#WannaCry and The Rise and Fall of the Firewall

The now infamous WannaCry Ransomware outbreak was the most widespread malware outbreak since the early 2000s. There was a very long gap between the early 2000s “worm” outbreaks (think Sasser, Blaster, etc) and this latest 2017 WannaCry outbreak. The usage of the phrase “worm” was itself widespread, especially as it was included in CISSP exam syllabuses, but then it died out. Now its seeing a resurgence, that started last weekend – but why? Why is the worm turning for the worm (I know – it’s bad – but it had to go in here somewhere)?

As far as WannaCry goes, there has been some interesting developments over the past few days – contrary to popular belief, it did not affect Windows XP, the most commonly affected was Windows 7, and according to some experts, the leading suspect in the case is the Lazarus group with ties to North Korea.

But this post is not about WannaCry. I’m going to say it: I used WannaCry to get attention (and with this statement i’m already more honest than the numerous others who jumped on the WannaCry bandwagon, including our beloved $VENDOR). But I have been meaning to cover the rise and fall of the firewall for some time now, and this instance of a widespread and damaging worm, that spreads by exploiting poor firewall configurations, brought this forward by a few months.

A worm is malware that “uses a computer network to spread itself, relying on security failures on the target computer”. If we think of malware delivery and propagation as two different things – lots of malware since 2004 used email (think Phishing) as a delivery mechanism but spread using an exploit once inside a private network. Worms use network propagation to both deliver and spread. And that is the key difference. WannaCry is without doubt a Worm. There is no evidence to suggest WannaCry was delivered on the back of successful Phishing attacks – as illustrated by the lack of WannaCry home user victims (who sit behind the protection of NAT’ing home routers). Most of the early WannaCry posts were covering Phishing, mostly because of the lack of belief that Server Message Block ports would never be exposed to the public Internet.

The Infosec sector is really only 20 years old in terms of the widespread adoption of security controls in larger organisations. So we have only just started to have a usable, relatable history in infosec. Firewalls are still, in 2017, the security control that delivers most value for investment, and they’ve been around since day one. But in the past 20 years I have seen firewall configurations go thru a spectacular rise in the early 2000s, to a spectacular fall a decade later.

Late 90s Firewall

If we’re talking late 90s, even with some regional APAC banks, you would see huge swaths of open ports in port scan results. Indeed, a firewall to many late 90s organisations was as in the image to the left.

However – you can ask a firewall what it is, even a “Next Gen” firewall, and it will answer “I’m a firewall, i make decisions on accepting or rejecting packets based on source and destination addresses and services”. Next Gen firewall vendors tout the ability of firewalls to do layer 7 DPI stuff such as IDS, WAF, etc, but from what I am hearing, many organisations don’t use these features for one reason or another. Firewalls are quite a simple control to understand and organisations got the whole firewall thing nailed quite early on in the game.

When we got to 2002 or so, you would scan a perimeter subnet and only see VPN and HTTP ports. Mind you, egress controls were still quite poor back then, and continue to be lacking to the present day, as is also the case with internal firewalls other than a DMZ (if there are any). 2002 was also the year when application security testing (OWASP type vulnerability testing) took off, and I doubt it would ever have evolved into a specialised area if organisations had not improved their firewalls. Ultimately organisations could improve their firewalls but they still had to expose web services to the planet. As Marcus Ranum said, when discussing the “ultimate firewall”, “You’ll notice there is a large hole sort of in the centre [of the ultimate firewall]. That represents TCP Port 80. Most firewalls have a big hole right about there, and so does mine.”

During testing engagements for the next decade, it was the case that perimeter firewalls would be well configured in the majority of cases. But then we entered an “interesting” period. It started for me around 2012. I was conducting a vulnerability scan of a major private infrastructure facility in the UK…and “what the…”! RDP and SMB vulnerabilities! So the target organisation served a vital function in national infrastructure and they expose databases, SMB, and terminal services ports to the planet. In case there’s any doubt – that’s bad. And since 2012, firewall configs have fallen by the wayside.

WannaCry is delivered and spreads using a SMB vulnerability, as did Blaster and Sasser all those years ago. If we look at Shodan results for Internet exposure of SMB we find 1.5 million cases. That’s a lot.

