Inventory Control a Must for Effective System Security Maintenance & Config Control

Some security controls can’t reach maximum effectiveness unless other, related controls are also in place. This is the case with system security maintenance and configuration control. If you don’t tie these controls to well maintained and updated inventories of all network assets you are bound to see vulnerabilities cropping up on your systems.

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IoT Smart Devices: The Honeymoon is Over!

What isn’t an Internet of Things device these days?! Companies are literally flooding the consumer market with smart chip-equipped devices you can control with your iPhone or Android (which themselves are equipped with smart chips – sigh!). Smart bike locks, smart egg trays, smart water bottles, smart dental floss dispensers, smart baby-changing pads!! These are all real devices.

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Good Inventory Control is a Must for Effective Security Maintenance & Configuration Control

Maintaining current inventories of all hardware devices, software applications, operating systems and firmware applications on your networks is listed as Job #1 in cutting-edge information security guidance. This is true for a number of reasons, but today I want to discuss the paramount importance of good inventory control processes in mounting trackable and effective security maintenance and configuration control programs.

In a recent Threatpost report on top threats for2018, it was reported that exploit kits were still the top web-based threat. Exploit kits are very good at uncovering missing patches, misconfigurations, default passwords and the like, and they are most assuredly not limited to Windows systems only.

In the work we do, it is very common for us find networks that are obviously being generally well administered. We see that most systems are well configured, that Windows patching is very good and that most access controls are strong. But on these same networks, we almost always find glaring anomalies that don’t fit the overall picture. Maybe we’ll find a couple of hosts with factory default credentials in place, or a firewall that is running an exploitable firmware version, or maybe it will virtual machine software that is missing security patches. The list is extensive. But they all have one thing in common; these are systems and hosts that have somehow fallen through the cracks.

This is where good inventory control comes in. Most of the organizations I referred to above have inventories in place, but they are just there to be there; nobody seems to use them for anything. I think this is mainly because most infosec programs are driven by compliance, and compliance means you have to be able to check the “inventories in place” box. What a mistake! Those inventories are useful!

Inventories should be central to all security maintenance and configuration control efforts. All hardware devices, software applications, operating systems and firmware applications should be included in IT inventories. Security maintenance and configuration control administrators should ensure that all entities on these lists are included in their efforts. Those in charge of these processes should also always ensure that they are communicating and coordinating their efforts, and that everything is kept up-to-date. In fact, I’ll go one step further.

An effective information security program, although made up of many different processes, needs to work together like a single entity. It’s very much like our own bodies. We have a brain, a heart, limbs, bones, eyes, skin and numerous other individual parts, but they all cooperate together to function as a single entity. If you don’t leverage each part of your infosec program to feed and enable all of the other parts, then you are wasting a lot of time and money!

Monitoring: A True Necessity

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 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 is will not be performed effectively.

And when I say human monitoring is necessary if you want to achieve any type of real information security, I mean it is NECESSARY! You can have network security appliances, third party firewall monitoring, anti-virus packages, email security software, and a host of other network security mechanisms in place and it will all be for naught if real (and properly trained) human beings are not monitoring the output. Why waste all the time, money and effort you have put into your information security program by not going that last step? It’s like building a high and impenetrable wall around a fortress but leaving the last ten percent of it unbuilt because it was just too much trouble! Here are a few tips for effective security monitoring:

