Enterprises of all types are increasingly under attack by advanced persistent threats, which pose much greater danger than the lone hacker who just wants to use brute force to get in and deface their website.
They are exploiting the disconnect between application security and perimeter security. The growing sophistication of intruders means they can take advantage of lax application security unnoticed and gain access to an organization’s entire infrastructure.
This disconnect often results from a laser focus on the minutiae of security accompanied by a lack of an overall strategic vision.
One major telecommunications provider has been looking at security from this perspective, and tackling the issue by managing the details and the strategy simultaneously, and extending that value to its widely varied types of customers.
Listen to a podcast featuring guest George Turrentine, senior IT manager at a large telecom firm, whose focus is on IT security and compliance. Co-hosting the discussion are Raf Los, chief security evangelist at HP Software and Dana Gardner.
Download the podcast (33:45 minutes) or use the player:
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: George, many of the organizations that I’m familiar with are very focused on security, sometimes at a laser level. They’re very focused on tactics, on individual technologies and products, and looking at specific types of vulnerabilities. But I sense that, sometimes, they might be missing the strategy, the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and that there is lack of integration in some of these aspects, of how to approach security.
I wonder if that’s what you are seeing it, and if that’s an important aspect to keeping a large telecommunications organization robust, when it comes to a security posture.
George Turrentine: We definitely are at the time and place where attacks against organizations have changed. It used to be that you would have a very focused attack against an organization by a single individual or a couple of individuals. It would be a brute-force type attack. In this case, we’re seeing more and more that applications and infrastructure are being attacked, not brute force, but more subtly.
The fact that somebody that is trying to effect an advanced persistent threat (APT) against a company, means they’re not looking to set off any alarms within the organization. They’re trying to stay below the radar and stay focused on doing a little bit at a time and breaking it up over a long period of time, so that people don’t necessarily see what’s going on.
Gardner: Raf, how does that jibe with what you are seeing? Is there a new type of awareness that is, as George points out, subtle?
Raf Los: Subtlety is the thing. Nobody wants to be a bull-in-a-china-shop hacker. The reward may be high, but the risk of getting caught and getting busted is also high. The notion that somebody is going to break in and deface your website is childish at best today. As somebody once put it to me, the good hackers are the ones you catch months later; the great ones, you’ll never see.
That’s what we’re worried about, right. Whatever buzzwords we throw around and use, the reality is that attacks are evolving, attackers are evolving, and they are evolving faster than we are and than we have defenses for.
As I’ve said before, it’s like being out in a dark field chasing fireflies. We tend to be chasing the shiny, blinky thing of the day, rather than doing pragmatic security that is relevant to the company or the organization that you’re supporting.
Gardner: One of the things I’ve seen is that there is a different organization, even a different culture, in managing network security, as opposed to, say, application security, and that often, they’re not collaborating as closely as they might. And that offers some cracks between their different defenses.
George, it strikes me that in the telecommunications arena, the service providers are at an advantage, where they’ve got a strong network history and understanding and they’re beginning to extend more applications and services onto that network. Is there something to be said that you’re ahead of the curve on this bridging of the cultural divide between network and application?
Turrentine: It used to be that we focused a whole lot on the attack and the perimeter and trying to make sure that nobody got through the crunchy exterior. The problem is that, in the modern network scenario, when you’re hosting applications, etc., you’ve already opened the door for the event to take place, because you’ve had to open up pathways for users to get into your network, to get to your servers, and to be able to do business with you. So you’ve opened up these holes.
Unfortunately, a hole that’s opened is an avenue of an attack. So the application now has become the primary barrier for protecting data. A lot of folks haven’t necessarily made that transition yet to understanding that application security actually is your front row of attack and defense within an organization.
It means that you have to now move into an area where applications not only can defend themselves, but are also free from vulnerabilities or coding flaws that can easily allow somebody to grab data that they shouldn’t have access to.
Gardner: Raf, it sounds as if, for some period of time, the applications folks may have had a little bit of an easy go at it, because the applications were inside a firewall. The network was going to be protected, therefore I didn’t have to think about it. Now, as George is pointing out, the applications are exposed. I guess we need to change the way we think about application development and lifecycle.
Los: Dana, having spent some time in extremely large enterprise, starting in like 2001, for a number of years, I can’t tell you the amount of times applications’ owners would come back and say, “I don’t feel I need to fix this. This isn’t really a big risk, because the application is inside the firewall.”
Even going back that far, though, that was still a cop-out, because at that time, the perimeter was continuing to erode. Today, it’s just all about gone. That’s the reality.
So this erosion of perimeter, combined with the fact that nothing is really internal anymore, makes this all difficult. As George already said, applications need not just to be free of bugs, but actually be built to defend themselves in cases where we put them out into an uncertain environment. And we’ll call the Internet uncertain on a good day and extremely hostile on every other day.
Turrentine: Not only that, but now developers are developing applications to make them feature rich, because consumers want feature-rich applications. The problem is that those same developers aren’t educated and trained in how to produce secure code.
The other thing is that too many organizations have a tendency to look at that big event with a possibility of it taking place. Yet hackers aren’t looking for the big event. They’re actually looking for the small backdoor that they can quietly come in and then leverage that access. They leverage the trust between applications and servers within the infrastructure to promote themselves to other boxes and other locations and get to the data.
We used to take for granted that it was protected by the perimeter. But now it isn’t, because you have these little applications that most security departments ignore. They don’t test them. They don’t necessarily go through and make sure that they’re secure or that they’re even tested with either dynamic or static analysis, and you are putting them out there because they are “low risk.”
Gardner: Let’s chunk this out a little bit. On one side, we have applications that have been written over any number of years, or even decades, and we need to consider the risks of exposing them, knowing that they’re going to get exposed. So is that a developer’s job? How do we make those older apps either sunsetted or low-risk in terms of being exposed?
And on the other side, we’ve got new applications that we need to develop in a different way, with security instantiated into the requirements right from the get-go. How do you guys parse either side of that equation? What should people be considering as they approach these issues?
Turrentine: I’m going to go back to the fact that even though you may put security requirements in at the beginning, in the requirements phase of the SDLC, the fact is that many developers are going to take the low path and the easiest way to get to what is required and not necessarily understand how to get it more secure.
This is where the education system right now has let us down. I started off programming 30 years ago. Back then, there was a very finite area of memory that you could write an application into. You had to write overlays. You had to make sure that you moved data in and out of memory and took care of everything, so that the application could actually run in the space provided. Nowadays, we have bloat. We have RAM bloat. We have systems with 16 to 64 GB of RAM.
Los: Just to run the operating system.