So how did we get here? Well there are no answers born out of questionnaires and research but i have my suspicions:

  • All the talk of “Next Generation” firewalls and layer 7 has led to organisations taking their eye off the ball when it comes to layer 3 and 4.
  • All the talk of magic $VENDOR snake oil silver bullets in general has led organisations away from the basics. Think APT-Buster ™.
  • All the talk of outsourcing has led some organisations, as Dr Anton Chuvakin said, to outsource thinking.
  • Talk of “distortion” of the perimeter (as in “in this age of mobile workforces, where is our perimeter now?”). Well the perimeter is still the perimeter – the clue is in the name. The difference is now there are several perimeters. But WannaCry has reminded us that the old perimeter is still…yes – a perimeter.
  • There are even some who advocated losing the firewall as a control, but one of the rare success stories for infosec was the subsequent flaming of such opinions. BTW when was that post published? Yes – it was 2012.

So general guidelines:

  • The Internet is an ugly place with lots of BOTs and humans with bad intentions, along with those who don’t intend to be bad but just are (I bet there are lots of private org firewall logs which show connection attempts of WannaCry from other organisations).
  • Block incoming for all ports other than those needed as a strict business requirement. Default-deny is the easiest way to achieve this.
  • Workstations and mobile devices can happily block all incoming connections in most cases.
  • Egress is important – also discussed very eloquently by Dave Piscitello. Its not all about ingress.
  • Other pitfalls with firewalls involve poor usage of NAT and those pesky network dudes who like to bypass inner DMZ firewalls with dual homing.
  • Watch out for connections from any internal subnet from which human-used devices derive to critical infrastructure such as databases. Those can be blocked in most cases.
  • Don’t focus on WannaCry. Don’t focus on Ransomware. Don’t focus on malware. Focus on Vulnerability Management.

So then perimeter firewall configurations, it seems, go through the same cycles that economies and seasonal temperature variations go through. When will the winter pass for firewall configurations?

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Clouds and Vulnerability Management

In the world of Clouds and Vulnerability Management, based on observations, it seems like a critical issue has slipped under the radar: if you’re running with PaaS and SaaS VMs, you cannot deliver anything close to a respectable level of vulnerability management with these platforms. This is because to do effective vulnerability management, the first part of that process – the vulnerability assessment – needs to be performed with administrative access (over SSH/SMB), and with PaaS and SaaS, you do not, as a customer, have such access (this is part of your agreement with the cloud provider). The rest of this article explains this issue in more detail.

The main reason for the clouding (sorry) of this issue, is what is still, after 20+ years, a fairly widespread lack of awareness of the ineffectiveness of unauthenticated vulnerability scanning. More and more security managers are becoming aware that credentialed scans are the only way to go. However, with a lack of objective survey data available, I can only draw on my own experiences. See – i’m one of those disgraceful contracting/consultant types, been doing security for almost 20 years, and been intimate with a good number of large organisations, and with each year that passes I can say that more organisations are waking up to the limitations of unauthenticated scanning. But there are also still lots more who don’t clearly see the limitations of unauthenticated scanning.

The original Nessus from the late 90s, now with Tenable, is a great product in terms of doing what it was intended to do. But false negatives were never a concern in with the design of Nessus. OpenVAS is still open source and available and it is also a great tool from the point of view of doing what it was intended to do. But if these tools are your sole source of vulnerability data, you are effectively running blind.

By the way Tenable do offer a product that covers credentialed scans for enterprises, but i have not had any hands-on experience with this tool. I do have hands on experience with the other market leaders’ products. By in large they all fall some way short but that’s a subject for another day.

Unauthenticated scanners all do the same thing:

  • port scan to find open ports
  • grab service banners – this is the equivalent of nmap -sV, and in fact as most of these tools use nmap libraries, is it _exactly_ that
  • lets say our tool finds Apache HTTP 14.x, it looks in its database of public disclosed vulnerability with that version of Apache, and spews out everything it finds. The tools generally do little in the way of actually probing with HTTP Methods for example, and they certainly were not designed to try, for example, a buffer overflow exploit attempt. They report lots of ‘noise’ in the way of false positives, but false negatives are the real concern.

