Category Archives: cybersecurity

Security Myths?

I find it very interesting when an article debunks itself while talking about debunking myths. If you have not read the recent Network World article titled “13 Security Myths You’ll Hear – But Should You Believe?” you can read it here:

While most of the “myths” are very obvious to anyone who has worked in computer support for very long, one of them I found quite interesting. The third “myth” referenced in the article is, “Regular expiration (typically every 90 days) strengthens password systems.” First, while I completely disagree that this is a myth taken within the context of a complete security system including proper user training, it appears that the article itself debunks the debunking of this “myth”. Note the following from myth number 6, “He adds that while 30-day expiration might be good advice for some high-risk environments, it often is not the best policy because such a short period of time tends to induce users to develop predictable patterns or otherwise decrease the effectiveness of their passwords. A length of between 90 to 120 days is more realistic, he says.”

Now here’s the reality of it from my perspective. If you never change passwords, an internal employee can brute passwords for months and even years until he gains access to sensitive accounts. If you change passwords every 90+ days while having strong passwords that are easy to remember, you accomplish the best security. Strong passwords that are easy to remember can take weeks or months to back with brute force. For example, the password S0L34r43ms3r is VERY easy to remember, well it’s easy for me to remember, but you have no idea why. Brute forcing this password would take months with most systems. Therefore, I have a strong password. If I change it every 90-120 days, I will have a good balance of security and usability.

Does every employee need to change his or her password every 90-120 days? No, certainly not. Some employees have access to absolutely no sensitive information. We can allow them to change their passwords either every 6-12 months or never, depending on our security policies. The point is that different levels of access demand different levels of security.

While I felt the article was very good and it did reference some research to defend the “myth” suggested in relation ot password resets, the reality is that the article and the research (which I’ve read) does not properly consider a full security system based on effective policies and training. Granted, few organizations implement such a system, but, hey, we’re only talking theory in this context anyway, right? It sure would be nice if security could move from theory to practical implementation in every organization, but it hasn’t. The reason? By and large, because most organizations (most are small companies) never experience a security incident beyond viruses, worms and DoS attacks. That’s just life.

IEEE 802.1X Authentication – Device Roles

The IEEE 802.1X (802.1X-2004) standard defines three roles involved in an authentication system that provides port-based access control:

  • Supplicant
  • Authenticator
  • Authentication Server

The supplicant is the entity containing the port that wishes to gain access to services offered by the system or network to which the authenticator is connected. Stated in common Wi-Fi terminology, the IEEE 802.1X supplicant is the device desiring to gain access to the WLAN.

The authenticator is the entity containing the port that wishes to enforce authentication before granting access to services offered by the system or network to which it is connected. Again, stated in common Wi-Fi terminology, the IEEE 802.1X authenticator is the access point (AP) through which the wireless clients connect to the network. In controller-based systems, it can also be the controller that acts as the authenticator.

The authentication server is the system that performs the authentication processes required to verify the credentials provided by the supplicant through the authenticator. RADIUS servers are commonly used as the authentication server in an IEEE 802.1X implementation for WLANs.

This is the first portion you must grasp to properly understand 802.1X authentication systems. You must know about these three roles and why they exist. It is important to remember that, in a WLAN, the authentication server is not likely a wireless device at all, but rather is a server computer or a network appliance that provides the service to the APs and controllers (as well as other devices requiring authentication to the network).

Finally, before leaving this introductory post, remember that IEEE 802.1X is not a wireless standard, it is an authentication framework that can be used by wired and wireless systems. Also, the actual authentication used will vary depending on the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) type used. IEEE 802.1X provides the framework on which the actual EAP authentication protocols operate.

The Importance of Data Classification (Information Classification)

The importance of security varies by organization. The variations exist because of the differing values placed on information and networks within organizations. For example, organizations involved in banking and healthcare will likely place a greater priority on information security than organizations involved in selling greeting cards. However, in every organization there exists a need to classify data so that it can be protected appropriately. The greeting card company will likely place a greater value on its customer database than it will on the log files for the Internet firewall. Both of these data files have value, but one is more valuable than the other and should be classified accordingly so that it can be protected properly.

Data classification is the process used to identify the value of data and the cost of data loss or theft. Consider that the cost of data loss is different than the cost of data theft. When data is lost, it means that you no longer have access to the data; however, it does not follow automatically that someone else does have access to the data. For example, an attacker may simply delete your data. This action results in lost data. Data theft indicates that the attacker stole the data. With the data in  the attacker’s possession, the attacker can sell it or otherwise use it in a way that can damage the organization’s value. The worst case scenario is data theft with loss. In this case, the attacker steals the data and destroys the copies. Now the attacker can use the data, but the organization cannot.

When classifying data, then, you are attempting to answer the following questions:

  • How valuable is the data to the organization?
  • How valuable is the data to competitors or outside individuals?
  • Who should have access to the data?
  • Who should not have access to the data?

It might seem odd to ask both of the latter two questions, but it can be very important. For example, you may identify a group who should have access to the data with the exception of one individual in that group. In this case, the group should have access to the data, but the individual in that group should not, and the resulting permission set should be built accordingly. In a Microsoft environment, you would create a group for the individuals needing access and grant that group access to the resource. Next, you would explicitly deny access to the individual who should not have access. The denial overrides the grant and you accomplish the access required.

Many organizations will classify data so that they can easily implement and maintain permissions. For example, if data is classified as internal only, it’s a simple process to configure permissions for that data. Simply create a group named All Employees and add each internal employee to this group. Now, you can assign permissions to the All Employees group for any data classified as internal only. If data is classified as unclassified or public, you can provide access to the Everyone group in a Windows environment and achieve the needed permissions. The point is that data classification leads to simpler permission (authorization) management.

From what I’ve said so far, you can see that data classification can be defined as the process of labeling or organizing data in order to indicate the level of protection required for that data. You may define data classification levels of private, sensitive, and public. Private data would be data that should only be seen by the organization’s employees and may only be seen by a select group of the organization’s employees. Sensitive data would be data that should only be seen by the organization’s employees and approved external individuals. Public data would be data that can be viewed by anyone.

Consider the following applications of this data classification model:

  • The information on the organization’s Internet web site should fall in the classification of public data.
  • The contracts that exist between the organization and service providers or customers should fall in the classification of sensitive data.
  • Trade secrets or internal competitive processes should be classified as private data.

The private, sensitive, and public model is just one example of data classification, but it helps you to determine which data users should be allowed to store offline and which data should only be access while authenticated to the network. By keeping private data off of laptops, you help reduce the severity of a peer-to-peer attack that is launched solely to steal information.

This data classification process is at the core of information security, and it can be outlined as follows:

  1. Determine the value of the information in question.
  2. Apply an appropriate classification based on that value.
  3. Implement the proper security solutions for that classification of information.

From this very brief overview of information classification and security measures, you can see why different organizations have different security priorities and needs. It is also true, however, that every organization is at risk for certain threats. Threats such as denial of service (DoS), worms, and others are often promiscuous in nature. The attacker does not care what networks or systems are damaged or made less effective in a promiscuous attack. The intention of such an attack is often only to express the attacker’s ability or to serve some other motivation for the attacker, such as curiosity or need for recognition. Because many attacks are promiscuous in nature, it is very important that every organization place some level of priority on security regardless of the intrinsic value of the information or networks they employ.