Opinion

How to recognise security vulnerabilities in your IT systems

Adam Bosnian_Cyber Ark.JPGBy Adam Bosnian, EVP,  Cyber-Ark Software

As IT systems continue to extend across multiple environments, IT security threats and vulnerabilities have likewise continued to evolve.

Whether from the growing insider threat of rogue and unauthorised internal sources, or from the ever increasing number of external attacks, organisations are more susceptible than ever to crippling attacks.  It's almost become simply a matter of "when it will happen" rather than "if it will happen."

For IT resellers, security issues have always persisted as critical to all communications for an organisation's IT department.

However, with the increase in the levels of access to a company's network compounded by these maturing threats, it is no longer feasible to merely recognise the existence of more simplistic, perimeter threats.

Resellers must be able to provide customers with a comprehensive risk assessment of the entirety of an organisation's IT assets to their vulnerabilities--inclusive of both software and hardware.

This risk assessment must incorporate an understanding of external threats and internal vulnerabilities and how the two continue to merge to create increasingly susceptible IT environments.

At the most basic level, organisations and resellers alike must understand the different types of threats. Malware, a generic term for malicious software, such as trojan horses, worms, and viruses, is the most common form of attack that is originated by an external hacker. Malware attacks have persisted for years - from the infamous Morris worm to common spyware attacks - and they remain the easiest and most damaging tactic deployed by malicious hackers.

With enterprises extending to the cloud, and more organisations adopting SaaS-based applications, social media and other Web 2.0 tools, damaging malware attacks and viruses can now originate through simple SPAM messages and emails.

Internally, organisations are typically susceptible to threats from either authorised rogue users who abuse privileged accounts and identities to access sensitive information, or unauthorised users who use their knowledge of administrative credentials to subvert security systems. It is this type of vulnerability - unauthorised internal access - that has continued to emerge as the most volatile and disruptive.

To truly understand the risks involved with these "insider threats", organisations and resellers need to understand the root of the vulnerabilities.

Most commonly, the risks lie with the use of embedded credentials, most notably hard coded passwords, a practice employed by software developers to provide access to administrators during the development process. The practice occurs frequently since application developers tend to be more focused on the development and release cycle of the application, rather than any security concerns. While it may appear harmless at first glance, it is extremely risky as it can potentially provide unauthorised users with powerful, complete access to IT systems.

To compound the matter, by hardcoding passwords to cover embedded credentials, vendors create a problem that cannot be easily fixed nor assuaged by tools such as Privileged Identity Management systems. Once embedded into an application, the passwords cannot be removed without damaging the system. At the end of the day, the passwords provide malicious outsiders with a bulls eye target - a key vulnerability to leverage to help them gain powerful access and control on a target device, and potentially throughout the entire organisation.

One of the most well known examples is the Stuxnet virus.  We've all been blown away by the design of Stuxnet, and were surprised by the pathway the virus took in targeting SCADA systems.  Reflection shows that the virus used the hard coded password vulnerability to target these systems - which should serve as a lesson for all businesses.  

The existence of vulnerabilities embedded within these types of systems is not necessarily new, but the emergence of new threats continues to shed light on the ease with which they can be leveraged for an attack. While malicious outsiders and insiders have focused often on the administrative credentials on typical systems like servers, databases and the like, in reality, IT organisations need to identify every asset that has a microprocessor, memory or an application/process. From copiers to scanners, these devices all have similar embedded credentials that represent significant organisational vulnerabilities.

While steps can be taken to proactively manage embedded credentials without hardcoding them in the first place - Privileged Identity Management tools can help - the onus is on the organisation, and the reseller, to ensure that a holistic view of all vulnerabilities and risks has been taken.

This was first published in February 2011

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