V is for …

VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) is a form of network connection between two points which is encrypted. This helps protect the network traffic from being intercepted by others, and helps to keep the message secure.

It’s a really good idea to use a VPN if you’re away from home eg in cafes or using other public WiFi connections. There are quite a few available, for mobile phones as well as for laptops etc, they’re quite easy to find, and there are free as well as paid for versions on the market.

Virus

A computer virus is a form of malware which can carry different payloads. Just like a virus which infects people, a computer virus is designed to infect devices by a number of different methods. Using antivirus software, and keeping the software updated, as well as regularly applying patches, is a good way of reducing the risk of infection.

Vishing

Vishing is a form of phishing which is done over the phone (voice phishing) rather than by email. It’s often used in conjunction with phishing to add credibility to the email which was sent, and to try to improve the chances of the target being successfully socially engineered.

Vulnerabilities

Almost all software has faults in it, which may take some time to discover. These faults are called vulnerabilities, and they are fixed when patches are issued.

Vulnerability scan

A vulnerability scan is similar to a penetration test, but doesn’t go into as much detail. It’s the equivalent of a burglar trying the doors and windows on a house to see if they’re open – and then not going into the house (which would be a penetration test).

All it does is identify how an application, website or other system is vulnerable, but it doesn’t tell you what you could do if you exploited the vulnerability.

H is for…

Hacking

I’m pretty sure that you’ve all heard the term “hacking”, and you probably know that it has negative connotations. But what exactly is it?

Put simply, it’s trying to get access to a computer or network using vulnerabilities in the security of the target. Note that I don’t necessarily say software: people can be hacked too, which is effectively what social engineering is. I won’t go onto social engineering here as it’ll be covered under “S is for…” later this year, so for the moment I’ll concentrate on hacking software.

Almost all software has errors in it which can be used to make the software do things the manufacturer didn’t intend. The bad guys know this, and spend a lot of time looking for those errors, then writing their own software to make use of these vulnerabilities (weaknesses): this process is called writing exploits.

The bad guys have a number of ways of getting their exploits to run on your systems: phishing emails are perhaps the most common and well known method, as are infected websites which download and install software in the background.

The best ways to protect your systems from hackers are:

  • Change your passwords regularly and enforce long, complex passwords for administrator level accounts
  • Keep patching and antivirus updated
  • Ensure your systems are vulnerability scanned, preferably penetration tested, on a regular basis
  • Ensure you / staff are trained to spot phishing emails

Hacktivism

Hackers who attack systems in support of a specific cause are engaging in hacktivism. Organisations like Anonymous rose to attention because they attracted hacktivists supporting different causes to attack companies which were involved in those causes.

Hybrid cloud model

As the name suggests, this kind of model is a mix of cloud and on-premise service provision. Some of the data / servers being used are in data centres run by your organisation, and some are in the cloud.

F is for…

Firewall

Computers talk to each other using different protocols (these are just different formats for messages) and different protocols use different ports. Common protocols include http, which is used by most internet traffic, https which is an encrypted version of http, or FTP which is used for file transfers (File Transfer Protocol). Http uses port 80, https uses port 443, and FTP commonly uses port 21. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

Maybe this will help. Remember those children’s toys, with different shaped blocks that you have to push through holes in a board, like the one shown in the picture below? Think of the different shaped blocks as network traffic using different protocols, and the holes in the board are ports. The question then becomes – what is the board? That’s the firewall. A firewall sits between the internet and your internal network. In order to improve protection on your network, you close off all the ports and protocols which you don’t use on your network, which reduces the number of different ways for the bad guys to get in to your network – or to receive data from yours. Penetration testers can help you identify vulnerabilities and advise which ports and protocols should be blocked.

Forensics

You probably know what forensics are when used in crime dramas. They’d very popular, and typically you’ll see people in one piece overalls combing painstakingly through a crime scene looking for clues. Digital forensics aren’t a lot different, but instead of the overalls analysts doing the work are most likely in a lab of some sort. They use various tools to examine the hard drives and memory on devices to work out who did what and when. Whether they’re looking at individual fragments of files, or using software packages to trawl to email records and logs, they’re trying to piece together what happened. As more of the world does business on line, digital forensics experts are going to be in more and more demand.

Format

Before any kind of electronic storage eg hard drive or USB stick can be used, it needs to be prepared to receive data. Different operating systems (like Microsoft Windows, MacOS or UNIX) prepare the storage in different ways, through a process called formatting.

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

Certified Ethical Hacker

In spring 2013 I attended a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) training course with Firebrand in Wyboston, England. It was a week long bootcamp, with classes starting on the Sunday evening, 12 hour days in the classroom and a 3 hour exam on the Friday morning.

The classes were made up of a mixture of theory and practical work. All attendees had a number of virtual environments to work in, and we were able to use a number of the tools we’d talked about in a safe environment. After class we had two to three hours reading every night, to read the courseware, so we spent roughly 15 hours a day on the topic.

As you can imagine, this kind of intense training crams a lot in and leaves you pretty drained at the end, but it was worth it. The course “only” gives the background, and it is then down to the individual to keep their education up by reading more on the topic, by trying the tools out and by carrying out this kind of work.

While I don’t currently do any kind of hacking as part of my job, the course gave a very good understanding of the techniques and methods used, and the risks and potential impact that each kind of attack could bring to an organisation. From that perspective, it meant I was well prepared for writing policies and standards to help counteract the threats from this angle.

Recertification takes place every three years, and in that time you have to be able to demonstrate completion of at least 120 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) in related topics. I have recently completed my first recertification and am therefore entitled to use the CEH designation, approved by the EC-Council, until 2019.