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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Personal Security Guiding Principles

By Rich

Fall of 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of my professional security career. That was the first day someone stuck a yellow shirt on my back and sent me into a crowd of drunk college football fans at the University of Colorado (later famous for its student riots). I’m pretty sure someone screwed up, since it was my first day on the job and I was assigned a rover position – which normally goes to someone who knows what the f&%$ they are doing, not some 18 year old, 135-lb kid right out of high school. And yes, I was breaking up fights on my first day (the stadium wasn’t dry until a few years later).

If you asked me then, I never would have guessed I’d spend the next couple decades working through the security ranks, eventually letting my teenage geek/hacker side take over. Over that time I’ve come to rely on the following guiding principles in everything from designing my personal security to giving advice to clients:

  1. Don’t expect human behavior to change. Ever.
  2. You cannot survive with defense alone.
  3. Not all threats are equal, and all checklists are wrong.
  4. You cannot eliminate all vulnerabilities.
  5. You will be breached.

There’s a positive side to each of these negative principles:

  1. Design security controls that account for human behavior. Study cognitive science and practical psychology to support your decisions. This is also critical for gaining support for security initiatives, not just design of individual controls.
  2. Engage in intelligence and counter-threat operations to the best of your ability. Once an attack has started, your first line of security has already failed.
  3. Use checklists to remember the simple stuff, but any real security must be designed using a risk-based approach. As a corollary, you can’t implement risk-based security if you don’t really understand the risks; and most people don’t understand the risks. Be the expert.
  4. Adopt anti-exploitation wherever possible. Vulnerability-driven security is always behind the threat.
  5. React faster and better. Incident response is more important than any other single security control.

With one final piece of advice – keep it simple and pragmatic.

And after 20 years, that’s all I’ve got…


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hosting Providers and Log Security

By Adrian Lane

An interesting discussion popped up on Slashdot this Saturday afternoon about Preventing My Hosting Provider From Rooting My Server. ‘hacker’ is claiming that when he accuses his hosting provider of service interruption, they assume root access on his machines without permission.

“I have a heavily-hit public server (web, mail, cvs/svn/git, dns, etc.) that runs a few dozen OSS project websites, as well as my own personal sites (gallery, blog, etc.). From time to time, the server has ‘unexpected’ outages, which I’ve determined to be the result of hardware, network and other issues on behalf of the provider. I run a lot of monitoring and logging on the server-side, so I see and graph every single bit and byte in and out of the server and applications, so I know it’s not the OS itself. When I file ‘WTF?’-style support tickets to the provider through their web-based ticketing system, I often get the response of: ‘Please provide us with the root password to your server so we can analyze your logs for the cause of the outage.’ Moments ago, there were three simultaneous outages while I was logged into the server working on some projects. Server-side, everything was fine. They asked me for the root password, which I flatly denied (as I always do), and then they rooted the server anyway, bringing it down and poking around through my logs. This is at least the third time they’ve done this without my approval or consent. Is it possible to create a minimal Linux boot that will allow me to reboot the server remotely, come back up with basic networking and ssh, and then from there, allow me to log in and mount the other application and data partitions under dm-crypt/loop-aes and friends?”

Ignoring for a moment the basic problem of requesting assistance while not wishing to provide access, how do you protect the servers from remote hosting administrators? If someone else has physical access to your machine, even if you machine is virtual, a skilled attacker will gain access to your data regardless. It’s not clear if the physical machine is owned by ‘hacker’ or if it is just leased server capacity, but it seems to me that if you want to keep remote administrators of average skill from rooting your server and then rummaging around in your files, disk encryption would be an effective choice. You have the issue of needing to supply credentials remotely upon reboot, but this would be effective in protecting log data. If you need better security, place the server under your physical control, or all bets are off.

—Adrian Lane

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Summary- December 18, 2009 - Hiatus Alert!

By Adrian Lane

This is going to be a pretty short summary. If you noticed, we were were a little light on content this week, due to out-of-town travel for client engagements and in-town client meetings. On a personal note, early this week I had a front tire blow out on my car, throwing me airborne and backwards across four lanes of traffic during the afternoon commute. A driver who witnessed the spectacle said it looked like pole vaulting with cars, and could not figure out how I landed on the wheels, backwards or not. Somehow I did not hit anything and walked away unscathed, but truth be told, I am a little shaken up by the experience. Thank you to those of you who sent well wishes, but everything is fine here.

On a more positive note we are gearing up for several exciting events in the new year. New business offerings, a bunch of new stuff on Quant for databases, and a few other surprises as well. But all of this is a lot of work, and it is all going on while we are attending to family matters, so we have decided that this is the last Friday summary of the year. We will have more posts during the holidays, but the frequency will be down until the new year.

On to the Summary:

Webcasts, Podcasts, Outside Writing, and Conferences

Favorite Securosis Posts

Other Securosis Posts

Project Quant for Databases:

Favorite Outside Posts

Top News and Posts

Honestly, most of us did not even open our feed readers this week. But one post was making the rounds:

Blog Comment of the Week

This week’s best comment comes from our own Jeremiah Grossman in response to Adrian’s post on Akamai Implements WAF:

Adrian, good post, some bits to consider… One major reason I found this announcement very important is many large website operators who utilize massive bandwidth simply cannot deploy WAFs for performance/manageability reasons. This is why WAFs are rarely found guarding major traffic points. Akamai is known specifically for their performance capabilities so may be able to scale up WAFs where current industry has not.

