Cyber Security……you’re doing it all wrong!

There is a certain fallacy in the world of cyber security. It has been there since day one and continues to thrive today. It is simply that controls work. In the main they don’t. For too long security teams have lived the lie that what they have delivered has been effective, but so often from a viewpoint divorced from the very customers they effect. To be fair to most security teams there are generally blissfully unaware of the inefficiencies of their controls. Or ignorant. I respect that this is a very sweeping set of statements, but headline after headline making data breach tends to argue the point for me. And let’s not be shy here, these are major corporations with ‘systemic failures’ when it comes to protecting their crown jewels. Something doesn’t sit right.

But how can this be? Spend in security is at an all-time high. The volume of security offerings to cover every possible facet of security is unparalleled. The technological possibilities for mitigating risk know no bounds. We have more ‘experts’ than ever before. And of course, Big Data and AI to solve all our ills in the battle against superhuman adversaries with incredibly sophisticated attacks.

Is that reality though? Are organisations spending wisely when it comes to security? Are organisations doing the right things or papering over existing cracks? For me it is the latter and I’ll tell you why.

Let’s start with strategy. The overarching mission. How many organisations have such a thing? A few. How many are built through business engagement? Much less. Security strategy is generally written from a position of prejudice and as a means to gaining budget to mature the organisations posture. For a strategy to be sound it should be preceded by a warts and all look at the effectiveness and maturity of the as-is position and a clear line of sight of where it needs to get to. This requires a deep understanding of the business within which security operates alongside measuring the effects of the myriad of security jigsaw pieces across the organisation. This almost never happens. If it did then security teams would recognise that investment needs to be made primarily and almost solely on ‘fixing’ the crap that is already there. How can I say this? Well lets go through some of those jigsaw pieces that just about every organisation will have in their security picture.

Policy. We’ve all got policy. If you work in Government you will have more policy than you can shake a stick at and in other organisations or industries hopefully less so. However almost every policy I have ever read has been the equivalent of the ten commandments. Thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not share your password. Exceedingly rarely will you see any explanation as to why it is a bad thing to do, or rather a risk altering thing to do. Nor will you ever see an explanation of the alternative for the end customer. In other words what they ideally should do to achieve the same goal that sharing their password does. So maybe delegate access mechanisms in this case. Of course those mechanisms are outside of the control of the security team. Which in turn means the security team has a dependency upon another team, in this case probably IT. To make it beneficial for the customer (user) to adhere to the policy then the alternative to sharing their password must be very simple, easy and slick. And of course promoted so that the user is aware of what they can do which has less of an effect on risk than sharing their password.

The trouble here is that policy is written very much from a position of prejudice by security people for security people. If we are honest with ourselves and maybe engaged with our customer base we would also learn that hardly anyone actually reads the policies, which are generally far too long and in the wrong tone, and even less actually understand them. If your policy is not read or understood then there is little point in having one. Much the same as operating procedures; there is what the policy or procedure says and then there is the reality of what people do. People share passwords and more. Deal with it!

Maybe something that could help here would be raising security awareness with our customers? That would be a great idea. Most organisations do this, which is great! However, what most organisations actually do is once a year mandatory Computer Based Training, which consists of the user clicking next, next, next, next, next and then answering ten questions that if they got them wrong they should not be allowed shoes with laces. You may laugh at this and then sigh because it is exactly what you do in your organisation. It is so common it is ridiculous. It is also ridiculous because it has zero positive effect. In fact it is a complete and utter waste of time and money. Security awareness isn’t but this approach is. You are simply ticking a box as is the user who is doing their mandatory security training as well as their diversity, health and safety et al yearly box ticking exercises.

Oh boy! That’s not a great start. It’s OK though, we’ve got some technical controls. Oh yes, we’ve got firewalls; phew! In fact we’ve got dual pair firewalls, from different vendors. AND when we installed them we blocked all unnecessary ports and protocols by default! We’ve got it nailed! Fab!

Then this minor thing called business change happens. Wherein the business, those little rapscallions, decide to make a change. A new process, a new technology, a new partner, it matters not. As part of that change we need to add a rule to the firewall to allow connectivity. Without it the change will fail. It goes through change control though. Good old ITIL, so it is still good. Except of course it doesn’t really look at if that change to the firewall changes our risk profile in any way. Now of course that is just one change and businesses make many changes rather regularly. And hey before you know it your firewall that had four rules on it now has four thousand. Your firewall has gone from being an effective control to effectively just heating your datacentre. Ask yourself; when was the last time you looked at your firewall rules? Hell, I’ll make it easy, when was that last time you looked at the rules just on your external firewalls? I won’t bother asking if you changed them as that is highly unlikely to have happened. If Wannacry told us anything it is that external firewalls are, shall we say, sub-optimal. Have you looked at them since that stark warning?