  • Properly illustrate the necessity for human monitoring to management, business and IT personnel; make them understand the urgency of the need. Make a logical case for the function. Tell them real-world stories about other organizations that have failed to monitor and the consequences that they suffered as a result. If you can’t accomplish this step, the rest will never fall in line.
  • Ensure that personnel assigned to monitoring tasks of all kinds are properly trained in the function; make sure they know what to look for and how to deal with what they find.
  • Automate the logging and monitoring function as much as possible. The process is difficult enough without having to perform tedious tasks that a machine or application can easily do.
  • Ensure that you have log aggregation in place, and also ensure that other network security tool output is centralized and combined with logging data. Real world cyber-attacks are often very hard to spot. Correlating events from different tools and processes can make these attacks much more apparent.
  • Ensure that all personnel associated with information security communicate with each other. It’s difficult to effectively detect and stop attacks if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
  • Ensure that logging is turned on for everything on the network that is capable of it. Attacks often start on client-side machines.
  • Don’t just monitor technical outputs from machines and programs, monitor access rights and the overall security program as well:
    • Monitor access accounts of all kinds on a regular basis (at least every 90 days is recommended). Ensure that user accounts are current and that users are only allocated access rights on the system that they need to perform their jobs. Ensure that you monitor third party access to the system to this same level.
    • Pay special attention to administrative level accounts. Restrict administrative access to as few personnel as possible. Configure the system to notify proper security and IT personnel when a new administrative account is added to the network. This could be a sign that a hack is in progress.
    • Regularly monitor policies and procedures to ensure that they are effective and meet the security goals of the organization. I recommend doing this as a regular part of business continuity testing and review.


Make Smart Devices Your Business Friend, Not Your Business Foe

One good way to improve your information security posture and save resources at the same time is to strictly limit the attack surfaces and attack vectors present on your network. It’s like having a wall with a thousand doors in it. The more of those doors you close off, the easier it is to guard the ones that remain. However, we collectively continue to let personnel use business assets and networks for high-risk activities such as web surfing, shopping, checking social media sites and a plethora of other activities that have nothing to do with business.

Most organizations to this day still allow their personnel to access the Internet at will, download and upload programs from there, employ computer ports like USB, etc. But the thing is, this is now; not ten years ago. Virtually everyone in the working world has a smart phone with them at all times. Why not just let folks use these devices for all their ancillary online activities and save the business systems for business purposes?

And for those employees and job types that truly need access to the Internet there are other protections you can employ. The best is to whitelist sites available to these personnel while ensuring that even this access is properly monitored. Another way is to stand up a separate network for approved Internet access with no (or strictly filtered) access to the production network. In addition, it is important to make sure employees use different passwords for business access and everything else; business passwords should only be used for that particular access alone.

Another attack vector that should be addressed is allowing employees local administration rights to their computers. Very few employees in most organizations actually need USB ports, DVD drives and the like to perform their business tasks. This goes double for the ability to upload and download applications to their computers. Any application code present on an organization’s production network should be authorized, approved and inventoried. Applications not on this list that are detected should be immediately researched and dealt with.

Imagine how limiting attacks vectors and surfaces in these ways would help ease the load on your system security and administrative personnel. It would give them much less to keep track of, and, consequently give them more time to properly deal with the pure business assets that remained.

Business Impact Analysis: A Wealth of Information at Your Fingertips

Are you a Chief Information Security Officer or IT Manager stuck with the unenviable task of bringing your information security program into the 21st Century? Why not start the ball rolling with a business impact analysis (BIA)? It will provide you with a wealth of useful information, and it takes a good deal of the weight from your shoulders by involving personnel from every business department in the organization.

BIA is traditionally seen as part of the business continuity process. It helps organizations recognize and prioritize which information, hardware and personnel assets are crucial to the business so that proper planning for contingency situations can be undertaken. This is very useful in and of itself, and is indeed crucial for proper business continuity and disaster recovery planning. But what other information security tasks can BIA information help you with?

When MSI does a BIA, the first thing we do in issue a questionnaire to every business department in the organization. These questionnaires are completed by the “power users” in each department, who are typically the most experienced and knowledgeable personnel in the business. This means that not only do you get the most reliable information possible, but that one person or one small group is not burdened with doing all of the information gathering. Typical responses include (but are not limited to):

  • A list of every business function each department undertakes
  • All of the hardware assets needed to perform each business function
  • All of the software assets needed to perform each business function
  • Inputs needed to perform each business function and where they come from
  • Outputs of each business function and where they are sent
  • Personnel needed to perform each business function
  • Knowledge and skills needed to perform each business function

So how does this knowledge help jumpstart your information security program as a whole? First, in order to properly protect information assets, you must know what you have and how it moves. In cutting-edge information security guidance, the first controls they recommend instituting are inventories of devices and software applications present on company networks. The BIA lists all of the hardware and software assets needed to perform each business function. So in effect you have your starting inventories. This not only tells you what you need, but is useful in exposing assets wasting time and effort on your network that are not necessary; if it’s not on the critical lists, you probably don’t need it.

