Security in Virtual Machine Environments. And the planet.

This post is based on a recent article on the CIO.com site.

I have to say, when I read the title of the article, the cynic in me once again prevailed. And indeed there will be some cynicism and sarcasm in this article, so if that offends the reader, i would like to suggest other sources of information: those which do not accurately reflect the state of the information security industry. Unfortunately the truth is often accompanied by at least cynicism. Indeed, if I meet an IT professional who isn’t cynical and sarcastic, I do find it hard to trust them.

Near the end of the article there will be a quiz with a scammed prize offering, just to take the edge of the punishment of the endless “negativity” and abject non-MBA’edness.

“While organizations have been hot to virtualize their machine operations, that zeal hasn’t been transferred to their adoption of good security practices”. Well you see they’re two different things. Using VMs reduces power and physical space requirements. Note the word “physical” here and being physical, the benefits are easier to understand.

Physical implies something which takes physical form – a matter energy field. Decision makers are familiar with such energy fields. There are other examples in their lives such as tables, chairs, other people, walls, cars. Then there is information in electronic form – that’s a similar thing (also an energy field) but the hunter/gatherer in some of us doesn’t see it that way, and still as of 2013, the concept eludes many IT decision makers who have fought their way up through the ranks as a result of excellent performance in their IT careers (no – it’s not just because they have a MBA, or know the right people).

There is a concept at board level of insuring a building (another matter energy field) against damages from natural causes. But even when 80% of information assets are in electronic form, there is still a disconnect from the information. Come on chaps, we’ve been doing this for 20 years now!

Josh Corman recently tweeted “We depend on software just as much as steel and concrete, its just that software is infinitely more attack-able!”. Mr Corman felt the need to make this statement. Ok, like most other wise men in security, it was intended to boost his Klout score, but one does not achieve that by tweeting stuff that everybody already knows. I would trust someone like Mr Corman to know where the gaps are in the mental portfolios of IT decision makers.

Ok, so moving on…”Nearly half (42 percent) of the 346 administrators participating in the security vendor BeyondTrust‘s survey said they don’t use any security tools regularly as part of operating their virtual systems…”

What tools? You mean anti-virus and firewalls, or the latest heuristic HIDS box of shite? Call me business-friendly but I don’t want to see endless tools on end points, regardless of their function. So if they’re not using tools, is it not at this point good journalism to comment on what tools exactly? Personally I want to see a local firewall and the obligatory and increasingly less beneficial anti-virus (and i do not care as to where, who, whenceforth, or which one…preferably the one where the word “heuristic” is not used in the marketing drivel on the box). Now if you’re talking system hardening and utilizing built-in logging capability – great, that’s a different story, and worthy of a cuddly toy as a prize.

“Insecure practices when creating new virtual images is a systemic problem” – it is, but how many security problems can you really eradicate at build-time and be sure that the change won’t break an application or introduce some other problem. When practical IT-oriented security folk actually try to do this with skilled and experienced ops and devs, they realise that less than 50% of their policies can be implemented safely in a corporate build image. Other security changes need to be assessed on a per-application basis.

Forget VMs and clouds for a moment – 90%+ of firms are not rolling out effectively hardened build images for any platform. The information security world is still some way off with practices in the other VM field (Vulnerability Management).

“If an administrator clones a machine or rolls back a snapshot,”… “the security risks that those machines represent are bubbled up to the administrator, and they can make decisions as to whether they should be powered on, off or left in state.”

Ok, so “the security risks that those machines represent are bubbled up to the administrator”!!?? [Double-take] Really? Ok, this whole security thing really can be automated then? In that case, every platform should be installed as a VM managed under VMware vCenter with the BeyondTrust plugin. A tab that can show us our risks? There has to be a distinction between vulnerability and risk here, because they are two quite different things. No but seriously, I would want to know how those vulnerabilities are detected because to date the information security industry still doesn’t have an accurate way to do this for some platforms.

Another quote: “It’s pretty clear that virtualization has ripped up operational practices and that security lags woefully behind the operational practice of managing the virtual infrastructure,”. I would edit that and just the two words “security” and “lags”. What with visualized stuff being a subset of the full spectrum of play things and all.

“Making matters worse is that traditional security tools don’t work very well in virtual environments”. In this case i would leave remaining five words. A Kenwood Food Mixer goes to the person who can guess which ones those are. See? Who said security isn’t fun?

“System operators believe that somehow virtualization provides their environments with security not found in the world of physical machines”. Now we’re going Twilight Zone. We’ve been discussing the inter-cluster sized gap between the physical world and electronic information in this article, and now we have this? Segmentation fault, core dumped.

Anyway – virtualization does increase security in some cases. It depends how the VM has been configured and what type of networking config is used, but if we’re talking virtualised servers that advertise services to port scanners, and / or SMB shares with their hosts, then clearly the virtualised aspect is suddenly very real. VM guests used in a NAT’ing setup is a decent way to hide information on a laptop/mobile device or anything that hooks into an untrusted network (read: “corporate private network”).

The vendor who was being interviewed finished up with “Every product sounds the same,” …”They all make you secure. And none of them deliver.” Probably if i was a vendor I might not say that.

