IT Security in the Headlines – Again

Again. Headlines are splashed across front pages and business journals where banks, energy companies, and government web sites have been attacked. As I called out six months ago, the pace, scale and intensity of attacks had increased dramatically in the past year and was likely to continue to grow. Given one of the most important responsibilities of a CIO and senior IT leaders is to protect the data and services of the firm or entity, security must be a bedrock capability and focus. And while I have seen a significant uptick in awareness and investment in security over the past 5 years, there is much more to be done at many firms to reach proper protection. Further, as IT leaders, we must understand IT is in deadly arms race that requires urgent and comprehensive action.

The latest set of incidents are DD0S attacks against US financial institutions. These have been conducted by Muslim hacker groups purportedly in retaliation for the Innocence of Muslims film. But this weekend’s Wall Street Journal outlined that the groups behind the attacks are sponsored by the Iranian government – ‘the attacks bore “signatures” that allowed U.S. investigators to trace them to the Iranian government’. This is another expansion of the ‘advanced persistent threats’ or APTs that now dominate hacker activity. APTs are well-organized, highly capable entities funded by either governments or broad fraud activities that enables them to carry out hacking activities at unprecedented scale and sophistication. As this wave of attacks migrates from large financial institutions like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo to mid-sized firms, IT departments should be rechecking their defenses against DD0S as well as other hazards.  If you do not already have explicit protection against DDoS, I recommend leveraging a carrier network-based DDoS service as well as having a third party validate your external defenses against penetration. While the stakes currently appear to be a loss of access to your websites, any weaknesses found by the attackers will invariably be subsequently exploited for fraud and potential data destruction. This is exactly the path of the attacks against energy companies including Saudi Aramco that recently preceded the financial institutions attack wave. And no less than Leon Panetta spoke about the most recent attacks and consequences. As CIO, your firm cannot be exposed as lagging in this arena without possible significant impact to reputation, profits, and competitiveness.

So, what are the measures you should take or ensure are in place? In addition to the network-based DDoS service mentioned above, you should implement these fundamental security measures first outlined in my April post and then consider the advanced measures to keep pace in the IT security arms race.

Fundamental Measures:

1. Establish a thoughtful password policy. Sure, this is pretty basic, but it’s worth revisiting and a key link in your security. Definitely require that users change their passwords regularly, but set a reasonable frequency–any less than three months and users will write their passwords down, compromising security. As for password complexity, require at least six characters, with one capital letter and one number or other special character.

2. Publicize best security and confidentiality practices. Do a bit of marketing to raise user awareness and improve security and confidentiality practices. No security tool can be everywhere. Remind your employees that security threats can follow them home from work or to work from home.

3. Install and update robust antivirus software on your network and client devices. Enough said, but keep it up-to-date and make it comprehensive (all devices).

4. Review access regularly. Also, ensure that all access is provided on a “need-to-know” or “need-to- do” basis. This is an integral part of any Sarbanes-Oxley review, and it’s a good security practice as well. Educate your users at the same time you ask them to do the review. This will reduce the possibility of a single employee being able to commit fraud resulting from retained access from a previous position.

5. Put in place laptop bootup hard drive encryption. This encryption will make it very difficult to expose confidential company information via lost or stolen laptops, which is still a big problem. Meanwhile, educate employees to avoid leaving laptops in their vehicles or other insecure places.

6. Require secure access for “superuser” administrators. Given their system privileges, any compromise to their access can open up your systems completely. Ensure that they don’t use generic user IDs, that their generic passwords are changed to a robust strength, and that all their commands are logged (and subsequently reviewed by another engineering team and management). Implement two-factor authentication for any remote superuser ID access.

7. Maintain up-to-date patching. Enough said.

8. Encrypt critical data only. Any customer or other confidential information transmitted from your organization should be encrypted. The same precautions apply to any login transactions that transmit credentials across public networks.

9. Perform regular penetration testing. Have a reputable firm test your perimeter defenses regularly.

10. Implement a DDoS network-based service. Work with your carriers to implement the ability to shed false requests and enable you to thwart a DDoS attack.

Advanced Practices: 

a. Provide two-factor authentication for customers. Some of your customers’ personal devices are likely to be compromised, so requiring two-factor authentication for access to accounts prevents easy exploitation. Also, notify customers when certain transactions have occurred on their accounts (for example, changes in payment destination, email address, physical address, etc.).

b. Secure all mobile devices. Equip all mobile devices with passcodes, encryption, and wipe clean. Encrypt your USD flash memory devices. On secured internal networks, minimize encryption to enable detection of unauthorized activity as well as diagnosis and resolution of production and performance problems.

c. Further strengthen access controls. Permit certain commands or functions (e.g., superuser) to be executed only from specific network segments (not remotely). Permit contractor network access via a partitioned secure network or secured client device.

d. Secure your sites from inadvertent outside channels.Implement your own secured wireless network, one that can detect unauthorized access, at all corporate sites. Regularly scan for rogue network devices, such as DSL modems set up by employees, that let outgoing traffic bypass your controls.

e. Prevent data from leaving. Continuously monitor for transmission of customer and confidential corporate data, with the automated ability to shut down illicit flows using tools such as NetWitness. Establish permissions whereby sensitive data can be accessed only from certain IP ranges and sent only to another limited set. Continuously monitor traffic destinations in conjunction with a top-tier carrier in order to identify traffic going to fraudulent sites or unfriendly nations.

f. Keep your eyes and ears open. Continually monitor underground forums (“Dark Web”) for mentions of your company’s name and/or your customers’ data for sale. Help your marketing and PR teams by monitoring social networks and other media for corporate mentions, providing a twice-daily report to summarize activity.

g. Raise the bar on suppliers. Audit and assess how your company’s suppliers handle critical corporate data. Don’t hesitate to prune suppliers with inadequate security practices. Be careful about having a fully open door between their networks and yours.

h. Put in place critical transaction process checks. Ensure that crucial transactions (i.e., large transfers) require two personnel to execute, and that regular reporting and management review of such transactions occurs.

i. Establish 7×24 security monitoring. If your firm has a 7×24 production and operations center, you should supplement that team with security operations specialists and capability to monitor security events across your company and take immediate action. And if you are not big enough for a 7×24 capability, then enlist a reputable 3rd party to provide this service for you.

I recommend that you communicate the seriousness of these threats to your senior business management and ensure that you have the investment budget and resources to implement these measures. Understand the measures above will bring you current but you will need to remain vigilant given the arms race underway. Ensure your 2013 budget allows further investment, even if as a placeholder. For those security pros out there, what else would you recommend?

In the next week, I will outline recommendations on cloud which I think could be very helpful given the marketing hype and widely differing services and products now broadcast as ‘cloud’ solutions.

Best, Jim Ditmore


About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
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2 Responses to IT Security in the Headlines – Again

  1. Admiring the persistence you put into your site and in depth
    information you provide. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t
    the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read!
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    • Jim D says:

      Dear IST,

      Thanks for the kind words, my focus is to make the site useful and enable others to leverage best practices. Let me know if there are topics you think should be covered and feel free to contribute to our material. Best, Jim Ditmore

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