In MSI’s own 80/20 Rule of Information Security, the first requirement is not only producing inventories of software and hardware assets, but mapping of data flows and trust relationships. The inputs and outputs listed by each business department include these data flows and trust relationships. All you have to do is compile them and put them into a graphical map. And I can tell you from experience; this is a great savings in time and effort. If you have ever tried to map data flows and trust relationships as a stand-alone task, you know what I mean!

Another security control a BIA can help you implement is network segmentation and enclaving. The MSI 80/20 Rule has network enclaving as their #6 control. The information from a good BIA makes it easy to see how assets are naturally grouped, and therefore makes it easy to see the best places to segment the network.

How about egress filtering? Egress filtering is widely recognized as one of the most effect security controls in preventing large scale data loss, and the most effective type of egress filtering employs white listing. White listing is typically much harder to tune and implement than black listing but is very much more effective. With the information a BIA provides you, it is much easier to construct a useful white list; you have what each department needs to perform each business function at your fingertips.

Then there is security and skill gap training. The BIA tells you what information users need to know to perform their jobs, so that helps you make sure that personnel are trained correctly and with enough depth to deal with contingency situations. Also, knowing where all your critical assets lie and how they move helps you make sure you provide the right people with the right kind of security training.

And there are other crucial information security mechanisms that a BIA can help you with. What about access control? Wouldn’t knowing the relative importance of assets and their nexus points help you structure AD more effectively? In addition, there is physical security to consider. Knowing where the most crucial information lies and what departments process it would help you set up internal secure areas and physical safeguards, wouldn’t it?

The upshot of all of this is that where information security is concerned, you can’t possibly know too much about how your business actually works. Ensure that you maintain detailed BIA and it will pay you back for the effort every time.

Spend Your Infosec Dollars on the Things that Work Best First

If your organization is like most of the ones we deal with every day, you have a lot of information security controls that you are being pressed to implement, but you only have a limited budget to implement them with. How are you supposed to decide where those very scarce dollars go? I recommend implementing those controls that have proven their worth through time and trial first.

Just about nine years ago, early in the Obama administration, there was a big push to improve information cybersecurity across the board. Infosec experts from all disciplines shared ideas and information, debated strategies and mechanisms, and developed what was then called the Consensus Audit Guidelines. Around this same time Brent Huston and the MSI team developed our 80/20 Rule for Information Security. The goal of both of these endeavors was the same: rank infosec controls hierarchically according to necessity and effectiveness. This is, of course, an ongoing process subject to disagreement and periodic changes in thinking. But here are some of the primary controls that we champion.

Inventories of hardware and software assets. You can’t protect your network if you don’t know what is on it. Ensuring that your organization has mechanisms and processes in place to constantly monitor network inventories is well worth the cost. We also recommend that organizations leverage inventory processes to map data flows and trust relationships among network entities. This information can help you spot weak points in your security posture and is very useful in business continuity planning.

Configuration control and security maintenance. I can’t tell you how many network compromises that I have seen that were the result of systems that were misconfigured, or that were missing security updates. All network entities should be fully “hardened” and included in the security maintenance program. Configuration and security maintenance processes should be fully documented, maintained and overseen. Forgetting to change one default administrator password or to apply one security patch can mean the difference between security and compromise. Although these processes are labor-intensive, there are devices and applications available that can help your personnel to keep on top of them.

Vulnerability and security assessment processes. Humans are fallible. Even if you have good configuration and maintenance processes in place, you still need to check and make sure that nothing has fallen through the cracks. You also need to see if there are any access control problems, miscoding in applications or other vulnerabilities on your networks. This means regular vulnerability assessments of networks and applications. If your budget allows it, assessments such as penetration testing and social engineering exercises can also be very illuminating.

