Sec Tools

Security awareness

A recent Twitter post by Team Cymru pointed at a (very brief) debate about the value of security awareness training.  It’s an issue that has concerned me for a long time.

I got interested in security starting with research into viruses and malware.  Early on, I did a lot of work reviewing the various available products.  In the responses I got to my efforts, one point was abundantly clear: everyone, almost without exception, was looking for the “perfect” antivirus.  Even though Fred Cohen had proven that such an animal could not possibly exist, everybody wanted something they could “set and forget.”

Notice two things.  The first is that perfect security doesn’t exist.  As (ISC)2‘s marketing phrase has it, security transcends technology.  The second point is that people aren’t particularly keen on learning about security.  They fight against it.  They have to be motivated into it.  And that motivation tends to be individual and personal.

Which means security awareness training is hard, and individual, and therefore expensive.  Expensive means that companies are loath to try it, in any significant way.  Hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars can be spent on a raft of security technologies, but security awareness programs can only get a budget of a few thousand a year.  Which means they can’t be individual, which means they won’t work very well, which means companies aren’t willing to try them.

The default position people take is to resist security awareness.  They don’t want to know extraneous stuff.  They just want to get on with their jobs.  So, even if you were to produce a really good security awareness program, there would undoubtedly still be some who would resist to the end, and not learn.  They wouldn’t benefit from the program, and they would still make mistakes.  So security awareness training won’t be perfect, either.  Sorry about that.

However, I’ve noticed something over the years.  I get asked, by all my friends and acquaintances, for advice about virus protection, and home computer protection.  Some learn the ins and outs, the dangerous activities, the marks of a phishing email message.  They never ask me to clean their machines.  Some just ask about the “best” antiviral software.  Usually after they’ve asked me to clean off a computer.  I identify what they’ve got, and tell them how they got it.  You shouldn’t [do music sharing|do instant messaging|go to all those weird Websites|open attachments you receive] I tell them.  They always have reasons why they must do those things.  (Not very good reasons, mind you, just reasons.)

You know that old medical joke about “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” “Well, do do that”?  It’s not funny.

People ask me what antivirus program I use at home.  Very often I don’t use one, unless I’m testing something.  (At the moment I’m testing two, and I’m about ready to take both of them off, since both of them can be real nuisances at times.)  There are long periods where I run without any “protection.”  I know what not to do.  My wife knows what not to do.  (After all, she read my first book seven times over, while she was editing it.)  We don’t get infected.  Not even by “zero days” or “advanced persistent threats.”

Security technology isn’t perfect.  Security awareness training isn’t perfect.  However, at present, and for as long as I can remember, the emphasis has been on security technology.  We need to give awareness more of a try.

Is security awareness “worth it”?  Is security awareness “cost effective”?  Well, we’ve been spending quite a lot on security technologies (sometimes just piecemeal, unmanaged security technologies), and we haven’t got good security.  Three arguments in favour of at least trying security awareness spending:

1)  When you’ve got two areas of benefit, and you are reaching the limits of “diminishing returns” in one area, the place to put your further money is on the one you haven’t stressed.

2)  Security awareness is mostly about risk management.  Business management is mostly about risk management.  Security awareness can give you advantages in more than just security.

3)  Remember that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

REVIEW: “Above the Clouds”, Kevin T. McDonald

BKABVCLD.RVW   20110323

“Above the Clouds”, Kevin T. McDonald, 2010, 978-1-84928-031-0,
UK#39.95
%A   Kevin T. McDonald
%D   2010
%G   978-1-84928-031-0 1-84928-031-2
%I   IT Governance
%O   UK#39.95
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1849280312/robsladesinterne
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1849280312/robsladesinte-21
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/1849280312/robsladesin03-20
%O   Audience n+ Tech 1 Writing 1 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   169 p.
%T   “Above the Clouds: Managing Risk in the World of Cloud Computing”

The preface does a complicated job of defining cloud computing.  The introduction does provides a simpler description: cloud computing is the sharing of services, at the time you need them, paying for the services you need or use.  Different terms are listed based on what services are provided, and to whom.  We could call cloud computing time-sharing, and the providers service bureaus.  (Of course, if we did that, a number of people would think they’d walked into a forty-five year time-warp.)

