A new approach for 2019

I know it’s a bit hackneyed, but making New Year’s resolutions is part and parcel of this time of year. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in security could all make the same one, to commit to doing the same thing? We’d need to bring others with us, like our IT colleagues, our enthusiastic amateur friends, and also particularly the media and marketing people around the globe.

Let’s try to see, report on and celebrate the positives, not just focus on the negatives.

The press and online media seems to be full of stories about data breaches, ransomware, data losses and other information security related catastrophes. When these occur, my LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram feeds fill up with people talking about the breaches, how terrible they are, how companies can allow things like this to happen etc. I’m sure you’ve noticed it too. It’s almost like people are glorying in, celebrating even, the misfortunes of others.

Yes, we security professionals have a responsibility to identify weaknesses in systems and people, and try to mitigate those weaknesses. However, I think we have a greater responsibility to provide encouragement and support to our colleagues, acquaintances, friends and family. They’ve become much more aware now of the impact of their online actions, as illustrated in this story from the BBC. But many people have little or no idea how to protect themselves effectively.

If it feels like we keep having to repeat the same messages over and over, there’s a very good reason for that, which Rik Ferguson highlighted in a podcast with Jenny Radcliffe last year (2017). He said “Every day is someone’s first day online”. This is true, and I think we often forget that fact. This is why we have to keep repeating the basics, because these are new to people, and will continue to be so for years to come.

How do we change the narrative, from highlighting the negatives, to emphasizing the positives? Rather than say “there was a breach because such-and-such happened”, can we say “the breach could have been worse, but controls x, y and z helped make sure it wasn’t”? Rather than castigating individuals for missing a patch, can we not praise them for applying as many as they do? Those in the know already appreciate how hard it is to do even the simple things consistently well over the course of a year, and some things are bound to slip through the net.

I think it’s time for change. I think it’s time we recognised the excellent work so many people do. I think it’s time to shine the light on the positives.

Let’s try to see, report on and celebrate the positives, not just focus on the negatives.

Are you ready to be hacked?

Over the years there have been various statements to the effect that “there are two types of people, in the world: those who have been hacked, and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked”.

There are two types of people in the world: those who know they’ve been hacked, and those who will be.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that any organisation is a target for someone to attack. Whether that be for the data they hold, or as a route into one of their customers / suppliers, or because of their activities, or just for “fun”.

If we accept that we will be attacked, it makes sense for us to be prepared for what we’ll do when we are breached. What do we mean by being prepared though?

There are a number of aspects to this, which include (but aren’t limited to):

  • How will you respond to the press / social media / general public if they ask about it, or if the story gets out?
  • How will you identify what data has been stolen?
  • How will you determine the scope and scale of the breach?
  • How will you know how the breach happened, and how do you stop it happening again in future?

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s have a look…

Press / social media

For many organisations, how they respond and deal with public perception after a breach is paramount. A positive, well thought out and competent approach which demonstrates to the public that the organisation is in control will likely result in limited reputational damage and no significant decline in public confidence.

The opposite is true too. If the public perception is that the organisation doesn’t know what it is doing, or has no clear plan for addressing the breach, then confidence will drop and may have a significant effect on the organisation’s share price.

It’s often the first impressions that count in these circumstances. Your organisation should plan in advance how they are going to deal with an event, who they need to contact, who will talk to the press etc. They should also have contact details for appropriate people within the press and media to hand.

Identifying stolen data and determining the scope and scale of the breach

The average time taken for organisations to realise they have been breached is often quoted as being about 240 days.

Working out what has been taken, and when, can be very challenging for many organisations. Typically, they will need to have been capturing and retaining system and event logs from their servers and network devices (including firewalls and routers), and probably also endpoint devices (including laptops and desktops), and those logs may have to have been retained for quite some time. Logs take up a huge amount of disk space, which in the past has been very expensive, so it’s unlikely that everything has been logged or that logs have been held for the 8 or 9 months needed.

Trawling through those logs to identify “normal” operations, then to find “abnormal” actions is not practical for a human, but there are many tools available which can interrogate and map the logs. These are usually advertised as (Security Information and Event Management) SIEM tools, but there may be individual tools for specific requirements or sets of logs.

These tools are used along with forensic techniques to determine exactly what happened and when. Typically, specialist incident response teams and digital forensics experts are called in to help identify exactly what happened, and when.

Preventing it from happening again

Once you know what happened, and how, you need to review existing security practices to protect your organisation from a recurrence. For example, if the initial attack came through an infected email, you may look at better email scanning or phishing awareness training for staff.

It’s clear that this would be an iterative process, and that from each successive attack you look to strengthen defences.