Sorry, I just find discussions of security with “radical new infrastructure” to be something of a waste of bandwidth. We have some very fundamental, ground level problems in information security that are actually not so hard to understand or even solve, at least until it comes to self-reflection and the thought of looking for a new line of work.

All of these “VM” and “cloud” and “BYOD” discussions would suddenly disappear with the introduction of integrity in our little world because with that, the bigger picture of skills, accreditation, and therefore trust would be solved (note the lack of a CISSP/CEH dig there).

I covered the problems and solutions in detail in Security De-engineering, but you know what? The solution (chapter 11) is no big secret. It comes from the gift of intuition with which many humans are endowed. Anyway – someone had to say it, now its in black and white.

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Hardening is Hard If You’re Doing it Right

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, hardening is hard. If its not hard, then there are two possibilities. One is that the maturity of information security in the organization is at such a level that security happens both effectively and transparently – its fully integrated into the fabric of BAU processes and many of said processes are fully automated with accurate results. The second (far more likely given the reality of security in 2013) is that the hardening is not well implemented.

For the purpose of this diatribe, let us first define “hardening” so that we can all be reading from the same hymn sheet. When I’m talking about hardening here, the theme is one of first assessing vulnerability, then addressing the business risk presented by the vulnerability. This can apply to applications, or operating systems, or any aspect of risk assessment on corporate infrastructure.

In assessing vulnerability, if you’re following a check list, hardening is not hard – in fact a parrot can repeat pearls of wisdom from a check list. But the result of merely following a check list will be either wide open critical hosts or over-spending on security – usually the former. For sure, critical production systems will be impacted, and I don’t mean in a positive way.

You see, like most things in security, some thinking is involved. It does suit the agenda of many in this field to pretend that security analysis can be reduced down to parrot-fashion recital of a check list. Unfortunately though, some neural activity is required, at least if gaining the trust of our customers (C-levels, other business units, home users, etc) is important to us.

The actual contents of the check list should be the easy part, although unfortunately as of 2013, we all seem to be using different versions of the check list, and some versions are appallingly lacking. The worst offenders here deliver with a quality that is inversely proportional to the prices they charge – and these are usually external auditors from big 4 consultancies, all of whom have very decent check lists, but who also fail to ensure that Consultants use said check list. There are plenty of cases where the auditor knocks up their own garage’y style shell script for testing. In one case i witnessed not so long ago, the script for testing RedHat Enterprise Linux consisted of 6 tests (!) and one of the tests showed a misunderstanding of the purpose of the /etc/ftpusers file.

But the focus here is not on the methods deployed by auditors, its more general than that. Vulnerability testing in general is not a small subject. I have posted previously on the subject of “manual” network penetration testing. In summary: there will be a need for some businesses to show auditors that their perimeter has been assessed by a “trusted third party”, but in terms of pure value, very few businesses should be paying for the standard two week delivery with a four person team. For businesses to see any real value in a network penetration test, their security has to be at a certain level of maturity. Most businesses are nowhere near that level.

Then there is the subject of automated, unauthenticated “scanning” techniques which I have also written about extensively, both in an earlier post and in Chapter Five of Security De-engineering. In summary, the methodology used in unauthenticated vulnerability scanning results in inaccuracy, large numbers of false positives, wasted resources, and annoyed operations and development teams. This is not a problem with any particular tool, although some of them are especially bad. It is a limitation of the concept of unauthenticated testing, which amounts to little more than pure guesswork in vulnerability assessment.

How about the growing numbers of “vulnerability management” products out there (which do not “manage” vulnerability, they make an attempt at assessing vulnerability)? Well, most of them are either purely an expensive graphical interface to [insert free/open source scanner name], or if the tool was designed to make a serious attempt at accurate vulnerability assessment (more of them do not), then the tests will be lacking or over-done, inaccurate, and / or doing the scanning in an insecure way (e.g. the application is run over a public URL, with the result that all of your configuration data, including admin passwords, are held by an untrusted third party).

In one case, a very expensive VM product literally does nothing other than port scan. It is configured with hundreds of “test” patterns for different types of target (MS Windows, *nix, etc) but if you’re familiar with your OS configurations,you will look at the tool output and be immediately suspicious. I ran the tool against a Linux and Windows test target and “packet sniffed” the scanning engine’s probe attempts. In summary, the tool does nothing. It just produces a long list of configuration items (so effectively a kind of Security Standard for the target) without actually testing for the existence of vulnerability.

So the overall principle: the company [hopefully] has a security standard for each major operating system and database on their network and each item in the standard needs to be tested for all, or some of the information asset hosts in the organization, depending on the overall strategy and network architecture. As of the time of writing, there will need to be some manual / scripted augmentation of automatic vulnerability assessment processes.

So once armed with a list of vulnerabilities, what does one do with it? The vulnerability assessment is the first step. What has to happen after that? Can Security just toss the report over to ops and hope for the best? Yes, they can, but this wouldn’t make them very popular and also there needs to be some input from security regarding the actual risk to the business. Taking the typical function of operations teams (I commented on the functions and relationships between security and operations in an earlier post), if there is no input from security, then every risk mitigation that meets any kind of an impact will be blocked.