The text is oddly structured: indeed, it is hard to find any organization in the material at all.  Chapter one states that the cloud allows you to do rapid prototyping because you can use patched operating systems.  I would agree that properly up-to-date operating systems are a good thing, but it isn’t made clear what this has to do with either prototyping or the cloud.  There is a definite (and repeated) assertion that “bigger is better,” but this idea is presented as an article of faith, rather than demonstrated.   There is mention of the difficulty of maintaining core competencies, but no discussion of how you would determine that a large entity has such competencies.  Some of the content is contradictory: there are many statements to the effect that the cloud allows instant access to services, but at least one warning that you cannot expect cloud services to be instantly accessible.  Various commercial products and services are noted in one section, but there is almost no description or detail in regard to actual services or availability.

Chapter two does admit that there can be some problems with using cloud services.  Despite this admission some of the material is strange.  We are told that you can eliminate capacity planning by using the cloud, but are immediately warned that we need to determine service levels (which is just a different form of capacity planning).  In terms of preparation and planning, chapter three does mention a number of issues to be addressed.  Even so, it tends to underplay the full range of factors that can determine the success or failure of a cloud project.  (Much content that has been provided previously is duplicated here.)  There is a very brief section on risk  management.  The process outline is fine, but the example given is rather flawed.  (The gap analysis fails to note that the vendor does not actually answer the question asked.)  SAS70 and similar reports are heavily emphasized, although the material fails to mention that many of the reasons that small businesses will be interested in the cloud will be for functions that are beyond the scope of these standards.  Chapter four appears to be about risk assessment, but then wanders into discussion of continuity planning, project management, testing, and a bewildering variety of only marginally related topics.  There is a very terse review of security fundamentals, in chapter five, but it is so brief as to be almost useless, and does not really address issues specifically related to the cloud.  The (very limited) examination of security in chapter six seems to imply that a good cloud provider will automatically provide additional security functions.  In certain areas, such as availability and backup, this may be true.  However, in areas such as access control and identity management, this will most probably involve additional charges/costs, and it is not likely that the service provider will be able to do a better job than you can, yourself.  A final chapter suggests that you analyze your own company to find functions that can be placed into the cloud.

Despite the random nature of the book, the breadth of topics means it can be used as an introduction to the factors which should be considered when attempting to use cloud computing.  The lack of detail would place a heavy burden of research and work on those charged with planning or implementing such activities.  In addition, the heavily promotional tone of the work may lead some readers to underestimate the magnitude of the task.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2011     BKABVCLD.RVW   20110323

New computers – Windows 7 – security and password aging

Today when I signed on I got a bit of a shock.  The computer warned me that my password was going to expire in 5 days, and I should probably consider changing it.

It was a shock because this is my computer, and I go along with current password aging thinking, which is that a) we can’t figure out who first figured that password aging was all that hot an idea, and b) if it ever was a good idea, in the modern computing environment, password aging is a non-starter.  Given that passwords should probably exceed 20 characters, and likely should be somewhat complex, trying to get people to choose a good one more than once every few years (when rainbow tables have been extended) is likely more security compromising than enhancing.

So, I went looking.  Having dealt with security for a number of years, it wasn’t too hard for me to figure out that I didn’t want the control panel (since I hadn’t seen anything along that line while I was modifying other settings), and that I likely wanted “Administrative Tools,” and under that “Local Security Policy.”  I had to read through all the options to determine that I probably wanted “Account Policies,” but, under that, it was obvious I wanted “Password Policy,” and, once there, “Maximum password age” stood out.  With no particular options or actions I went back to the menu bar until I found that “Action” had a “Properties” function, bringing up a dialogue box with an entry box with a number in it.  I figured that setting it to zero might turn off password aging, but I didn’t want to do anything that might require me to set a new password every time I signed on, so, when I saw that one of the tabs was “Explain,” I choose that.

(Allow me to digress for just a second here, and note that I suspect that the average home or small office user would not have found it easy to find this setting, and thus would have been stuck with the default.  And all that that implies.)

