Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ad-Hoc Security's Surprisingly Negative Residual Effect

Security is fraught with the ad-hoc approach. Some would argue that the very nature of what we do in the Information Security industry necessitates a level of ad-hoc-ness and that to try and get away from it entirely is foolish.

CISOs are challenged with this very thing, every hour of every day. Threats pop up that they aren't prepared for, and present an imminent danger to the business, so they must react. These reactions are necessary to keep the business operational, no one will argue that, but it is when they have a residual effect on the enterprise that we run into problems.

It's the old snowflake rolling down the mountain analogy... sort of.


How it starts

Since no security program I'm aware of has managed to account for all the threats it will encounter, let's take any one of them as an example. The threat may be some semi-custom malware which targets a particular piece of software in their industry vertical, or it may simply be something as common as a banking trojan. The CISO realizes that they simply don't have the supporting infrastructure to mitigate or help in remediation of the threat - so off to the ad-hoc bin we go.

There are, in general, three possible courses of action which follow.

First the ever-popular "we'll write some code" option. Many CISOs have access to some amazing security talent, and thus the ability to whip-up some custom-coded solution which takes care of the issue. Quite common. I'm not even saying this is a bad option! If you've got the talent, why not utilize it to its full potential.

Second, the almost-as-popular "hire an army of consultants" option. External consultants descend on your enterprise and identify, contain, and work to mitigate the current threat. Your hope is that they document their work, and maybe leave behind some clues as to what was done, why, and how you can repeat this procedure int he future.

Now for the most popular option, unfortunately, if the issue is big enough. This is the "let's buy a box" option. CISOs who feel overwhelmed look to their partners and often times the analysts to provide them with options. Not surprisingly, much of the time the 'solution' comes in a nice 2U rack-mountable appliance, with a yearly maintenance contract.

With the threat, at least temporarily, addressed, it's on to the next big issue. Playing whack-a-mole is the modus operandi for all too many in security leadership... and it's not a commentary on their effectiveness or abilities, it's just simply the way it is.

Once you've moved on from the previous problem what we have left is what is commonly referred to as a "one-off".


"One-offs"

Entirely too many networks are simply littered with "one-offs". Solutions which once served some point purpose which have either been forgotten, fallen out of maintenance or support, or simply no longer serve the greater mission of the enterprise security organization. So many of these "one-offs" don't integrate well, aren't interoperable, or don't scale ... or worse they're simply not manageable at the level that your organization needs.

The problem with ad-hoc security measures is that we tend to create too many one-offs like this. Databases getting ripped off through the web apps? Drop in a WAF (Web Application Firewall). PCI requires you to log? Drop in a low-cost SIEM solution. Having difficulty managing the JAVA runtime in your environment ... err ...let's leave that one alone for now. You get the idea.

One of the biggest transgressors in this space is the Identity and Access Management tools in an enterprise. Since the problem is so challenging, enterprises tend to use multiple tools to solve niche, and timely, issues. What's left over is a patchwork of several different IAM tools, identity stores, and rights-management consoles.


The real problem with ad-hoc

The real problem with ad-hoc isn't there are way too many devices, servers, systems, and tools to keep updated and functional. Yes this is definitely a problem, but not the problem, in my opinion. The biggest problem is one of resources. Resources - we're talking about people here. Human beings need to sleep, eat lunch, hang out at the water cooler and take bio breaks. Humans who spend their time trying to make a few tools play nice are really wasting a lot of time...

The challenge of ad-hoc security is that you end up leaving behind a wake of poorly operationalized hardware, software and processes. This turns into a black hole for your people's time, and I don't have to tell you that this creates opportunities for attackers.


The realization

The unfortunate end-result of ad-hoc security, then, is decreased security. You're not really reducing risk over the long-haul but rather increasing it, due to the increased complexity, resource drain, and low levels of inter-operability. It makes perfect sense then that CISOs who don't take a pre-planned approach feel like they're forever on a hamster-wheel and are never getting anywhere in spite of superhuman efforts.


The better approach

Many of you CISOs and security leaders have already discovered and are implementing program-based security measures. You start by defining a business-aligned security strategy, which pre-plans the 'big picture' approach you will take. You set out the high-level guidance, and set timelines and try to manage projects with the understanding that things come up - but you can be ready for them.

This doesn't mean you suddenly stop tactical security measures - you just try to avoid ad-hoc situations which have you dropping in processes and technologies which don't fit in with your long-term goals and strategy. This isn't entirely difficult, but takes having that strategy first!


As always, I look forward to your replies, comments, suggestions and experiences.

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