenting networks is to prevent a simple perimeter breach from exposing the totality of an organization’s information assets. So what is the difference between network segmentation and network enclaving?

One of the differences is just the degree of segmentation you impose upon the network. Enclaves are more thoroughly segmented from the general network environment than usual. In fact, enclaving is sometimes just described as “enhanced network segmentation.”

Another difference between segmentation and enclaving is the primary threat enclaving strives to thwart: the internal threat. Although the preponderance of cyber-attacks come from external threat sources such as hackers, cyber-criminals and nation states, many of the most devastating breaches originate from internal sources such as employees and trusted service providers. These internal information security breaches may be either purposeful attacks or may simply be caused by employee error. Either way, they are just as devastating to an organization’s reputation and business share.

A rarely considered difference between enclaving and network segmentation is physical security. When fully controlling access to information assets based on the principle of need to know, it is not enough to just control logical access. It is necessary to restrict physical access to work areas and computer devices as well. These areas should be locked, and access by authorized personnel should be recorded and monitored. Visitors and service providers should be pre-approved and escorted when in protected areas.

An obvious problem with enclaving is that it is more difficult to implement and maintain than the usual information security measures. It requires more planning, more devices and more employee hours. So why should businesses trying to control expenditures put their resources into enclaving?

As an information security professional I would say that it should be done because it is the best way we know to protect information assets. But for many business concerns, the greatest benefit of true enclaving is in securing protected and regulated information such as payment card information, patient health records and personal financial information. If you employ enclaving to protect such assets, you are showing clients and regulators alike that your business is serious about securing the information in its charge. And in today’s business climate, that can be a very important differentiator indeed!

Network Knowledge and Segmentation

If you look at most cutting-edge network information security guidance, job #1 can be paraphrased as “Know Thy Network.” It is firmly recommended (and in much regulatory guidance demanded) that organizations keep up-to-date inventories of hardware and software assets present on their computer networks. In fact, the most current recommendation is that organizations utilize software suites that not only keep track of inventories, but monitor all critical network entities with the aim of detecting any hardware or software applications that should not be there.

Another part of network knowledge is mapping data flows and trust relationships on networks, and mapping which business entities use which IT resources and information. For this knowledge, I like to go to my favorite risk management tool: the Business Impact Analysis (BIA). In this process, input comes from personnel across the enterprise detailing what they do, how they do it, what resources they need, what input they need, what output they produce and more (see MSI blog archives for more information about BIA and what it can do for your information security program).

About now, you are probably asking what all this has to do with network segmentation. The answer is that you simply must know where all your network assets are, who needs access to them and how they move before you can segment the network intelligently and effectively. It can all be summed up with one phrase: Need to Know. Need to know is the very basis of access control, and access control is what network segmentation is all about. You do not want anyone on your network to “see” information assets that they do not need to see in order to properly perform their business functions. And by the same token, you do not want network personnel to be cut off from information assets that they do need to perform their jobs. These are the reasons network knowledge and network segmentation go hand-in-hand.

Proper network knowledge becomes even more important when you take the next step in network segmentation: enclaving. I will discuss segmentation versus enclaving in my next blog later this month.

Why Segment Your Network?

Network segmentation is the practice of splitting your computer network into subnetworks or network segments (also known as zoning). This is typically done using combinations of firewalls, VLANs, access controls and policies & procedures. Implementing network segmentation requires planning and effort, and it can entail some teething problems along the way as well. So why should it be done?

The number one reason is to protect the security of your network resources and information. When people first started to defend their homes and enterprises from attack, they built perimeter walls and made sure everything important was inside of those walls. They figured doing this would keep their enemies outside where they couldn’t possibly do any damage. This was a great idea, but unfortunately it had problems in the real world.

People found that the enemy only had to make one small hole in their perimeter defenses to be able to get at all of their valuables. They also realized that their perimeter defense didn’t stop evil insiders from wreaking havoc on their valuables. To deal with these problems, people started to add additional layers of protection inside of their outer walls. They walled off enclaves inside the outer defenses and added locks and guards to their individual buildings to thwart attacks.

This same situation exists now in the world of network protection. As network security assessors and advisors, we see that most networks we deal with are still “flat;” they are not really segmented and access controls alone are left to prevent successful attacks from occurring. But in the real world, hacking into a computer network is all about gaining a tiny foothold on the network, then leveraging that access to navigate around the network. The harder it is for these attackers to see the resources they want and navigate to them, the safer those resources are. In addition, the more protections that hackers need to circumvent during their attacks, the more likely they are to be detected. It should also be noted that network segmentation works just as well against the internal threat; it is just as difficult for an employee to gain access to a forbidden network segment as it is for an Internet-based attacker.

