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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Somewhere Over The Rainbow – A Story About A Global Ubiquitous Record of All Things Incident

One of my posts from earlier in 2012 discussed the idea that CEOs are to blame for all of our problems in security. The idea that we “must have reliable actuarial data on incidents to stay relevant” is another of the information security holy sacred cows that rears its head every so often, and this post explains covers three angles on the incidents database idea. First I look at the impracticalities of gathering incidents data. Second, even if we have accurate data, exactly how useful is the data to us in the formulation of risk management decisions, and third, even if the data is accurate and useful, did we even need it in the first place?

Shostack and Stewart’s New School book was from the mid-2000s and a chapter is devoted to the absolute necessity of a global, ubiquitous incidents database. Such a thing is proclaimed by many as carrying do or die importance, as if we need it to prove the existence of a threat, and moreover to prove our right to exist as security professionals. Do we really need a global database to prove to the C-levels that spending on security is necessary?

There are of course some real blockers with regard the gathering of incidents data, not least the “what the heck just happened” factor, where post-incident, logging is turned on (it was off until the incident occurred) and $300k invested in a SIEM solution – one that really doesn’t help the business to respond effectively to incidents, it just gives operations a nice vehicle with which they can use to diagnose non-security related problems, and of course the vendor/box pusher consultants knew what they were doing when they configured the thing.

Anyway it really isn’t terribly constructive to talk reality with regard this subject. We need to talk about a theoretical world, somewhere over the rainbow – one where logging is enabled, internal detection controls are well configured, and internal IT ops and sec know how to respond to incidents and they understand log messages. Okay, most businesses don’t even know they were hacked until a botnet command and control box is owned by some supposed good guys somewhere, but all talk of security is null and void if we acknowledge reality here. So let’s not talk reality.

So incidents data simply won’t be available in many cases – that base is now covered. But what are we trying to achieve here? The proposal is to use past incidents data to help us prove the existence of a threat in formulating decisions on risk. We receive a penetration test report that tells us that vulnerability X was compromised 4 years ago in Timbuctoo. The other vulnerabilities mentioned in the report – according to our accurate database there is no mention of them ever having been compromised with resulting financial damage. So we fix vulnerability X and ignore the rest – a wise strategy, especially given that our incidents database hosts accurate information with check-sums and integrity built-in (well – I did say let’s not talk reality here).

But wait a minute – vulnerability X was exploited 4 years ago in a company Y in an industry sector Z. What if company Y’s network was wide open? Where is this leading? All networks are different. All businesses face different challenges. Even those in the same industry sector as each other are completely different. How ludicrous this is getting? Business X can even have the exact same network architecture as another business Y in the same industry sector, and yet the exploitation of the same vulnerability X in business X can lead to $100K damages for business X, but $100 damages in business Y. So are we really going to use these records of financial damages to formulate our risk acceptance, transferal, or mitigation decision? One would hope not.

As if this all isn’t bad enough: even if we ignore the hard reality of the limitations covered here, how long would it take before we have gathered enough information to call the database useful? 10 years? 20 years? One million incidents or…? Products are past their shelf life in less than a decade generally. I did come across an IBM AIX 4.1 (we’re talking mid-to-late 90s here) box at a customer site not so long ago, but thankfully that was an isolated incident.

After all the deliberation, it emerges that security is too complex – it cannot be reduced down to a simple picture a la “vulnerability X was exploited resulting in damages Y in company Z, and therefore we in Botnetz R Us need to address vulnerability X”.

All this is not to say that there is no benefit in knowing what’s going off out there in the wild. We can pick up on on-going bigger picture attack trends to enable us to prepare for what might be down the road for us. But do we really need details of past incidents to convince businesses to part with cash in risk mitigation, or moreover validate our existence?

What we’re really concerned with here is trust. The proponents of a big data repository of incident big data would have it that we need such a thing because the powers that be don’t trust us. When we propose a mitigation of a particular risk, they don’t trust our advice. Unfortunately though, we might get one success story where we consult the oracle of all incidents and we do magically find an incident related to the problem we are trying to fix, and we use this “evidence” to convince the bosses. What about the next problem though? We can’t use the same card trick next time to address the next risk issue if no such problem was ever encountered (and reported) before by another company somewhere else in the world. By looking into the history of all incidents we’re setting a dangerous precedent, and rather than enabling trust, we’re making the situation even worse.

We don’t need an incidents history record. What we need is for our customers to trust us. Our customers are C-levels, other business units, home users, in-house reps, and so on. How do we get them to trust us? What we need is a single accreditation path for security professionals, one that ties Analysts to past experience as an IT admin or developer, and one that ties Security Managers with past Analyst experience. With this, security managers can confidently deliver risk-related advisories to their superiors, safe in the knowledge that their message is backed up by Analysts with solid tech experience, and in whose advice they are comfortable in placing their trust.

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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 Place of Pen Testing In The Infosec Strategy

The subject of network penetration testing, as distinct from application security testing, has been given petabytes of coverage since the late 90s, but in terms of how businesses approach network penetration testing, there are still severe shortcomings in terms of return on investment.

A pre-qualifier to save the reader some time: if your concern in security is purely compliance, you need not read on.

