Fintechs and Security – Part Two

  • Prologue – covers the overall challenge at a high level
  • Part One – Recruiting and Interviews
  • Part Two – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Application Security
  • Part Three – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Other Layers
  • Part Four – Logging
  • Part Five – Cryptography and Key Management, and Identity Management
  • Part Six – Trust (network controls, such as firewalls and proxies), and Resilience

Threat and Vulnerability Management (TVM) – Application Security

This part covers some high-level guider points related to the design of the application security side of TVM (Threat and Vulnerability Management), and the more common pitfalls that plague lots of organisations, not just fintechs. I won’t be covering different tools in the SAST or DAST space apart from one known-good. There are some decent SAST tools out there but none really stand out. The market is ever-changing. When i ask vendors to explain what they mean by [new acronym] what usually results is nothing, or a blast of obfuscation. So I’m not here to talk about specific vendor offerings, especially as the SAST challenge is so hard to get even close to right.

With vulnerability management in general, ${VENDOR} has succeeded in fouling the waters by claiming to be able to automate vulnerability management. This is nonsense. Vulnerability assessment can to some limited degree be automated with decent results, but vulnerability management cannot be automated.

The vulnerability management cycle has also been made more complicated by GRC folk who will present a diagram representing a cycle with 100 steps, when really its just assess –> deduce risk –> treat risk –> GOTO 1. The process is endless, and in the beginning it will be painful, but if handled without redundant theory, acronyms-for-the-sake-of-acronyms-for-the-same-concept-that-already-has-lots-of-acronyms, rebadging older concepts with a new name to make them seem revolutionary, or other common obfuscation techniques, it can be easily integrated as an operational process fairly quickly.

The Dawn Of Application Security

If you go back to the heady days of the late 90s, application security was a thing, it just wasn’t called “application security”. It was called penetration testing. Around the early 2000s, firewall configurations improved to the extent that in a pen test, you would only “see” port 80 and/or 443 exposing a web service on Apache, Internet Information Server, or iPlanet (those were the days – buffer overflow nirvana). So with other attack channels being closed from the perimeter perspective, more scrutiny was given to web-based services.

Attackers realised you can subvert user input by intercepting it with a proxy, modifying some fields, perhaps inject some SQL or HTML, and see output that perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see as part of the business goals of the online service.

At this point the “application security” world was formed and vulnerabilities were classified and given new names. The OWASP Top Ten was born, and the world has never been the same since.

SAST/DAST

More acronyms have been invented by ${VENDOR} since the early early pre-holocene days of appsec, supposedly representing “brand new” concepts such as SAST (Static Application Security Testing) and DAST (Dynamic Application Security Testing), which is the new equivalent of white box and black box testing respectively. The basic difference is about access to the source code. SAST is source code testing while DAST is an approach that will involve testing for OWASP type vulnerabilities while the software is running and accepting client connection requests.

The SAST scene is one that has been adopted by fintechs in more recent times. If you go back 15 years, you would struggle to find any real commercial interest in doing SAST – so if anyone ever tells you they have “20” or even “10” years of SAST experience, suggest they improve their creativity skills. The general feeling, not unjustified, was that for a large, complex application, assessing thousands of lines of source code at a vital organ/day couldn’t be justified.

SAST is more of a common requirement these days. Why is that? The rise of fintechs, whose business is solely about generation of applications, is one side of it, and fintechs can (and do) go bust if they suffer a breach. Also – ${VENDOR}s have responded to the changing Appsec landscape by offering “solutions”. To be fair, the offerings ARE better than 10 years ago, but it wouldn’t take much to better those Hello World scripts. No but seriously, SAST assessment tools are raved about by Gartner and other independent sources, and they ARE better than offerings from the Victorian era, but only in certain refined scenarios and with certain programming languages.

If it was possible to be able to comprehensively assess lots of source code for vulnerability and get accurate results, then theoretically DAST would be harder to justify as a business undertaking. But as it is, SAST + DAST, despite the extensive resources required to do this effectively, can be justified in some cases. In other cases it can be perfectly fine to just go with DAST. It’s unlikely ever going to be ok to just go with SAST because of the scale of the task with complex apps.

