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With ever-shifting sands, knowledge is the ultimate power in cyber security

Tue 7 Feb 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Imagine a burglar who is looking to get into a house to score some loot. As they walk down the street, they make a list of several houses that have left their doors and windows open. During their walk, they also observe that some houses have closed their doors and windows, and a few other homes have windows with burglar bars, lights, and electronic security systems.  Which houses will the burglar attack first?

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? The homes with the most basic locks are still more secure than the homes with open doors and windows. It could even be said that the simple process of closing the doors and windows was sufficient to divert the burglar to an easier victim. Any burglar, who is simply seeking a quick payday, would attack the least protected - or "softest" - targets.

This scenario does instil a perception of personal violation, and even fear, but it is similar to what takes place on the Internet every second of every day.  Hackers are conducting "reconnaissance" to find prosperous neighbourhoods to attack, and then they "scan" the individual system to test for easiest method of entry.

Above, a criminal would not take a television out the second floor windows if the front door was wide open.  The same is true when attacking computer systems.  If a simple opening or vulnerability was identified, the hacker would not resort to complex attacks.

Where houses are concerned, identifying and closing doors left open is a simple prospect. This can be similar to basic system security. A more secure system can be achieved in just a few key clicks, providing a deterrence to the majority of Internet-based threats.  When it comes to complex business information systems, it can be quite another story. The possible doors and windows available to a hacker can number in the hundreds or even thousands – and that could be in just one system.

Most companies use tens or hundreds of different software applications in the execution of their business; that’s a multiplier for the number of possible vulnerabilities. Then, the integration and interaction between those many systems can give rise to yet more possible back doors – yet another multiplier.  This situation requires coordination and management of the design, usage, audit, and remediation processes.

As in the burglary example, hackers are not limited to open doors and windows.  Burglars may attack more difficult targets to achieve greater payouts.  This may require the burglar to carry a crowbar, lock pick set, or have a more advanced understanding of a security system.

With the most powerful of all motivators driving them on – profit, in some cases, and vengeance in others – attackers have everything to gain by finding a way in. Aided and abetted with their own forms of automation and artificial intelligence, the hackers can sleep, but their systems never do, constantly probing for the weak spots.

As with burglars, hackers also employ tools that are incrementally more complex when attacking a high-value victim. This arsenal also includes methods of attack against a vulnerability built-in to every organisation - people.  Why would a hacker spend hours of difficult trial and error, requiring years of experience, when they can simply place a phone call and ask for access?

Hackers who target specific organisations will attack their victims on several fronts simultaneously. They will incorporate new techniques and tools to circumvent an organisation's security controls, and develop new messages to target its employees.

This is the challenge facing those tasked with securing information systems (and this is a task which sits with a company’s boards of directors). It is an ever-changing landscape. What is secure today may not be tomorrow. The strategies, tactics and tools used by the hacker are not as clear cut and easily identifiable as those of the burglar; no obvious knapsack containing hacksaw, screwdriver and balaclava.

Unfortunately, this creates a "black box" mentality regarding security controls, preventing the implementation of even the most basic controls within an organisation as seemingly endless layers of complexity arise.

Foremost, knowledge and vigilance are the primary weapons with which to fight back against hackers. This knowledge doesn't just belong in the boardroom, but must be shared throughout the entire company. Appropriate communication from the front desk to the shop floor, from the desktop to the back-end; people throughout the business must be imbued with an ‘information security’ mindset.

Knowing the risks, knowing the techniques, and knowing what to do in the event of a security breach is paramount. Secure organisations are created by secure people, first.

Information security is a fascinating and fast-moving environment where there is always something new to learn. In February 2017, Aura Information Security will host the first ever 31c0n conference in Auckland. This event will see some of the world’s leading minds in cyber security gather in for two days to discuss the latest in vehicle security, vulnerability and exploitation research, fuzzing, defensive techniques, offensive security, cryptography and cryptanalysis and more.

Article by Paul W. Poteete, Aura Information Security.

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