So really the tools are doing a port scan, and then telling you you’re running old warez. Conficker is still very widespread and is the ultimate player in the ‘Pee’ arena (the ‘Pee’ in APT). An unauthenticated scanner doesn’t have enough visibility ‘under the hood’ to tell you if you are going to be the next Conficker victim, or the next ransomware victim. Some of the Linux vulnerabilities reported in the past few years – e.g. Heartbleed, Ghost, DirtyCOW – very few can be detected with an unauthenticated scanner, and none of these 3 examples can be detected with an unauthenticated scanner.

Credentialed scanning really is the only way to go. Credentialed based scanners are configured with root/administrative access to targets and are therefore in a position to ‘see’ everything.

The Connection With PaaS and SaaS

So how does this all relate to Cloud? Well, there two of the three cloud types where a lack of access to the operating system command shell becomes a problem – and from this description its fairly clear these are PaaS and SaaS.

 There are two common delusions abound in this area:

  • [Cloud maker] handles platform configuration and therefore vulnerability for me, so that’s ok, no need to worry:
    • Cloud makers like AWS and Azure will deal with patches, but concerns in security are much wider and operating systems are big and complex. No patches exist for 0days, and in space, nobody can hear you scream.
    • Many vulnerabilities arise from OS configuration aspects that cannot be removed with a patch – e.g. Conficker was mentioned above: some Conficker versions (yes its managed very professionally) use ‘at’ job scheduling to remain present even after MS08-067 is patched. If for example you use Azure, Microsoft manage your PaaS and SaaS but they don’t know if you want to use ‘at’ or not. Its safer for them to assume that you do want to use it, so they leave it enabled (when you sign up for PaaS or SaaS you are removed from the decision making here). Same applies to many other local services and file system permissions that are very popular with the dark side.
  • ‘Unauthenticated scanning gets me some of the way, its good enough’ – how much of the way does it get you? Less than half way? its more like 5% really. Remember its little more than a port scan, and you shouldn’t need a scanner to tell you you’re running old software. Certainly for critical cloud VMs, this is a problem.

With PaaS and SaaS, you are handing over the management of large and complex operating systems to cloud providers, who are perfectly justified, and also in many cases perfectly wise, in leaving open large security holes in your platforms, and as part of your agreement with them, there’s not a thing you can do about it (other than switch to IaaS or on-premise).

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Information Security Pseudo-skills and the Power of 6

How many Security Analysts does it take to change a light bulb? The answer should be one but it seems organisations are insistent on spending huge amounts of money on armies of Analysts with very niche “skills”, as opposed to 6 (yes, 6!) Analysts with certain core skills groups whose abilities complement each other. Banks and telcos with 300 security professionals could reduce that number to 6.

Let me ask you something: is Symantec Control Compliance Suite (CCS) a “skill” or a product or both? Is Vulnerability Management a skill? Its certainly not a product. Is HP Tippingpoint IPS a product or a skill?

Is McAfee Vulnerability Manager 7.5 a skill whereas the previous version is another skill? So if a person has experience with 7.5, they are not qualified to apply for a shop where the previous version is used? Ok this is taking it to the extreme, but i dare say there have been cases where this analogy is applicable.

How long does it take a person to get “skilled up” with HP Arcsight SIEM? I was told by a respected professional who runs his own practice that the answer is 6 months. My immediate thought is not printable here. Sorry – 6 months is ridiculous.

So let me ask again, is Symantec CCS a skill? No – its a product. Its not a skill. If you take a person who has experience in operational/technical Vulnerability Management – you know, vulnerability assessment followed by the treatment of risk, then they will laugh at the idea that CCS is a skill. Its only a skill to someone who has never seen a command shell before, tested manually for a false positive, or taken part in an unrestricted manual network penetration test.

Being a software product from a major vendor means the GUI has been designed to make the software intuitive to use. I know that in vulnerability assessment, i need to supply the tool with IP addresses of targets and i need to tell the tool which tests I want to run against those targets. Maybe the area where I supply the addresses of targets is the tab which has “targets” written on it? And I don’t want to configure the same test every time I run it, maybe this “templates” tab might be able to help me? Do i need a $4000 2-week training course and a nice certificate to prove to the world that I can work effectively with such a product? Or should there be an effective accreditation program which certifies core competencies (including evidence of the ability to adapt fast to new tools) in security? I think the answer is clear.