It is still OK though because we’ve got IDS and IPS. Happy days! The slight issuette here is that it really, really helps if you have a vague idea what protocols and ports are in use across your network. It also kind of helps if your internal, genuine traffic does not look anomalous enough to trigger the IDS. It is also rather beneficial if you have the faintest clue what assets are on your network, but more of that one later. And of course, if you ever looked at the alerts. Let’s presuppose that you do monitor the alerts. As a rough estimate what percentage are false positives? I’ll wager that percentage wise it is in the high 90s. Mainly because of the things stated above and that we’ve just built stuff and plugged it into other stuff for many years. Most of that plugging is done as simply as possible rather than how things should have been done in an ideal world. So what do we do with all of these false positives? Do we investigate the cause and influence change to reduce the noise by getting assets to talk to each other in a better way? Nah! We just turn that perfectly genuine rule off! That’ll sort it.

You’ll notice I’ve not talked about IPS. The reason being that almost nobody turns it on in prevent mode. Because frankly it will stop lots of genuine business traffic and be turned off again rather quickly. Security then gets a kicking from the business and loses credibility.

Now all of this is not security’s fault. IT has a lot to answer for in terms of network configuration etc. You really must work together if you want to make effective change, or even understand what is there today.

I’ll add two more in. Assets and users. Accuracy of asset inventories? 60% if you’re lucky. Users? Maybe slightly better. There is a massive problem in that most organisations do not know how many users vs accounts vs actual people they have. Neither do they in any way have anything like an accurate view of how many assets there are, their location, their health, configuration etc. Without any semblance of reality here you are going to struggle big time! Of course, what privileges do those users have? Do they need them in their current role? Do we do move, add, change well when it comes to access permissions? What about leavers? Consultants and contractors? Suppliers? What about admins; how many, where, who, and do they have internet access(!)? But at least we have individual (maybe) accounts for everyone, so still a control! Well, yes, only if you log and maybe look at it every once in a while. Cause you know, users share their passwords because it is easier than delegate access. So, without ever checking you’ll never see the dual logins from the same user on different machines. Or of course they’ll let their colleague sit at their desk and use their machine.

Same with assets. Simply, how do you know what your vulnerabilities are if you don’t know what assets you’ve got, let alone their health and status! It kind of makes vulnerability management, or patching a tad hard.

It is still OK though because we have anti-virus literally everywhere! Now I won’t get into which one and the ins and outs of different AV approaches. I’ll just simply ask, how often do you update the agents, and how many fail to update? Oh, hang on I don’t know how many assets I’ve got, which does make this tricky, but we do update AV every day. Good. However, I’ll wager my mortgage that several assets do not update every day for one reason or another.

OK, but despite all of this we’ve got a SOC! So we still maintain we’re in a good position. I get you! You’ve got a SOC. Eyes on glass. Coiled like a spring ready to respond to the slightest noise. If only! Aside from not knowing what assets, users, ports, protocols etc are in use on the network, or networks, you’re now logging all this ‘stuff’ and sticking it in a big SIEM engine. Effectively collecting and mashing together a noise akin to Saturday evening at Glastonbury. It is just noise. Your SOC analysts will be surfing through false positive after false positive. Be suffering huge bouts of alert fatigue. Chasing ghosts and generally not adding huge swathes of value. You’ll probably just deal with known alerts rather than actually look for abnormalities because everything looks abnormal and establishing a baseline of normal is nigh on impossible. Most of those known alerts will be controls doing their job, like blocking bad emails, or false positives.

I’m sorry, but I’m not painting a pretty picture. Mainly because it is not a pretty picture. I’ve not even talked about things like data. You know, like if you have a clue where your data is. OK you’ve got databases etc. that you know about, but do you know where all of it is? Quite a bit will be on people’s personal devices after they sent it home because it is easier to work on there without these stupid security things getting in the way.

Even your databases. I’m sure they are encrypted which is awesome. But what happens when a legitimate asset (user, device etc.) asks a legitimate question of that database? Does it reply? And is the reply encrypted? What if that asset were malicious?

I’ve not talked about risk and the fact that almost nobody does risk management in the true form. You know the continual loop of measurement, planning and action. Most organisations deal with theoretical risk (a one-time assessment) and notional controls that ‘mitigate’ the risks found. And then the parameters that make up each risk change, as they have a habit of doing, and nobody notices or reacts as they have no idea how to measure said parameters and act accordingly. Sound familiar? How do you go about measuring each parameter of your security risks? Threat actor / source, threat, exploit, vulnerability / weakness, likelihood, impact etc. Do you measure them on an ongoing basis in the context of your organisation? Probably not! But I bet you do risk yeah?

Still with me? If you recognise any of these things within your organisation then you need to focus here and not on some next generation panacea, Big Data or AI solution. It won’t work! If you don’t recognise any of these things then I’d say you’re not looking hard enough, OR you are in the 0.1% you do the basics well!

The reason so many organisations suffer breaches is simply down to a failure in doing the very basics of security. I don’t care how much security technology you buy you will fail. It is time to get back to basics!

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