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Endpoint Security Fundamentals: Introduction

By Mike Rothman

As we continue building out coverage on more traditional security topics, it’s time to focus some attention on the endpoint. For the most part, many folks have just given up on protecting the endpoint. Yes, we all go through the motions of having endpoint agents installed (on Windows anyway), but most of us have pretty low expectations for anti-malware solutions. Justifiably so, but that doesn’t mean it’s game over. There are lots of things we can do to better protect the endpoint, some of which were discussed in Low Hanging Fruit: Endpoint Security.

But let’s not get the cart ahead of the horse. First off, nowadays there are lots of incentives for the bad guys to control endpoint devices. There is usually private data on the device, including nice things like customer databases – and with the strategic use of keyloggers, it’s just a matter of time before bank passwords are discovered. Let’s not forget about intellectual property on the devices, since lots of folks just have to have their deepest darkest (and most valuable) secrets on their laptop, within easy reach. Best of all, compromising an endpoint device gives the bad guys a foothold in an organization, and enables them to compromise other systems and spread the love.

The endpoint has become the path of least resistance, mostly because of the unsophistication of the folks using said devices doing crazy Web 2.0 stuff. All that information sharing certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, right? Regardless of how wacky the attack, it seems at least one stupid user will fall for it. Between web application attacks like XSS (cross-site scripting), CSRF (cross-site request forgery), social engineering, and all sorts of drive-by attacks, compromising devices is like taking candy from a baby. But not all the blame can be laid at the feet of users, because many attacks are pretty sophisticated, and even hardened security professionals can be duped.

Combine that with the explosion of mobile devices, whose owners tend to either lose them or bring back bad stuff from coffee shops and hotels, and you’ve got a wealth of soft targets. And as the folks tasked with protecting corporate data and ensuring compliance, we’ve got to pay more attention to locking down the endpoints – to the degree we can. And that’s what the Endpoint Security Fundamentals series is all about.

Philosophy: Real-world Defense in Depth

As with all of Securosis’ research, we focus on tactics to maxize impact for minimal effort. In the real world, we may not have the ability to truly lock down the devices since those damn users want to do their jobs. The nerve of them! So we’ve focused on layers of defense, not just from the standpoint of technology, but also looking at what we need to do before, during, and after an incident.

  • Prioritize – This will warm the hearts of all the risk management academics out there, but we do need to start the process by understanding which endpoint devices are most at risk because they hold valuable data, for a legitimate business reason – right?
  • Assess the current status – Once we know what’s important, we need to figure out how porous our defenses are, so we’ll be assessing the endpoints.
  • Focus on the fundamentals – Next up, we actually pick that low hanging fruit and do the thing that we should be doing anyway. Yes, things like keeping software up to date, leveraging what we can from malware defense, and using new technologies like personal firewalls and HIPS. Right, none of this stuff is new, but not enough of us do it. Kind of like… no, I won’t go there.
  • Building a sustainable program – It’s not enough to just implement some technology. We also need to do some of those softer management things, which we don’t like very much – like managing expectations and defining success. Ultimately we need to make sure the endpoint defenses can (and will) adapt to the changing attack vectors we see.
  • Respond to incidents – Yes, it will happen to you, so it’s important to make sure your incident response plan factors in the reality that an endpoint device may be the primary attack vector. So make sure you’ve got your data gathering and forensics kits at the ready, and also have an established process for when a remote or traveling person is compromised.
  • Document controls – Finally, the auditor will show up and want to know what controls you have in place to protect those endpoints. So you also need to focus on documentation, ensuring you can substantiate all the tactics we’ve discussed thus far.

The ESF Series

To provide an little preview of what’s to come, here is how the series will be structured:

  • Prioritize: Finding the Leaky Buckets
  • Triage: Fixing the Leaky Buckets
  • Fundamentals: Leveraging existing technologies (a few posts covering the major technology areas)
  • The Endpoint Security Program: Systematizing Protection
  • Incident Response: Responding to an endpoint compromise
  • Compliance: Documenting Endpoint Controls

As with all our research initiatives, we count on you to keep us honest. So check out each piece and provide your feedback. Tell me why I’m wrong, how you do things differently, or what we’ve missed.

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