Privileged access control and monitoring. Attaining administrative-level access is the Holy Grail of cyber criminals. If you can achieve domain admin access privileges, you pretty much have the keys to the kingdom. So, ensure that privileged access is fully controlled and monitored on your network. Admins should use separate passwords for admin duties and simple network access, and adding/changing admin accounts or out-of-bounds admin activities should create alerts on the system. This is inexpensive to implement, and more than worth the effort.

Security monitoring and egress filtering. One of the processes that everyone seems to have trouble doing well is security monitoring. This is probably because it is at once a daunting and boring task. However, security monitoring is essential. It also demands a good deal of human participation. Although we strongly advocate using tools to help aggregate, parse and supply basic analysis of log data, only humans are fit to do the final analysis. One very effective part of this task is egress filtering. Egress filtering is the practice of monitoring and restricting the flow of information outbound from the network. This control is relatively easy to implement and can save the day by stopping large-scale exfiltration of data from your network in the event other security controls have been circumvented.

Security training and awareness mechanisms. It should always be remembered that information security is a human problem, not a technological problem. Because of this, your own personnel can either be your greatest security threat or your greatest security asset. Security training (accompanied by employee buy-in to the security program) can help assure that your employees are security assets. Security training should be provided to new hires and all employees on a recurrent basis. Awareness reminders should reflect real-world threats and should be provided on an as-needed basis. In addition, we recommend high-risk job titles such as system admins and code developers should be provided with security gap training to help ensure that they have all the skills needed to prevent and detect security incidents in your environment.

The controls mentioned above are certainly not all that are needed for a well-balanced information security program, but they do carry a lot of bang for the buck. So, make sure you have these primary controls in place before you waste your security dollar on flashier, but less effective mechanisms.

Vendor Management: Are You Doing all of the Right Things?

In the not-so-distant past, organizations let service providers connect to their internal networks without a great deal of concern. At that time, attackers could generally find a more direct route into business networks, and although the security vulnerabilities inherent in 3rd party connections to networks were known, they received much less attention by users and regulators alike than they do today.

Now, networks are very much better protected, especially those segments that directly face the Internet. Their improved outer armor has forced attackers to come at networks in more indirect ways, such as through trusted service provider connections. Attackers reasoned that if your target’s outer security is just too good, maybe concerns such as the company that hosts their operating software suite is not so robust. Their reasoning proved to be correct. In fact, this attack vector worked so well, that governing bodies have had to tighten security requirements accordingly.

In the present environment, organizations such as financial institutions and medical concerns must be able to demonstrate due-diligence in their establishment and maintenance of vendor/3rd party relationships. They should always remember that they, as the parent organization, are ultimately responsible for the security of their client information; it doesn’t matter if the security breach originated with the service provider or not. Without mechanisms such as documented due-diligence processes, contractual security agreements and cyber-insurance policies, organizations can be left to shoulder the burden alone.

This trend toward vendor management security, and indeed toward more stringent information security regulation across the board, shows no signs of slowing. Quite the opposite. In 2017, 240 cybersecurity-related bills or resolutions were introduced in 42 states. In 2016, 28 states introduced cybersecurity-related legislation; 15 of these states actually enacted the legislation. In 2015, the numbers were 26 states and eight pieces of legislation enacted. Quite an increase in just a few years.

All of this regulation is having a direct effect on not only hosting organizations, but the businesses that provide services to them. Vendors are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the security of their cyber-systems and processes by both present and prospective clients. They must be able to show that their information security program is just as effective as that of the parent organization or no job.

The upshot of all of this is that NOW is the time ensure that your vendor management program meets all of the recommendations and regulations that are currently emerging. Playing catch-up is never a good idea.

