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Understanding and Choosing a Database Assessment Solution, Part 2: Buying Decisions

By Adrian Lane

If you were looking for a business justification for database assessment, the joint USSS/FBI advisory referenced in Rich’s last post on Recent Breaches should be more than sufficient. What you are looking at is not a checklist of exotic security measures, but fairly basic security that should be implemented in every production database. All of the preventative controls listed in the advisory are, for the most part, addressed with database assessment scanners. Detection of known SQL injection vulnerabilities, detecting use of external stored procedures like xp_cmdshell, and avenues for obtaining Windows credentials from a compromised database server (or vice-versa) are basic policies included with all database vulnerability scanners – some freely available for download. It is amazing that large firms like Heartland, Hannaford, and TJX – who rely on databases for core business functions – get basic database security so wrong. These attacks are a template for anyone who cares to break into your database servers. If you don’t think you are a target because you are not storing credit card numbers, think again! There are plenty of ways for attackers to earn money or commit fraud by extracting or altering the contents of your databases. As a very basic security first step, scan your databases!

Adoption of database specific assessment technologies has been sporadic outside the finance vertical because providing business justification is not always simple. For one, many firms already have generic forms of assessment and inaccurately believe they already have that function covered. If they do discover missing policies, they often get the internal DBA staff to paper ove the gaps with homegrown SQL queries. As an example of what I mean, I want to share one story about a customer who was inspecting database configurations as part of their internal audit process. They had about 18 checks, mostly having to do with user permissions, and these settings formed part of the SOX and GLBA controls. What took me by surprise was the customer’s process: twice a year a member of the internal audit staff walked from database server to database server, logged in, ran the SQL queries, captured the results, and then moved on to the other 12 systems. When finished, all of the results were dumped into a formatting tool so the control reports could be made ready for KPMG’s visit. Twice a year, she made the rounds, each time taking a day to collect the data, and a day to produce the reports. When KPMG advised the reports be run quarterly, the task became perceived as a burden and they began a search to automate the task because only then did the cost in lost productivity warrant investment in automation. Their expectations going in were simply that the cost for the product should not grossly exceed a week or two of employee time.

Where it got interesting was when we began the proof of concept – it turned out several other groups had been manually running scripts and had much the same problem. We polled other organizations across the company, and found similar requirements from internal audit, security, IT management, and DBAs alike. Not only was each group already performing a small but critical set of security and compliance tasks, they each had another list of things they would like to accomplish. While no single group could justify the expense, taken together it was easy to see how automation saved on manpower alone. We then multiplied the work across dozens, or in some cases thousands of databases – and discovered there had been ample financial justification all along. Each group might have been motivated by compliance, operations efficiency, or threat mitigation, but as their work required separation of duties, they had not cooperated on obtaining tools to solve a shared problem. Over time, we found this customer example to be fairly common.

When considering business justification for the investment into database assessment, you are unlikely to find any single irresistible reason you need database assessment technology. You may read product marketing claims that say “Because you are compelled by compliance mandate GBRSH 509 to secure your database”, or some nonsense like that, but it is simply not true. There are security and regulatory requirements that compel certain database settings, but nothing that mandates automation. But there are two very basic reasons why you need to automate the assessment process: The scope of the task, and accuracy of the results. The depth and breadth of issues to address are beyond the skill of any one of the audiences for assessment. Let’s face it: the changes in database security issues alone are difficult to keep up with – much less compliance, operations, and evolutionary changes to the database platform itself. Coupled with the boring and repetitive nature of running these scans, it’s ripe territory for shortcuts and human error.

When considering a database assessment solution, the following are common market drivers for adoption. If your company has more than a couple databases, odds are all of these factors will apply to your situation:

  • Configuration Auditing for Compliance: Periodic reports on database configuration and setup are needed to demonstrate adherence to internal standards and regulatory requirements. Most platforms offer policy bundles tuned for specific regulations such as PCI, Sarbanes-Oxley, and HIPAA.
  • Security: Fast and effective identification of known security issues and deviations from company and industry best practices, with specific remediation advice.
  • Operational Policy Enforcement: Verification of work orders, operational standards, patch levels, and approved methods of remediation are valuable (and possibly required).

There are several ways this technology can be applied to promote and address the requirements above, including:

  • Automated verification of compliance and security settings across multiple heterogenous database environments.
  • Consistency in database deployment across the organization, especially important for patch and configuration management, as well as detection and remediation of exploits commonly used to gain access.
  • Centralized policy management so that a single policy can be applied across multiple (possibly geographically dispersed) locations.
  • Separation of duties between IT, audit, security, and database administration personnel.
  • Non-techncial stakeholder usage, suitable for auditors and security professionals without detailed knowledge of database internals. Assessment platforms act as a bridge between policy and enforcement, or verify compliance for a non-technical audience.
  • Reduction in development time, removing the burden of code and script development from DBAs and internal staff.
  • Integration with existing reporting, workflow and trouble-ticketing systems. Assessment is only useful if the data gets into the right hands and can be acted upon.

I am really happy that we are getting some of the details from the indictment on how these database breaches were carried out. It should be a wake-up call for companies to verify their baseline security, and sufficient incentive for you to go out and evaluate database assessment technologies.

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