A product such as a Vulnerability Management product is only a “Window” to a Vulnerability Management solution. Its only a GUI. It has been tailored to be intuitive to use. Its the thin layer on top of the Vulnerability Management solution. The solution itself is much bigger than this. The product only generates list of vulnerabilities. Its how the organisation treats those vulnerabilities that is key – and the product does not help too much with the bigger picture.

Historically vulnerability management has been around for years. Then came along commercial products, which basically just slapped a GUI on processes and practices that existed for 20 years+, after which the jobs market decided to call the product the solution. The product is the skill now, whereas its really vulnerability management that is the skill.

The ability to adapt fast to new tools is a skill in itself but it also is a skill that should be built-in by default: a skill that should be inherent with all professionals who enter the field. Flexibility is the key.

The real skills are those associated with areas for large volumes of intellectual capital. These are core technologies. Say a person has 5 years+ experience of working in Unix environments as a system administrator and has shown interest in scripting. Then they learn some aspects of network penetration testing and are also not afraid of other technologies (such as Windows). I can guarantee that they will be up and running in less than one day with any new Vulnerability Management tool, or SIEM tool, or [insert marketing buzzphrase here] that vendors can magic up.

Different SIEM tools use different terms and phrases for the same basic idea. HP uses “flex connectors” whilst Splunk talks about “Forwarders” and “Heavy Forwarders” and so on. But guess what? I understand English but If i don’t know what the words mean, i can check in an online dictionary. I know what a SIEM is designed to do and i get the data flows and architecture concept. Network aggregation of syslog and Windows Events is not an alien concept to me, and neither are all layers of the TCP/IP stack (a really basic requirement for all Analysts – or should be). Therefore i can adapt very easily to new tools in this space.

IPS/IDS and Firewalls? Well they’re not even very functional devices. If you have ever setup Snort or iptables you’ll be fine with whatever product is out there. Recently myself and another Consultant were asked to configure a Tippingpoint device. We were up and running in 10 minutes. There were a few small items that we needed to check against the product documentation. I have 15 years+ experience in the field but the other guy is new. Nonetheless he had configured another IPS product before. He was immediately up and running with the product – no problem. Of course what to configure in the rule base – that is a bigger story and it requires knowledge of threats, attack techniques and vulnerabilities – but that area is GENERIC to security – its not specific to a product.

I’ve seen some truly crazy job specifications. One i saw was Websense Specialist!! Come on – its a web proxy! Its Squid with extra cosmetic functions. The position would be filled by a Websense “Olympian” probably. But what sort of job is that? Carpe Diem my friends, Carpe Diem.

If you run a security consultancy and you follow the usual market game of micro-boxed, pigeon-holed security skills, i don’t know how you can survive. A requirement comes up for a project that involves a number of different products. Your existing consultants don’t have those products written anywhere on their CVs, so you go to market looking for contractors at 600 USD per day. You either find the people somehow, or you turn the project down.  Either way you lose out massively. Or – you could have a base of 6 (its that number again) consultants with core skills that complement each other.

If the over-specialisation issue were addressed, businesses would save considerably on human resource and also find it easier to attract the right people. Pigeon-holed jobs are boring. It is possible and advisable to acquire human resource able to cover more bases in risk management.

There are those for and against accreditation in security. I think there is a solution here which is covered in more detail of Chapter 11 of Security De-engineering.

So how many Security Analysts does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is 6, but typically in real life the number is the mark of the beast: 666.

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Information Security Careers: The Merits Of Going In-house

Job hunting in information security can be a confusing game. The lack of any standard nomenclature across the sector doesn’t help in this regard. Some of the terms used to describe open positions can be interpreted in wildly different ways. “Architect” is a good example. This term can have a non-technical connotation with some, and a technical connotation with others.

There are plenty of pros who came into security, perhaps via the network penetration testing route, who only ever worked for consultancies that provide services, mainly for businesses such as banks and telcos. The majority of such “external” services are centered around network penetration testing and application testing.

I myself started out in infosec on the consultancy path. My colleagues were whiz kids and some were well known in the field. Some would call them “hackers”, others “ethical” or “white hat” network penetration testers. This article does not cover ethics or pander to some of the verdicts that tend to be passed outside of the law.