Secondly, WAF rules will always leave some vulnerability gaps, hopefully lesser so in the future, but complete coverage isn’t necessarily a must. The vast majority of vulnerabilities (by raw numbers) are syntax in nature (ie SQLi, XSS, etc.) By mitigating these (at least temporarily) organizations may prioritize the business logic flaws for code fixes–gaps in the WAF. These approach helps getting down to zero remotely exploitable bugs MUCH easier. We’ve experienced as much in our customer-base.

“Rule sets are really hard to get right, and must be updated with the same frequency as your web site content. As you add new pages or functions, you are adding and updating rules.”

This implies the WAF is deployed in white list mode, which to my understanding is not how Akamai is going to go. ModSecurity Core Rules are black list style, so would not require updates when content is changed. To be fair the rules would have to be changed as the attacks evolve, which may or may be as fast as website/content code changes.

—Adrian Lane

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MacBook Holiday Sales Report

By Adrian Lane

This is my MacBook sale progress report. For those of you who have not followed my tweets on the subject, I listed my MacBook for sale on Craigslist. After Bruce Schneier’s eye-opening and yet somehow humorous report on selling his laptop on eBay, I figured I would shoot for a face to face sale. I chose Craigslist in Phoenix and specified a cash-only sale. The results have been less than impressive. The first time I listed the laptop:

  • Scammers: 6
  • Phishers: 2
  • Tire Kickers: 1
  • Real Buyers: 0

The second time I listed the laptop:

  • Scammers: 5
  • Phishers: 4
  • Pranksters: 1
  • Tire Kickers: 1
  • Real Buyers: 0

I consider them scammers, as the people who responded in all but one case wanted shipment to Africa. It was remarkably consistent. The remaining ‘buyer’ claimed to be in San Jose, but felt compelled to share some sob story about a relative with failing health in Africa. I figured that was a precursor to asking me to ship overseas. When I said I would be happy to deliver to their doorstep for cash, they never responded. The prankster wanted me to meet him in a very public place and assured me he would bring cash, but was just trying to get me to drive 30 miles away. I asked a half dozen times for a phone call to confirm, which stopped communications cold. I figure this is kind of like crank calling for the 21st century.

A few years ago I saw a presentation by eBay’s CISO, Dave Cullinane. He stated that on any given day, 10% of eBay users would take advantage of another eBay user if the opportunity presented itself, and about 2% were actively engaged in finding ways to defraud other eBay members. Given the vast number of global users eBay has, I think that is a pretty good sample size, and probably an accurate representation of human behavior. I would bet that when it comes to high dollar items that can be quickly exchanged for cash, the percentage of incidents rises dramatically. In my results, 55% of responses were active scams. I would love to know what percentages eBay sees with laptop sales. Is it the malicious 2% screwing around with over 50% of the laptop sales? I am making an assumption that it’s a small group of people engaged in this behavior, given the consistency of the pitches, and that my numbers on Craigslist are not that dissimilar from eBay’s.

A small group of people can totally screw up an entire market, as the people I speak with are now donating stuff for the tax writeoff rather than deal with the detritus. Granted, it is easier for an individual to screen for fraudsters with Craigslist, but eBay seems to do a pretty good job. Regardless, at some point the hassle simply outweighs the couple hundred bucks you’d get from the sale. Safe shopping and happy holidays!

—Adrian Lane

Akamai Implements WAF

By Adrian Lane

Akamai announced that they are adding Web Application Firewall (WAF) capabilities into their distributed EdgePlatform netwok. I usually quote from the articles I reference, but there is simply too much posturing and fluffy marketing-ese about value propositions for me to extract an insightful fragment of information on what they are doing and why it is important, so I will paraphrase. In a nutshell they have ported ModSecurity onto/into the Akamai Edge Server. They are using the Core Rule Set to form the basis of their policy set. As content is pulled from the Akamai cache servers, the request is examined for XSS, SQL Injection, response splitting, and other injection attacks, as well as some error conditions indicative of tampering.

Do I think this is a huge advancement to security? Not really. At least not at the outset. But I think it’s a good idea in the long run. Akamai edge servers are widely used by large commercial vendors and content providers, who are principal targets for many specific XSS attacks. In essence you are distributing Web Application Firewall rules, and enforcing as requests are made for the distributed/cached content. The ModSecurity policy set has been around for a long time and will provide basic protections, but it leaves quite a gap in meaningful coverage. Don’t get me wrong, the rule set covers many of the common attacks and they are proven to be effective. However, the value of a WAF is in the quality of the rule set, and how appropriate those rules are to the specific web application. Rule sets are really hard to get right, and must be updated with the same frequency as your web site content. As you add new pages or functions, you are adding and updating rules.

I think the announcement is important, though, is because I believe it marks the beginning of a trend. We hear far too many complaints about WAF hindering applications, as well as the expense of rule set development and maintenance. The capability is valuable, but the coverage needs to get better, management needs to be easier, and the costs need to come down. I believe this is a model we will see more of because:

  1. Security is embedded into the service. With many ‘Cloud’ and SaaS offerings being offered, most with nebulous benefits, it’s clear that those who use Akamai are covered from the basic attacks, and the analysis is done on the Akamai network, so your servers remain largely unburdened. Just as with out-sourcing the processing overhead associated with anti-spam into the cloud, you are letting the cloud absorb the overhead of SQL Injection detection. And like Anti-virus, it’s only going to catch a subset of the attacks.
  2. Commoditization of WAF service. Let’s face it, SaaS and cloud models are more efficient because you commoditize a resource and then leverage the capability across a much larger number of customers. WAF rules are hard to set up, so if I can leverage attack knowledge across hundreds or thousands of sites, the cost goes down. We are not quite there yet, but the possibility of relieving your organization from needing these skills in-house is very attractive for the SME segment. The SME segment is not really using Akamai EdgeServers, so what I am talking about is generic WAF in the cloud, but the model fits really well with outsourced and managed service models. Specific, tailored WAF rules will be the add-on service for those who choose not to build defenses into the web application or maintain their own WAF.
  3. The knowledge that Akamai can gather and return to WAF & web security vendors provides invaluable analysis on emerging attacks. The statistics, trend data, and metrics they have access to offer security researchers a wealth of information – which can be leveraged to thwart specific attacks and augment firewall rules.

