Ask The Security Experts: Public Facing Workstations

This time around, we have a question from a reader named John: “I work in a small financial institution and we have problems with physical access to our computers. Many of our workstations sit in semi-public areas and could easily be attacked with USB devices or physical access when a teller or customer service person leaves the customers alone with the machine at a desk or cubicle. What advice do the experts have to help counter these types of attacks?”

Bill Hagestad started the conversation:

Recommended Points for mitigating this digital & physical vulnerability;

1) Remove workstations from semi-public areas; 2) Deploy & install single – purpose Internet workstations at no more than 2 public locations with VERY limited access to financial institution records only after 3 factor authentication has been authorized by credentialed users only; 3) Set time limites on inactive sessions on all banking terminals to logoff after physical proximity to machine exceeds 15 seconds; 4) Enforce 32 random, alpha-numeric character password changes to all critical financial institutional systems weekly; and, 5) Implement and /or continue aggressive financial institution information assurance education program with goal of 100% employee participation; review/update monthly and, 6) Mandate information security and awareness program participation from financial institution leadership throughout all employees and ranks within the organization.

John Davis expanded: I know how difficult this is for financial institutions. Your customer service representatives need computers in their cubicles in order to provide service to your customers, while at the same time those same computers are a main point of physical vulnerabilitiy. Easy steps can be taken, though, to harden these work stations.

First, workstation users should be allotted local administration rights on their systems only when a business need is present. So, CSR workstations should have their USB and DVD ports disabled. Furthermore, their is no need for them to have the ability to upload or download software. In addition, workstations in publicly accessible areas must be turned off each and every time they are unattended. Perhaps you could implement a system similar to the cut off device used on treadmills or at casinos: CSRs would have to clip a device from their clothing to the workstation before it will work. You could accompany this with biometric access for quick and easy access for the users.

Jim Klun added:

From my experience, and assuming the worst case of Windows systems configured as normal workstations with end-users having admin level access, some immediate things I would do:

1. Disable all removable media access at the hardware ( i.e. BIOS) level. At minimum: disable ability to boot from such sources. or: remove all DVD and CDROM drives and physically disable USB ports. (e.g. glue) 2. Ensure all workstations log activity and ensure that the logs are directed to a central log repository and reviewed. Example: 3. Ensure surveillance cameras cover workstation areas. 4. Aggressive screen-lock settings 5. Removal of admin access for all but limited support staff if at all possible. 6. Consider Usage of security cabinets for workstations: Example: 7. Network Access Control to limit what devices are allowed on the local network. That unattended RJ45 jack or poorly secured wireless environment is as much a threat as that USB port or CDROM. Bluetooth setting should also be reviewed. 8. Ensure all sensitive information traveling over the local LAN is encrypted. 9. Use a firmware password ( e.g drivelock or a BIOS power-on password) to limit who can boot the machine. 10. Monthly re-iteration of security policies – including need to lock workstations. In my experience such messages are best tied to real-world examples. It makes the risk real – not just an abstract “security guy” worry. For example, this event could be used to ensure employees are aware that an unlocked workstation could lead to the installation of malware:

I note that both JD and Bill talk about enhanced authentication – including the use of proximity devices. Using such devices ( mostly bluetooth ) to secure these workstations sounds like a great idea to me and may be the easiest and most effective solution. Once the financial institution walks away from the workstation – it’s locked and ideally will not boot. – open source Google “computer proximity lock” for a number of commercial alternatives.

Adam Hostetler closed the conversation with:

Everyone has really good suggestions so far. I am a fan of the simple phsyical solutions. I would put the workstations in locked cages. This would prevent any malicious people from inserting USB devices or CDs, or implanting sniffers between the keyboard and USB ports. Additionally, follow the other advice of disabling them through software, just to be sure.

Another solution may be to move to a thin client solution. It is possible to buy thin clients that have no USB ports or optical drives. This would also ensure that no sensitive information was on the workstation, in the event that it was stolen.

April Touchdown Task

April’s touchdown task for the month is a suggestion to update your contact list that you should have included in your incident response policy.