Many Analysts and Consultants will face the decision to go in-house at some point in their careers, or remain in a service provider capacity. Others may be in-house and considering the switch to a consultancy. This post hopefully can help the decision making process.

The idea of going in-house and, for example, taking up an Analyst position with a big bank – it usually doesn’t hold much appeal with external consultants. The idea prevails that this type of position is boring or unchallenging. I also had this viewpoint and it was largely derived from the few visions and sound bytes I had witnessed behind the veil. However, what I discovered when I took up an analyst position with a large logistics firm was that nothing could be further from the truth. Going in-house can benefit one’s career immensely and open the eyes to the real challenges in security.

Of course my experiences do not apply across the whole spectrum of in-house security positions. Some actually are boring for technically oriented folk. Different organisations do things in different ways. Some just use their security department for compliance purposes with no attention to detail. However there are also plenty that engage effectively with other teams such as IT operations and development project teams.

As an Analyst in a large, complex environment, the opportunity exists to learn a great deal more about security than one could as an external consultant.  An external consultant’s exposure to an organisation’s security challenges will only usually come in the form of a network or application assessment, and even if the testing is conducted thoroughly and over a period of weeks, the view will be extremely limited. The test report is sent to the client, and its a common assumption that all of the problems described in the report can be easily addressed. In the vast majority of cases, nothing could be further from the truth. What becomes apparent at a very early stage in one’s life as an in-house Analyst, is that very few vulnerabilities can be mitigated easily.

One of the main pillars of a security strategy is Vulnerability Management. The basis of any vulnerability management program is the security standard – the document that depicts how, from a security perspective, computer operating systems, DBMS, network devices, and so on, should be configured. So an Analyst will put together a list of configuration items and compose a security standard. Next they will meet with another team, usually IT operations, in an attempt to actually implement the standard in existing and future platforms. For many, this will be the point where they realize the real nature of the challenges.

Taking an example, the security department at a bank is attempting to introduce a Redhat Enterprise Linux security standard as a live document. How many of the configuration directives can be implemented across the board with an acceptable level of risk in terms of breaking applications or impacting the business in any way? The answer is “not many”. This will come as a surprise for many external consultants. Limiting factors can come from surprising sources. Enlightened IT ops and dev teams can open security’s eyes in this regard and help them to understand how the business really functions.

The whole process of vulnerability management, minus VM product marketeers’ diatribe, is basically detection, then deduce the risk, then take decisions on how to address the risk (i.e. don’t address the vulnerability and accept the risk, or address / work around the vulnerability and mitigate the risk). But as an external consultant, one will only usually get to hand a client a list of vulnerabilities and that will be the end of the story. As an in-house Security Analyst, one gets to take the process from start to finish and learn a great deal more in the process.

As a security consultant passing beyond the iron curtain, the best thing that can possibly happen to their careers is that they find themselves in a situation where they get to interface with the enlightened ones in IT operations, network operations (usually there are a few in net ops who really know their security quite well), and application architects (and that’s where it gets to be really fun).

For the Security Consultant who just metamorphosized into an in-house Analyst, it may well be the first time in their careers that they get to encounter real business concerns. IT operations teams live in fear of disrupting applications that generate huge revenues per minute. The fear will be palpable and it encourages the kind of professionalism that one may never have a direct need to have as an external consultant. Generally, the in-house Analyst gets to experience in detail how the business translates into applications and then into servers, databases, and data flows. Then the risks to information assets seem much more real.

The internal challenge versus the external challenge in security is of course one of protection versus breaking-in. Security is full of rock stars who break into badly defended customer networks and then advertise the feat from the roof tops. In between commercial tests and twittering school yard insults, the rock stars are preparing their next Black Hat speech with research into the latest exotic sploit technique that will never be used in a live test, because the target can easily be compromised with simple methods.

However the rock stars get all the attention and security is all about reversing and fuzzing so we hear. But the bigger challenge is not breaking in, its protection, but then protection is a lot less exotic and sexy than breaking in. So there lies the main disadvantage of going in-house. It could mean less attention for the gifted Analyst. But for many, this won’t be such an issue, because the internal job is much more challenging and interesting, and it also lights up a CV, especially if the names are those in banking and telecoms.

