Where a bad review really makes for poor security

Releasing unstable software harms cybersecurity for everyone, not just those who install the product.

Most consumers do not take the time to upgrade their devices simply because vendors want them to: there has to be something in it for me.  Apple, on the other hand, has been an exception.  Studies have repeatedly shown that Apple users do regularly upgrade their phones.  Just one month after release, their latest version was installed on 52% of their devices.  By comparison, summing all Android releases from 2015 to present gets you that same number, with the latest releases coming in around 20% of the total.

This becomes a Big Deal when we start talking about vulnerabilities, and zero-day exploits.  If there is a bug in your device and it is running an older version of the code, and you do not update, then that device can be used to attack you or someone else.  This is something that Microsoft learned the hard way in the last decade when it snuck in extra software in a security update, losing trust and confidence and willingness of their users.

In his review, Gordon Kelly has told his Forbes readers not to upgrade to the latest Apple iOS release precisely because it may be too risky, that the release itself was rushed.  When considering release timing, any vendor always has to balance stability and testing against other feature availability and security.  Apple may well have gotten the balance wrong this time.  The review in and of itself harms cybersecurity, not because the reviewer is wrong, but because the result will be that fewer people will have corrected whatever vulnerabilities exist in the release (as of this writing information about what is fixed hasn’t been disclosed).  Moreover, such reviews reinforce a bad behavior- to delay upgrading.  I call it a bad behavior because it puts others at risk.

This isn’t something that can be fixed with a magic wand.  We certainly cannot fault Mr. Kelly for publishing his analysis and recommendations.  If we wait for perfect security, we will never see another feature release.  On the other hand, if things get too rushed, we see such bad reviews.  Perhaps this argues that O/S vendors like Apple and Google should continue to provide security-only releases that overlap their major releases, at least until they are stable, which is what other vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco do.  It costs money and people to support multiple releases, but it might be the right thing to do for the billions of devices that are each and every one a point of attack.

Ain’t No Perfect. That’s why we need network protection.

If Apple can blow it, so too can the rest of us. That’s why a layered defensive approach is necessary.

When we talk about secure platforms, there is one name that has always risen to the top: Apple.  Apple’s business model for iOS has been repeatedly demonstrated to provide superior security results over its competitors.  In fact, Apple’s security model is so good that governments feel threatened enough by it that we have had repeated calls for some form of back door into their phones and tablets.  CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly taken the stage to argue for such strong protection, and indeed I personally have  friends who I know take this stuff so seriously that they lose sleep over some of the design choices that are made.

And yet this last week, we learned of a vulnerability that was as easy to exploit as to type “root” twice in order to gain privileged access.

Wait what?

 

Wait. What?

 

 

Ain’t no perfect.

If the best and the brightest of the industry can occasionally have a flub like this, what about the rest of us?  I recently installed a single sign-on package from Ping Identity, a company whose job it is to provide secure access.  This simple application that generates cryptographically generated sequences of numbers to be used as passwords is over 70 megabytes, and includes a complex Java runtime environment (JRE).  How many bugs remain hidden in those hundreds of thousands of lines of code?

Now enter the Internet of Things, where manufacturers of devices that have not traditionally been connected to the network have not been expert at security for decades.  What sort of problems lurk in each and every one of those devices?

It is simply not possible to assure perfect security, and because computers are designed by imperfect humans, all these devices are imperfect.  Even devices that we believe are secure today will have vulnerabilities exposed in the future.  This is one of the reasons why the network needs to play a role.

The network stands between you and attackers, even when devices have vulnerabilities.  The network is best in a position to protect your devices when it knows what sort of access a device needs to operate properly.  That’s your washing machine.  But even for your laptop, where you might want to access whatever you want to access, whenever you want to access it, through whatever system you wish to use, informing the network makes it possible to stop all communications that you don’t want.  To be sure, endpoint manufacturers should not rely solely on network protection.  Devices should be built with as much protection as is practicable and affordable.  The network provides an additional layer of protection.

