Advanced Persistent Dysfunction: Organizational “Air Gaps”

One of the more frustrating things about Wannacry, Petya, notPetya is that they would have been made significantly less effective had organizations applied MS17-014. The fact that we still see SMBv1 is utterly staggering to myself and my colleagues. Why is it that we live in a world where we have automation, vulnerability scanning, patching solutions and spend billions on security that our organizations are routinely compromised by what are, in many cases, patchable or at least significantly mitigable. (Admittedly, Petya/NotPetya exploited LSASS.EXE as well which is pretty brutal!)

There is another vector that I think is being exploited and as digital threats become more organized (2017 Cisco ASR states that it is not uncommon for malicious hashes to be less than 24 hours old) is Organizational Air Gaps. While great for protecting integrity and accountability, I believe that organizational “air gaps” are part of the issue and there are numerous instances where security teams have warned system owners about vulnerabilities and were ignored thus the sad attempt at an INFOSEC meme below.

How did we get here?
The meme above is meant to lend humor to what is a frustrating situation. I am certain that most system owners do not mock their CISO office nor are they unconcerned about their security. The issue here is that post 9/11 we started to form Cyber security teams. While INFOSEC existing prior to 2001 the size and breadth was not nearly at the level it is today where there are nearly as many INFOSEC roles as IT roles. The point is, we started the process of decoupling system owners from their own security. Cyber security teams started to form and eventually (and probably justifiably) the “Office of the Chief Information Security Officer” (OCISO) was created and, in my opinion, this is where the new risk of organizational air gaps was born. While having the CISO report to the CEO does allow for IT to be held accountable and prevents a CIO from brow-beating the security team from reporting issues with security, it has created a difficult, albeit fixable, organizational challenge where the individuals responsible for addressing reported vulnerabilities have their agenda, budgeting and staffing levels set by an entirely different organization. The security apparatus is tasked with deriving a posture/strategy for an organization and it could easily be received by the IT department as an unfunded mandate. I have worked both in security and within IT departments and throughout my career when I wasn’t working in INFOSEC, the security of the systems under my purview were never a criteria in my performance evaluation. I was very security conscious but it had more to do with not wanting to be in the news or embarrassed. The time has come to evaluate the effect and cause, systems will always have vulnerabilities and vendors will always have patches. The real vulnerability we need to address might be within our own organizations.

How do we fix this?
Well, let me start with one of my patented insufferable analogies. The fact that my city has a police department doesn’t mean that I don’t lock my door and that I am not vigilant about my own property. Sadly, the workloads, staff shortages and overall culture of today’s enterprise has system owners worrying about everything BUT security. When I first moved into my neighborhood it was VERY sketchy but I LOVED the old bungalow style houses and my wife and I decided to fix one up. Over the next few years, more people moved into the neighborhood who did not want to tolerate flop houses and crack houses and eventually things got considerably better. Crime went down, property values went up and an area that was very costly to the city was not less costly and paying higher property taxes.

So what changed?
As I stated previously, people in my neighborhood made a conscious decision not to allow fringe activity to continue. When we saw people behaving suspiciously, we called the police and generally got involved in the security of our own neighborhoods. Contrast this with a neighborhood 20 blocks south of me where the relationship with law enforcement was strained. This neighborhood was less safe, cost the city more money and had considerably lower property values. I am not going to get into the reasons for the strained relationship with the law enforcement (some legit, some not) but the point/parallel here is that the better your system owner’s relationship is with the CISO’s organization, the more functional and safer your CIDR block is going to be. You have to ask yourself what you have between you and security, a wall, a bridge or a moat with alligators in it. As a federal employee while I did not work for the OCISO my group assigned a daily “pit boss” and we built a bridge between our team and our peers on the OCISO side.

Back in 2010 I made the following statement out of frustration with INFOSEC and the way it was functioning on my Edgesight under the Hood blog. “Unless you can buy your INFOSEC team a crystal ball or get them an enterprise license to Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friend’s Network system owners are going to HAVE to start taking some responsibility for their own security”. Security teams cannot be responsible for knowing suspect behavior on systems that they don’t oversee on a day to day basis. When we factor in things like phishing or credential stealing then we basically have a bad actor using approved, albeit stolen, credentials coming in over approved ports. If someone had stolen a key to my house and walked up to the front door, opened it and started leaving with my property, even if a cop was standing right there it would not look suspicious. When I chase them out of my house with a Mossberg THAT looks suspicious. Sadly once most systems are compromised, the last people to know are the actual system owners. At ExtraHop we pride ourselves in the visibility we provide both security teams AND system owners. As you evaluate solutions, think of how you can get system owners involved and include IT in the process of implementing them and make them a stake holder.

INFOSEC can be a lonely job, when I worked in IT security, generally the only friends I had in the organization were other security folks. The professional barrier with your IT colleagues is fine but there doesn’t need to be an air gap. In my old neighborhood, yes, the local police there could end up needing to arrest me one day (luckily I have yet to ascend beyond the occasional “suspicious character” in the police blotter) but the professional barrier should not prevent me from working hand and hand with him as he is working to protect me. The people who build, support and architect our digital products pay all of our salaries, including INFOSEC. I think we need to ask ourselves if there are any organizational air-gaps between the CIO and CISO’s organizations and what steps can we take to build bridges to ensure everyone is working together?

Thanks for reading!

John M. Smith
Solutions Architect
ExtraHop networks











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