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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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