No End in Sight: Cyber Security and the Digital Maginot Line

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Yesterday my spouse was informed by a laboratory company where she was having some blood work done that she needed to provide them a credit card number that they could put on file in case our insurance company could not pay or did not pay the bill for the lab costs. This after showing our insurance card and providing proof that we are insured. Having lived with me the last 7 years she asked the woman at the counter for a copy of the InfoSec strategy asking them to “please include information on encryption ciphers, key lengths as well as information on how authentication and authorization is managed by their system and if her credit card information would be encrypted at rest”. Needless to say, they had no idea what she was talking about much to the exasperation of the people waiting behind her in line as well as the front office staff. She ended up getting her tests done but was told she would not be welcomed back if she was going to continue to be unwilling to surrender her Credit Card number to their front office for them to, digitally, keep on file.

Between the two of us, we have replaced 4 or 5 cards in the last 3 years due to various breaches, I have had to replace two and, I believe, she has had to replace 3 of them. In my case, each incident cost me around $800 that I had to wait weeks to get back and only after I went into the bank and filled out forms to attest that I did not make the charges. Each incident was about 4 hours of my time by the time all was said and done. Yes, there were lawsuits and lawyers were paid six figure sums as a result and I am sure they deserved it but at the end of the day, I was without my $800-$1600 for an extended period of time and I had to run through a regulatory maze just to get back what I had lost. No…..I never got any settlement money, I hope they spent it well. Fortunately for me, I am 46 years old now and have a great job, if this had happened to 26 year-old (still a screw-up) John, it would have been utterly devastating as I likely would have been evicted from my apartment and had bill collectors calling me. I can’t imagine calamity this creates for some folks.

I am somewhat dumbfounded that any company at any level would seek to get people to surrender their information digitally given the egregious levels of retail breaches that have plagued the industry the last few years. Forget that consumer advocacy is non-existent, while some retailers have been very forward in understanding the impact to their consumers, I simply do not see things getting better, EVER. The current method by which Cyber Security is practiced today is broken and there seems to be no motivation to fix it. This in spite of extremely costly settlements and damage to brands, the way we practice security today is deeply flawed and it’s not the Security team’s fault. Until system owners start taking some responsibility for their own security, these breaches will simply never end.

Bitching about the lack of responsibility of system owners isn’t new to me, my first “documented” rant on it was back in early 2010. As a system owner, I, almost compulsively, logged everything that went on and wrote the metrics to a centralized console. In a way, it was a bit of a poor-man’s DevOps endeavor. In doing so, I was able automate reporting so that when I came into work each morning, I would spend 15 minutes sipping my coffee and looking at all of the non-standard communications that went on the previous day (basically all internet traffic that did not use a web browser and all traffic outside the US). No, it wasn’t full IDS/IPS production but on two separate occasions, I was able to find malware before several seven figure investments in malware detection software. That is two instances in four years or 2/1000 mornings (approximately 4 years’ worth of work minus vacations, holidays etc.) where I noted actionable intelligence. That may not have been a lot but if you are one of the dozens of retailers who have had breaches in the last few years, I think it is plausible to assume the systems teams could have had an impact on the success of a breach had they been a little more involved in their own security. Don’t underestimate the value of human observation.

Why the INFOSEC is not enough?
Short of a crystal ball, I am not sure how we expect INFOSEC teams to be able to know what communication is acceptable and what communications are not. In the last few years “sophisticated persistent advanced super-duper complex malware” generally means that someone compromised a set of credentials and ran amuck for months on end stealing the digital crown jewels. Even if a policeman is parked outside my house, if they see someone walk up, open the door with a key and walk out with my safe, 60 TV (Actually, I don’t have a 60 inch TV) and other valuables how the hell are they supposed to know they should or should not be doing that. In most cases, this is the digital equivalent of what is happening in some of these breaches accept that digitally, I am sitting at my couch while all of this is going on in front of me. If an attacker has gotten credentials or has compromised a system and is stealing, expecting the security team to see this before extensive damage is done is unrealistic. With some of the social engineering techniques that exist and some of the service accounts used with elevated privileges, you don’t always have the 150 login failures to warn you. If I am actually paying attention, I can actually say, “Hey, what the hell are you doing, put that TV down before I call the cops!” (Or, my step-daughter is a foodie and she has some cast iron skillets that could REALLY leave a lump on someone’s head).

The presence of an INFOSEC team does not absolve system owners of their own security any more than the presence of a police department in my city means I don’t have to lock my doors or pay attention to who comes and goes from my house.

Police: “911 operator what is your emergency?”

Me: “I’ve been burgled, someone came into my house and stole from me”

Police: “When did this happen? Are they still in your house?”

Me: “It happened six months ago but I don’t know if they are still in my house stealing from me or not”

Police: “Ugh!!”

If someone has made a copy of the keys to my house it is not the police’s fault if they don’t catch them illegally entering my home in the same manor that the police cannot be everywhere, all the time, you INFOSEC team cannot inspect every digital transaction all the time.

Thought Exercise:
If someone has compromised a set of credentials or, say a server in your REST/SOAP tier and they are running ad hoc queries against your back end database, let’s evaluate how that would look to the system owner vs. the INFOSEC practitioner.

To the INFOSEC Practitioner: They see approved credentials over approved ports, since they are not the DBA or the Web Systems owner so this, likely, does not trigger any responses because the INFOSEC resource is not privy to the day to day behavior or design.
The DBA: The DBA should notice that the types of queries have changed and fall out of their chair.
Web Properties team: They should have a similar “WTF!?!?” moment as they note that the change from what is normally stored procedures or even recognizable SQL statements to custom ad hoc queries of critical data.