How about going full circle? How about 3 years with a service provider, then 5 years in-house, then going back to consulting? Such a consultant is indeed a powerful weapon for consultancies and adds a whole new dimension for service providers (and their portfolio of services can be expanded). In fact such a security professional would be well positioned to start their own consultancy at this stage.

So in conclusion: going in-house can be the best thing that a Security Consultant can do with their careers. Is going in-house less interesting? Not at all. Does it mean you will get less attention? You can still speak at conferences probably.

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Scangate Re-visited: Vulnerability Scanners Uncovered

I have covered VA tools before but I feel that one year later, the same misconceptions prevail. The notion that VA tools really can be used to give a decent picture of vulnerability is still heavily embedded, and that notion in itself presents a serious vulnerability for businesses.

A more concise approach at a run down on the functionality of VA warez may be worth a try. At least lets give it one last shot. On second thoughts, no, don’t shoot anything.

Actually forget “positive” or “negative” views on VAs before reading this. I am just going to present the facts based on what I know myself and of course I’m open to logical, objective discussion. I may have missed something.

Why the focus on VA? Well, the tools are still so commonplace and heavily used and I don’t believe that’s in our best interests.

What I discovered many years ago (it was actually 2002 at first) was that discussions around these tools can evoke some quite emotional responses. “Emotional” you quiz? Yes. I mean when you think about it, whole empires have been built using these tools. The tools are so widespread in security and used as the basis of corporate VM programs. VM market revenues runs at around 1 billion USD annually. Songs and poems have been written about VAs – OK I can’t back that up, but careers have been built and whole enterprise level security software suites built using a nasty open source VA engine.

I presented on the subject of automation in VA all those years ago, and put forward a notion that running VA tools doesn’t carry much more value as compared to something like this: nmap -v -sS -sV <targets> . Any Security Analyst worth their weight in spam would see open ports and service banners, and quickly deduce vulnerability from this limited perspective. “Limited”, maybe, but is a typical VA tool in a better position to interrogate a target autotragically?

One pre-qualifier I need to throw out is that the type of scanners I will discuss here are Nessus-like scanners, the modus operandi of which is to use unauthenticated means to scan a target. Nessus itself isn’t the main focus but it’s the tool that’s most well known and widely used. The others do not present any major advantages over Nessus. In fact Nessus is really as good as it gets. There’s a highly limited potential with these tools and Nessus reaches that limit.

Over the course of my infosec career I have had the privilege to be in a position where I have been coerced into using VAs extensively, and spent many long hours investigating false positives. In many cases I set up a dummy Linux target and used a packet sniffer to deduce what the tool was doing. As a summary, the findings were approximately:

  • Out of the 1000s of tests, or “patterns”, configured in the tools, only a few have the potential to result in accurate/useful findings. Some examples of these are SNMP community string tests, and tests for plain text services (e.g. telnet, FTP).
  • The vast majority of the other tests merely grab a service “banner”. For example, the tool port scans, finds an open port 80 TCP, then runs a test to grab a service banner (e.g. Apache 2.2.22, mickey mouse plug-in, bla bla). I was sort of expecting the tool to do some more probing having found a specific service and version, but in most cases it does not.
  • The tool, having found what it thinks is a certain application layer service and version, then correlates its finding with its database of public disclosed vulnerabilities for the detected service.

Even for some of the plan text services, some of the tests which have the potential to reveal useful findings have been botched by the developers. For example, tests for anonymous FTP only work with a very specific flavour of FTP. Other FTP daemons return different messages for successful anonymous logins and the tool does not accommodate this.

Also what happens if a service is moved from its default port? I had some spectacular failures with running Nessus against a FTP service on port 1980 TCP (usually it is listening on port 21). Different timing options were tested. Nessus uses a nmap engine for port scanning, but nmap by itself is usually able to find non-default port services using default settings.

So in summary, what the VA tools do is mostly just report that you are running ridiculous unencrypted blast-from-the-past services or old, down-level services – maybe. Really I would hope security teams wouldn’t need to spend 25K USD on an enterprise solution to tell them this.