Another point here – i see some fintechs using more than one SAST tool, from different vendors. There’s usually not much to gain from this. Some tools are better with some programming languages than others, but there is nothing cast in stone or any kind of majority-view here. The costs of going with multiple vendors is likely going to be harder and harder to justify as time goes on.

Does Automated Vulnerability Assessment Help?

The problem of appsec is still too complex for decent returns from automation. Anyone who has ever done any manual testing for issues such as XSS knows the vast myriad of ways in which such issues can be manifested. The blackbox/blind/DAST scene is still not more than Burp, Dirbuster, but even then its mostly still manual testing with proxies. Don’t expect to cover all OWASP top 10 issues for a complex application that presents an admin plus a user interface, even in a two-week engagement with four analysts.

My preferred approach is still Fred Flinstone’y, but since the automation just isn’t there yet, maybe its the best approach? This needs to happen when an application is still in the conceptual white board architecture design phase, not a fully grown [insert Hipster-given-name], and it goes something like this: white board, application architect – zero in on the areas where data flows involve transactions with untrusted networks or users. Crpyto/key management is another area to zoom in on.

Web Application Firewall

The best thing about WAFs, is they only allow propagation of the most dangerous attacks. But seriously, WAF can help, and in some respects, given the above-mentioned challenges of automating code testing, you need all the help you can get, but you need to spend time teaching the WAF about your expected URL patterns and tuning it – this can be costly. A “dumb” default-configured WAF can probably catch drive-by type issues for public disclosed vulnerabilities as long as you keep it updated. A lot depends on your risk profile, but note that you don’t need a security engineer to install a WAF and leave it in default config. Pretty much anyone can do this. You _do_ need an experienced security engineer or two to properly understand an application and configure a WAF accordingly.

Python and Ruby – Web Application Frameworks

Web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails (RoR) and Django are in common usage in fintechs, and are at least in some cases, developed with security in mind in that they do offer developers features that are on by default. For example, with Django, if you design a HTML form for user input, the server side will have been automagically configured with the validation on the server side, depending on the model field type. So an email address will be validated client and server-side as an email address. Most OWASP issues are the result of failures to validate user input on the server side.

Note also though that with Django you can still disable HTML tag filtering of user input with a “| safe” in the template. So it’s dangerous to assume that all user input is sanitised.

In Django Templates you will also see a CSRF token as a hidden form field if you include a Form object in your template.

The point here is – the root of all evil in appsec is server-side validation, and much of your server-side validation effort in development will be covered by default if you go with RoR or Django. That is not the end of the story though with appsec and Django/RoR apps. Vulnerability of the host OS and applications can be problematic, and it’s far from the case that use of either Django or RoR as a dev framework eliminates the need for DAST/SAST. However the effort will be significantly reduced as compared to the C/Java/PHP cases.

Wrap-up

Overall i don’t want to too take much time bleating about this topic because the take away is clear – you CAN take steps to address application security assessment automation and include the testing as part of your CI/CD pipeline, but don’t expect to catch all vulnerabilities or even half of what is likely an endless list.

Expect that you will be compromised and plan for it – this is cheaper than spending zillions (e.g. by going with multiple SAST tools as i’ve seen plenty of times) on solving an unsolvable problem – just don’t let an incident result in a costly breach. This is the purpose of security architecture and engineering. It’s more to deal with the consequences of an initial exploit of an application security fail, than to eliminate vulnerability.

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Fintechs and Security – Part One

  • Prologue – covers the overall challenge at a high level
  • Part One – Recruiting and Interviews
  • Part Two – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Application Security
  • Part Three – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Other Layers
  • Part Four – Logging
  • Part Five – Cryptography and Key Management, and Identity Management
  • Part Six – Trust (network controls, such as firewalls and proxies), and Resilience

Recruiting and Interviews

In the prologue of this four-stage process, I set the scene for what may come to pass in my attempt to relate my experiences with fintechs, based on what i am hearing on the street and what i’ve seen myself. In this next instalment, i look at how fintechs are approaching the hiring conundrum when it comes to hiring security specialists, and how, based on typical requirements, things could maybe be improved.