So this first baby step is not all that exciting, but I think it’s a logical progression for WAF service in the cloud, and one we will see a lot more of.

—Adrian Lane

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Summary - December 11, 2009

By Adrian Lane

I have had friends and family in town over the last eight days. Some of them wanted the ‘Arizona Experience’, so we did the usual: Sedona, Pinnacle Peak Steak House, Cave Creek, a Cardinals game, and a few other local attractions. Part of the tour was the big Crossroads Gun Show out at the fairgrounds. It was the first time I had been to such a show in 9 or 10 years. Speaking with merchants, listening to their sales pitches, and overhearing discussions around the fairgrounds, everything was centered on security. Personal security. Family security. Home security. Security when they travel. They talk about preparedness and they are planning for many possibilities: everything from burglars to Armageddon. Some events they plan for have small statistical probability, while others border on the fantastic. Still, the attendees were there to do more than just speculate and engage in idle talk – they train, plan, meet with peers, and prepare for they threats they perceive.

I don’t want this to devolve into a whole gun control discussion, and I am not labeling any group – that is not my point. What you view as a threat, and to what lengths you are willing to go, provides an illuminating contrast between data security and physical security. Each discussion I engaged in had a very personal aspect to it. I don’t know any data security professionals that honestly sit up at night thinking about how to prepare for new threats or what might happen. For them, it’s a job. Some research late into the night and hack to learn, but it’s not the same thing. As data security professionals, short of a handful of people in capture the flag tournaments at Black Hat, the same level of dedication is not there. Then again, generally no one dies if your firewall fails.

For each of the dozen or so individuals I spoke with, their actions were an odd blend of intellect and paranoia. How much planning was a product of their imagination and resources. Are they any more secure than other segments of the population? Do their cars get stolen any less, or are their homes any safer? I have no idea. But on one level I admired them for their sharing of knowledge amongst peers. For thinking about how they might be vulnerable, planning how to address the vulnerabilities, and training for a response. On the other hand I just could not get out of my head that the risk model is out of whack. The ultimate risk may be greater, but you just cannot throw probability out the window. Perhaps with personal safety it is easier to get excited about security, as opposed to the more abstract concepts of personal privacy or security of electronic funds. Regardless, the experience was eye opening.

On a totally different subject, we notice we have been getting some great comments from readers lately. We really appreciate this! The comments are diverse and enlightening, and often contribute just as much to the community as the original posts. We make a point of listing those who contribute to white paper development and highlighting interesting comments from week to week, but we have been looking for a more concrete way of acknowledging these external contributors for a while know. To show our appreciation, Rich, myself and the rest of the Securosis team have decided that we are giving a $25 donation to Hackers for Charity (HFC) in the name of whoever drops the best comment each week. Make sure you check out the “Blog Comment of the Week”!

On to the Summary:

Webcasts, Podcasts, Outside Writing, and Conferences

Favorite Securosis Posts

Other Securosis Posts

Project Quant for Databases:

Favorite Outside Posts

Top News and Posts

Blog Comment of the Week

We are going to do something a little different this week … both because we had so many excellent comments, and because we are launching the Hackers for Charity contributions. This week we have three winners!

  1. Chris Hayes in response to Mortman asking for a FAIR analysis in comments on Changing The Game ?

@Mortman. Interesting request. A FAIR analysis can be used to demonstrate variance in resistance strength (formerly referred to as “control strength”). A FAIR analysis is usually done for a unique scenario. For example, password frequency change for an Internet facing app – where access to a small amount of confidential information is possible. A system password policy that requires complexity, lock-out, password frequency changes, is going to have a lot higher resistance strength then a system password policy that requires no complexity, no lockout, and no frequency of password changes. Staying in the context of FAIR, resistance strength and threat capability are both used to determine vulnerability that when combined with threat event frequency result in loss event frequency.

I have performed password frequency related risk assessments for a business unit wanting to accommodate some of its “constituents” to change password frequency from a value that was below 60 days to a value greater then three times the previous value. The key factors were that there were other controls present (lockout, number of records accessible, etc..) The “risk” associated with extending the frequency out as far as they did was more then acceptable to the business, seen as a competitive advantage, and has stood up to scrutiny.

If you are looking for an actual FAIR analysis, I am willing to collaborate with you to ensure we have a reasonable scenario. In my opinion, performing a FAIR analysis on a problem statement that is very broad – like, “what is the risk associated with world hunger”) – is problematic.

  1. Russell Thomas in response to Possibility is not Privacy:


“This whole “possibility is not probability” phrase is pure nonsense because at their root they all deal with chance. Relying on colloquialisms to make your point is folly here.”

I think you are mistaken. There is a well developed philosophical literature on the distinction between possibility and probability, and also their relation. “Possibility” is part of modal logic, which is reasoning about “necessity”, “possibility”, “actuality”, etc. For a quick overview, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-modal/ and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/possible-objects/ . For a thorough treatment that relates the two, see: “Reasoning About Uncertainty” by Joseph Y. Halpern.

