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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