The most common fintech setup is one of public-cloud (AWS, Azure, GCP, etc), They’re developing, or have developed, software for deployment in cloud, with a mobile/web front end. They use devops tools to deploy code, manage and scale (e.g. Kubernetes), collaborate (Git variants) and manage infrastructure (Ansible, Terraform, etc), perhaps they do some SAST. Sometimes they even have different Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs) for different levels of code maturity, one for testing, and one for management. And third party connections with APIs are not uncommon.

Common Pitfalls

  • Fintechs adopt the stance: “we don’t need outside help because we have hipsters. They use acronyms and seem quite confident, and they’re telling me they can handle it”. While not impossible that this can work – its unlikely that a few devops peeps can give a fintech the help they need – this will become apparent later.
  • Using devops staff to interview security engineers. More on this problem later.
  • Testing security engineers with a list of pre-prepared questions. This is unlikely to not end in tears for the fintech. Security is too wide and deep an area for this approach. Fintechs will be rejecting a lot of good candidates by doing this. Just have a chat! For example, ask the candidate their opinions on the usefulness of VA scanners. The length of the response is as important as its technical accuracy. A long response gives an indication of passion for the field.
  • Getting on the security bandwagon too late (such as when you’re already in production!) you are looking at two choices – engage an experienced security hand and ignore their advice, or do not ignore their advice and face downtime, and massive disruption. Most will choose the first option and run the project at massive business risk.

The Security Challenge

Infosec is important, just as checking to see if cars are approaching before crossing the road is important. And the complexity of infosec mandates architecture. Civil engineering projects use architecture. There’s a good reason for that – which doesn’t need elaborating on.

Collapsing buildingWhenever you are trying to build something complex with lots of moving parts, architecture is used to reduce the problem down to a manageable size, and help to build good practices in risk management. The end goal is protective monitoring of an infrastructure that is built with requirements for meeting both risk and compliance challenges.

Because of the complexity of the challenge, it’s good to split the challenge into manageable parts. This doesn’t require talking endlessly about frameworks such as SABSA. But the following six capabilities (people, process, technology) approach is sleek and low-footprint enough for fintechs:

  • Threat and Vulnerability Management (TVM)
  • Logging – not “telemetry” or Threat intelligence, or threat hunting. Just logging. Not even necessarily SIEM.
  • Cryptography and Key Management
  • Identity Management
  • Business Continuity Management
  • Trust (network segmentation, firewalls, proxies).

I will cover these 6 areas in the next two articles, in more detail.

The above mentioned capabilities have an engineering and architecture component and cover very briefly the roles of security engineers and architects. A SABSA based approach without the SABSA theory can work. So an architect takes into account risk (maybe with a threat modelling approach) and compliance goals in a High Level Design (HLD), and generates requirements for the Low Level Design (LLD), which will be compiled by a security engineer. The LLD gives a breakdown of security controls to meet the requirements of the HLD, and how to configure the controls.

Security Engineers and Devops Tools

What happens when a devops peep interviews a security peep? Well – they only have their frame of reference to go by. They will of course ask questions about devops tools. How useful is this approach? Not very. Is this is good test of a security engineer? Based on the security requirements for fintechs, the answer is clear.

Security engineers can use devops tools, and they do, and it doesn’t take a 2 week training course to learn Ansible. There is no great mystery in Kubernetes. If you hire a security engineer with the right background (see the previous post in this series) they will adapt easily. The word on the street is that Terraform config isn’t the greatest mystery in the world and as long as you know Linux, and can understand what the purpose of the tool is (how it fits in, what is the expected result), the time taken to get productive is one day or less.