For something to be possible, the logical prerequisites for it must be actual. E.g. for macro objects to be possible, their prerequisites must first exist (atoms + forces to hold atoms together).

It’s a truism that you can’t estimate the probability of some event if you cannot first establish it’s possibility. Furthermore, many probability methods depend on you ability to enumerate all of the possibilities (“mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive”). You don’t get there by probability analysis alone.

“On the flip side, it is sheer lunacy in certain planning cycles (e.g. BCP/DRP) to ignore high-impact low-frequency events like natural disasters, so be careful how you phrase it.”

Yes, yes! In addition to having the skills and capability to estimate risk, we need to know when and how to use that information. Any decisions that have a long time-horizon must include estimates of high impact/low frequency events.

  1. DS in response to In Violent Agreement:

One former employer was firmly convinced that their customers didn’t have security as a high priority, because they were talking to the wrong people in the organization. So I told them who to talk to, and what kinds of questions to ask to better elucidate the customers needs. Suddenly it became clear that there was a need that was just unnoticed.

There is some irony here, as I’d say if security was indeed an important need, you wouldn’t have had to go looking for proponents; it would have been part of the customer’s purchasing decision.

And to Rich, cost shifting is just another example of an external forcing factor, i.e., if there are no costly incidents, security won’t have this lever, and therefore it is still about the receptiveness of the audience, not the “business language” used by the messenger.

Congratulations! We will contribute $25.00 to HFC in each of your names.

—Adrian Lane

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Verizon 2009 DBIR Supplement

By David Mortman

Today Verizon released their Supplement to the 2009 Data Breach Investigations Report. As with previous reports, it is extremely well written, densely loaded with data, and an absolute must read. The bulk of the report gives significantly more information on the breakdown of attacks, by both how often attacks occurred, and how many records were lost as a result of each attack.

While the above is fascinating, where things got most interesting was in the appendix, which was all about comparing the Verizon data set from 2004 through 2008 to the DataLossDB archives from 2000-2009. One of the big outstanding questions from past Verizon reports was how biased is the Verizon dataset, and thus how well does it reflect the world at large? While there was some overlap with the DataLossDB, their dataset is significantly larger (2,300+ events). Verizon discovered a fairly high level of correlation between the two data sets. (Page 25, Table 4). This is huge, because it allows us to start extrapolating about the world at large and what attacks might look like to other organizations.

The great thing about having so much data is that we can now start to prioritize how we implement controls and processes. Case in point: Table 5 on page 26. We once again see that the vast vast majority (over 70%!) of incidents are from outsiders. This tells us that’s where protection should be focused first. If you go back to the body of the supplement and start looking at the details, you can start to re-evaluate your current program and re-prioritize appropriately.

—David Mortman

DNS Resolvers and You

By David J. Meier

As you are already well aware (if not, see the announcement – we’ll wait), Google is now offering a free DNS resolver service. Before we get into the players, though, let’s first understand the reasons to use one of these free services.

You’re obviously reading this blog post, and to get here your computer or upstream DNS cache resolved securosis.com to – as long as that works, what’s the big deal? Why change anything?

Most of you are probably reading this on a computer that dynamically obtains its IP address from the network you’re plugged into. It could be at work, home, or a Starbucks filled with entirely too much Christmas junk. Aside from assigning your own network address, whatever router you are connecting to also tells you where to look up addresses, so you can convert securosis.com to the actual IP address of the server. You never have to configuring your DNS resolver, but can rely on whatever the upstream router (or other DHCP server) tells you to use.

For the most part this is fine, but there’s nothing that says the DNS resolver has to be accurate, and if it’s hacked it could be malicious. It might also be slow, unreliable, or vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. Some resolvers actively mess with your traffic, such as ISPs that return a search pages filled with advertisements whenever you type in a bad address, instead of the expected error.

If you’re on the road, your DNS resolver is normally assigned by whatever network you’re plugged into. At home, it’s your home router, which gets its upstream resolver from your ISP. At work, it’s… work. Work networks are generally safe, but aside from the reliability issues we know that home ISPs and public networks are prime targets for DNS attacks. Thus there are security, reliability, performance, and even privacy advantages to using a trustworthy service.

Each of the more notable free providers cites its own advantages, along the lines of:

  • Cache/speed – In this case a large cache should equate to a fast lookup. Since DNS is hierarchical in naturem if the immediate cache you’re asking to resolve a name already has the record you want, there is less wait to get the answer back. Maintaining the relevance and accuracy of this cache is part of what separates a good fast DNS service from, say, the not-very-well-maintained-DNS-service-from-your-ISP. Believe it or not, but depending on your ISP, a faster resolver might noticeably speed up your web browsing.
  • Anycast/efficiency – This gets down into the network architecture weeds, but at a high level it means that when I am in Minnesota, traffic I send to a certain special IP address may end up at a server in Chicago, while traffic from Oregon to that same address may go to a server in California instead. Anycast is often used in DNS to provide faster lookups based on geolocation, user density, or any other metrics the network engineers choose, to improve speed and efficiency.
  • Security – Since DNS is susceptible to many different attacks, it’s a common attack vector for things like create a denial-of-service on a domain name, or poisoning DNS results so users of a service (domain name) are redirected to a malicious site instead. There are many attacks, but the point is that if a vendor focuses on DNS as a service, they have probably invested more time and effort into protecting it than an ISP who regards DNS as simply a minor cost of doing business.