There are some security service providers/consultancies who offer a testing AND a subsequent hardening service. They want to offer both detection AND a solution, and this is very innovative and noble of them. However, how many security vulnerabilities can be addressed blindly without impacting critical production processes? Rhetorical question: can applications be broken by applying security fixes? If I remove the setuid bit from a root owned X Window related binary, it probably has no effect on business processes. Right? What if operations teams can no longer authenticate via their usual graphical interface? This is at least a little bit disruptive.

In practice, as it turns out, if you look at a Security Standard for a core technology, lets take Oracle 11g as an example: how many of the numerous elements of a Security Standard can we say can be implemented without fear of breaking applications, limiting access for users or administrators, or generally just making trouble-shooting of critical applications a lot less efficient? The answer is: not many. Dependencies and other problems can come from surprising sources.

Who in the organization knows about dependencies and the complexities of production systems? Usually that would be IT / Network Operations. And how about application – related dependencies? That would be application architects, or just generally we’ll say “dev teams” as they’re so affectionately referred to these days. So the point: even if security does have admin access to IT resources (rare), is the risk mitigation/hardening a job purely for security? Of course the answer is a resounding no, and the same goes for IT Operations.

So, operations and applications architects bring knowledge of the complexities of apps and infrastructure to the table. Security brings knowledge of the network architecture (data flows, firewall configurations, network device configurations), the risk of each vulnerability (how hard is to exploit and what is the impact?), and the importance to the business of information assets/applications. Armed with the aforementioned knowledge, informed and sensible decisions on what to do with the risk (accept, mitigate, work around, or transfer) can be made by the organization, not by security, or operations.

The early days of deciding what to do with the risk will be slow and difficult and there might even be some feisty exchanges, but eventually, addressing the risk becomes a mature, documented process that almost melts into the background hum of the machinery of a business.

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What’s Next For BYOD – 2013 And Beyond

There are security and business case arguments about BYOD. They cast different aspects and there’s peta-bytes of valid points out there.

The security argument? Microsoft Windows is still the corporate OS of choice and still therefore the main target for malware writers. As a pre-qualifier – there is no bias towards one Operating System or another here.

Even considering that in most cases, when business asks for something, security considerations are secondary, there is also the point that Windows is by its nature, very hard to make malware-resistant. Plenty of malware problems are not introduced as a result of a lack of user awareness (for example, unknowingly installing malware in the form of faked anti-virus or browser plug-ins), plus plenty of services are required to run with SYSTEM privileges. These factors make Windows platforms hard to defend in a cost-effective, manageable way.

Certainly we have never been able to manage user OS rights/privileges and that isn’t going to change any time soon. There is no 3rd party product that can help. Does security actually make an effective argument in cases where users are asking for control over printers and Wifi management? Should such functions be locked anyway? Not necessarily. And once we start talking fine-grained admin rights control we’re already down a dark alley – at least security needs to justify to operations as to why they are making their jobs more difficult, the environment more complex and therefore less reliable. And with privilege controls, security also must justify to users (including C-levels) as to why their corporate device is less usable and convenient.

For the aforementioned reasons, the security argument is null and void. I don’t see BYOD as a security argument at all, mainly because the place where security is at these days, isn’t a place where we can effectively manage user device security – the doesn’t change with or without BYOD, and this is likely to be the case for some years to come yet. We lost that battle, and the security strategy has to be planned around the assumption that user subnets are compromised. I would agree that in a theoretical case where user devices are wandering freely, not at all subject to corporate controls, then the scope is there for a greater frequency of malware issues, but regardless, the stance has to be based on an assumption that one or more devices in corporate subnets has been compromised and the malware is designed to connect ingress and egress.

How about other OS flavors, such as Apple OS X for example? With other OS flavors, it is possible to manage privileges and lock them down to a much larger degree than we can with Windows, but as has been mentioned plenty of times now, once another OS goes mainstream and grows in corporate popularity, then it also shows up on the radars of malware writers. Reports of  malware designed to exploit vulnerabilities in OS X software started surfacing earlier in 2012, with “The Flashback Trojan” given the widest coverage.

I would venture that at least the possibility exists to use technical controls to lock down Unix-based devices to a much larger degree, as compared with MS Windows variants, but of course the usability experience has to match the needs of business. Basically, regardless of whether our view is utopic or realistic, there will be holes, and quite sizable holes too.

For the business case? Having standard build user workstations and laptops does make life easier for admins, and it allows for manageability and efficiency, but there is a wider picture of course. The business case for BYOD is a harder case to make than we might have at first thought. There are no obvious answers here. One of the more interesting con articles was from CIO Magazine earlier in 2012: BYOD: If You Think You’re Saving Money, Think Again and then Cisco objectively report that there are plenty in the pro corner too: Cisco Study: IT Saying Yes To BYOD.

So what does all this bode for the future? The manageability aspect and therefore the business aspect is centered around the IT costs and efficiency analysis. This is more of an operational discussion than an information risk management discussion.

The business case is inconclusive, with plenty in the “say no to BYOD” camp. The security picture is without foundation – we have a security nightmare with user devices, regardless of who owns the things.

