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An Inquiry Into an Organization's Security Priorities

In the wake of recent high-profile security incidents, I started wondering: what, generally speaking, should an organization's security priorities be? That is, given a finite budget — and everyone's budget is finite — what should you do first? More precisely, what security practices or features will give you the most protection per zorkmid? I suggested two of my own, and then asked my infosec-heavy Twitter feed for suggestions.

I do note that I'm not claiming that these are easy; indeed, many are quite hard. Nevertheless, they're important.

I started with my own top choices.

  • Install patches – Few organizations are hit by zero-days. That doesn't mean it can't happen, and of course, if you're the target of a major intelligence agency, the odds go up, but generally speaking, zero-days are far from the highest risk. Installing security patches promptly is a good defense.
  • Use 2FA – Good two-factor authentication — that often means FIDO2 — is basically a necessity for access from the outside. Ordinary passwords can be phished, captured by keystroke loggers, guessed, and more. While there are many forms of 2FA, FIDO2 ties the session to the far side's identity, providing very strong protection against assorted attacks.

    This is harder to pull off internally — some form of single sign-on is a necessity; no one wants to type their password and insert their security key every time they need to open a file that lives on a server.

The next suggestion is one I should have thought of but didn't; that said, I wholeheartedly agree with it.

  • Inventory – Know what computers you have, and what software they run. If you don't know what you've got (and who owns it), you don't know whom to alert when a security vulnerability pops up. Consider, for example, this new hole in VMware. Do you know how many VMware servers you have? If you ran the corporate security group and saw that alert, could you rapidly notify all of the responsible system administrators? Could you easily track which servers were upgraded, and when?

The next set of answers have to do with recovery: assume that you will suffer some penetration. Now what?

  • Backups – Have good backups, and make sure that at least one current-enough set is offline, as protection against ransomware.

    I would add: test recovery. I've seen far too many situations where backups were, for some reason, incorrect or unusable. If you don't try them out, you have no reason to think that your backups are actually useful for anything.

  • Logging – If you don't have good logs, you won't know what happened. You may not even know if anything has happened.

    What should you log? As much as you can — disk space is cheap. Keep logs on a locked-won log server, and not on a machine that might otherwise be targeted. Logs from network elements, such as switches and routers (hint: Netflow), are especially valuable; ditto DNS logs. These show who has connected where invaluable if you're trying to trace the path of an intruder.

  • Segmentation – Your internal network should be segmented. The initial point of entry of an attacker is probably not their actual goal, which implies the need for lateral movement. Internal segmentation is a way to hinder and perhaps detect such movements.

    Note that segmentation is not just firewalls, though those are probably necessary. You should also have separate authentication domains. Look at what happened to Maersk in the NotPetya attack:

    Maersk's 150 or so domain controllers were programmed to sync their data with one another so that, in theory, any of them could function as a backup for all the others. But that decentralized backup strategy hadn't accounted for one scenario: where every domain controller is wiped simultaneously. "If we can't recover our domain controllers," a Maersk IT staffer remembers thinking, "we can't recover anything."

    After a frantic search that entailed calling hundreds of IT admins in data centers around the world, Maersk's desperate administrators finally found one lone surviving domain controller in a remote office — in Ghana. At some point before NotPetya struck, a blackout had knocked the Ghanaian machine offline, and the computer remained disconnected from the network. It thus contained the singular known copy of the company's domain controller data left untouched by the malware — all thanks to a power outage. "There were a lot of joyous whoops in the office when we found it," a Maersk administrator says.

  • Intrusion detection – Monitor for attacks. There have been far too many cases — think Sony and Equifax — where the attackers were inside for quite a while, exfiltrated a lot of data, and weren't detected. Why not? Note that your logs are a very useful source of information here — if you actually have the tools to look at them automatically and frequently.
  • Harden machines for outside life – That is, assume that some machines are going to be seriously attacked as if they were on the open Internet. I'm not saying you shouldn't have a firewall, but again, assume lateral movement by an adversary who has already gotten past that barrier.

    This isn't easy, even by the standards I've set by warning that some of these things are hard. Do you encrypt all internal links? It's a good idea but imposes a lot of operational overhead, e.g., renewing certificates constantly.

  • Red-team external software – If you have the resources — and few small or medium organizations do — have a group that does nothing but bang on software before it's deployed. Fuzz it, monitor it, and more, and see what breaks and what attempts are logged. Note that this is not the same as penetration-testing a company — that latter is testing how things are put together rather than the individual pieces.

Some suggestions I can't endorse wholeheartedly, even though in the abstract they're good ideas.

  • User education – I'm all in favor of teaching people about the bad things that can happen, and in my experience, you get a lot more cooperation from your user community when they know what the issues are. Don't waste your time on rote rules ("pick strong passwords, with at least three upper-case letters, two hieroglyphics, at least one symbol from a non-human language, and a character from an ancient Etruscan novel"), or on meaningless, non-actionable tropes ("don't click on suspicious links"). And don't blame users for what are actually software failures — in an ideal world, there would be no risk in opening arbitrary attachments or visiting "dangerous" websites.
  • Proper, centralized access control – If only — but the central security group has no idea who is really supposed to have permissions on every last server that's part of a partnership with an external party.

Note how much of this requires good system administration and good management. If management won't support necessary security measures, you'll lose. And a proper sysadmin group, with enough budget and clout, is at the heart of everything.

I do want to thank everyone who contributed ideas, though of course many ideas where suggested by multiple people. The full Twitter thread is here.

By Steven Bellovin, Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University – Bellovin is the co-author of Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, and holds several patents on cryptographic and network protocols. He has served on many National Research Council study committees, including those on information systems trustworthiness, the privacy implications of authentication technologies, and cybersecurity research needs. Visit Page

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