False positives is one thing, but false negatives is quite another. Popular magazines always report something like 50% success rate in finding vulnerabilities in staged tests. Why is it always 50%? Remember also that the product under testing is usually one from a vendor who pays for a full spread ad in that magazine.

Putting numbers to false negatives makes little sense with huge, complex software packages of millions of lines of source code. However, it occurred to me not so long ago whilst doing some white box testing on a client’s critical infrastructure: how many of the vulnerabilities under testing could possibly be discovered by use of a VA tool? In the case of Oracle Database the answer was less than 5%. And when we’re talking Oracle, we’re usually talking critical, as in crown jewels critical.

If nothing else, the main aspect I would hope the reader would take out of this discussion is about expectation. The expectation that is set by marketing people with VA tools is that the tools really can be used to accurately detect a wide range of vulnerability, and you can bet your business on the tools by using them to test critical infrastructure. Ladies and gentlemen: please don’t be deceived by this!

Can you safely replace manual testing with use of these tools? Yes, but only if the target has zero value to the business.

 

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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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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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Blame The CEO?

I would like to start by issuing a warning about the content in this article. I will be taking cynicism to the next level, so the baby-eyed, and “positive” among us should avert their gaze after this first paragraph. For those in tune with their higher consciousness, I will summarise: Can we blame the C-levels for our problems? Answer: no. Ok, pass on through now. More positive vibes may be found in the department of delusion down the hall.

The word “salt” was for the first time ever inserted into the hall of fame of Information Security buzzwords after the Linkedin hack infamy, and then Yahoo came along and spoiled the ridicule-fest by showing to the world that they could do even better than Linkedin by not actually using any password hashing at all.

There is a tendency among the masses to latch onto little islands of intellectual property in the security world. Just as we see with “cloud”, the “salt” element of the Linkedin affair was given plenty of focus, because as a result of the incident, many security professionals had learned something new – a rare occurrence in the usual agenda of tick-in-box-marking that most analysts are mandated to follow.

With Linkedin, little coverage was given to the tedious old nebulous “compromise” element, or “how were the passwords compromised?”. No – the “salt” part was much more exciting to hose into blogs and twitter – but with hundreds of analysts talking about the value of “salting”, the value of this pearl of wisdom was falling exponentially with time – there was a limited amount of time in which to become famous. If you were tardy in showing to the world that you understood what “salting” means, your tweet wouldn’t be favourite’d or re-tweeted, and the analyst would have to step back off the stage and go back to their usual humdrum existence of entering ticks in boxes, telling devs to use two-factor authentication as a matter of “best practices”, “run a vulnerability scanner against it”, and such ticks related matters.

Infosec was down and flailing around helplessly, then came the Linkedin case. The inevitable fall-out from the “salting” incident (I don’t call it the Linkedin incident any more) was a kick of sand in the face of the already writhing information security industry. Although I don’t know of any specific cases, based on twelve happy years of marriage with infosec, i’m sure they’re as abundant as the stars and occurring as I write this. I am sure that nine times out of ten, whenever devs need to store a password, they are told by CISSP-toting self-righteous analysts (and blindly backed up by their managers) that it is “best practice” and “mandatory” to use salting with passwords – regardless of all the other factors that go into making up the full picture of risk, the operational costs, and other needless over-heads. There will be times when salting is a good idea. Other times not. There cannot be a zero-value proposition here – but blanket, parrot-fashion advisories are exactly that.

The subject matter of the previous four paragraphs serves as a recent illustrator of our plight in security. My book covers a much larger piece of the circus-o-sphere and its certainly too much to even to try to summarise here, but we are epic-failing on a daily basis. One of the subjects I cover in Security De-engineering is the role of C-Level executives in security, and I ask the question “can we blame the C-levels” for the broken state of infosec?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The heady days of the late 90s were owned by technical wizards, sometimes known as Hackers. They had green hair and piercings. If a CEO ran some variant of a Windows OS on her laptop, she was greeted with a stream of expletives. Ok, “best practices” was nowhere to be seen in the response, and it is a much more offensive swear-phrase than any swear word I can think of, but the point is that the Hacker’s reposte could be better.

Hackers have little or no business acumen. They have the tech talent that the complexities of information security afford, but back when they worked in infosec in the late 90s, they were poorly managed. Artists need an agent to represent them, and there were no agents.