Overall the answer naturally lies in management philosophy, if we can call it that. There is what we should do, and what we will do….and of course these are often out by 180 degrees from each other. The lure of BYOD will be strong at the higher levels who usually only have the balance sheet as evidence, along with the sales pitches of vendors. Accountant-driven organisations will love the idea and there will be variable levels of bravery, confidence, and technical backing in the IT rationalization positions. Similar discussions will have taken place with regard to cloud’ing and outsourcing.

The overall conclusion: BYOD will continue to grow in 2013 and probably beyond. Whether that should be the case or not? That’s a question for operations to answer, but there will be plenty of operations departments that will not support the idea after having analyzed the costs versus benefits picture.

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Migrating South: The Devolution Of Security From Security

Devolution might seem a strong word to use. In this article I will be discussing the pros and cons of the migration of some of the more technical elements of information security to IT operations teams.

By the dictionary definition of the word, “devolution” implies a downgrade of security – but sufficed to say my point does not even remotely imply that operations teams are subordinate to security. In fact in many cases, security has been marginalized such that a security manager (if such a function even exists) reports to a CIO, or some other managerial entity within IT operations. Whether this is right or wrong…this is subjective and also not the subject here.

Of course there are other department names that have metamorphosed out of the primordial soup …”Security Operations” or SecOps, DevOps, SecDev, SecOpsDev, SecOpsOps, DevSecOps, SecSecOps and so on. The discussion here is really about security knowledge, and the intellectual capital that needs to exist in a large-sized organisation. Where this intellectual capital resides doesn’t bother me at all – the name on the sign is irrelevant. Terms such as Security and Operations are the more traditional labels on the boxes and no, this is not something “from the 90s”. These two names are probably the more common names in business usage these days, and so these are the references I will use.

Examples of functions that have already, and continue to be pharmed out to Ops are functions such as Vulnerability Management, SIEM, firewalls, IDS/IPS, and Identity Management. In detail…which aspects of these functions are teflonned (non-stick) off? How about all of them? All aspects of the implementation project, including management, are handled by ops teams. And then in production, ops will handle all aspects of monitoring, problem resolution, incident handling ..ad infinitum.

A further pre-qualification is about ideal and actual security skills that are commonly present. Make no mistake…in some cases a shift of tech functions to ops teams will actually result in improvements, but this is only because the self-constructed mandate of the security department is completely non-tech, and some tech at a moderate cost will usually be better than zero tech, checklists, and so on.

We need to talk about typical ops skills. Of course there will be occasional operations team members who are well versed in security matters, and also have a handle on the business aspects, but this is extra-curricular and rare. Ops team members are system administrators usually. If we take Unix security as an example, they will be familiar with at least filesystem permissions and umask settings, so there is a level of security knowledge. Cisco engineers will have a concept of SNMP community strings and ACLs. Oracle DBAs will know how about profiles and roles.

But is the typical security portfolio of system administrators wide enough to form the foundations of an effective information security program? Not really. In fact its some way short. Security Analysts need to have a grasp not only on, for example, file system permissions, they need to know how attackers actually elevate privileges and compromise, for example, a critical database host. They need to know attack vectors and how to defend against them. This kind of knowledge isn’t a typical component of a system administrator’s training schedule. Its one thing to know the effect of a world-write permission bit on a directory, but what is the actual security impact? With some directories this can be relatively harmless, with others, it can present considerable business risk.

The stance from ops will be to patch and protect. While this is [sometimes] better than nothing, there are other ways to compromise servers, other than exploiting known vulnerabilities. There are zero days (i.e. undeclared vulnerabilities for which no patch has been released), and also means of installing back doors and trojans that do not involve exploiting local bugs.

So without the kind of knowledge I have been discussing, how would ops handle a case where a project team blocks the install of a patch because it breaks some aspect of their business-critical application? In most cases they will just agree to not install the patch. In consideration of the business risk several variables come into play. Network architecture, the qualitative technical risk to the host, value of information assets…and also is there a work-around? Is a work-around or compromise even worth the time and effort? Do the developers need to re-work their app at a cost of $15000?

A lack of security input in network operations leads to cases where over-redundancy is deployed. Literally every switch and router will have a hot swap. So take the budget for a core network infrastructure and just double it – in most cases this is excessive expenditure.

With firewall rules, ops teams have a concept of blocking incoming connections, but its not unusual that egress will be over-looked, with all the “bad netizen”, malware / private date harvests, reverse telnet implications. Do we really want our corporate domain name being blacklisted?

Another common symptom of a devolved security model is the excessive usage of automated scanners in vulnerability assessment, without having any idea that there are shortcomings with this family of product. The result of this is to “just run a scanner against it” for critical production servers and miss the kind of LHF (Low Hanging Fruit) false negatives that bad guys and malware writers just love to see.

The results of devolution will be many and varied in nature. What I have described here is only a small sampling. Whatever department is responsible for security analysis is irrelevant, but the knowledge has to be there. I cover this topic more thoroughly in Chapter 5 of Security De-engineering, with more details on the utopic skills in Chapter 11.