These are just a few reasons you might want to switch to a dedicated DNS resolver. While there are a bunch of them out there, here are three major services, each offering something slightly different:

  • OpenDNS: One of the most full featured DNS resolution services, OpenDNS offers multiple plans to suit your needs – basic is free. The thing that sets OpenDNS apart from the others is their dashboard, from which you can change how the service responds to your networks. This adds flexibility, with the ability to enable and disable features such as content filtering, phishing/botnet/malware protection, reporting, logging, and personalized shortcuts. This enables DNS to serve as a security feature, as the resolver can redirect you someplace safe if you enter the wrong address; you can also filter content in different categories. The one thing that OpenDNS often gets a bad rap for, however, is DNS redirection on non-existent domains. Like many ISPs, OpenDNS treats every failed lookup as an opportunity to redirect you to a search page with advertisements. Since many other applications (Twitter clients, Skype, VPN, online gaming, etc…) use DNS, if you are using OpenDNS with the standard configuration you could potentially leak login credentials to the network, as a bad request will fail to get back a standard NXDOMAIN response. This can result in sending authentication credentials to OpenDNS, as your confused client software sees the response as a successful NOERROR and proceeds, rather than aborting as it would if it got back the ‘proper’ NXDOMAIN. You can disable this behavior, but doing so forfeits some of the advertised features that rely on it. OpenDNS is a great option for home users who want all the free security protection they can get, as well as for organizations interested in outsourcing DNS security and gaining a level of control and insight that might otherwise be available only through on-site hardware. Until your kid figures out how to set up their own DNS, you can use it to keep them from visiting porn sites. Not that your kid would ever do that.
  • DNSResolvers: A simple no-frills DNS resolution service. All they do is resolve addresses – no filtering, redirection, or other games. This straight up DNS resolution service also won’t filter for security (phishing/botnet/malware). DNSResolvers is a great fast service for people who want well-maintained resolvers and are handling security themselves. DNSResolvers effectively serves as an ad demonstrating the competence and usefulness of parent company easyDNS), by providing a great free DNS service, which encourages some users to consider easyDNS’ billable DNS services. (Full disclosure: we pay for some of easyDNS’s commercial services).
  • Google Public DNS: Almost functionally identical to DNSResolvers, Google’s standards-compliant DNS resolution service offers no blocking, filtering, or redirection. They emphasize their active resolver cache, which helps with request lookup speeds; this may be an advantage in comparison to with DNSResolvers. Your mileage may vary, however, depending on your own location and ISP.

Not surprisingly, all the people I randomly talked to about Google DNS had the same initial reactions: “Google already has enough of my information.” and “Yeah, right! Like they’re not going to correlate it to other services I use.” None of those people had actually read the privacy statement which is short and to the point. As of this writing, Google keeps DNS information private, and does not correlate it with your other Google activities.

So why is this something that Google feels is worth the time and expense? The trivial answer is monetary. But most services Google offers are visual, at some level, and thus advertising makes sense. However with DNS and Google’s stance (remember they promise not going to meddle, and to remain standards compliant) they’re not in a position to provide anything visually. This probably means Google is trying to position itself for something which might allow them to create a revenue stream: DNSSEC. It may be a stretch now, but depending on how DNSSEC plays out, there could be opportunity for providing secure DNS services which could very well roll back into something like Google Apps – think key management, generation, and rotation services. This also gives them an incredible source of information – every single website anyone using the service is visiting. Even without any identifying information, such data is incredibly useful – especially combined with all their advertising and indexing data. Ka-ching.

Back to our main point, though: external DNS resolvers and you. The first three bullets above are generally sufficient reason not to use your ISP’s DNS service, but add to that the fact that most ISPs today are trying to monetize your typos when typing domain names (Comcast, for example, has a service called “Domain Helper” in which they oh-so-helpfully enrolled their all subscribers in last August). Additionally, ISP resolvers are generally behind the curve on security updates compared to dedicated services. This really became apparent when Dan Kaminsky was exposing serious DNS flaws. DNS is an essential component of Internet service, and a good place to improve security through separation of duties – in addition to the potential performance benefits. Personally I feel it’s a good thing that Google is starting to play in this space, as it raises the bar for their competitors, and draws more attention to the possibilities.

Changing your service is easy. On your computer or home router, in your network configuration there’s a setting for DNS. Each DNS resolver service provide two IP addresses (primary and secondary) and you can simply enter these manually. Any computer behind a home router uses the DNS resolvers it specifies, unless you manually override them on the computer. Don’t forget that if you have a laptop, even if you set a new DNS resolver on your home router, you will also want to set it directly on the laptop for when you connect to other networks.

Better security, speed, and reliability. What more could you ask for?

—David J. Meier

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Security Controls vs. Outcomes

By Rich

One of the more difficult aspects of medical research is correlating treatments/actions with outcomes. This is a core principle of science based medicine (if you’ve never worked in the medical field, you might be shocked at the lack of science at the practitioner level).

When performing medical studies the results aren’t always clean cut. There are practical and ethical limits to how certain studies can be performed, and organisms like people are so complex, living in an uncontrolled environment, that results are rarely cut and dried. Three categories of studies are:

  • Pre-clinical/biological: lab research on cells, animals, or other subsystems to test the basic science. For example, exposing a single cell to a drug to assess the response.
  • Experimental/clinical: a broad classification for studies where treatments are tested on patients with control groups, specific monitoring criteria, and attempts to control and monitor for environmental effects. The classic double blind study is an example.
  • Observational studies: observing, without testing specific treatments. For example, observational studies show that autism rates have not increased over time by measuring autism rates of different age groups using a single diagnostic criteria. With rates holding steady at 1% for all living age groups, the conclusion is that while there is a perception of increasing autism, at most it’s an increase in diagnosis rates, likely due to greater awareness and testing for autism.

