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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