In this scenario, one in which I covered on wiredata.net in May of 2014, it is obvious that the INFOSEC professional is not as well positioned to detect the breach as he or she does not manage the system on a day to day basis and while several processes have INFOSEC involved during the architecture the idea that your INFOSEC team is going to know everything about every application is neither practical or reasonable. It is imperative that system owners take part in making sure their own systems are secure by engaging in a consistent level of intelligence gathering and surveillance. In my case, it was 15 minutes of every morning. Ask yourself, do you know every nonstandard communication that sourced from your server block? Will you find out within an hour, 8 hours, a single day? These are things that are easily accomplished with wire data or even log mongering but to continue to be utterly clueless of who your systems are talking to outside of normal communications (DNS, A/D, DB, HTTP) to internal application partners is to perpetuate the existing paradigm of simply waiting for your company to get breached. While we give the INFOSEC team the black eye, they are the least likely group to be able to see an issue in spite of the fact that they are probably going to be held accountable for it.

There are services from companies like FireEye and BeyondTrust that offer innovative threat analytics and offer a number of “non-charlatan” solutions to today’s security threats. I’ve struggled to avoid calling Cyber Security an abject failure but we are reaching the point where the Maginot line was more successful than today’s Cyber Security efforts. I am not a military expert and won’t pretend to be one but as I understanding, the Maginot line, the French solution to the German invasion during WWI, was built on the strategies of the previous war (breach) and was essentially perimeter centric and the enemy simply went around it (sound familiar?). So perimeter centric was it that apparently upon being attacked from behind they were unable do defend themselves as the turrets were never designed to turn all the way around. The thought of what to do once an enemy force got inside was apparently never considered. I find the parallels between today’s Cyber Security efforts and the Maginot line to be somewhat surprising. I am not down on perimeter security but a more agile solution is needed to augment perimeter measures. One might even argue that there really isn’t a perimeter anymore. The monitoring of peer-to-peer communications by individual system owners is an imperative. While these teams are stretched thin already (don’t EVEN get me started on morale, workload and all around BS that exists in today’s Enterprise IT) what is the cost of not doing it? In every high profile breach we have noted in the last three years, all of these “sophisticated persistent threats” could have been prevented by a little diligence on the part of the system owners and better integration with the INFOSEC apparatus.

Cyber Insurance Policies could change things?
Actually, we are starting to see insurance providers force companies to purchase a separate rider for cyber breach insurance. I can honestly say, this may bring about some changes to the level of cyber responsibility shown by different companies. I live in Florida where we are essentially the whipping boys for the home owners insurance industry and I have actually received notification that if I did not put a hand rail on my back porch that they would cancel my policy. (The great irony being that I fell ass over teakettle on that very back porch while moving in). While annoyed, I had a hand rail installed post haste as I did not want to have my policy cancelled since, at the time, we only had one choice for insurance in Florida and it was the smart thing to do.

Now imagine I call that same insurance company with the following claim:
“Hello, yes, uh, I am being sued by the Girl Scouts of America because one of them came to my door to sell me cookies and she fell through my termite eaten front porch and landed on the crushed beer bottles that are strewn about my property cutting herself and then she was mauled by my five semi-feral pit bulls that I just let run around my property feeding them occasionally”.

Sadly, this IS Florida and that IS NOT an entirely unlikely phone call for an adjuster to get, however, even more sad is the fact that this analogy likely UNDERSTATES the level of cyber-responsibility taken by several Enterprises when it comes to protecting critical information and preventing a breach. If you are a Cyber Insurance provider and your customer cannot prove to you that they are monitoring peer-to-peer communications, I would think twice about writing the policy at all.

In the same manor that insurance agents drive around my house, expect auditors to start asking questions about how your enterprise audits peer-to-peer communications. If you cannot readily provide a list of ALL non-standard communications within a few minutes, you have a problem!! These breaches are now into the 7-8 digit dollar amounts and those companies who do not ensure proper diligence do so at their own peril.

Conclusion:
As an IT professional and someone who cares about IT Security, I am somewhat baffled at the continued focus on yesterday’s breach. I can tell you what tomorrow’s breach will be, it will involve someone’s production system or servers with critical information on them having a conversation with another system that it shouldn’t. This could mean a compromised web tier server running ad hoc queries; this could be a new FTP Server that is suddenly stood up and sending credit card information to a system in Belarus. This could be a pissed of employee emailing your leads to his gmail account. The point is, there ARE technologies and innovations out there that can help provide visibility into non-standard communications. While I would agree that today’s attacks are more complex, in many cases, they involve several steps to stage the actual breach itself. With the right platform, vigilant system owners can spot these pieces being put into place before they start or at least maybe detect the breach within minutes, hours or days instead of months. Let’s accept the fact that we are going to get breached and build a strategy on quelling it sooner. As a consumer who looks at his credit card expiration date and thinks to himself “Yeah right!” basically betting it gets compromised before it expires. I see apathy prevailing and companies who really don’t understand what a pain in the ass it is when I have to, yet again, get another Debit or Credit card due to a breach and while they think it is just their breach, companies need to keep in mind that your breach may be the 3rd or 4th time your customer has had to go through this and it is your brand that will suffer disproportionately as a result. Your consumers are already fed up and companies need to assume that the margin of error was already eaten up by whichever vendor previously forced your customers through post-breach aftermath. I see system owners continuing to get stretched thin and kept out of the security process and not taking part in the INFOSEC initiatives at their companies, either due to apathy or workload. And unfortunately, I see no end in sight….

Thanks for reading

John M. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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