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IT Security’s Best Kept Secret – Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted January 22, 2013    Mike Puterbaugh

This blog post was first posted on Wired.com on January 22nd, 2013. It can be found, in it’s original formatting, here: http://insights.wired.com/profiles/blogs/it-security-s-best-kept-secret-hiding-in-plain-sight

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There’s a reason the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth of a pound a cure” resonates in so many situations – because it’s true. In today’s risk-averse IT security environment, proactive measures definitely get their due investment, but the best kept secret in reducing risk eludes many organizations.

Reducing the threats within corporate networks, while mitigating the potential damage caused by successful breaches, is largely about managing and reducing attack surface – identifying the vulnerabilities and privileges that attackers seek out as part of increasingly sophisticated attacks. Depending on an organization’s size, however, managing this attack surface isn’t as simple as checking items off a list.

Much like holding the ocean back with a broom, organizations have spent untold billions on firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems and the industry’s favorite night club bouncer – antivirus – who hasn’t spotted a fake ID since 1987. Unfortunately for these and many other security technologies, Verizon’s 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report tells us that of the breaches it surveyed, 96 percent were not highly difficult for attackers and 97 percent could have been avoided through simple or intermediate controls. So much for the night club bouncer.

What are we missing?
Having a deep background in vulnerability management, I know that over 90 percent of breaches leverage known vulnerabilities – a point proven by Verizon’s data. Seems simple enough: identify a vulnerability; apply a patch. If only it were that easy. Even with the widespread availability of patching tools, it’s not uncommon for IT to not have the ability to push a patch in the face of an rapidly evolving attack (something lovingly referred to as “panic patching”). Change-control windows, patch compatibility, even the risk of machines not coming back online after a reboot add to the risk equation.

The Best Kept Secret in IT Security
There’s another kind of patch that, when applied and managed as part of a healthy network security diet, will continue to pay security dividends time and time again. It’s what I’ll call the “privilege patch”. It’s a simple concept, but one that all too often ends up on the “cure” side of the ledger instead of serving as the prevention it really is.

Managing privileges on corporate desktops is often about governing employee access. However, the insider threat posed by elevated privileges isn’t solely about employees; it’s also about stopping outsiders exploiting unsuspecting employees. These elevated machine privileges are sought out for what they allow an attacker to do after they’ve compromised a system, such as installing malware or probing and infecting other computers on the network. The aforementioned Verizon report states that 98 percent of data breaches in 2011 came from external agents, but goes on to suggest those attacks were successful because they were enabled in part by human error or ignorance. In short, we all let this happen every day.

Reducing a machine to it’s “least privilege” is akin to applying a patch – a patch that will thwart the vast majority of attacks which prey upon (and require) machines with elevated rights to propagate their actions. Like antivirus, it isn’t the panacea that you hope any security practice is; however it does as much (or in many, many cases more) to reduce the attack surface on your network as more complex options. Least Privilege raises a stronger challenge to attackers than the alternative, a system with unchecked privileges.

It’s Good to Have Choices
If there is one thing that I’ve learned in my conversations with IT security practitioners, tacticians and executives, it’s that they want options when it comes to making decisions regarding their protection strategies. This is especially true when it comes to remediation. Pushing patches is often untenable, as is closing off ports and services in the name of avoiding an attack – business must go on, productivity must be protected along with company data and assets. In this instance, applying the privilege patch can be a tactical option, used as means to temporarily reduce attack surface, while more permanent measures are pondered. It’s an option many security teams overlook when it comes to looking for ways to reduce their overall risk profiles.

As the Verizon report shows us, the corporate desktop is often an attackers’ best friend. It doesn’t have to be.

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Want to see if the “privilege patch” is a viable option for your network security? Check out PowerBroker for Windows today, free trials available.

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