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The Search For Infosec Minds

Since the early 2000s, and in some of my other posts, I have commented in different forms on the state of play, with a large degree of cynicism, which was greeted with cold reservation, smirks, grunts, and various other types of un-voiced displeasure, up to around 2009 or so. But since at least 2010, how things have changed.

If we fast forward from 2000 to 2005 or so, most business’s security function was reduced down to base parrot-fashion checklists, analysis and thinking were four letter words, and some businesses went as far as outsourcing security functions.

Many businesses who turned their backs on hackers just after the turn of the millennium have since found a need to review their strategies on security hiring. However 10 years is a long time. The personnel who were originally tasked with forming a security function in the late 90s, have since risen like phoenixes from the primordial chasm, and assisted by thermals, they have swooped up to graze on higher plains. Fast forward again to 2012, and the distance between security and IT is in the order of light years in most cases. The idea that security is purely a compliance game hasn’t changed, but unlike the previous decade, it is in many cases seen as no longer sufficient to crawl sloth-like over the compliance finishing line every year.

Businesses were getting hacked all through the 2000s but they weren’t aware of it. Things have changed now. For starters the attacks do seem to be more frequent and now there is SIEM, and audit requirements to aggregate logs. In the past, even default log settings were annulled with the result that there wasn’t even local logging, let alone network aggregation! Mind you, even after having been duped into buying every well-marketed detection product, businesses are still being hacked without knowing it. Quite often the incident comes to light after a botnet command and control system has been owned by the good guys.

Generally there is more nefarious activity now, as a result of many factors, and information security programs are under more “real” focus now (compliance-only is not real focus, in fact it’s not real anything, apart from a real pain the backside).

The problem is that with such a vast distance between IT and security for so long, there is utter confusion about how to get tech’d up. Some businesses are doing it by moving folk out of operations into security. This doesn’t work, and in my next post I will explain why it doesn’t work.

As an example of the sort of confusion that reigns, there was one case I came across earlier in 2012 where a company in the movies business was hacked and they were having their trailers, and in some cases actual movies, put up on various torrent sites for download. Their response was to re-trench their outsourced security function and attempt to hire in-house analysts (one or two!). But what did they go looking for? Because they had suffered from malware problems, they went looking for, and I quote, “Malware Reverse Engineers”. Malware Reverse Engineers? What did they mean by this? After some investigation, it turns out they are really were looking for malware reverse engineers, there was no misnomer – malware reverse engineers as in those who help to develop new patterns for anti-virus engines!! They had acquired a spanking new SIEM, but there was no focus on incident response capability, or prevention/protection at all.

As it turns out “reverse engineer[ing]” is now a buzzword. Whereas in the mid-2000s, buzzwords were “governance” and “identity management” (on the back of…”identity theft” – neat marketing scam), and so on. Now there are more tech-sounding buzzwords which have different connotations depending on who you ask. And these tech sounding buzzwords find their way into skills requirements sent out by HR, and therefore also on CVs as a response. And the tech-sounding buzzwords are born from…yes, you got it…Black Hat conferences, and the multitude of other conferences, B-sides, C-sides, F-sides and so on, that are now as numerous as the stars in the sky.

The segue into Black Hat was quite deliberate. A fairly predictable development is the on-going appearance of Infosec managers at Black Hats, who previously wouldn’t touch these events with a barge pole. They are popping up at these events looking to recruit speakers primarily, because presumably the speakers are among the sharper of the crayons in the box, even if nobody has any clue what they’re talking about.

Before I go on, I need to qualify that I am not going to cover ethics here, mainly because it’s not worth covering. I find the whole ethics brush to be somewhat judgmental and divisive. I prefer to let the law do the judgment.

Any attempt to recruit tech enthusiasts, or “hackers”, can’t be dismissed completely because it’s better than anything that could have been witnessed in 2005. But do businesses necessarily need to go looking for hackers? I think the answer is no. Hackers have a tendency to take security analysis under their patronage, but it has never been their show, and their show alone. Far from it.

In 2012 we can make a clear distinction between protection skills and breaking-in skills. This is because as of 2012, 99.99…[recurring to infinity]% of business networks are poorly defended. Therefore, what are “breaking-in skills”? So a “hacker” breaks into networks, compromises stuff, and posts it on pastebin.com. The hackers finds pride and confidence in such achievements. Next, she’s up on the stage at the next conference bleating about “reverse engineering”, “fuzzing”, or “anti forensics tool kits”…nobody is sure which language is used, but she’s been offered 10 jobs after only 5 minutes into her speech.

However, what is actually required to break into networks? Of the 20000+ paths which were wide open into the network, the hacker chose one of the many paths of least resistance. In most cases, there is no great genius involved here. The term “script kiddy” used to refer to those who port scan, then hunt for public declared exploits for services they find. There is IT literacy required for sure (often the exploits won’t run out-of-the-box, they need to be compiled for different OSs or de-bugged), but no creativity or cunning or …whatever other mythical qualities are associated with hacking in 2012.

The thought process behind hiring a hacker is typically one of “she knows how to break into my network, therefore she can defend against others trying to break in”, but its quite possible that nothing could be further from the truth. In 2012, being a hacker, or possessing “breaking-in skills”, doesn’t actually mean a great deal. Protection is a whole different game. Businesses should be more interested about protection as of 2012, and for at least the next decade.