No single class of study is typically definitive, so much of medicine is based on correlating multiple studies to draw conclusions. A drug that works in the lab might not work in a clinical study, or one showing positive results in a clinical study might fail to show desired long-term outcomes.

For example, the press was recently full of stories that the latest research showed little to no improvement in long-term patent outcomes due to routine mammograms for patients without risk factors before the age of 50. When studies focus on the effectiveness of mammograms detecting early tumors, they show positive results. But these results do not correlate with improvements in long-term patient outcomes.

Touchy stuff, but there are many studies all over medicine and other areas of science where positive research results don’t necessarily correlate with positive outcomes.

We face the same situation with security, and the recent debate over password rotation highlights (see a post here at Securosis, Russell Thomas’s more-detailed analysis, and Pete Lindstrom’s take).

Read through the comments and you will see that we have good tools to measure how easy or hard it is to crack a password based on how it was encrypted/hashed, length, use of dictionary words, and so on, but none of those necessarily predict or correlate with outcomes. None of that research answers the question, “How often does 90 day password rotation prevent an incident, or in what percentage of incidents did lack of password rotation lead to exploitation?” Technically, even those questions don’t relate to outcomes, since we aren’t assessing the damage associated with the exploitation (due to the lack of password rotation), which is what we’d all really like to know.

When evaluating security, I think wherever possible we should focus on correlating, to the best of our ability, security controls with outcomes. Studies like the Verizon Data Breach Report are starting to improve our ability to draw these conclusions and make more informed risk assessments.

This isn’t one of those “you’re doing it wrong” posts. I believe that we have generally lacked the right data to take this approach, but that’s quickly changing, and we should take full advantage of the opportunity.


Monday, December 07, 2009

Possibility is not Probability

By Rich

On Friday I asked a simple question over Twitter and then let myself get dragged into a rat-hole of a debate that had people pulling out popcorn and checking the latest odds in Vegas. (Not the odds on who would win – that was clear – but rather on the potential for real bloodshed).

And while the debate strayed from my original question, it highlighted a major problem we often have in the security industry (and probably the rest of life, but I’m not qualified to talk about that).

A common logical fallacy is to assume that a possibility is a probability. That because something can happen, it will happen. It’s as if we tend to forget that the likelihood something will happen (under the circumstances in question) is essential to the risk equation – be it quantitative, qualitative, or whatever.

Throughout the security industry we continually burn our intellectual capital by emphasizing low-probability events.

“Mac malware might happen so all Mac users should buy antivirus or they’re smug and complacent”. Forgetting the fact that the odds of an average Mac user being infected by any type of malware are so low as to be unmeasurable, and lower than their system breaking due to problems with AV software. Sure, it might change. It will probably change; but we can’t predict that with any certainty and until then our response should match the actual (current) risk.

Bluetooth attacks are another example. Possible? Sure. Probable? Not unless you’re at a security or hacker conference.

There are times, especially during scenario planning, to assume that anything that can happen will happen. But when designing your actual security we can’t equate all threats.

Possible isn’t probable. The mere possibility of something is rarely a good reason to make a security investment.


In Violent Agreement

By David Mortman

My Friday post generated some great discussion in the comments. I encourage you to go back and read through them. Rocky in particular wrote an extended comment that should be a blog post in itself which reveals that he and I are, in fact, in violent agreement on the issues. Case in point, his first paragraph:

I think we’re on the same page. As an industry we need to communicate more clearly. It wasn’t my intent to fault any information professionals as much as I’m hoping that we all will push a bit harder for the right conversations in the future. We can’t just let the business make poor decisions anymore, we need to learn their language and engage them in more meaningful dialogue. We’re yelling in the wrong language. We just need to put that effort into learning their language and communicating more effectively. How is it that we can read HEX in real time but can’t converse with a MBA at any time?

Read the last sentence again. It is that important. This is something I’ve been fighting for for a long time. It’s not about bits and bytes and until we get that through our heads, the rest just doesn’t matter because no one in command will listen to us.

Rocky closed out his comment with this though:

What would IT security look like if we spent as much time on those thoughts as we do on compliance tools, dashboards and monitoring?

I think it’d be much more business centric and hopefully significantly more respected in the C-suite. What do you think?

—David Mortman

Friday, December 04, 2009

Changing The Game?

By David Mortman

Rocky DeStefano had a great post today on FudSec, Liberate Yourself: Change The Game To Suit Your Needs, which you should read if you haven’t already. It nicely highlights many of the issues going on in the industry today. However, I just can’t agree with all of his assertions. In particular, he had two statements that really bothered me.

Information Security Leadership. We need to start pushing back at all levels here. It’s my opinion that business’s need to care much less about being compliant and more about being fundamentally secure - or if you prefer having better visibility into real risk. Risk to the mission, risk to the business not the risk to an asset. We continue to create irrelevant measurements - irrelevant because they are point in time, against a less-than secure model and on a playing field that is skewed towards the success of our adversary.

In a perfect, security and risk oriented world, I would agree with this 100%. The problem is, that from the business perspective, what they have in place is usually sufficient to do what they need to do safely. I’m a big fan of using risk, because it’s the language that the business uses, but this isn’t really a compliance versus security vs risk issue. What needs to be communicated more effectively is what compliance to the letter of the law does and doesn’t get you. Where we have failed as practitioners is in making this distinction and allowing vendor and marketing BS to convince business folks that because they are compliant they are of course secure. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had folks tell me that they thought being compliant with whatever regulation meant they were secure. Why? Because that’s the bill of sale they were sold. And until we can change this basic perception the rest seems irrelevant. Don’t blame the security practitioners; most of the ones I know clearly express the difference between compliance and security, but it often falls on deaf ears.