Increased security is not the only advantage of network segmentation. Instead of making network congestions worse, well implemented segmentation can actually reduce network congestion. This is because there are fewer hosts, thus less local traffic per segment. In addition, segmentation can help you contain network problems by limiting the effects of local failures that occur on other parts of the network.

The business reasons for implementing network segmentation are becoming more apparent every day. Increasingly, customers are demanding better information security from the businesses they employ. If the customer has a choice between two very similar companies, they will almost assuredly pick the company with better security. Simply being able to say to your customers that your network is fully segmented and controlled can improve your chances of success radically.

Election Hacking

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about election hacking, especially about the Russia government possibly attempting to subvert the upcoming presidential election. And I think that in a lot of ways it is good that this has come up. After all, voting systems are based on networked computer systems. Private election and campaign information is stored and transmitted on networked computer systems. That means that hacking can indeed be a factor in elections, and the public should be made well aware of it. We are always being told by ‘authorities’ and ‘pundits’ what is and is not possible. And generally we are gullible enough to swallow it. But history has a lot of lessons to teach us, and one of the most important is that the ‘impossible’ has a nasty way of just happening.

Authorities are saying now that because of the distributed nature of voting systems and redundancies in voting record-keeping that it would be virtually impossible for an outside party to rig the numbers in the election. But that is just a direct method of affecting an election. What about the indirect methods? What would happen, for instance, if hackers could just cause delays and confusion on Election Day? If they could cause long lines in certain voting districts and smooth sailing in other voting districts, couldn’t they affect the number of Democratic Votes versus Republican votes? We all know that if there is a hassle at the polls that a lot of people will just give up and go back home again. And this is just one way that elections could be affected by hacking. There are bound to be plenty of others.

With this in mind, isn’t it wise to err on the side of caution? Shouldn’t we as a people insist that our voting systems are secured as well as is possible? Don’t we want to consider these systems to be ‘vital infrastructure’? These are the reasons I advocate instituting best practices as the guidance to be used when securing electronic voting systems. Systems should be configured as securely as possible, associated communications systems should be robust and highly encrypted, risk should be assessed and addressed before the election, monitoring efforts should be strictly followed and incident response plans should be practiced and ready to go. These efforts would be one good way to help ensure a fair and ‘hacker free’ election.

How to Build an Information Security Program

Organizations have a lot of trouble with information security programs:

  • They don’t really understand the reasons why modern concerns must have effective information security programs or how to properly integrate them into their present business models.
  • They don’t truly understand the complexities of modern computer and communications systems and so have no gut instinct how to properly secure them. They therefore must trust information security pundits and service providers even though they get lots of contradictory and confusing advice.
  • They spend a lot of money buying all kinds of security devices and services and they find that their information security program is still full of holes and problems.
  • And after all of this, they find that they are constantly being asked for even more money to buy even more devices and services.

Sound familiar? Who wouldn’t become frustrated and cynical?! So my advice is: whenever a problem becomes seemingly too complex to tackle, go back to the beginning and start from first principles.

What exactly are you trying to protect? Have you identified and prioritized the business functions, information, devices and infrastructure that you need in order to run smoothly as an organization? If not, that should be your first priority. You should record and prioritize every business function needed to run your organization. You should also ensure that you keep accurate inventories of critical software applications and hardware devices. In addition, you should know exactly how information flows into, out of and around your network and what trusts what. If you don’t know exactly what you have, how can you protect it effectively, and what is more, economically?

Do you have effective mechanisms in place to limit access to your systems and information? You need to limit access to only those individuals who have a real need for that access (something you have just quantified by taking care of the first step outlined above). That means that you must configure your systems correctly to require user authentication, you must properly enroll and disenroll users correctly, you must properly identify those seeking access and you must have access management plans in place to oversee the whole process.

Have you leveraged your most valuable information security asset: your employees? Machines can only aid people in information security matters, they can never replace them. If you properly train, and what is even more important, enfranchise your employee personnel in the information security program, the return will astound you. Make them understand how valuable they are to the organization and ask for their help in security matters. Make information security training a fun thing and pass out kudos and small rewards to those who help the program. This can save you big money on automated security systems that just don’t perform as advertised.

Are you storing and transmitting information securely? For most organizations, information is their most valuable asset. If this is true of your organization, you should ensure that you properly protect it when it is moving or just sitting in storage. You should classify information for type and sensitivity and protect it accordingly. Spare no expense in protecting the really important info, but why waste time and money encrypting or otherwise protecting minor information that is of little consequence if revealed?

Do you know what is happening on your systems? Computer networks and the processes and people controlling them must be effectively monitored. Organizations should employ effective tools to monitor, parse and consolidate events and log data on their networks. But these should only be tools to aid humans in making this task manageable; they can never actually replace the human element. In addition, management personnel at all levels of the organization should have processes in place to ensure that security policies and procedures are current, effective and enforced. If you perform these tasks correctly, the most difficult part of incident response – incident identification – is also taken care of.