But what does it take to protect? Protection is a more disciplined, comprehensive IT subject. Collectively, the in-house security teams needs to know the all the nooks and crannies, all the routers, databases, applications, clouds, and operating systems and how they all interact and how they’re all connected. They also collectively need to know the business importance of information assets and applications.

The key pillars of focus for new-hire Security Analysts should be Operating Systems and Applications. When we talk about operating systems and security, the image that comes to mind is of auditors going thru a checklist in some tedious box-ticking exercise. But OS security is more than that, and it’s the front line in the protection battle. The checklists are important (I mean checklists as in standards and policies) but there are two sides to each item on the checklist: one is in the details of how to practically exploit the vulnerability and the potential tech impact, the other are the operational/business impacts involved with the associated safeguard. In other words, OS security is far more than a check-list, box-ticking activity.

In 12 years I never met a “hacker” who could name more than 3 or 4 local privilege elevation vectors for any popular Operating System. They will know the details of the vulnerability they used to root a server last month, but perhaps not the other 100 or so that are covered off by the corporate security standard for that Operating System. So the protection skills don’t come by default just because someone has taken to the stand at a conference.

Skills such as “reverse engineering” and “fuzzing” – these are hard to attain and can be used to compromise systems that are well defended. But the reality is that very few systems are so well defended that such niche skills are ever needed. In 70+ tests for which i have either taken part or been witness, even if the tests were quite unrestricted, “fuzzing” wouldn’t be required to compromise targets – not even close.

A theoretical security team for a 10000+ node business, could be made of a half dozen or so Analysts, plus a Security Manager. Analysts can come from a background of 5 years in admin/ops or devs. To “break into” security, they already have their experience in a core technology (Unix, Windows, Oracle, Cisco etc), then they can demonstrate competence in one or more other core technologies (to demonstrate flexibility), programming/scripting, and security testing with those platforms.

Once qualified as a Security Analyst, the Analyst has a specialization in at least two core technologies. At least 2 analysts can cover application security, then there are other areas such as incident handling and forensics. As for Security Managers, once in possession of 5 years “time served” as an Analyst, they qualify for a manager’s exam, which when passed qualifies them for a role as a Security Manager. The Security Manager is the interface, or agent, between the technical artist Analysts and the business.

Overall then, it is far from the case that Hackers are not well-suited for vocational in-house security roles (moreover I always like to see “spare time” programming experience on a resume because it demonstrates enthusiasm and creativity). But it is also not the case that Analyst positions are under the sole patronage of Black Hat speakers. Hackers still need to demonstrate their capabilities in protection, and doing “grown-up” or “boring” things before being hired. There is no great compelling need for businesses to hire a hacker, although as of today, it could be that a hooligan who throws security stones through security windows is as close as they can get to effective network protection.

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The Perils Of Automation In Vulnerability Assessment

Those who have read my book will be familiar with this topic, but really speaking even if literally everyone had read the book already, I would still be covering this matter because the magnitude of the problem demands coverage, and more coverage. Even when we’re at the point of “we the 99% do understand that we really shouldn’t be doing this stuff any more”, the severity of the issue demands that even if there should still be a lingering one per cent, yet further coverage is warranted.

The specific area of information security in which automation fails completely (yet we still persist in engaging with such technology) is in the area of vulnerability scanning, in particular unauthenticated vulnerability scanning, in relation to black box scanning of web applications and networks. “Run a scanner by it” still appears in so many articles and sound bytes in security – its still very much part of the furniture. Very expensive, software suites are built on the use of automated unauthenticated scanning – in some cases taking an open source scanning engine, wrapping a nice GUI around it with pie charts, and slapping a 25K USD price tag on it.

As of 2012 there are still numerous supporters of vulnerability scanning. The majority still seem to really believe the premise that it is possible (or worse…”best practices”), by use of unauthenticated vulnerability scanning, to automatically deduce a picture of vulnerability on a target – a picture that does not come with a bucket load of condiments in the way of significant false negatives.

False positives are a drain on resources – and yes, there’s a bucket load of those too, but false negatives, in critical situations, is not what the doctor ordered.

Even some of the more senior folk around (note: I did not use the word “Evangelist”) support the use of these tools. Whereas none of them would ever advocate substituting manual penetration testing for an auto-scan, there does seem to be a great deal of “positivity” around the scanning scene. I think this is all just the zen talking to be honest, but really when we engage with zen, we often disengage with reality and objectivity. Its ok to say bad stuff occasionally, who knows, it might even be in line with the direction given to one’s life by one’s higher consciousness.

Way back in the day, when we started off on our path of self-destruction, I ran a pressie on auto-scanning and false expectations, and I duly suffered the ignominy of the accusation of carrying Luddite tendencies. But…thing is see: we had already outsourced our penetration testing to some other firm somewhere – so what was it that I was afraid of losing? Yes, I was a manual tester person, but it was more than 12 months since we outsourced all that jazz – and I wasn’t about to start fighting to get it back. Furthermore, there were no actual logical objections put forward. The feedback was little more than just primordial groans and remote virtual eye rolling – especially when I displayed a chart that showed unauthenticated scanning carrying similar value to port scanning. Yes – it is almost that bad.