But what really got my goat was this next section:

As information security professionals how on earth did we let the primary financial driver for security spending be compliance initiatives? We sold our souls because we lacked the knowledge of the business and how to apply what we do in a meaningful way to the business. We let compliance initiatives that promised “measurable” results have their way because we thought we could tag along for the ride and implement best possible solutions given the situation. As I see it we are no better off for this and now our teams have either competing agendas or more work to drive us away from protecting our organizations. Sure we’ve created some “building codes” but do “point in time” snapshots matter anymore when the attacker can mold his approach on a whim?

I don’t know who Rocky has been talking to, but I don’t know a single security practitioner who thinks that compliance was the way to go. What I’ve seen are two general schools of thought. One is to rant and rave that everyone is doing it wrong and that compliance doesn’t equal security, but then engages in the compliance efforts because they have no choice. The other school is to be pragmatic and to accept that compliance is here to stay, and do our best within the existing framework. It’s not like we as an industry ‘let’ compliance happen. Even the small group of folks who have managed to communicate well with the business, be proactive, and build a mature program still have to deal with compliance. As for Rocky’s “buildng codes” and “point in time” snapshots, for a huge segment of the business world, this is a massive step up from what they had before.

But to answer Rocky’s question, the failure here is that we told the business, repeatedly, that if they installed this one silver bullet (firewalls, AV, IDS, and let’s not forget PKI) they’d be secure. And you know what? They believed us, every single time, they shelled out the bucks and we came back for more, like Bullwinkle the Moose “This time for sure!” We told them the sky was going to fall and it didn’t. We FUDed our way around the business, we were arrogant and we were wrong. This wasn’t about selling our souls to compliance. It was about getting our asses handed to us because we were too busy promoting “the right way to do things” and telling the business no rather then trying to enable them to achieve their goals.

Want an example? Show me any reasonable evidence that changing all your users’ passwords every 90 days reduces your risk of being exploited. No wonder they don’t always listen to us.

—David Mortman

Class Action Against Express Scripts Dismissed

By Adrian Lane

Jaikumar Vijayam has posted an article at ComputerWorld regarding the Express Scripts Data Breach class action suit. This is the case where, in 2008, Express Scripts received a letter demanding money from the company under the threat of exposing records of millions of patients. The letter included personal information on people covered by Express Scripts, including birth dates, Social Security numbers and prescription information. Many of the insured were seeking damages, and the judge has thrown the case out citing lack of evidence.

Without any actual harm being done, there can be no damages sought.

To me, this means that privacy is worthless.

“Abstract injury is not enough to demonstrate injury-infact,” Judge Buckles wrote. “The injury or threat of injury must be concrete and particularized, actual and imminent; not conjectural or hypothetical.”

and …

“Plaintiff alleges that he would be injured “if” his personal information was compromised, and “if” such information was obtained by an unauthorized third party, and “if” his identity was stolen as a result, and “if” the use of his stolen identity caused him harm.” These multiple “if’s” put his claims in the realm of the hypothetical, Judge Buckles noted.

I get the argument. And I get that laws don’t protect our feelings. But Express Scripts has been entrusted with the data, and they earn revenue from having this data, which means they inherit the custodial responsibility for the security and privacy of that information. Not being able to quantify damages should not be considered the same as not being damaged. Should the burden of proof on this point fall on the person who had their information stolen?

Considered in light of credit card processors, health insurers, 3rd party service providers, and law enforcement not sharing information about breach specifics, it will be neigh on impossible for average citizens to gather information necessary to demonstrate the chain of events that led to damages. Damages and costs come in many forms, most of which are not fully quantifiable, so it becomes a quagmire. This sets a bad precedent, IMO, and does not promote or incentivize companies to secure data. When it gets bad enough, consumers will push for legislation to curb the behavior, and we have seen how that works out.

—Adrian Lane

Friday Summary- December 4, 2009

By Rich

I had one of those weird moments today where I found an unrelated part of my life unexpectedly influenced by my martial arts background.

I was asked to critique a research paper by someone I haven’t worked with before. Without going into details, this particular paper had a fatal flaw.

It opened with a negative position, then attempted to justify the positive. It started defensively, and in the process lent credence to the opposing view, as opposed to strengthening the author’s position. In other words, it started with, “here’s what you say about X, and why I think Y” as opposed to, “here is position Y, and why it is correct and X is wrong”.

In advising the author, I remembered a lesson I learned when I first started teaching martial arts (traditional taekwondo). I was giving a class on unarmed restraint techniques, which adapted some experiences in physical security to martial arts. They’re similar to police restraint techniques, but adjusted for not having a firearm (police techniques involve protecting the firearm so the bad guy can’t grab it while being restrained) or handcuffs. In the class were two of my instructors, helping me learn to teach. I started by saying something like, “I’m no expert”, and one of them walked off right then and there.

At a break he came back and asked if I knew why he had left. He told me to never start a lesson or debate by disqualifying myself as an authority. I essentially told the class they shouldn’t listen to me, because I didn’t know what the frack I was talking about. Self-deprecating humor, applied appropriately, is fine – but never start from a position of weakness. I was trying to be humble, but instead destroyed any reason someone would want to learn from me.

Over time I expanded this lesson to “Never start with a negative when your goal is to prove a positive.” Essentially, that places the opposing view ahead of yours and forces you into a defensive position. If I’m writing research to show the value of DLP, I sure as heck better not start it with all the criticisms against DLP.