Endpoint manufacturers thus far have not done a good job in making use of the network for protection.  That requires a serious rethink, and Apple is the posture child as to why.  They are the best and the brightest, and they got it wrong this time.

The role of the CISO and the Equifax Breach

CISOs don’t eliminate risk- they help companies manage it. Equifax made poor choices as a company. The CISO was ineffective.

 

I do not know Susan Mauldin, the now-former Chief Security Officer of Equifax, nor can I even tell you what her job was.  That is because the role of Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) remains ill-defined: each company implements the role in different ways and has different expectations.  It may well be that this person did not have the authority to implement policies that would have prevented the breach that revealed records of over 143 million US consumers.

What I can say is this:

The only way you can entirely secure a computer is to destroy it and melt down its components beyond the point that any recovery tool can glean information.  Otherwise, there is always some security risk.  You might be able to sufficiently secure a system such that the risk is so low as to be almost negligible, but to do that usually requires more resources than it will cost to mitigate a breach.

The goal of a CISO is to reduce the expected loss of a security breach to a level acceptable to the management.  Expected loss has many components.  It can include direct financial losses, losses in sales, reputation loss (and thereby future sales losses), stolen IPR, thus impacting product differentiation, and liability associated with stolen customer and partner information.  In a world where information is worth its weight in gold, holding any information secret means that there is a risk it will be revealed.  The decisions of a CISO or her management do not amount to loss due to a single event, but may be recurring losses, either due to expenses to mitigate risk or due to losses from breaches.

Equifax’s business is information about consumers.  That means that they must retain the information necessary to report their findings to their customers, such as banks or employers who are assessing the trustworthiness of an individual.  That can be a lot of information, such as credit card, mortgage, and utility payment histories.  Equifax is a big fat target for information thieves, much the same way the US Office of Personnel Management is (they were breached in 2014).

It has been reported that the information thieves in this case made use of a vulnerability in Apache Struts that had been announced in March.  Equifax stated that they detected anomalous behavior on the 29th of July.  That left a period of roughly four months of exposure. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a long long time for an exposure.  However, because the value of information that was at risk was actually quite high, and because the vulnerability in question was exploitable on the open Internet, there should have been a process in place to rapidly close the bug.  There exist any number of patch management tools that spot open source software updates, and alert the customer.

Should Susan Mauldin have known all of this?  Yes.  Did she?  I don’t know.  Did she have the authority to effect change?  I don’t know, but to be sure she was ineffective because the necessary processes were not in place.  Will this sort of failure happen again?  You can bet on it, but when and how much the loss will be is where CISOs make their money.

Addressing the Department Gap in IoT Security

People in departments outside of IT aren’t paid to understand IT security. In the world of IoT, we need to make it easy for those people to do the right thing.

So, Mr. IT professional, you suffer from your colleagues at work connecting all sorts of crap to your network that you’ve never heard of?  You’re not alone.  As more and more devices hit the network, the ability to maintain control can often prove challenging.  Here are your choices for dealing with miscreant devices:

  1. Prohibit them and enforce the prohibition by firing anyone who attaches an unauthorized device.
  2. Allow them and suffer.
  3. Prohibit them but not enforce the prohibition.
  4. Provide an onboarding and approval process.

A bunch of companies I work with generally aim for 1 and end up with 3.  A bunch of administrators recognize the situation and fit into 2.  Everyone I talk to wants to find a way to scale 4, but nobody has, as of yet.  What does 4 involve?  Today, it means an IT person researching a given device, determining what networking requirements it has, creating firewall rules, and some associated policies, and establishing an approval mechanism for a device to connect.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many different enterprise departments have wide and varied needs, and the network stands as critical to many of them.  Furthermore, very few of those departments reports through the chief information officer, and chief information security officers often lack the attention their concerns receive.

I would claim that the problem is that incentives are not well aligned, were people in other departments even aware of the IT person’s concerns in the first place, and often they are not.  The person responsible for providing vending machines just wants to get the vending machines hooked up, while the person in charge of facilities just wants the lights to come on and the temperature to be correct.