It could be because of my exposure to automated scanners that I was able to see the picture as clearly as I did. Actually in the first few runs of a scanning tool (it was the now retired Cybercop Scanner – it actually displayed a 3D rotating map of a network – well, one subnet anyway) I wasn’t aware myself of the lack of usefulness of these tools. I also used other tools to check results, but most of the time they all returned similar results.

Over the course of two years I conducted more than one hundred scans of client perimeters and internal subnets, all with similar results. During this time I was sifting thru the endless detritus of false positives with the realization that in some cases I was spending literally hours dissecting findings. In many cases it was first necessary to figure out what the tool was actually doing in deducing its findings, and for this I used a test Linux box and Ethereal (now Wireshark).

I’m not sure that “testing” as in the usage of a verb is appropriate because it was clear that the tool wasn’t actually doing any testing. In most cases, especially with listening services such as Apache and other webservers, the tool just grabs a banner, finds a version string, and then does a correlation look-up in its database of public declared vulnerability. What is produced is a list of public declared vulnerability for the detected version. No actual “probing” is conducted, or testing as such.

The few tests that produce reasonably reliable returns are those such as SNMP community strings tests (or as reliable as UDP allows) or another Blast From The Past – finger service “intelligence” vulnerability (no comment). The tools now have four figure numbers of testing patterns, less than 10% of which constitute acceptably accurate tests. These tools should be able to conduct some FTP configuration tests because it can all be done with politically correct “I talk to you, you talk to me, I ask some questions, you give me answers” type of testing. But no. Something like a test for anonymous FTP enabled – works for a few FTP servers, but not for some of the other more popular FTP packages. They all return different responses to the same probe you see…

I mentioned Cybercop Scanner before but its important not to get hung up on product names. The key is the nature of the scanning itself and its practical limitations. Many of our beloved security softwares are not coded by devs who have any inkling whatsoever of anything to do with security, but really, we can have a tool deduced and produced with all the miracles that human ingenuity affords, but at some point we always hit a very low and very hard ceiling, in terms of what we can achieve with unauthenticated vulnerability assessment.

With automated vulnerability assessment we’re not doing anything that can destabilize a service (there are some DoS tests and “potentially disruptive tests” but these are fairly useless). We do not do something like running an exploit and making shell connection attempts, or anything of the sort. So what we can really achieve will always be extremely limited. Anyway, why would we want to do any of this when we have a perfectly fine root account to use? Or is that not something we really do in security (get on boxes and poke around as uid=0)? Is that ops ninja territory specifically (See my earlier article on OS Security, and as was said recently by a famous commentator in our field: “Platforms bitches!”)?

The possibility exists to check everything we ever needed to check with authenticated scanning but here, as of 2012, we are still some way short – and that is largely because of a lack of client demand (crikey)! Some spend a cajillion on a software package that does authenticated testing of most popular OSs, plus unauthenticated false positive generation, and _only_ use the sophisticated resource intensive false positives generation engine – “that fixes APTs”.

The masses seem to be more aware of the shortcomings with automated web application vulnerability scanners, but anyway, yes, the picture here is similarly harsh on the eye. Spend a few thousand dollars on these tools? I can’t see why anyone would do that. Perhaps because the tool was given 5 star ratings by unbiased infosec publications? Meanwhile many firms continue to bet their crown jewels on the use of automated vulnerability assessment.

The automobile industry gradually phased in automation over a few decades but even today there are still plenty of actual homo sapiens working in car factories. We should only ever be automating processes when we can get results that are accurate within the bounds of acceptable risks. Is it acceptable that we use unauthenticated automated scanning as the sole means of vulnerability assessment with the top 20% of our most critical devices? It is true that we can never detect every problem and what is safe today, maybe not safe tomorrow. But also we don’t want to miss the most glaring critical vulnerabilities either – but this is exactly the current practice of the majority of businesses.

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Out With The New, In With The Old – OS Security Re-visited

Operating System Security is radically under-appreciated in security and this has been the case since the big bang of business security practices in the mid-90s. OS security, along with application security is now the front line in the battle against hackers, but this point has not been widely realised…

Terminology

We have a lot of terms in security that have no commonly understood definition, and it seems everybody’s version of the definition is the correct one. First up, what is meant by “Operating System?” The usual meaning in most businesses’ operational sense is a bare install – in other words, the box as in its shipped state, with no in-house or any other applications installed – there will [hopefully!] be nothing installed on the computer other than what is made available from the vendor’s install media. This is different from most university Computer Science course syllabus definitions of the phrase, but we will go with the former definition.
So what of “operating system security” then? Computer operating systems are designed with configuration options, such as file system permissions, that allow administrators to apply some level of protection to information (files, databases, etc) hosted by the computer. Operating system security relates to the degree to which available controls have been applied, in the face of remote and local exploit risks.

