In the sad but true files, the industry has become focused on advanced malware, state-sponsored attackers, and 0-day attacks, to the exclusion of everything else. Any stroll around a trade show floor makes that obvious. Which is curious because these ‘advanced’ attackers are not a factor for the large majority of companies. It also masks the fact that many compromises start with attacks against poorly-coded brittle web sites.

Sure many high-profile attacks target unsophisticated employees with crafty phishing messages, but we can neither minimize nor forget that if an attacker has the ability to gain presence via a website, they’ll take it. Why would they burn a good phishing message, 0-day malware, or other sophisticated attack when they can pop your web server with a XSS attack and then systematically run roughshod over your environment to achieve their mission?

We wrote about the challenges of deploying and managing WAF products and services at enterprise scale last year. But we kind of jumped to Step 2, and didn’t spend any time on simpler approaches to an initial solution for protecting websites. Even today, strange as it sounds, far too many website have no protection at all. They are built with vulnerable technologies and without a thought for security, and then let loose into a very hostile world. These sites are sitting ducks for script kiddies and organized crime alike.

So we are taking a step back to write a new series about protecting websites using Security as a Service (SECaaS). We will use our Quick Wins structure to keep focus on how web protection services can make a difference in protecting web properties, and can be deployed quickly without fuss. To be clear, you can achieve these goals using on-premise equipment, and we will discuss the pros & cons of that approach vis-a-vis web protection services. But Mr. Market tells us every day that the advantages of an always-on, simple-to-deploy and secure-enough service win out over yet another complex device to manage in the network perimeter.

Before we get going we would like to thank to Akamai for agreeing to potentially license this content on completion, but as with all our research we will write the series objectively and independently, guided by our Totally Transparent Research Methodology. That allows us to write what needs to be written and stay focused on end user requirements.

Website Attack Vectors

Although the industry has made strides toward a more secure web experience it rarely takes long for reasonably capable attackers to find holes in any organization’s web properties. Whether due to poor coding practices, a poorly configured or architected technology stack, or change control issues, there is usually a way to defeat an application without proper protections in place. But even when proper security protections make it hard to compromise an application directly, attackers just resort to knocking down the site using a denial of service (DoS) attack. Let’s dig into these attack vectors and why we haven’t made much progress addressing them.

SDLC what?

The seeming inability of most developers to understand even simplistic secure coding requirements continues to plague security professionals, and leaves websites unprepared to handle simple attacks. But if we are honest that may not be fair. It is more an issue of developer apathy than inability. Developers still lack incentives to adopt secure coding practices – they are evaluated on their ability to ship code on time … not necessarily secure code. For “A Day in the Life of a CISO”, Mike wrote poems (in pseudo iambic pentameter, no less!). One was about application security:

Urgent. The VP of Dev calls you in. A shiny new app. Full of epic win. Customers will love it. Everyone clap. We launch tomorrow. Dr. Dre will rap. It’s in the cloud. Using AJAX and Flash. No time for pen test. What’s password hash?

Kind of funny, eh? It would be if it weren’t so true. Addressing this issue requires you to look at it creatively two perspectives. First you must be realistic and accept that you aren’t going to fundamentally change developer behavior overnight. So you need a solution to protect the website without rebuilding the code or changing developer behavior. You need to be able to stop SQL injection and XSS today, which is actually two days late. Why? Look no further than the truth explain by Josh Corman when introducing HD Moore’s Law. If your site can be compromised by anyone with an Internet connection, so long as they have 15 minutes to download and install Metasploit, you will have very long days as a security professional.

Over time the right answer is to use a secure software development lifecycle (SDLC) to build all your code. We have written extensive about this Web app security program so we won’t rehash the details here. Suffice it to say that without proper incentives, a mandate from the top to develop and launch secure code, and a process to ensure it, you are unlikely to make much strategic progress.

Brittle infrastructure

It is amazing how many high profile websites are deployed on unpatched components. We understand the challenge of operational discipline, the issues of managing downtime & maintenance windows, and the complexity of today’s interlinked technology stacks. That understanding and $4 will buy you a latte at the local coffee shop. Attackers don’t care about your operational challenges. They constantly search for vulnerable versions of technology components, such as Apache, MySQL, Tomcat, Java, and hundreds of other common website components.

Keeping everything patched and up to date is harder than endpoint patching, given the issues around downtime and the sheer variety of components used by web developers. Everyone talks about how great websites and SaaS are because the users are no longer subjected to patching and updates. Alas, server components still need to be updated – but you get to take care of them so end users don’t need to. Now you are. And if you don’t do it correctly – especially with open source components – you leave low-hanging fruit for attackers, who can easily weaponize exploits and search for vulnerable sites with simple search strings in their search engine of choice.

When all else fails, knock it down

We have also seen denial of service attack become an increasingly popular tactic. This only makes sense – an increasing number of businesses depend on their websites for revenue. Even more problematic is the increasing popularity of DoS attacks hide traditional data breach attempts. They basically blast your site to keep you occupied while taking your stuff out the back door.

As we described in our recent Defending Against Denial of Service Attacks research, there are two types of denial of service attacks. The volume/network-based attack, which oversubscribes network pipes and knocking the site down when it cannot keep up with outstanding requests. The other is an application-oriented DoS attack, taking advantage of a configuration error, exploiting underlying technology platform vulnerabilities (such as in Apache), and/or gaming legitimate application functions (including search and shopping carts). Or, more likely, all of the above.

Don’t Forget about Compliance

But what about the ‘C’ word? With all the focus on attacks and security it can be easy to fall into the trap of forgetting about the regulatory overhang in industries with mandated application and website protection capabilities. Compliance may not be front and center in your thinking anymore, especially if you are dealing with advanced adversaries – but that doesn’t mean you can forget about it. Or you’ll get a rude reminder when the assessor shows up and thumps you for not having the documentation they want about your SDLC and WAF. It is not an attack vector per se, but many security folks prefer to spend their time fighting off attackers than going through assessment, and you need to consider the compliance benefits of a website protection service.

Given the urgency of closing this path of least resistance and maintaining compliance, we will investigate use of web protection services to provide a Quick Win during this blog series. Remember, the Quick Win is not just about getting something deployed quickly (and within a reasonable budget), but also involves tactics that demonstrate clear value. Our next post will talk about how web protection services protect against the attacks described above. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: “Path of least resistance” originally uploaded by Billtacular