A few minutes now to make sure the right people are in the list and that their contact information is current could pay off largely down the road. It might also be a good time to check to make sure your contact process has been updated to include SMS/texting, Skype and/or other supported technologies that may have not been around when your policy was last updated.

Watching the Watchers…

“Who watches the watchers?” is an often overheard question when we assess the information security program of clients. Way too often, the answer is either, “Huh?” or “No one, really.”. That’s a LOT of trust for an organization to place in an individual or small team.

At least in a small team, you hopefully have peers checking each other’s work. You do that right? You either rotate duties, have a peer review process or otherwise make sure that a second set of eyes from the team double checks critical work in a peer review methodology. That’s what mature teams do, and they do it both often and formally. This is a great control and an effective means to build cooperation between team members.

The problem gets harder when your security team (and/or IT team) is one person. Then it absolutely REQUIRES that someone, be it a manager, another department peer, an auditor or even a consultant checks their work periodically. After all, if they manage the servers, the firewall, the network, the intrusion detection and the logging, they essentially have complete control over the data and can do as they please without fear of getting caught. Now, that is not to say that folks in this role aren’t trustworthy. They usually are. The problem is that some are not and to further complicate the matter – it is often quite difficult to tell the difference between the honest and the dishonest humans. So, as we always say, “Trust, but verify…”. Implement an ongoing process for peer review, even if that peer is an auditor or consultant. Have them come in and double check the progress for this quarter. Ask them to spot check reports, logs and configurations. It’s not comprehensive, but it at least sends a message that someone is checking and just having someone checking different items often leads to interesting discoveries, usually not of a malicious nature, but often times something missed in the day to day.

How does your organization use peer review? What works and what hasn’t worked for you? Leave us a comment or drop us a line on Twitter (@lbhuston) and let us know.

Ask The Experts: Advice to New InfoSec Folks

This time our question came from a follow up on our last advice article to new infosec folks (here). Readers might also want to roll back the clock and check out our historic post “So You Wanna Be in InfoSec” from a few years ago. 

Question: “I really want to know what advice the Experts would give to someone looking to get into the information security business. What should they do to get up to speed and what should they do to participate in the infosec community?”

Adam Hostetler replied:

To get up to speed, I think you should start with a good foundation of knowledge. Already working in IT will help, you should then already have a good idea of networking knowledge, protocols, and architecture, as well as good OS administrative skills. Having this knowledge already helped me a lot at the beginning. Then I would move into the infosec world, read and listen to everything you can related to infosec.  There’s much much more security related knowledge online than ever before, so use it to your advantage. You also now have the opportunity to take info sec programs in colleges, which weren’t really available 10 years ago. Social Networking is very important too, and how you would likely land a job in infosec. Go to events, conferences or local infosec meetings. Some of the local infosec meetings here in Columbus are ISSA, OWASP, and Security MBA. Find some in your area, and attend something like Security B-Sides, if you can. Get to know people at these places, let them know you’re interested, and you might just end up with your dream job.

John Davis chimed in:

If you want to get into the risk management side of the information security business, first and above all I recommend that you read, read, read! Read the NIST 800 series,  ISO 27001 & 27002, the PCI DSS, CobiT, the CAG, information security books, magazine articles, and anything else you can find about information security. Risk assessment, ERM, business continuity planning, incident response and other risk management functions are the milieu of the generalist; the broader your knowledge base, the more effective you are going to be. To participate in the infosec community, there are several things you can do. Probably the best and quickest way to get started is to attend (and participate in) meetings of information security professional organizations such as ISSA, ISACA and OWASP. Talk to the attendees, ask questions, see if they know of any entry level positions or internships you might be able to get into. There are also infosec webinars, summits and conferences that you can participate in. Once you get your foot in the door someplace, stick with it! It takes time to get ahead in this business. For example, you need four years of professional infosec experience or three years experience and a pertinent college degree before you can even test for your CISSP certification.

As always, thanks for reading! Drop us line in the comments or tweet us (@lbhuston or @microsolved) with other questions for the Security Experts.

Three Ways to Engage with the InfoSec Community


Folks who are just coming into infosec often ask me for a few ways to engage with the infosec community and begin to build relationships. Here a few quick words of advice that I give them for making that happen.

