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Learning Lessons Through Security Struggles

Level 17

Note: This post originally appears in Information Week: Network Computing

Why do we hear of new security breaches so frequently? Make sure your organization follows these best-practices and considers these important questions to protect itself.


Three big things have been happening with great frequency of late: earthquakes, volcanoes, and data breaches, most of the latter involving point-of-sale (PoS) systems and credit card information. While I'm certainly curious about the increase in earthquakes and volcanic activity, I simply do not understand the plethora of PoS breaches.

The nature and extent of the breach at Target a year ago should have been a wake-up call to all retailers and online stores that accept credit card payments. I get the feeling that it was not, but I'm not here to point fingers in hindsight. I do, however, want to call your attention to what you are, or are not, learning from these incidents, and how those lessons are being applied and leveraged within your own organization.

Lessons from Target, et al.
Let's revisit the Target breach. In short, it happened because vendor credentials were compromised and subsequently used to inject malware onto Target's systems. At the time, a number of security professionals also suggested that the retailer was likely not the only target (no pun intended).

As a result, three actions should have occurred immediately in every organization around the globe:

  • An audit of every accounts repository throughout every organization to disable/eliminate unused accounts, ensure active accounts were properly secured, and determine if any existing accounts showed any evidence of compromise
  • A full malware scan on every system, including explicit checks for the specific malware identified on the Target systems
  • A reevaluation of network connectivity, with these questions in mind:
    • How could a service vendor's credentials be used to access our PoS network?
    • Which of our networks are connected to which networks?
    • How are they connected?
    • Do firewalls exist where they should?

And yet, in the subsequent weeks after the Target announcement, a litany of big-name retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Michaels, Sally Beauty Supply, P.F. Chang's, Goodwill Industries, and Home Depot have all reported breaches that occurred around the same time or after the Target breach was disclosed.

If you haven't done the three things listed above in your organization, go do them right now!

Patching is a no-brainer
Then there was Heartbleed, perhaps the most saturated vulnerability threat in the history of network computing. Who hasn't heard about Heartbleed? It was a threat with an immediately available and simple to deploy patch. Most organizations deployed the patch immediately (or at least took their OpenSSL devices off the Internet).

And yet, despite this, Community Health Systems managed to give up 4.5 million customer healthcare records to Chinese hackers in an attack that started a week after the Heartbleed announcement. Now, while we might forgive the April attack, this theft actually continued through June! To date, this is the only known major exploit of that vulnerability. (And yet, there are still a quarter-million unpatched devices on the Internet!)

What is your plan for ensuring highly critical security updates are deployed to your devices as soon as possible -- and if not, protecting those devices from known threats?

When is compliance not compliant?
The final aspect of all of this is the alleged value of our compliance regulations, which raises some interesting questions. For example, what good comes from the PCI-DSS regulations in the face of so many breaches? Is this a failure of the compliance standards to actually define things that should be compliant? Is this a case of businesses fudging the compliance audits? Finally, where's the meat in PCI-DSS for organizations failing to be compliant?

And how responsible is management? Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the Home Depot incident is the recent report that management had been warned for years that there were known vulnerabilities, and yet did nothing.

Is your management resistant to acting responsibly about data security? Do you have a plan for changing this resistance?

The bottom line is this: Don't be the next story in this long train of disasters. Go check your systems, networks, accounts, and employees. Most of all, learn from the tribulations of others.

2 Comments
Level 13

It's not enough to evaluate controls. In a large enough network, there exist so many ways to evade controls that you probably won't find all of them. Co-incident with controls, we need to be implementing and monitoring better detection and response tools and plans.

Level 15

More user education, more security training to both IT and Non-IT personnel, and increased and improved tools for auditing. 

About the Author
I'm a Head Geek and technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. I wrote my first computer program in RPG-II in 1974 to calculate quadratic equations and tested it on some spare weekend cycles on an IBM System/3 that I ‘borrowed’ from my father’s employer. After that I dabbled, studied, and actually programmed in just about every language known for the past 40 years; worked on a half-dozen different variants of Unix on 3B2s, RS6000s, HP9000s, Sparc workstations, and Intel systems; connected to CompuServe on a 300 baud modem; ran a FidoNet BBS on OS/2 on a 9600 bps modem; and started working with Windows when Windows NT4 was still the latest operating system. Along the way, I did a few years in database programming and database administration. I installed some of the first ADSL and SDSL Internet circuits in Texas, and then migrated into full-time Windows systems management, which had a lot to do with my interest in SUS and WSUS 10 years ago. This ultimately led me to EminentWare in 2009, and SolarWinds three years later.