The explanation did confirm that setting the number of days to zero does mean the passwords never expire.  But it also told me that “It is a security best practice to have passwords expire every 30 to 90 days, depending on your environment. This way, an attacker has a limited amount of time in which to crack a user’s password and have access to your network resources.”

Microsoft, you’ve got to be kidding.  If an attacker has enough access to your system in order to start cracking your passwords, then they’ll almost certainly succeed within a few days.  Unless you’ve chosen a really, really good password, in which case it might be some years.  So 30 to 90 days makes very little sense.  (And, if you’re really serious about the maximum of 90 days, how come the entry box allows up to 999?)

But then, right down at the bottom, it tells me that “Default: 42.”

Oh, sorry, Microsoft.  Obviously you are kidding.  Nobody could take that seriously as a default.

(But then, why is that the default, and why is it enabled by default? …)

The issue prompted a little more thinking on my part.  Was it really 37 days (42 minus 5) since I’d installed the machine?  Ah, but then, it couldn’t be.  As previously noted, I had to take it back to the store to clear up some OS registration issue.  They, of course, didn’t ask what password I’d set, they just blew off the passwords.  So, the 37 days would start from that point, wouldn’t it?

Well, apparently not.  When I checked my journal, it was obvious that the 37 days started when I first started setting up the computer, not when the store eliminated the passwords.

Interesting version of “history” there, Microsoft …

Blow your own horn

At a local conference, one presenter had a topic of “Blow Your Own Horn.”  The point was to be ready with some kind of success story (any kind of success story) ready for presentation.  Elevator pitch level stuff, except you aren’t selling anything specific, just success.

For example: “Last year you (the Board) approved purchase of a $50,000 licence fee for AV software on the email server.  This past month, records show it stopped 1 million viruses, which would otherwise have gotten through.  Had they been run, they would have cost $500 each (estimated industry average) to clean up.  Therefore, your prescient decision to spend $50,000 has returned $500,000,000 to the company.”

(OK, yes, any infosec professional knows the holes in that logic.  And you are turning it so that you are creditting the Board with what should be *your* success.  But you get the idea.)

I suggest everybody have a file in some readily accessible drawer, for scribbling down any idea you come up with along these lines, using company specific data.  One idea per page.  Any time you get called to the Boardroom (or, depending upon how many ideas you can come up with, any meeting) grab a sheet and read it in the elevator.  Whatever they asked you to talk about, walk in and start off with, “Thank you for your interest in X.  Before I begin, I’d like to let you know that, because of our investment in a $2,000 course in Ethereal, for one of the net sec admins, last April’s intrusion was detected within 5 hours, and we were able to ensure that all servers were hardened against that particular attack within only a further 12 hours, all within house.  Normally such an attack would be undetected for three days, and would have required outside help at a usual cost of $7,000.”

(Yes, this gets down into the weeds in regard to architecture, but security is a lot more about politics than technology.  And people love stories.)

Conflicting AVs

Well behaved anitvirus programs can safely work together in peace and harmony.

Unfortunately, relatively few AVs are well behaved.

On my new desktop, I’ve got Avast (came with the machine, has a free version, and is a pretty good product) and MSE (it’s free, and it’s pretty safe for most users, although, as a professional, some parts of it irk me).  I’ve set both to ignore the virus zoo, although they aren’t too good at taking that restriction to heart.

MSE quarantined a few samples before I got things tuned.  Of course, it doesn’t have any function to get stuff out of “quarantine.”  (As I say, as a professional this is irksome, but, considering the average user, I’d say this is a darn good thing.)

Today Avast gave me a warning of some dangerous files.  They were the ones MSE quarantined.

(In case anyone is interested, the quarantine seems to be in \ProgramData\Microsoft\Microsoft Antimalware\LocalCopy.)

Fake Online Reviews

We’ve had means of expressing our opinions on various things for a long time.  Amazon has had reviews of the books pretty much since the beginning.  But how do we know that the reviews are real?  Virus writers took the opportunity presented by Amazon to trash my books when they were published.  (Even though they used different names, it only took a very simple form of forensic linguistics to figure out the identities.)