1) Join Twitter and engage with people who are also interested in infosec. Talk directly to researchers, security visionaries and leadership. Engage with them personally and professionally to build relationships. Add value to the discussions by researching topics or presenting material that you are familiar with.

2) Join an open source software project. Even if you aren’t a coder, join the project and help with testing, documentation or reviews of some kind. Open source projects (they don’t have to be security projects) can benefit from the help, an extra set of eyes and the energy of new folks contributing to their work. You’ll learn new stuff and build great relationships in the development and likely infosec communities along the way. 

3) The way that most folks go about it works as well. Go to events. Network. Meet infosec people and engage them in discussions about technical and non-technical subjects. Groups like ISSA, ISACA, ISC2, OWASP and other regional security events are good places to meet people, learn stuff and develop relationships with folks working on hard problems. Cons can be good for this too, but often have less chances for building rapport due to the inherent sensory overload of most con environments. Cons are a good place to grow relationships, but may not be the best events for starting them.

That’s my advice. All 3 items are hard work. They offer a chance for you to learn and engage. BUT, you have to work to earn respect and rapport in this community. You have to contribute. You must add value. 

As always, thanks for reading and until next time, stay safe out there! 

Ask The Experts: Online Banking

This time we asked the experts one of the most common questions we get when we are out speaking at consumer events:

Q: Hey Security Experts, do you do your banking online? If so, what do you do to make it safe for your family? If not, why not?

John Davis explained:

I’ve been banking online for many years now and have always loved the convenience and ability it gives you to monitor your accounts anywhere and any time. There are a few simple things I do to keep myself secure. I do all the usual stuff like keeping a well configured fire wall and anti-virus software package always running. I also ensure that my wireless network is as secure as possible. I make sure the signal is tuned so as to not leak much from the house, I use a long and strong password and ensure I’m using the strongest encryption protocol available. I also monitor my accounts often and take advantage of my banks free identity theft service. One final tip; instead of using your actual name as your login, why not use something different that is hard to guess and doesn’t reveal anything about your identity? It always pays to make it as tough on the cyber-criminals as possible!

Phil Grimes chimed in with:

I do almost all my banking online. This, however, can be a scary task to undertake and should always be done with caution on the forefront! In order to bank safely on line, the first thing I do is to have one machine that was built in my house for strictly that purpose. My wife doesn’t play facebook games on it. My kids don’t even touch it or know it exists. This machine comes online only to get updated and to handle the “sensitive” family business functions like bill payment or banking.  The next thing I’ve done to protect this surface was to use a strong password. I used a password generator and created a super long password with every combination of alpha, numeric, and special characters included to reduce the risk of a successful brute force attack. This password is set to expire every 30 days and I change it religiously! Then finally, using Firefox, I install the NoScript plugin to help defend against client side attacks.

Adam Hostetler added:

Yes, I do my banking online. I also pay all of my bills online and shop online. I think the biggest thing that you can do for safety is just to be aware of things like phishing emails, and other methods that fraudsters use to try to compromise your credentials. I also always use dual factor authentication when possible, or out of band authentication, most banks and credit unions support one of these methods these days. Checking all of my accounts for suspicious activity is also a regular occurrence. 

There are also the malware threats. These are mostly mitigated by having up to date software (all software, not just the OS), up to date anti-virus software, and treating social networking sites like a dark alley. Be wary of clicking on any links on social networks, especially ones that are apps that claim they will do something fun for you. Social networks are probably the largest growing vector of malware currently, and a lot of times people install it willingly!

If you’re really paranoid, just have a dedicated PC or virtual machine for online banking.

Got a question for the Experts? Send it to us in the comments, or drop us a line on Twitter (@microsolved or @lbhuston). Thanks for reading! 

