Most people develop opinions and philosophies based on their experiences and observations. This process occurs over time, leading to perspectives that can make it difficult to adapt to changing risks. It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset of “we’ve never had a problem before” and that can limit willingness and ability to accept new information.
Having witnessed (and rescued) a wide variety of technology projects over the past fifteen years, we would argue that most organizations don’t define organizational or process requirements well. This means executive and managerial perspectives and philosophies end up driving most technology and security decisions as opposed to establishing functional requirements and addressing them specifically.
Since many people making technology decisions have not experienced a painful IT security failure, their perspectives tend to be dismissive of risk management as either “too costly” or “unnecessary.” They see the likelihood of a security breach as too inconsequential to take meaningful steps to prevent it because they don’t perceive the magnitude of the problem. In other words, there are always higher priorities than information security as things are assumed to be secure unless proven otherwise. We pretty much take the opposite perspective which has led us to a set of philosophies that guide our work.
In this article, we’re going to share some of the philosophies we have developed over the years and how they influence our IT security strategies. We encourage you to examine and question our philosophies as well as your own as you work to defend against the visible threats everyone is focused on as well as the unknown ones lurking below the surface.
Philosophy 1: There are a wide variety of “unknowable” security vulnerabilities in just about every technology currently in use.
Unknowable security vulnerabilities are presumed to be the case based on the pattern we’ve seen over the past several years involving vulnerabilities that are pervasive, critical, and have gone unreported for years if not decades. HeartBleed, ShellShock, Ghost, and BadTunnel are all examples that made headlines. However, not all vulnerabilities receive such notoriety, and that there are a number of vulnerabilities that are privately known (and used) that will not be publicly disclosed; hence, will remain unpatched for some time. The recent dissemination of CIA and NSA hacking tools and methods confirms that many vulnerabilities are known and used for years before being publicly addressed and disclosed.
Philosophy 2: Least privilege is highly effective – use it.
In other words, don’t grant access to systems beyond what is necessary. While this may be commonly accepted, most organizations find this approach to be burdensome and not worth the administrative effort.
Philosophy 3: Consumer devices should not get a free pass when it comes to information security.
We have seen a lot of mistakes when it comes to mobile technology because individuals and organizations fail to apply similar or reasonable security standards to mobile devices. We don’t believe that the size and shape of a device justifies abandoning a security process and well defined security requirements.
Philosophy 4: The odds are not in your favor….
Pardon our candor, but users tend to make poor security choices on a fairly regular basis so we need to reduce our reliance on users’ good judgement to the extent possible. User training is still essential to any security strategy, but some systems and designs rely more on users’ good judgement than others. We find that making it harder for people to make the wrong choice tends to deliver significantly better security outcomes.
Philosophies Applied to Common Scenarios
We thought it might be helpful if we offered a few design suggestions that conform to our philosophies. These suggestions will carry with them cost, complexity, and security implications that should be well understood by all parties, but overall, we have been successful in implementing them across a wide range of customers that have defined risk reduction as a priority.
1) Minimize your attack surface
Least privilege should apply to network access to significantly reduce the risk of a system being compromised. Limit network access to only authorized users. If a system is only used by a few thousand people, does it make sense to allow 6+ billion people to access that server? We think not. We typically apply this access control framework though a VPN (Virtual Private Network).
2) Maintain visibility over devices that store and process high value data
Most organizations that care about security run some type of Intrusion Detection or Intrusion Prevention system. However, those systems typically have no visibility to devices that are on external Internet connections. Mobile devices often have access to critical business data (such as email), and are left out of any visibility / security strategy. We believe in what we call the “Software defined perimeter” and that mobile devices need to be protected and monitored at both the host, as well as the network level.
3) Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Every security technology (and product) is imperfect at best, and catastrophically flawed at worst. With this in mind, it’s necessary to layer security technologies in ways that the failures of any system are 1) easier to contain and 2) more likely to be detected before exploited in ways that damage the organization. Highly segmented networks with traffic visibility and anomaly detection systems are the best embodiment of this design philosophy.
4) Train your people
In many IT environments today, the weakest links are the users. Unwittingly clicking on email links, visiting malicious websites, installing apps, writing passwords on sticky notes…the list is endless, and the results can be disastrous. In our experience, people do this because they either don’t understand the implications of their actions or are too busy to care. Training staff and aligning priorities around security expectations are the best ways to reduce this type of risk.
These philosophies and subsequent applications have been developed over 15 years of picking up the pieces after a variety of security breaches. To help in defending against unknown threats, we suggest minimizing your attack surface, maintaining visibility over your high value data, planning for the worst, and user training. These are certainly not the end-all-be-all, but we feel that they offer the greatest risk reduction value and are the right place for most organizations to focus their efforts as they work to reduce their information security risk.