The point is: if i’m a security engineer and i need to, for example, setup a cloud SIEM collector: some fintechs will use one Infrastructure As Code (IaC) tool, others use another one – one will use Chef, another Ansible, and there are other permutations. Is a lack of familiarity with the tool a barrier to progress? No. So why would you test a security engineer’s suitability for a fintech role by asking questions about e.g. stanzas in Ansible config? You need to ask them questions about the six capabilities I mentioned above – i.e. security questions for a security professional.

Security Engineers and Clouds

Again – what was the transition period from on-premise to cloud? Lets take an example – I know how networking works on-premise. How does it work in cloud? There is this thing called a firewall on-premise. In Azure it’s called a Network Security Group. In AWS its called a …drum roll…firewall. In Google Cloud its called a …firewall. From the web-based portal UI for admin, these appear to filter by source and destination addresses and services, just like an actual non-virtual firewall. They can also filter by service account (GCP), or VM tag.

There is another thing called VPN. And another thing called a Virtual Router. On the world of on-premise, a VPN is a …VPN. A virtual router is a…router. There might be a connection here!

Cloud Service Providers (CSP) in general don’t re-write IT from the ground up. They still use TCP/IP. They host virtual machines (VM) instead of real machines, but as VMs have operating systems which security engineers (with the right background) are familiar with, where is the complication here?

The areas that are quite new compared to anything on-premise are areas where the CSP has provided some technology for a security capability such as SIEM, secrets management, or Identity Management. But these are usually sub-standard for the purpose they were designed for – this is deliberate – the CSPs want to work with Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) vendors such as Splunk and Qualys, who will provide a IaaS or SaaS solution.

There is also the subject of different clouds. I see some organisations being fussy about this, e.g. a security engineer who worked a lot with Azure but not AWS, is not suitable for a fintech that uses AWS. Apparently. Well, given that the transition from on-premise to cloud was relatively painless, how painful is it to transition from Azure to AWS or …? I was on a project last summer where the fintech used Google Cloud Platform. It was my first date with GCP but I had worked with AWS and Azure before. Was it a problem? No. Do i have an IQ of 160? Hell no!

The Wrap-up

Problems we see in fintech infosec hiring represent what is most likely a lack of understanding of how they can best manage risk with a budget that is considerably less than a large MNC for example. But in security we haven’t been particularly helpful for fintechs – the problem is on us.

The security challenge for fintechs is not just about SAST/DAST of their code. The challenge is wider and be represented as six security capabilities that need to be designed with an architecture and engineering view. This sounds expensive, but its a one-off design process that can be covered in a few weeks. The on-going security challenge, whereby capabilities are pushed through into the final security operations stage, can be realised with one or two security engineers.

The lack of understanding of requirements in security leads to some poor hiring practices, the most common of which is to interview a security engineer with a devops guru. The fintech will be rejecting lots of good security engineers with this approach.

In so many ways, the growth of small to medium development houses has exposed the weaknesses in the infosec sector more than they were ever exposed with large organisations. The lack of the sector’s ability to help fintechs exposes a fundamental lack of skilled personnel, more particularly at the strategic/advisory level than others.

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On Hiring For DevSecOps

Based on personal experience, and second hand reports, there’s still some confusion out there that results in lots of wasted time for job seekers, hiring organisations, and recruitment agents.

There is a want or a need to blame recruiters for any hiring difficulties, but we need to stop that. There are some who try to do the right thing but are limited by a lack of any sector experience. Others have been inspired by Wolf Of Wall Street while trying to sound like Simon Cowell.

It’s on the hiring organisation? Well, it is, but let’s take responsibility for the problem as a sector for a change. Infosec likes to shift responsibility and not take ownership of the problem. We blame CEOs, users, vendors, recruiters, dogs, cats, “Russia“, “China” – anyone but ourselves. Could it be we failed as a sector to raise awareness, both internally and externally?

So What Are Common Understandings Of Security Roles?