It’s kind of like a fight. If you allow the opponent to control the ring and dictate the pace, your odds of winning are much lower. You can never win on defense alone.

One important corollary is that you also shouldn’t expect someone to agree with your position based on your credentials alone. I get seriously annoyed by other analysts/pundits who make pronouncements, yet never back them with evidence. Start from a position of strength (assuming you are the expert), but also lead the reader, with evidence and logic, to reach your conclusions for themselves.

Most black belts are crappy martial artists and teachers… if their techniques suck, find another one. Respect still needs to be earned.

Enough with the preachy stuff…

On to the Summary:

Webcasts, Podcasts, Outside Writing, and Conferences

Favorite Securosis Posts

Other Securosis Posts

Project Quant for Databases:

Favorite Outside Posts

Top News and Posts

Blog Comment of the Week

This week’s best comment comes from David in response to Quick Thoughts on the Point of Sale Security Fail Lawsuit (there were a TON of good comments in this thread, including some from Anton Chuvakin):

With the Radiant POS Lawsuit one wonders if a Micros POS suit will follow? As a QIRA forensics investigator, I saw a 10 to 1 compromise rate of Micros over Radiant systems. Micros REM had such bad stretch of PCI failures.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Project Quant: Database Security Planning, Part 2

By Rich

In our last post on Project Quant for Database Security Metrics, we started to examine Planning. To finish Planning, we need to address access controls, database monitoring, and data classification strategies. Once again, we are following the pattern of determining requirements, determining how the requirements apply to the business, figuring out how to accomplish the goals, and then documenting intentions. We will list the specific metrics later in this series, but at this stage research time will be the biggest cost.


Access controls and authorization are the most complex database security area we will cover, and given the fluidity of users and rules the one most likely to create security issues by varying from the specification. Databases have three classes of users: administrators, database programmers, and application users – each with very different needs. It is important to plan for additional users and roles, as database use cases change. It is very important to have a plan for revoking permissions quickly without impairing general usage. I hate to say “expect the unexpected”, but with database access control planning, it’s particularly useful to provide some flexibility in advance. Access control planning impacts many other database security efforts, especially with data classification and privacy policy enforcement.

  1. Define Requirements: What are the access control guidelines? Determine which business functions are being supported, which systems support those functions, who needs access to the system, and what facilities they are allowed to use. For administrative roles, determine what tasks are performed. Identify additional security and compliance requirements.
  2. Define Groups, Roles, & Ownership: Based upon requirements, develop roles and groups to support business functions and enforce security constraints. Determine object and data ownership and formulate a permissions model for the database, schemas, and tables. Plan how users will obtain permissions, revocation, and use cases not accounted for in the model. Identify service account usage.
  3. Define Implementation: Database permissions are established within the database, and externally from the database. Define which facilities are responsible for policy enforcement. Define method for verification of policy. Remember, this is a strategic planning exercise; don’t get too bogged down in the details.
  4. Document: Document requirements. Clarify database use models from administration. Train administrative staff on policy.

Remember that this is the planning stage, and is either focused on general requirements (policies for administrator accounts), or planning for a specific database. For existing systems, we’ll document their current AAA configurations in later phases.


Database monitoring verifies database usage. It provides near-real-time analytics to detect usage violations, usage profiling, and anomaly detection. While secure configuration serves as a preventative control; monitoring is detective, and used to verify the database is being used as intended. Think of it as similar to having black and white lists for database transactions. But to build those lists, you need an idea of what you wish to accomplish, or what activities should never occur. As every database is used differently, you have to define what is appropriate and what isn’t. Identify events you are interested in, then define acceptable behaviors and outcomes.

  1. Define Activities: Investigate business processes. Define critical operations and functions. What activities does the system support, and what subset are you interested in monitoring. Identify security and compliance in relation to data privacy, fraud detection, and system misuse.
  2. Define Violations: Determine which events indicate problems. Consider users, time of day, function, data volume, and other available attributes that can identify suspect transactions. Identify criticality of events and specify desired response. Consider periodic review of general database usage in order to refine policy.
  3. Identify Event Collection: How will you capture events? Determine what event collections are available. Map policies to event collection for misuse detection.
  4. Define Event Notifications: When a policy violation is discovered, how will you react? Specify how event notification will happen and who will be responsible.
  5. Document: Ensure all concerned parties are aware of their responsibilities and coordination points with other groups.


Data classification for databases is a necessary step for many compliance and data privacy regulations. In a practical sense, it often devolves into a giant data labeling or classification project that wastes time and effort. You will need to investigate requirements and best practices, but we recommend that you avoid using an overly detailed model that nobody will actually use. Figure out what needs to be secure, but be general and pragmatic your data security approach.

  1. Identify Requirements: What is your high level scheme? What is considered sensitive, and how will you define it?
  2. Specify Data Security: What will you do with sensitive information? Formalize intent and security levels for the different data types, and different audiences for the information.
  3. Select Access Method: What is your classification model? Siloed, hierarchical, and labeling are all options.
  4. Map to AAA: How will your access control system implement the data security model. Based upon the security model, map access controls to systems capabilities. This step comes after access control review, but iterative adjustments to the plan are common. These models are implemented on top of access controls, but in some cases underlying data features such as labeling support more granular control.
  5. Document: Data classification affects usage, requiring education of users, IT, and application developers.

Keep in mind that this is all strategic planning. At this stage of analysis you will not be examining specific statements or policies. During this planning, there is a tendency to begin delving into implementation specifics that are simply not helpful at this stage. Focus on the big picture: how data moves and is used within the organization. This series will delve into the specific later.