First of all, the program should be based on risk. An assessment should be performed to identify risks to the organization associated with the use of 3rd party providers. Once that information is in place, a framework of policies and procedures designed to address these risks should be developed and implemented. Responsibilities for undertaking these tasks should be assigned to individuals, and of course, the whole program should be fully documented and maintained. Senior management should monitor the program to ensure that it is being implemented as designed, and that it is effective in its operation.

Companies should ensure that contracts with service providers are clear, comprehensive and that information security requirements and responsibilities are fully defined for all parties concerned. Results of IT audits and security assessments should be accessible and reviewed at least annually. Any significant weaknesses or security problems uncovered by these assessments should be addressed, and the effectiveness of their remediation should be monitored.

So, don’t wait. Review your own vendor management program today and see if it meets all of the current and likely future requirements. Having a compliant program in place is not only good information security, but may even be the differentiator that gets your company a few extra clients.

GDPR: It’s Coming Soon, and it has Teeth!

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was passed in May of 2016 and comes into force exactly five months from Christmas Day on May 25, 2018. The aim of this regulation is to strengthen and unify personal data protection for all citizens (and residents) in the European Union, and to allow them to control their personal information (data). This personal data must be protected according to a number of articles in the regulation, and also applies to non-European organizations that process the personal data of EU citizens.

According to the European Commission, personal data is “any information relating to an individual, whether it relates to his or her private, professional or public life. It can be anything from a name, a home address, a photo, an email address, bank details, posts on social networking websites, medical information, or a computer’s IP address.” As can be seen, this list covers just about everything!

One of the big requirements that is going to affect US organizations that do business with EU persons is their “right to be forgotten.” This means that EU citizens and residents can request that their personal data be removed from corporate databases in a timely manner. If this cannot be done, they have the right to know exactly why not.

Unlike HIPAA/HITECH, non-compliance with the GDPR can lead to some major league fines: in some cases, up to 20,000,000 Euros or 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year of the organization (whichever is greater). I think that fines on this level show just how seriously personal privacy is being taken in the EU.

This new regulation just illustrates the pressing need for organizations to know how data flows across and is stored on computer networks. If you know exactly where personal data is and how it flows, you can deal with it. If you don’t, better get ready for some trouble ahead!

Human-Based Infosec: Monitoring

For this third installment in my series on human-based information security I will be discussing the idea that human analysis and interaction must be at the core of any truly effective monitoring program. To reiterate the basic point of this series, it is axiomatic that information security is a human problem, not a technological problem. It is my contention that our failure to embrace this truth is demonstrated in the fact that not only are more data breaches and other security failures still occurring, they are actually becoming more prevalent over time.

Largely because of this increase in data breaches, and the public outcry about them, incident response has become an increasingly important part of the information security effort over recent years. And as anyone who has actually participated in the effort knows, the most difficult part of incident response is detection. Most network compromises go unnoticed for days, weeks, months, even years! And the only way that l know of to address this problem is through verbose system logging and effective monitoring processes.

System logging and monitoring has always been a thorn in the side of every CISO and network security admin. It seems like such an overwhelming task that most of them automatically give up and either hardly log and monitor at all, or turn the effort over to a third-party service provider that will never be as invested in the task as they would be in their own company’s security monitoring. We always go that extra mile to protect our own, don’t you think?

However, this task isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems. With the help of proper parsing and aggregating tools and a handful of command line tools, the task can be reduced to the human scale. Personnel can pull just that information they need from these mounds of data, and are much better at recognizing anomalies and danger signs than any program, especially over time. It is also a happy fact that the more you perform log searching and monitoring, the easier it is and the better you get at it. One particularly good log monitoring engineer I know even gleans valuable information by simply scrolling through the raw log data at high speed; he is able to see areas of concern in the data through pattern recognition alone.

The caveat of all this is that you need to allocate dedicated personnel to perform these tasks, and these personnel need to be very well trained and knowledgeable about the full capabilities of the tools they use to parse, aggregate and monitor the log data generated by the system. This means proper support and funds allocation at the management level. Our job as information security professionals is to ensure that these folks understand the reality and importance of logging and monitoring to the overall information security effort.