After 25 years+ we still don’t have universally accepted role descriptions, but at least we can say that some patterns are emerging. Security roles involve looking at risk holistically, and sometimes advising on how to deal with risk:

  • Security Engineers assess risk and design and sometimes also implement controls. BTW some sectors, legal in particular, still struggle with this. Someone who installs security products is in an IT ops role. Someone who upgrades and maintains a firewall is an IT ops role. The fact that a firewall is a security control doesn’t make this a security engineering function.
  • Security Architects take risk and compliance goals into account when they formulate requirements for engineers.
  • Security Analysts are usually level 2 SOC analysts, who make risk assessments in response to an alert or vulnerability, and act accordingly.

This subject evokes as much emotion as CISSP. There are lots of opinions out there. We owe to ourselves to be objective. There are plenty of sources of information on these role definitions.

No Aspect Of Risk Assessment != Security. This is Devops.

If there is no aspect of risk involved with a role, you shouldn’t looking for a security professional. You are looking for DEVOPS peeps. Not security peeps.

If you want a resource to install and configure tools in cloud – that is DEVOPS. It is not Devsecops. It is not Security Engineering or Architecture. It is not Landscape Architecture or Accounting. It is not Professional Dog Walker. it is DEVOPS. And you should hire a DEVOPS person. If you want a resource to install and configure appsec tools for CI/CD – that is DEVOPS. If you want a resource to advise on or address findings from appsec tools, that is a Security Analyst in the first case, DEVSECOPS in the 2nd case. In the 2nd case you can hire a security bod with coding experience – they do exist.

Ok Then So What Does A DevSecOps Beast Look Like?

DevSecOps peeps have an attack mindset from their time served in appsec/pen testing, and are able to take on board the holistic view of risk across multiple technologies. They are also coders, and can easily adapt to and learn multiple different devops tools. This is not a role for newly graduated peeps.

Doing Security With Non-Security Professionals Is At Best Highly Expensive

Another important point: what usually happens because of the skills gap in infosec:

  • Cloud: devops fills the gap.
  • On-premise: Network Engineers fill the gap.

Why doesn’t this work? I’ve met lots of folk who wear the aforementioned badges. Lots of them understand what security controls are for. Lots of them understand what XSS is. But what none of them understand is risk. That only comes from having an attack mindset. The result will be overspend usually – every security control ever conceived by humans will be deployed, while also having an infrastructure that’s full of holes (e.g. default install IDS and WAF is generally fairly useless and comes with a high price tag).

Vulnerability assessment is heavily impacted by not engaging security peeps. Devops peeps can deploy code testing tools and interpret the output. But a lack of a holistic view or an attack mindset, will result in either no response to the vulnerability, or an excessive response. Basically, the Threat And Vulnerability Management capability is broken under these circumstances – a sadly very common scenario.

SIEM/Logging is heavily impacted – what will happen is either nothing (default logging – “we have Stackdriver, we’re ok”), or a SIEM tool will be provisioned which becomes a black hole for events and also budgets. All possible events are configured from every log source. Not so great. No custom use cases will be developed. The capability will cost zillions while also not alerting when something bad is going down.

Identity Management – is not deploying a ForgeRock (please know what you’re getting into with this – its a fork of Sun Microsystems/Oracle’s identity management show) or an Azure AD and that’s it, job done. If you just deploy this with no thought of the problem you’re trying to solve in identity management, you will be fired.

One of the classic risk problems that emerges when no security input is taken: “there is no personally identifiable information in development Virtual Private Clouds, so there is no need for security controls”. Well – intelligence vulnerability such as database schema – attackers love this. And don’t you want your code to be safe and available?

You see a pattern here. It’s all or nothing. Either of which ends up being very expensive or worse. But actually come to think of it, expensive is the goal in some cases. Hold that thought maybe.

A Final Word

So – if the word risk doesn’t appear anywhere in the job description, it is nothing to do with security. You are looking for devops peeps in this case. And – security is an important consideration for cloud migrations.

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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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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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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 pastebin.com. 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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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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