Hackers could theoretically be locked in a room with a cat-flap for food and drink, no email, and no phone. The only person they should be allowed to communicate with is their immediate security line manager. They could be used as a vault of intellectual capital, or a swiss army knife in the organisation. Problem was – the right kind of management was always lacking. Organisations need an interface between themselves and the Hackers. No such interface ever existed unfortunately.

The upper levels of management gave up working with Hackers for various reasons, not just for scaring the living daylights out of their normal earthling colleagues. Then came the early noughties. Hackers were replaced by respectable analysts with suits and ties, who sounded nice, used the words “governance” and “non-repudiation” a lot, and didn’t swear at their managers regardless of ineptitude levels. The problem with the latter CASE (Checklist and Standards Evangelist) were illustrated with the “salting” debacle and Linkedin.

There is a link between information and information security (did you notice the play on words there – information was used in…”information”… and also in… “information security” – thereby implicating that there might just be a connection). The CASE successor to the realm actually managed to convince themselves (but few others in the business world) that security actually has nothing to do with information technology. It is apparently all about “management” and “processes”. So – every analyst is now a “manager”?! So who in the organisation is going to actually talk to ops and devs and solve the risk versus cost of safeguard puzzles? There are no foot soldiers, only a security department composed entirely of managers.

Another side of our woes is the security products space. Products have been lobbied by fierce marketing engines and given ten-out-of-ten ratings by objective information security publications. The products supposedly can automate areas of information risk management, and tell us things we didn’t already know about our networks. The problem is when you automate processes, you’re looking for accurate results. Right? Well, in certain areas such as vulnerability assessment, we don’t even get close to accurate results – and vulnerability assessment is one area where accuracy is sorely needed – especially if we are using automation to assess vulnerability in critical situations.

Some product classes do actually make some sense to deploy in some business cases, but the number of cases where something like SIEM (for example) actually make sense as as an investment is a small number of the whole.

Security line managers feel the pressure of compliance as the main part of their function. In-house advice is pretty much of the out-house variety in most cases, and service providers aren’t always so objective when it comes to technology acquisition. Products are purchased as a show of diligence for clueless auditors and a short cut to a tick-in-a-box.

So the current security landscape is one of a lack of appropriate skills, especially at security line-management level, which in turn leads to market support for whatever bone-headed product idea can be dreamed up next. The problems come in two boxes then – skills and products.

Is it the case that security analysts and line managers are all of the belief that everything is fine in their corner? The slew of incidents, outgoing connections to strange addresses in eastern Europe, and the loss of ownership of workstation subnets – it’s not through any fault of information security professionals? I have heard some use the excuse “we can never keep out bad guys all the time” – which actually is true, but there is little real confidence in the delivery of this message. Even with the most confidence – projecting among us, there is an inward sense of disharmony with things. We all know, just from intuition, that security is about IT (not just business) and that the value we offer to businesses is extremely limited in most cases.

CEOs and other silver-heads read non-IT publications, and often-times incidents will be reported, even in publications such as the Financial Times. Many of them are genuinely concerned about their information assets, and they will ask for updates from someone like a CISO. It is unlikely the case, as some suggest, they don’t care about information security and it is also unlikely, as is often claimed, that security budgets are rejected minus any consideration.

CEOs will make decisions on security spending based on available information. Have they ever been in a position where they can trust us with our line reporting? Back in the 90s they were sworn at with business-averse rhetoric. Later they were bombarded with IT-averse rhetoric, green pie charts from expensive vulnerability management suites, delivered with a perceptible lack of confidence in analyst skills and available tools.

So can we blame CEOs? Of course not, and our prerogative now should be re-engineering of skills, with a better system of “graduation” through the “ranks” in security, and an associated single body of accreditation (Chapter 11 of Security De-engineering covers this in more detail). With better skills, the products market would also follow suit and change radically. All of this would enable CISOs to report on security postures with confidence, which in turn enables trust at the next level up the ladder.

The idea that CEOs are responsible for all our problems is one of the sacred holy cows of the security industry (along with some others that I will be covering). Ladies and gentlemen: security analysts, managers, self-proclaimed “Evangelists”, “Subject Matter Experts”, and other ego-packing gurus of our time are responsible for the problems.

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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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