More recently, review spam has become more important, since many people are relying on the online reviews when buying items or booking services.  A number of “companies” have determined that it is more cost effective to have bots or other entities flood the review systems with fake positive reviews than it is to make quality products or services.  So, some nice people from Cornell university produced and tested some software to determine the fakes.

Note that, from these slides, there is not a lot of detail about exactly how they determine the fakes.  However, there is enough to indicate that sophisticated algorithms are less accurate than some fairly simple metrics.  When I teach about software forensics (aspects of which are similar to forensic lingusitics, or stylistic forensics), this seems counterintuitive and surprises a lot of students.  Generally they object that, if you know about the metircs, you should be able to avoid them.  In practice, this doesn’t seem to be the case.  Simple metrics do seem to be very effective in both forensic linguistics, and in software forensics.

Complexity is killing us

The other night Gloria asked me what to do about securing the computer if I die first.  (Yes, we talk about those type of things.)  I really didn’t know what to tell her.  And told her that.

A decade ago, I would have had a list of things to do.  Actually, she knows that list: although she always considers herself ignorant about computers, she’s actually more savvy than most (and a lot more savvy than she gives herself credit for).  But these days I hardly know where to start.  You have to qualify every piece of advice you give, and you have to constantly keep up on the latest attacks and threats.  General classes don’t cut it any more.

This isn’t because the attackers are getting any more imaginative.  In general, they aren’t.  Recently a lot of companies (some, like RSA and Sony, very high profile) have been screaming about getting hit by APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks.  What is APT?  Simply social engineering and malware.  Well, since malware has almost always had a social engineering component, I suppose it’s really only malware.  We’ve had malware for thirty years.  So what’s new?  Nothing.  The companies were sloppy.

What is happening is that all of information and communications technology is getting more and more complex.  Programs are tied into the operating system.  Nothing is clear cut.  The actual workings of the system are hidden from the user.  Hardware is virtual.  Networks are cloudy.  Gene Spafford mentioned this in a recent interview.  Since it was an interview, he really didn’t get a chance to expand on this point: the interviewer was more interested in trying to nail down who to blame for the situation.  Who is to blame?  Well, the vendors are creating sloppy systems: forfeiting security in the name of bells and whistles.  But that, of course, is because only a vanishingly small segment of the population is actually interested in security: everyone wants dancing pigs.

I’ve written before about complexity and security.  (And network complexity.)  But every day brings new examples.  Today, for example, Adobe has finally brought out an easier way to delete or manage Flash cookies.  Flash cookies are a particularly pernicious and tenacious form of cookie.  Those of you who think you are “up” on security may have set your browser to delete cookies.  Good.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a thing for Flash cookies.  So, Adobe has finally given us control over Flash cookies.  In version 10.3.  What version of Flash do you have?  Do you even know?  How would you find out?  It took me quite a while, and I know what I’m doing.  And, in spite of the fact that I’ve had numerous (annoying) Adobe updates recently, I don’t have 10.3.

I’m supposed to be a specialist not only in security, but in security awareness.  And the job is just getting overwhelming.

It’s really depressing.

Shaw idiot spam filter yet again

Once again, in a month and a half, Shaw has disabled my outbound email.

For no particular reason.

Oh, sure, the error code says 554, rejected due to poor reputation.  So, like before, I do a lookup.  (For those interested in the stability of DHCP, my IP address is still the same, a month an a half later.  Even after being away for two conferences, and a short vacation.)  So, once more, I look up http://www.senderbase.org/senderbase_queries/detailip?search_string=70.79.166.169

This time there is even less information.  Google groups, SpamCop, dnsbl.njabl.org, bl.spamcop.net, cbl.abuseat.org, sbl.spamhaus.org, and pbl.spamhaus.org all say I’m clean.  (dnsbl.sorbs.net refuses to say anything, oddly.)

RFC-Ignorant.Org does say, again, that Shaw itself is questionable.  So, does that mean all Shaw clients are silent tonight?  How big of a CIDR does this affect?  (And why?)  How come I’m the guy who gets picked on?

Once again, Shaw’s “help” “Support” line is of no use.  This time around “Jason” tells me I just have to be patient: the spam guys are looking into something.  He won’t venture any guesses as to what the something is.