What we know from hard experience is that the best way to address this sort of misalignment is to make it easy for everyone to do the right thing. What, then, is the right thing?

Prerequisites

It has been important pretty much forever for enterprises to be able to maintain an inventory of devices that connect to their networks.  This can be tied into the DHCP infrastructure or to the device authentication infrastructure.  Many such systems exist, the simplest of which is Active Directory.  Some are passive and snoop the network.  The key point is simply this: you can’t authorize a system if you can’t remember it.  In order to remember it, the device itself needs to have some sort of unique identifier.  In the simplest case, this is a MAC address.

Ask device manufacturers to help

Manufacturers need to make your life easier by providing you a description what the device’s communication requirements are.  The best way to do this is with Manufacturer Usage Descriptions (MUD).  When MUD is used, your network management system can retrieve a recommendation from the manufacturer, and then you can approve, modify, or refuse a policy.  By doing this, you don’t have to go searching all over random web sites.

Have a simple and accessible user interface for people to use

Once in place you now have a nice system that encourages the right thing to happen, without other departments having to do anything other than to identify the devices they want to connect.  That could be as simple as a picture of a QR code or otherwise entering a serial #.  The easier we can make it for people who know nothing about networking, the better all our lives will be.

Pew should evolve its cybersecurity survey

Pew should evolve the questions they are asking and the advice they are giving based on how the threat environment is changing. But they should keep asking.

Last year, Pew Research surveyed just over 1,000 people to try to get a feel for how informed they are about cybersecurity.  That’s a great idea because it informs us as a society as to how well consumers are able to defend themselves against common attacks.   Let’s consider some ways that this survey could be evolved, and how consumers can mitigate certain common risks.  Keep in mind that Pew conducted the survey in June of last year in a fast changing world.

Several of the questions related to phishing, Wifi access points and VPNs.  VPNs have been in the news recently because of the Trump administration’s and Congress’  backtracking on privacy protections.  While privacy invasion by service providers is a serious problem, accessing one’s bank at an open access point is probably considerably less so.  There are two reasons for this.  First, banks almost all make use of TLS to protect communications.  Attempts to fake bank sites by intercepting communications will, at the very least produce a warning that browser manufacturers have made increasingly difficult to bypass.  Second, many financial institutions make use of apps in mobile devices that take some care to validate that the user is actually talking to their service.  In this way, these apps actually mark a significant reduction in phishing risk.  Yes, the implication is that using a laptop with a web browser is a slightly riskier means to access your bank than the app it likely provides, and yes, there’s a question hiding there for Pew in its survey.

Another question on the survey refers to password quality.  While this is something of a problem, there are two bigger problems hiding that consumers should understand:

  • Reuse of passwords.  Consumers will often reuse passwords simply because it’s hard to remember many of them.  Worse, many password managers themselves have had vulnerabilities.  Why not?  It’s like the apocryphal Willie Sutton quote about robbing banks because that’s where the money is.  Still, with numerous break-ins, such as those that occurred with Yahoo! last year*, and the others that have surely gone unreported or unnoticed, re-use of passwords is a very dangerous practice.
  • Aggregation of trust in smart phones.  As recent articles about American Customs and Border Patrol demanding access to smart phones demonstrate, access to many services such as Facebook, Twitter, and email can be gained just by gaining access to the phone.  Worse, because SMS and email are often used to reset user passwords, access to the phone itself typically means easy access to most consumer services.

One final area that requires coverage: as the two followers of my blog are keenly aware, IoT presents a whole new class of risk that Pew has yet to address in its survey.

The risks I mention were not well understood as early as five years ago.  But now they are, and they have been for at least the last several years.  Pew should keep surveying, and keep informing everyone, but they should also evolve the questions they are asking and the advice they are giving.


* Those who show disdain toward Yahoo! may find they themselves live in an enormous glass house.