Security in Virtual Machine Environments. And the planet.

This post is based on a recent article on the 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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The Search For Infosec Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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