Vulnerability Assessment: Current Perceptions and Misconceptions

Mostly, when people think of vulnerability assessment the first thing that comes to mind is network penetration testing or use of automated scanning tools. However, cutting a long story short, neither of these two approaches give us a useful or efficient way of assessing vulnerability for our critical infrastructure.
Penetration testing these days is mostly just performed as a requirement of auditors, and to be too analytical means to be slower, and most businesses will not tolerate this. The quality of delivery is poor, and furthermore the tests are so restricted as to make them close to useless. Usually the only useful item of information to come out of these engagements is the port scan results.
The whole story on automated scanners is a long one (for a longer discussion on this matter refer to Chapter 5 of Security De-engineering) but just to summarize: unauthenticated scanning of critical infrastructure with no further analysis is a recipe for disaster. The marketing engine behind such products claims they can replace manual efforts. Such a claim suits the agenda of many in the security industry but overall it will be the security industry’s customers who will suffer – and are suffering. The expectations were set way too high with these tools. Again, the most valuable output from these tools will be the port scan results.
Further have been made in the way of products misnomered in the Vulnerability Management genre (“management”? – vulnerability is not managed it is only enumerated) and some of these offer authenticated scanning. While there have been some recent improvements in this area, the most important items of OS security remain unchecked by these tools. Furthermore databases such as Oracle are given scant coverage.

Why Analyze OS Security Controls?

With regard the subsection heading “Why Analyze OS Security Controls”, there are two categories of answer to this question. The first goes something like “because we have perfectly fine security standards, signed off by our CEO, that tells us we need to analyze security controls”. The second type of answer is related to technical risk and the efficiency of our vulnerability management programs – and this is the subject of the remainder of this article.
I mentioned the limitations of penetration testing previously and it should not be seen as a panacea. In a scenario where internal IT staff, including security personnel, do not have intimate knowledge of the IT landscape, the two-week penetration test costing 40K USD will barely touch the surface. The gap in knowledge will be filled slightly by a penetration test, but the only scenario where a penetration test can be valuable is one where both target staff and penetration testers are highly experienced in their field. In this case the 40K USD, 40 man-day test is used to try and spot misconfigurations that the internal staff may have missed. This is a good use of funds in most cases. Any other scenario is unlikely to provide much value for businesses. In summary, penetration testing is not the answer for businesses.
We have heard a great deal about APT in recent months. APT has been attributed with many of the recent high profile attacks. Malware is released at rates faster than the anti-virus software vendors can release pattern updates. Ever more ingenious malware is being created by the bucket-load. Then there is the problem of unaware users. Regardless of whatever awareness program or punishment businesses deal out, there will always be some user somewhere who clicks on some click they shouldn’t follow, and corporate policies that disable Javascript or blacklist URLs are doomed to failure.
Overall…the perimeter has shifted. The perimeter is no longer the perimeter if you see what I mean, in that it is no longer the border or choke point external firewalls. Business workstation subnets are owned by Botnet R Us.
Many of the attacks are carried out with undisclosed vulnerabilities and because they are undisclosed to the public, there is no patch available to mitigate the software vulnerability. This is the point where many analysts raise a white flag. But this is also the point where OS controls can save the day in many cases. At least we can say that thoughtful use of OS security controls can prevent a business from becoming a “low hanging fruit”.
Taking a Unix system as an example: an attacker may have remotely compromised a listening service but they only gain the privileges of the listening service process owner. In most cases this is not a root compromise. The attacker will need to elevate their local privileges in most cases. How do they do this? They look for bad file system permissions and anything running under root privileges. They look for anything related to the root account, such as cron jobs owned by lower privileged users that were configured to run under root’s cron.
With effective controls on server operating systems we have the possibility to severely restrict privilege escalation opportunities, even in cases where zero-day/undisclosed vulnerabilities are used by attackers. Some services can even be “chroot jail” configured, but this requires knowledge of “under the hood” operating system controls.
So think of the analysis of operating system controls as a kind of a twist on a penetration test – sort of a penetration test inside out. The approach is “I have compromised the target, now how I would I compromise the target?” Using a root / administrative account allows a vastly more efficient situation where a great deal more can be learned about a system in a short period of time as compared with a remote penetration test.
I mentioned previously about the new perimeter in corporate networks – the perimeter is now critical infrastructure. Many businesses do not have internal segmentation. There is only a DMZ subnet and then a flat internal private network with no further network access control. But assuming that they do have internal network access control, then we can imagine that the new perimeter is the firewall between workstation subnets and critical servers such as database servers and so on. The internal firewall(s) makes up the perimeter along with…you got it…the operating system of the database, LDAP, AD, and other critical application hosts [penny drops].
Businesses can proportion the resources deployed in operating system control security assessment depending on the criticality of the device. The criticality will depend on a number of factors, not least network architecture. In the case of a flat private network with no internal segmentation, effectively every device is a critical device and the budget required for security is going to be much higher than in the case where segments exist at differing levels of business criticality.
Hopefully then the importance of operating system and database security controls has been made clearer. Thoughtful deployment of automated and manual analysis in this area is a nice efficient use of corporate resources with huge returns in risk mitigation. The longer terms costs of information risk management will be less where better targeting of resources is deployed – and certainly, some of the suggestions for vulnerability assessment I have outlined in this article can help a great deal in reducing the costs of vulnerability management for businesses.

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