Monday, October 6, 2014

If Compliance were an Olympic Sport

First published on the NCC Group blog - 6th October 2014...

It probably won’t raise any eyebrows to know that for practically every penetration tester, security researcher, or would-be hacker I know, nothing is more likely to make their eyes glaze over and send them to sleep faster than a discussion on Governance, Risk, and Compliance (i.e. GRC); yet the dreaded “C-word” (Compliance) is a core tenant of modern enterprise security practice.

Security professionals that come from an “attacker” background often find that their contention with Compliance is that it represents the lowest hurdle – with some vehemently arguing that too many security standards appear to be developed by committee and only reach fruition through consensus on the minimum criteria. Meanwhile, there is continuous pressure for businesses to master their information system security practices and reach an acceptable compliance state.

Compliance, against public standards, has been the norm for the majority of brand-name businesses for over a decade now, and there’s been a general pull-through elevation of security performance (or should that be appreciation?) for other businesses riding the coat-tails of the big brands. But is it enough?

When I think of big businesses competing against each other in any industry vertical sector, I tend to draw parallels with international sporting events – particularly the Olympic Games. In my mind, each industry vertical is analogous to a different sporting event. Just as athletes may specialise in the marathon or the javelin, businesses may specialise in financial services or vehicle assembly,with each vertical - each sport - requiring a different level of specialisation and training.

While professional athletes may target the Olympic Games as the ultimate expression of their career, they must first navigate their way through the ranks and win at local events and races. In order to achieve success they must, of course, also train relentlessly. And, as a former sporting coach of mine used to say, “the harder you train, the easier you’ll succeed.”

I see compliance as a training function for businesses. Being fully compliant is like spending three hours a day running circuits around the track in preparation for being a marathon runner. Compliance with a security policy or standard isn’t about winning the race, it’s about making sure you’re prepared and are ready to run the race when its time to do so.

That said, not all compliance policies or standards are equal. For example, I only half-heartedly jest when I say that PCI compliance is the sporting equivalent of being able to tie your shoe-laces. Although it’s not much in the grand scheme of security, and while it’s not going to help you win any races, it’s one less thing to trip you up.

If compliance standards represent the various training regimes that an organisation could choose to follow, then “best practices” may as well be interpreted as the hiring of a professional coach; for it’s the coach’s responsibility to optimise the training, review the latest intelligence and scientific breakthroughs, and to push the athlete on to ever greater success.

In the world of information security, striving to meet (and exceed) industry best practices allows an organisation to counter a much broader range of attacks, to be better prepared for more sophisticated threats and to be more successful and efficient when recovering from the unexpected. It’s like elevating your sporting preparedness from limping in to 64th place in the local high school 5k run due to a cramp in your left leg, to being fit and able to represent your country at the Olympic Games.

My advice to organisations that don’t want to find themselves listed in some future breach report, or to watch their customers migrate to competitors because of yet another embarrassing security incident, or trip over their untied shoe-laces, is to move beyond the C-word and adopt best practices. Constant commitment and adherence to best security practices goes a long way to removing unnecessary risk from a business.

However, take caution. “Best practice” in security isn’t a static goal. The coach’s playbook is always developing. As the threat landscape evolves and a litany of new technologies allow you to interface and interact with clients and customers in novel and productive ways, best practices in security will also evolve and improve over time as new exercises and techniquesare added to the roster.

Improve the roster and develop the playbook and you’re sure beat those looming threats and push your business and customer service through the finish line.

The Pillars of Trust on the Internet

As readers may have seen recently, I've moved on from IOActive and joined NCC Group. Here is my first blog under the new company... first published September 15th 2014...

The Internet of today in many ways resembles the lawless Wild West of yore. There are the land-rushes as corporations and innovators seek new and fertile grounds, over yonder there are the gold-diggers panning for nuggets in the flow of big data, and crunching under foot are the husks of failed businesses and discarded technology.

For many years various star-wielding sheriffs have tried to establish a brand of law and order over the Internet, but for every step forward a menagerie of robbers and scoundrels have found new ways to pick-pocket and harass those trying to earn a legitimate crust. Does it really have to continue this way?

Over the years I’ve seen many technologies invented and embraced with the goal of thwarting the attackers and miscreants that inhabit the Internet.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling that with each new threat (or redefinition of a threat) that comes along someone volunteers another “solution” that’ll provide temporary relief; yet we continue to find ourselves in a never-ending swatting match with the tentacles of cyber crime.

With so many threats to be faced and a slew of jargon to wade through, it shouldn’t be surprising to readers that most organisations (and their customers) often appear baffled and bewildered when they become victims of cyber crime – whether that is directly or indirectly.

While the newspapers and media outlets may discuss the scale of stolen credit cards from the latest batch of mega-breaches and strive to provide common sense (and utterly ignored) advice on password sophistication and how to be mindful of what we’re clicking on, the dynamics of the attack are easily glossed over and subsequently lost to those that are in the best position to mitigate the threat.

The vast majority of successful breaches begin with deception, and depend upon malware. The deception tactics usually take the form of social engineering – such as receiving an email pretending to be an invoice from a trusted supplier – with the primary objective being the installation of a malicious payload.

The dynamics of the trickery and the exploits used to install the malware are ingeniously varied but, all too often, it’s the capabilities of the malware that dictate the scope and persistence of the breach.

While there exist a plethora of technologies that can layered one atop another like some gargantuan wedding cake to combat each tactic, tool, or subversive technique the cyber criminal may seek to employ in their exploitation of a system, doing so successfully is as difficult as attempting to stack a dozen feral cats – and just as likely to leave you scratched and scarred.

In the past I’ve publicly talked about the paradigm change in the way organisations have begun to approach breaches… to accept that they will happen repeatedly and to prioritise on the rapid (and near instantaneous) detection and automated remediation of the compromised systems, rather than waste valuable cycles analysing yesterday’s malware or exploits, or churning over attribution possibilities.

But I think there’s a second paradigm change underway – one which doesn’t attempt to change the entire Internet, but instead focuses on mitigating the deception tactics used by the attackers at the root and creating a safe and trusted environment to conduct business within.

I think the time has come to build (rather than give lip-service to) a safe corner of the Internet and expand from there. It’s the reason I’ve come and joined NCC Group. It is my hope and aspiration that the Domain Services division will provide that anchor point, that Rock of Gibraltar, that technical credibility and wherewithal necessary to regain trust in doing business over the Internet once again.

A core tenant to building a trusted and safe platform for business has to start with the core building blocks of the Internet. Domain Name System (DNS) and Domain registration lie at the very heart of the Internet and yet, from a security perspective, they’ve been largely neglected as a means to neutering the most common and vile social engineering vectors of attack.

Couple tight control of domain registration and DNS with perpetual threat monitoring and scanning, merge it with vigilant policing of secure configuration policies and best practices (not some long-in-the-tooth consensus-strained minimum standards of a decade ago), and you have the pillars necessary to elevate a corner of the Internet beyond the reach of the general lawlessness that’s plaguing business today. And that’s before we get really innovative.

It wasn’t guns or graves that tamed the West of yore, it was the juggernaut of technology that began with railway lines and the telegraph. The mechanisms for restoring business trust in the Internet are now in play. Exciting times lay ahead.