Do you test your security measures? You can never really tell how effective an information security program is without testing it. There are many tools available that test your network for security vulnerabilities such as configuration errors, access holes and out of date systems. You should employ these mechanisms regularly and patch the holes they uncover in a logical and hierarchical manner. You should also consider other kinds of security tests such as penetration testing, application testing and social engineering exercises. These will help you understand not only where the holes are, but how well your systems and personnel are coping with them.

These processes are the foundation of an effective information security program. If you build these strongly, other information security processes such as incident response, business continuity and vendor management will be well supported. If you skimp on these most basic steps, then your information security program will likely collapse of its own weight.

Incident Response & Business Continuity – Planning and Practice Make Perfect

Computer systems and networks are irrevocably woven into the fabric of business practices around the world; we quite literally cannot do without them. What’s more, our lives and our business practices become more dependent on these devices every day. Unfortunately, this makes computer networks the number one criminal playground in the modern world.

Although computer security technology and processes are becoming increasingly effective, cyber-criminals have more than kept pace. Every year the number of computer security compromises is increasing. Cyber-attacks are becoming more sophisticated and can originate from anywhere that has Internet connectivity. It should also be remembered that cyber-criminals only have to be successful in one of their attacks to win, while businesses must successfully defend against every attack, every time to win the game. The upshot of all this is that every business is increasingly liable to experience some kind of cyber-attack. That is the reason why regulators and security professionals have been pushing businesses to increase the scope and effectiveness of their incident response capabilities in recent years.

To help counter modern cyber-incidents effectively, organizations must respond to them quickly and in an accurate, pre-determined manner. IR teams must determine and document specific actions to be taken in the event common information security events occur. Responsibilities for performing these incident response “procedures” should be assigned to specific team members. Once detailed procedures for addressing common security incidents have been completed, the IR team should review them and role play response scenarios on a recurring basis (at least twice annually is recommended). It is an unfortunate truth that incident response is a perishable skill and must be regularly practiced to be effective.

This same advice also applies to business continuity/disaster recovery plans – functionally, they are really the same thing as incident response. Whether your business is facing a flood, a tornado, a cyber-attack or even an employee error, they all have negative effects that can be lessened if you have effective, pre-planned responses in place that everyone involved is familiar with and has practiced regularly. So why not practice IR and BC/DR together? It can minimize the time personnel are away from their regular business duties and maximize the effectiveness of their training.

Business Size Affects Security Flexibility

In the realm of cyber-security, all of the advantages are with the attacker. To be successful, defenders have to guard against and defeat all possible attack types all of the time; attackers only need to find one hole in those defenses to win the game. That is why information security programs need to be dynamic and flexible in order to work properly.

I have worked with all types and sizes of organizations during my years in the information security field including government agencies, regulatory bodies, retail concerns, service providers, financial institutions and medical organizations. No matter what kind of organization I am working with, I have found it to be an immutable truth that the larger and more complex the organization, the more difficult and time consuming it is to make changes and to their information security program. It’s not really anybody’s fault, it’s just the nature of the beast. Bigger organizations have more checks and balances to deal with, more personality clashes to arbitrate, more committees to wrestle with and more ‘rice bowls’ to protect. However, this is no reason to throw up our hands and admit defeat. Now is the time to recognize that we have a problem and try to find ways to work around it.

One idea I wish to propose in this regard is the ‘top-down, bottom-up’ approach to information security. First, the people in top positions in large organizations need to be made fully aware that a real problem exists and how serious it is. They also need to be made aware of the business advantages of a flexible and effective information security program. Most important of all, they need to be willing to visibly show their full support for the program and the changes that are to come. After all, no organizational security initiative can get very far without full buy-in at the Board Room level.

Another part is the ‘bottom up’ part of the process. Some years ago I worked with a software suite that allowed anyone in the organization to easily access and view security policy on the company intranet. Not only could personnel view the policy, they could make suggestions to improve and change it, propose new techniques, recommend ways to streamline the process, etc. Nobody in an organization knows more about business processes and how to protect them than the people that work with them every day. Why not encourage them to make suggestions and report problems? All it takes is a little encouragement and minor reward. In fact, I’ve found that simply recognizing personnel for their security efforts is enough. Praise them in group meetings, put their pictures up on the wall, that sort of thing. Why should the organization hire expensive consultants to tell them the same things that they can learn from their own personnel?

The last part is acting upon the suggestions produced by management encouragement. Once valid suggestions have been made, the initiative needs to flow through the normally recalcitrant and obstructionist mid-levels of the organization to make it back to the top. Can this group be made to set aside their differences and encourage the adoption of rational and workable suggestions for change? If they can, then large organizations can truly improve the flexibility and effectiveness of their information security program, and save money doing it.