Ask The Experts: Favorite Tools

This question came in via Twitter:
“Hey Security Experts, what are your favorite 3 information security tools?” –@614techteam

John Davis responds:

I’m in the risk management area of information security; I don’t know enough about technical information security tools to give an informed opinion about them. However, my favorite information security ‘tool’ is the Consensus Audit Group’s Twenty Critical Security Controls for Effective Cyber Defense (which is very similar to MicroSolved’s own 80/20 Rule of Information Security). The ‘CAG’ as I call it gives me as a risk manager clearer, more proactive, and detailed information security guidance than any of the other standards such as the ISO or NIST. If you’re not familiar with it, you can find it on the SANS website. I highly recommend it, even (and especially) to technical IT personnel. It’s not terribly long and you’ll be surprised how much you get out of it.

Adam Hostetler adds:

I’ll do some that aren’t focused on “hacking”

OSSEC – Monitor all the logs. Use it as a SIEM, or use it as an IPS (or
any other number of ways). Easy to write rules for, very scalable and
it’s free.
Truecrypt – Encrypt your entire hard drive, partition, or just make an
encrypted “container” to hold files. Again, it’s free, but don’t be
afraid to donate.
OCLhashcat-plus – Chews through password hashes, cracking with GPU
accelerated speed. Dictionary based attacks, and also has a powerful
rule set to go after non-dictionary based passwords.

And Phil Grimes wrote:

NMap is probably one of my favorite tools of all time. It’s veristile and very good at what it does. Using some of the available scripts have also proven to be more than useful in the field.

NetCat – This tool is extremely well rounded. Some of my favorite features include tunneling mode which allows also special tunneling such as UDP to TCP, with the possibility of specifying all network parameters (source port/interface, listening port/interface, and the remote host allowed to connect to the tunnel. While NMap is my go to port scanner, there is built-in port-scanning capabilities, with randomizer, and dvanced usage options, such as buffered send-mode (one line every N seconds), and hexdump (to stderr or to a specified file) of trasmitted and received data. 

Wireshark – Sharking the wires is one of my favorite things to do. It allows you to examine data from a live network or from a capture file on disk. You can interactively browse the capture data, delving down into just the level of packet detail you need.

What’s your favorite tool? Let us know in the comments or via Twitter (@lbhuston). Thanks for reading! 

The Media Makes PCI Compliance “Best Defense”?

I have seen a lot of hype in my day, but this one is pretty much — not funny. Below is a link to a mainstream media trade magazine for the hospitality industry in which the claim that PCI compliance is the “best defense” hotels and the like can have against attackers and data theft.


Now, I agree that hospitality folks should be PCI complaint, since they meet the requirements by taking credit cards, but setting PCI DSS as the goal is horrible enough. Making PCI out to be the “best defense” is pretty ridiculous.

PCI DSS and other standards are called security BASELINES for a reason. That is, they are the base of a good security program. They are the MINIMUM set of practices deemed to be acceptable to protect information. However, there is, in most all cases, a severe gap between the minimum requirements for protecting data and what I would quantify as the “best defense”. There are so many gaps between PCI DSS as a baseline and “best defense” that it would take pages and pages to enumerate. As an initial stab, just consider these items from our 80/20 approach to infosec left out of PCI: Formalized risk assessment (unless you count the SAQ or the work of the QSA), data flow modeling for data other than credit card information, threat modeling, egress controls, awareness, incident response team formation and even skills gap/training for your security team.

My main problem with PCI is not the DSS itself, but how it is quickly becoming the goal for organizations instead of the starting line. When you set minimums and enforce them with a hammer, they quickly come to be viewed as the be-all, end-all of the process and the point at which the pain goes away so you can focus on other things. This is a very dangerous position, indeed. Partial security is very costly and, at least in my opinion, doing the minimum is pretty far away from being the “best defense”.

Broken Window Economics and Being “Type B”

I am actually quite glad that this article was written. I agree with its premise and I am very glad that MicroSolved is a “type B” security vendor. I am OK with that. It fits my world view. I am OK with not being a member of the “PCI in crowd” or doing infosec “just like all of the other vendors.” In fact, I STRIVE for MSI to do it differently. I PUSH my organization to serve our clients at a higher level. I STRAIN to help them achieve leverage. I think being “type B” makes MicroSolved INVALUABLE as a security partner.

That, in my book, is worth far more than being popular, one of the crowd or getting industry trophies and certificates. Those things might be nice for some, but helping OUR CLIENTS serve their customers in a safer way is just more our focus at MSI.