Security Principles and Practices: How to Approach SecurityLeave a Comment
October is Security Month here at Server Density. To mark the occasion we’ve partnered with our friends at Detectify to create a short series of security dispatches for you.
In our previous three articles we looked at some essential security checks for your web applications, APIs and servers. But once the obvious vulnerabilities are considered, what happens next? How can we stay proactive and, most importantly, how do we become security conscious?
What follows is a set of underlying security principles and practices you should look into.
Minimise your Attack Surface
An attack surface is the sum of the different points (attack vectors) from where an unauthorized user can inject or steal data from a given environment. Eliminating possible attack vectors is the first place to start when securing your systems.
This means closing down every possible interface you’re not using. Let’s take web apps for example. Ports 80 and 443 should be the only ones open to the outside world. SSH port 22 (preferably changed to something else) should be accessible to a restricted subset of permitted IPs and only developers / administrators should have access. The obvious idea is to limit the scope for outside attackers to creep in.
Here’s is an example scenario: You run a website which has the following two restrictions: i) Only developers have admin access, and ii) SSH access is only available through a VPN connection. For a break-in to happen, an intruder would therefore need to compromise the credentials of your developer, and they would also need access to your VPN and SSH keys. The attack would have to be highly coordinated.
What’s more, any potential intrusion might not yield that much (internal systems may employ “defense in depth” and “least privilege” practices). It’s unlikely an attacker would spend the time and resources to jump through all those hoops (for uncertain gain), purely because there are easier targets out there.
Most attacks are opportunistic. Which is why layers of security are important. Breaching one layer just gets you down to the next one rather than compromising the whole system. The rule of thumb is, attackers go after the easiest targets first. Your systems should, therefore, be as locked down as as possible. This includes servers, workstations, phones, portables, et cetera. As the attack surface diminishes, so does the likelihood of hacking attempts.
If you don’t know what to look out for, third party services can help you determine how breachable your systems are. For example:
- Detectify can evaluate your web applications
- Nessus can scope your network-layer security
- Penetration testers (pentesters) can assess your end-to-end security profile
You then need to put the effort in and plug the issues that come up.
Internal Practices and Company Culture
The strongest of perimeters can’t protect against internal human error. Take “errors of commision,” for example. An employee quits their job, goes to a competitor and leaks intel. How do you anticipate and prevent that?
Then there is a long list of “errors of omission”. People have businesses to run, busy lives to lead, important things to do. Staying secure is not always top-of-mind and we let things slide. For example, are employees reminded to encrypt their laptops and portables? When was the last time you monitored your server activity? What systems do you have in place to negate the need to “remember”? Who handles security in your team? Who is accountable?
Humans are the weakest link when it comes to safe systems. Your internal systems (and practices) need to account for that. Security needs to be a fundamental part of how you work and collaborate on projects.
“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”
Your internal practices should facilitate as many “eyes on the code” as possible. This can be done with peer reviews and code buddy schemes. To complement your team efforts, there are some compelling platforms for bug bounty and bug reporting you can tap into. [NB: Crowd skillsets are not—strictly speaking—an internal constituent of company culture. Admitting we don’t know it all and asking for help, however, is.]
What Motivates Hackers?
Some of them are out to prove a point. Others are criminal gangs looking for financial gains such as extortion and credit card theft. Then there is industrial espionage, botnets and a whole host of ugly stuff. The threat landscape is highly diverse. Ultimately all it takes is a single misstep for an attacker to get the keys to the kingdom.
It therefore pays to think like a hacker. Why would someone want to hack your server? What data lives there? What is the easiest way in? What could the attacker do once inside?
“The Enemy Knows the System”
According to Kerckhoffs’s principle every secret creates a potential failure point. If you’re relying on “security through obscurity” to stay safe, then your systems are as safe as your secrets (see human factor above).
A secure authentication policy, for example, does not depend on secrecy. Even if a password was compromised (how easy is it to impart a 20 character randomised password?) an attacker would still need a separate token to gain access (MFA).
If there is one underlying theme in our security dispatches so far, is this: Security is an incredibly fast moving field, with plenty of complexity and trade-offs involved.
Getting up to speed and staying on top of the latest security trends and threats is a key requirement in maintaining secure systems and infrastructure.
Reddit’s /r/netsec is great starting point. Hacker News tend to highlight the most evil vulnerabilities. There’s a bunch of very skilled security researchers on Twitter. Some indicative profiles are @SophosLabs, @TheHackersNews and @mikko.
Some blogs we like are: