Bite size Cyber: #1 Patching

Are you new to cyber security, and / or is it something you’ve been asked to look at for your organisation? Are you struggling to find sensible advice which is practical and pragmatic? Are you looking for some simple steps which you can follow to help get the ball rolling? Then this short series of articles is for you.

The intention is to provide some bite size nuggets of information which you can apply and which will rapidly help secure your organisation, whether its a company of 2 people or 200 (or 20,000 for that matter).

We’ll also look at other sources of information along the way, which you can read in your own time and which will help provide more context to the topics covered here.

Oh, and just as an aside, elsewhere on this site you’ll find a handy A-Z of terms, so if there’s something mentioned which you don’t know or understand, check that out. If you can’t find what you need there, please do drop me a line.

What you need to know

Let’s start with one of the basic elements when protecting systems, which is patching. When you think about a car or bike tyre, you know that occasionally they get holes in them, and the way they get fixed is by applying a patch. This is where the term patching comes from.

All software is likely to have holes in it which attackers can use to target systems. These holes are called vulnerabilities, and some are apparent from the day the software is written, and some are undiscovered for months or years. Some of these vulnerabilities are related to making the software work properly, and some are related to security issues. A software patch is a piece of code which removes the vulnerability.

Many vendors provide patches to their software on a regular basis. For example, Microsoft typically issue their patches on the second Tuesday of every month: in the industry this is known as “Patch Tuesday”. Other vendors have a different release schedule, and you can easily find out when they are.

You also need to be aware that when patches are released the manufacturer typically gives an indication of the urgency, severity or priority with which they need to be applied. Different vendors have different terms for these patches.

It’s worth remembering that many of us have mobile devices like smartphones and tablets which tell us when patches are ready to be installed. Make sure that you apply those patches when prompted.

What you need to do

  1. Check what software you have, and find out when patches are released.
  2. Ensure that all devices in your organisation have the latest patches installed. Don’t forget to include servers, mobile devices, firewalls and other network devices in the list of equipment to be patched.
  3. Develop a plan – and implement it – to download patches when they are released.
    1. Ensure that the plan includes a step to test the patches on a subset of the machines in your organisation before rolling them out to all machines.
  4. Develop a patch schedule and stick to it. Bear in mind that after a patch has been applied computers may need to be rebooted. After the reboot, check that the patch has been installed effectively.
  5. Install the patches in a timely manner. For example, urgent patches should be applied as soon as possible, but low priority patches can be applied at a more leisurely pace.

Further reading

There are a number of articles on patching around this site, but you may also want to read some “official” guidance. I always recommend the UK Government’s 10 Steps to Cyber Security as a good source of independent, industry standard, information.

You may even decide that, when the time is right, you want to put your organisation through formal security certification and the UK Government’s Cyber Essentials scheme is a good place to start with that.

10 Steps to Cyber Security – Part 2 of 2

This is the second half of the article which I published last week. I have been overwhelmed with the positive responses to the first article, so I’ll take this opportunity to say thank you very much for your kind words. I’m glad that the article was useful for so many of you, and I hope you get just as much out of this edition. 

This article covers the remaining aspects of the UK Government’s 10 Steps to Cyber Security, and is again aimed at those of you with limited or no cyber / information security awareness. Again my aim is to explain the requirements in a simple manner with no jargon or buzzwords. As last week covered steps 1 to 5, this week we start at 6…

6. The first step we’ll look at in this article is all about User Education and Awareness. Yes, training is a very important part of our controls and which help protect our businesses. It forms a part of many regulatory frameworks, but we shouldn’t just do it because the regulations or contracts we work to require it. 

Within the 10 Steps, the guidance suggests that once you’ve produced all your policies and processes you ensure that those are described within the training you provide. It helps to maintain awareness of cyber risks, and at the very least should mean that all staff are aware of what is expected of them. 

Many companies have for years run this as a kind of “tick box” exercise, where people simply rush to the end as fast as possible just so they can say they’ve completed it for another year. That adds no value. The employee gains nothing and the business is not better protected – but it may be sufficient to meet our regulatory, legal or contractual obligations. 

Good awareness training should help to inform and change behaviour, to make it easier for people to do the right thing than the wrong thing. It should help explain the risks of certain actions in a way that matters and affects the individual: it should explain the “what’s in it for me” question. Humans are the weakest link in any security solution, so we should help them get it right by helping them understand what’s at stake. Many good training solutions now include gamification, or “what would you do” type scenarios. Get the attendees actively involved in the training, rather than passively clicking “Next” to get to the next screen. 

7. Managing User Privileges is the next step. This simply means restricting access to the highest privilege type of account to as few people as possible. You should also monitor user activity if possible, looking out in particular for unusual activity such as logging in at strange times of the day, or for large file transfers out of your business. This also involves looking at audit logs, which you may need help with. 

User accounts on most computers fall into two areas: administrator (also known as admin, superuser, root, or something like that) and standard user. 

The standard user cannot run new programs, cannot install software on their machine etc, because their access rights (another way of saying user privileges) don’t give them carte blanche access to the device.

The administrator account has full access to be able to run any software, to remove components, and to run administrative tools such as reformatting drives. This is very powerful and, as a result, users with this level of access should be restricted as much as possible. 

It is good practice to give most users standard user accounts, because for the most part they should not need to install software or make significant changes to their machines. It’s also good practice to review who has what level of access on a regular basis, and make sure that people only have access to systems and data that they need for their job. For example, someone working in a technical team doesn’t need access to payroll data, and someone working in HR doesn’t generally need to be able to install new software on a server. 

8. The next step is Incident Management. This is not only about how you deal with an incident when it occurs, but about being prepared for one when it happens. (Notice that I’ve said “when” rather than “if”. Statistically, if you’ve not had an incident then you will soon, so it helps to be prepared.) The key areas to bear in mind are:

  • Ensure that you have a documented incident response process, that you know what to do and who to contact. For example, where would you relocate your business / staff to if your offices were unavailable due to fire, flood or a chemical spill? How would you contact staff to tell them where to go and when? Are all staff required or just one or two? What equipment will they need and how would they access your systems? If you’re using a shared recovery office, how are you guaranteed space? What would you do if your office systems were infected by ransomware? This is the sort of thing that should be considered and the processes documented. This is all part of something called Business Continuity or Disaster Recovery Planning. 
  • Once you’ve got your plans in place, test them. You should aim to test them at least once a year. Some companies do a full test where they actively notify people and try running their business from the recovery offices for a day, and some run a table top exercise. Both work, and both have their risks and benefits. 
  • Just as your business will likely have fire marshalls, first aiders and health and safety experts, make sure staff are trained in what to do in the event of an incident. The training doesn’t have to be onerous and many businesses will include it as part of their User Education and Awareness activities described in 6 above. 

Where you find a criminal incident, it should be reported to law enforcement via Action Fraud – http://www.actionfraud.police.uk. You may also choose to inform your local police force. 

9. The penultimate step is Monitoring. As we’ve seen, there is some overlap with step 7, but monitoring covers more than just user account management. There are a couple of things to look at when dealing with this step: 

  • You should establish a strategy for monitoring, and document this – ideally include it in your overall Information Security Policy. Monitoring may also include email and internet use as well as systems and networks: if it does, then you need to make your staff aware that this is the case. 
  • Monitoring of systems and networks should be continuous, so you’ll need a way of identifying anomalies / unusual behaviour. This may be through log analysis or you may look for software which helps to visualise the data, which make the anomalies stand out. 
  • Though the guidance doesn’t specifically mention it, I’d suggest that your monitoring should also include details around key indicators, change management etc. For example, if you have a policy that requires all laptops to be encrypted, then you should check regularly to ensure that they are and report on those that aren’t. Or if you have a policy of removing user access when they leave the organisation, you should check to ensure that is happening on a regular basis. 

10. Finally, Home and Mobile Working is an area that you need to look at. 

  • Make sure that your Information Security Policy includes a section on mobile working. Do you allow it or not? If you do allow it, what are the rules, how is data protected? Do you allow users to use their own devices, or do you provide laptops, tablets, smartphones etc. What security is in place to protect the data, both at rest and in transit (ie when being sent across networks – do you use Virtual Private Networks, encryption, two factor authentication etc)? Make sure you’ve documented what your security baseline is and ensure that is being complied with through regular monitoring as discussed in step 9.  
  • Make sure that users know what is and isn’t allowed, what is acceptable behaviour and what is expected for them if they are working from home or on the road. This is a great topic to include in step 6, your User Education and Awareness.

As you can see, these steps are relatively straightforward, and there is a degree of overlap between them. For the most part it all boils down to how you protect your data, how you ensure the data cannot be tampered with, and how you get access to it in the event of an incident. In Information Security terms, this is known as the CIA triad, Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. Make sure you’ve documented your requirements and communicated them with staff on a regular basis, and review your requirements regularly too. 

Are there any areas I’ve not explained well? I’m happy to answer any questions you may have so please just ask! 

10 Steps to Cyber Security – Part 1 of 2

Through discussions with various clients and perspective clients, at conferences, events and forums, it is very apparent that a lot of companies know that they need to do “something about cyber” but many, particularly in the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) arena, are unsure of what that something should be.

My response to them is generally along the same lines, and I thought I’d share it with you now. My apologies for those of you who are seasoned cyber professionals, as you will no doubt know this subject inside out, but for those of you who are wondering just how to get started and are looking for a jargon free, pragmatic explanation, read on…

As far back as 2012 the UK government produced the 10 Steps to Cyber Security which companies should follow to help make them more secure, as part of the drive to make the UK a safe place to do business. Those were followed in 2014 by the Cyber Essentials scheme. Both the 10 Steps and Cyber Essentials have had updates over the years, but those updates relate more to guidance and clarification rather than changes to content.

This article sets out the first 5 requirements of the 10 Steps to Cyber Security: I’ll provide the remaining 5 in my next post which will be in a week or so. You will see that a number of these topics overlap, and that’s absolutely fine. There are some very blurred lines, but so long as the topics are covered then that has to be a good thing, right?

1. The first step is to set up a Risk Management regime. This sounds scary, but could be as simple as having an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document where you list all the risks to your business, determine how severe those risks are, and document how you will mitigate those risks. It doesn’t have to be onerous – it could just be your top 5 or 10 risks to start with.

  • For example, if your business relies exclusively on internet orders eg as a retail outlet, then lack of access to the internet would be a serious risk and mitigation measures could involve something like hosting your website with a specialist hosting provider which can provide protection against physical issues like flooding or power cuts and some technical measures such as denial of service attacks.
  • You should bear in mind that this is a regular, repeated process, where you review your risk register regularly and agree with the board appropriate measures based on a cost benefit analysis and your company’s risk tolerance.

2. The second step is to look at Secure Configuration of your systems. All this really means is that you need to make sure that your systems are patched appropriately, that anti-virus / anti-malware software is installed, updated and running, that you have an inventory of the equipment you have and what software is installed on it, and that where possible you’ve documented a standard build for all your devices. Let’s look at those in turn, as it all sounds very complicated:

  • Patches are software updates provided by vendors to address vulnerabilities which are found in all software. These are typically graded in terms of severity from low to critical, the idea being that you apply all critical patches as fast as possible, while low severity are less important. One of the reasons the Wannacry ransomware outbreak hit people so hard in May was because a Critical patch released by Microsoft in March hadn’t been applied to the systems affected: that’s a good example of what can go wrong if you don’t keep patches up to date. Many systems allow patches to be downloaded and installed automatically and, if you don’t have an IT department, it’s a good idea to use that option.
  • Antivirus software is similar to patches, in that vendors release regular updates to tackle new viruses. With the volume of viruses increasing massively on a daily basis, it’s a good idea to install these updates as they come out – at least daily. Many of the larger virus companies such as McAfee and Symantec have products which update automatically, and are well worth considering.
  • As an aside, there are rumours that Mac devices aren’t susceptible to or targeted by viruses: this is not the case anymore so make sure those devices are protected too.
  • Keeping an inventory is sensible: if you don’t know what you’ve got, how can you protect it? And if you don’t know what software is running, how do you know you have all the licenses you need, and how do you know how to rebuild the machine if it is damaged or unavailable for some reason? It just stops you starting from the very beginning, and allows you to be more proactive. Knowing what should be on each machine also helps you to develop a strategy for removing or disabling unnecessary functionality on it. Again, going back to Wannacry in May, one of the methods used by the ransomware from machine to machine was through a network protocol which wasn’t really necessary on most machines. Maintaining an up-to-date inventory could help you identify vulnerabilities like that and close them down quickly.
  • The benefits of having a documented standard build have pretty much been covered in above. It also means that when a new machine is bought, your IT team / support company knows exactly what to install and how to configure it to meet your business needs. This saves time and effort.

3. The third step concerns Network Security. Again there are some jargon words around what this means and what has to be done, but I’ve broken it down as follows:

  • One of the reasons for network security is to protect your networks from attack. A simple way of checking to see how well the network is protected is by engaging a company such as the one I work for to run a penetration test against all your public facing connections. All that this means is that a trusted person, with your permission, tries to see how far they can get into your network: they then report back to you with details of the vulnerabilities they found and how these can be fixed / remediated. They are actually using the same tools and techniques as hackers, but because they have your permission this is known as ethical hacking.
  • Another area to look at in network security is defending your network perimeter. This means that you should have firewalls installed and configured correctly: the penetration test mentioned just now is one way of ensure that they are. Firewalls are typically installed at the place where your internal network meets the internet, often in a specially segregated area called a DMZ or “De-militarised zone”. It’s a way of stopping traffic from the internet getting directly on to your network.
  • As part of firewall configuration, you should ensure that unauthorised access and malicious content is filtered out. There are a range of companies which provide solutions for this sort of thing, but in simple terms your penetration test will help identify the biggest areas of concern. Network protocols are the ways in which computers talk to each other, and run across a range of different ports. You can think of the firewall as a giant colander, where you block up most of the holes (ports) other than those which are needed for passing a specific strand of spaghetti through a specific hole (port).
  • Last and not least in this section is the requirement to monitor and test security controls. We’ve already talked about testing – penetration testing – and monitoring is a way of measuring the effectiveness of your controls. There are a lot of monitoring toolsets available, ranging from reasonably cheap to quite expensive. It’s worth working out what you want to monitor / measure before starting to look for tools to help. This is one area where engaging a consultant may be beneficial.

4. We’ve already talked a little about Malware Prevention, the fourth step, when we talked about Secure Configuration above. What we didn’t mention is that it’s important to develop a policy around how you will use anti-malware software. For example, what happens when a virus is detected. Should it be deleted automatically or perhaps quarantined for analysis? Is there a process for testing removable media such as USB sticks for malware before connecting them to corporate systems (this is often called a sheepdip process). It’s also important that anti-malware software is running on all devices connected to your business environment: monitoring and measurement will help confirm this.

5. Overlapping malware prevention is the fifth step, Removable Media Control. This again requires specific policy statements about the use of removable media: do you allow it or not, are only specific users in specific roles allowed to use it etc, and also sets out the requirements for scanning media for malware, perhaps using the sheepdip process outlines in 4 above.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Please look out for the next installment when I’ll cover the remaining 5 steps, which are:

6. User education and awareness

7. Managing User Privileges

8. Incident Management

9. Monitoring

10. Home and Mobile Working