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NASA Vulnerability and Admin Rights

Posted April 7, 2011    Peter McCalister

A report came out recently highlighting vulnerabilities in NASA’s IT that could have impaired critical space missions or leaked sensitive information.

Using the NASA CIO’s own words, The Network World story by Tim Greene points the finger in the same mistaken direction most anyone would as a reflexive response. The lack of an ongoing program to identify and patch vulnerabilities. But the article itself also presents the very obstacle to that. NASA was/is patching software routinely, but there’s just too much to patch, too many updates, too often that need to be implemented too quickly. Mistakes and overlooked vulnerabilities are bountiful. What about vulnerabilities that aren’t discovered yet, were just discovered but not patched, or are known but overlooked. Is there no room for error?

The report states the agency has over 190 IT systems and projects that include assets that control the Hubble Space Telescope, The Space Shuttle and the International Space Station among others and describes previous breaches where extremely sensitive information had been leaked by sophisticated attacks.  In one case malware was allowed to spread and make 3,000 unauthorized connections to IP addresses all over the globe. The report blames “inadequate security configurations.”

Since a desktop requires admin privileges to install software, including malware, it’s pretty safe to say that at least one of those “inadequate security configurations” was administrator privileges on the desktop.  We’re almost finished polishing up our 2010 report on Windows vulnerabilities (see 2010 report here), but suffice to say there’s no surprises – the vast majority of Windows vulnerabilities can be mitigated by removing administrator privileges.

What the NASA story is missing in the mainstream media is that running around patching vulnerabilities everywhere they can be found is only half the solution. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole, you’re never done and you’ll always be too late to at least one. Companies need to reduce their risk exposure even under the assumption that some vulnerabilities will be leveraged – and they will.

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Additional articles

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How to Audit VMware ESX and ESXi Servers Against the VMware Hardening Guidelines with Retina CS

Posted February 27, 2015    BeyondTrust Research Team

Retina CS Enterprise Vulnerability Management has included advanced VMware auditing capabilities for some time, including virtual machine discovery and scanning through a cloud connection, plus the ability to scan ESX and ESXi hosts using SSH. However, in response to recent security concerns associated with SSH, VMware has disabled SSH by default in its more recent…

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Privileged Passwords: The Bane of Security Professionals Everywhere

Posted February 19, 2015    Dave Shackleford

Passwords have been with us since ancient times. Known as “watchwords”, ancient Roman military guards would pass a wooden tablet with a daily secret word engraved from one shift to the next, with each guard position marking the tablet to indicate it had been received. The military has been using passwords, counter-passwords, and even sound…

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In Vulnerability Management, Process is King

Posted February 18, 2015    Morey Haber

You have a vulnerability scanner, but where’s your process? Most organizations are rightly concerned about possible vulnerabilities in their systems, applications, networked devices, and other digital assets and infrastructure components. Identifying vulnerabilities is indeed important, and most security professionals have some kind of scanning solution in place. But what is most essential to understand is…

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