Not All Design Flaws Are “Features”

Yesterday I published an article over at TidBITS describing how Apple’s implementation of encryption on the iPhone 3GS is flawed, and as a result you can circumvent it merely by jailbreaking the device. In other words, it’s almost like having no encryption at all. Over on Twitter someone mentioned this was discussed on the Risky Business podcast (sorry, I’m not sure which episode and can’t see it in the show notes) and might be because Apple intended the encryption only as a remote wipe tool (by discarding the key), not as encryption to protect the device from data recovery. While this might be true, Apple is clearly marketing the iPhone 3GS encryption as a security control for lost devices, not merely faster wipes. Again, I’m only basing this on third-hand reports, but someone called it a “design feature”, not a security flaw. Back in my development days we always joked that our bugs were really features. “No, we meant it to work that way”. More often than not these were user interface or functionality issues, not security issues. We’d design some bass ackwards way of getting from point A to B because we were software engineers making assumptions that everyone would logically proceed through the application exactly like us, forgetting that programmers tend to interact with technology a bit differently than mere mortals. More often than not, design flaws really are design flaws. The developer failed to account for real world usage of the program/device, and even if it works exactly as planned, it’s still a bug. Over the past year or so I’ve been fascinated by all the security related design flaws that keep cropping up. From the DNS vulnerability to clickjacking to URI handling in various browsers to pretty much every single feature in every Adobe product, we’ve seen multitudes of design flaws with serious security consequences. In some cases they are treated as bugs, while in other examples the developers vainly defend an untenable position. I don’t know if the iPhone 3GS designers intended the hardware encryption for lost media protection or remote wipe support, but it doesn’t matter. It’s being advertised as providing capabilities it doesn’t provide, and I can’t imagine a security engineer wasting such a great piece of hardware (the encryption chip) on such a mediocre implementation. My gut instinct (since we don’t have official word from Apple) is that this really is a bug, and it’s third parties, not Apple, calling it a design feature. We might even see some PR types pushing the remote wipe angle, but somewhere there are a few iPhone engineers smacking their foreheads in frustration. When a design feature doesn’t match real world use, security or otherwise, it’s a bug. There is only so far we can change our users or the world around our tools. After that, we need to accept we made a mistake or a deliberate compromise. Share:

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Understanding and Choosing a Database Assessment Solution, Part 1: Introduction

Last week I provided some advice regarding database security to a friend’s company, which who is starting a database security program. Based on the business requirements they provided, I made several recommendations on products and processes they need to consider to secure their repositories. As some of my answers were not what they expected, I had to provide a lot of detailed analysis of why I provided the answers I did. At the end of the discussion I began asking some questions about their research and how they had formed some of their opinions. It turns out they are a customer of some of the larger research firms and they had been combing the research libraries on database security. These white papers formed the basis for their database security program and identified the technologies they would consider. They allowed me to look at one of the white papers that was most influential in forming their opinions, and I immediately saw why we had a disconnect in our viewpoints. The white paper was written by two analysts I both know and respect. While I have some nit-picks about the content, all in all it was informative and a fairly good overview document … with one glaring exception: There was no mention of vulnerability assessment! This is a serious omission as assessment is one of the core technologies for database security. Since I had placed considerable focus on assessment for configuration and vulnerabilities in our discussion, and this was at odds with the customer’s understanding based upon the paper, we rehashed a lot of the issues of preventative vs. detective security, and why assessment is a lot more than just looking for missing database patches. Don’t get me wrong. I am a major advocate and fan of several different database security tools, most notably database activity monitoring. DAM is a very powerful technology with a myriad of uses for security and compliance. My previous firm, as well as a couple of our competitors, were in such a hurry to offer this trend-setting, segment-altering technology that we under-funded assessment R&D for several years. But make no mistake, if you implement a database security program, assessment is a must-have component of that effort, and most likely your starting point for the entire process. When I was on the vendor side, a full 60% of the technical requirements customers provided us in RFP/RFI submission requests were addressed through assessment technology! Forget DAM, encryption, obfuscation, access & authorization, label security, input validation, and other technologies. The majority of requirements were fulfilled by decidedly non-sexy assessment technologies. And with good reason. Few people understand the internal complexities of database systems. So as long as the database ran trouble-free, database administrators enjoyed the luxury of implicit trust that the systems under their control were secure. Attackers demonstrate how easy it is to exploit un-patched systems, gain access to accounts with default passwords, and leverage administrative components to steal data. Database security cannot be assumed, but it must be verified. The problem is that security teams and internal auditors lack the technical skills to query database internals; this makes database assessment tools mandatory for automation of complex tasks, analysis of obscure settings, and separation of duties between audit and administrative roles. Keep in mind that we are not talking about network or OS level inspection – rather we are talking about database assessment, which is decidedly different. Assessment technologies for database platforms have continued to evolve and are completely differentiated from OS and network level scans, and must be evaluated under a different set of requirements than those other solutions. And as relational database platforms have multiple communication gateways, a complete access control and authorization scheme, and potentially multiple databases and database schemas all within a single installation, the sheer complexity requires more than a cursory inspection of patch levels and default passwords. I am defining database assessment as the following: Database Assessment is the analysis of database configuration, patch status, and security settings; it is performed by examining the database system both internally and externally – in relation to known threats, industry best practices, and IT operations guidelines. Because database assessment is continually under-covered in the media and analyst community, and because assessment is one of the core building blocks to the Securosis database security program, I figured this was a good time for the official kick-off of our blog series on Understanding and Selecting a Database Vulnerability Assessment Solution. In this series we will cover: Configuration data collection options Security & vulnerability analysis Operational best practices Policy management and remediation Security & compliance reporting Integration & advanced features I will also cover some of the evolutions in database platform technology and how assessment technologies must adapt to meet new challenges. As always, if you feel we are off the mark or missing something, tell us. Reader comments and critiques are encouraged, and if they alter or research position, we credit commentors in any research papers we produce. We have comment moderation turned on to address blog spambots, so your comment will not be immediately viewable, but Rich and I are pretty good about getting comments published during business hours. Share:

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