Going back to the birth of network penetration testing as a monetized service, we have gone through a transition period of good ground level skills in the mid to late 90s but poor management skills, to just, well…poor everything. This is in no way a reflection on the individuals involved. With the analysts doing the testing, as a result of modern testing methodology and conditions, the tests are not conducive to driving the analyst to learn deep analytical skills. For managers – the industry as a whole hasn’t identified the need to acquire managers who have “graduated” from tech-centric infosec backgrounds. The industry is still young and still making mistakes.

One thing has remained constant through the juvenile years of the industry and that has been poor management. The erosion of decent analytical skills from network penetration testing is ubiquitous apart from a few niche areas (and the dark side) – but this is by and large a consequence of bad management – and again is more of a reflection on the herd-mentality / downward momentum of the industry in general rather than the individuals. Managers need to have something like a good balance of business acumen and knowledge of technical risks, but in security, most of us still think it’s OK to have managers who are heavily weighted towards the business end of the scale.

Several changes took place in service delivery around the early 2000s. One was the imposition of testing restrictions which reduced the effectiveness of testing. When the analysts explained the negative impact of the restrictions (such as limited testing IP ranges, limited use of exploits on production systems, and fixed source IP ranges), the message was either misunderstood by their managers, and/or mis-communicated to the clients who were imposing the restrictions. So the restrictions took hold. A penetration test that is so heavily restricted can in no way come even close to a simulated attack or even a base level test.

The other factor was improved firewall configurations. There was one major aspect of network security that did improve from the mid 90s until today, and that was firewall configurations. With improved firewall configurations came fewer attack channels, but the testing restrictions had a larger impact on the perceived value of the remote testing service. Improved firewalls may have partly been a result of the earlier penetration tests, but the restrictions turned the testing engagements into an unfair fight.

There were wider forces at work in the security world in the early 2000s which also contributed to the loss of quality from penetration testing delivery, but these are beyond the scope of this article. For all intents and purposes, penetration testing became such a low quality affair that clients stopped paying for it unless they were driven by regulations to perform periodic tests of their perimeter “by an independent third party” – and the situation that arose was one where clients cared not a jot about quality. This lack of interest was passed on to service providers who in some cases actually reprimanded analysts for trying to be well…analytical. Reason? To be analytical is to retard, and to retard is to reduce profits. Service providers were now a production line for poor quality penetration tests.

So i explained enough about the problems and how they came to be. To be fair, i am not the only one who has identified these issues, its just that there aren’t so many of us around these days who were pen testers back in the 90s, and who are willing to put pen to paper on these issues.

I think it should be clear by now that a penetration test with major restrictions applied has only the value that comes from passing the audit. Apart from that? It’s a port scan. Anything else? Not in most cases. Automated tools are used heavily and tools such as vulnerability scanners never were more than glorified port scanners anyway. This is not because the vendors have done a poor job (although in some cases they have), it comes from the nature of remote unauthenticated vulnerability assessment – it’s almost impossible to deduce anything about the target, aside from port scanning and grabbing a few service banners.

But…perhaps with the spate of incidents that has been reported as being a 2010-on phenomena (which has really always been prevalent all through the 2000s) there might be some interest in passing the audit, PLUS getting something else in return for the investment. For this discussion we need to assume utopic conditions. Anything other than unrestricted testing (which also includes use of zero days – another long topic which i’ll side-step for now), delivered by highly skilled testers (with hacker-like skills but not necessarily Hackers), will always, without fail, be a waste of resources.

The key here is really in the level of knowledge of internal IT and security staff at the target network under testing. They realistically have to know everything about their network – every nook and cranny, every router, firewall, application, OS, and how they’re all connected. A penetration test should never be used to substitute this knowledge. Typical testing engagements from my experience are carried out with 3 to 4 analysts over a period of a maximum of 2 weeks. This isn’t enough time to have some outside party teach target staff all they need to know about their own private network. Indeed in most cases, one thousand such tests would be insufficient.

In the scenario where both client staff and testers are sufficiently skilled-up, then a penetration test has at least the potential of delivering good value on top of just base compliance. A test under these conditions can then perhaps find the slightest cracks in the armor – areas where the client’s IT and security staff may have missed something – a misconfiguration, unauthorized change, signs of a previous incident that went undetected, a previously unknown local privilege escalation vector – but the important point is that in most cases there won’t be the white noise of findings that comes from the case where there are huge holes in the network. Under these conditions, the test also delivers value, but the results are deceptive. Huge holes are uncovered, with huge holes probably still remaining.

The perimeter has now shifted. User workstation subnets are rightly being seen by many as having been owned by the bad guys, with the result that the perimeter has now shifted into RFC 1918 private address space. So now there can also be an emphasis on penetration testing of critical infrastructure from user workstation subnets. But again, lack of knowledge of internal configurations and controls just won’t do. Whatever resources are devoted to having external third parties doing penetration testing will have been wasted if there is little awareness of internal networks on behalf of the testing subject. There at least has to be detailed awareness of available OS and database security controls and the degree to which they have been applied. Application security – it’s a story for another day, and one which doesn’t massively affect any of my conclusions here.

Of course there’s a gaping hole in this story. I have spoken of skill levels on behalf of the penetration testing analysts and the analysts on the side of the testing subject. But how do we know who is qualified and who is not qualified? Well, this is the root of all of our problems today. Without this there is no trust. Without a workable accreditation structure, testers can fail to find any reportable findings and accordingly be labelled clowns. Believe it or not, there is a simple solution here, but this also is too wide a subject to cover here….later on that one!

 

 

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