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2011-09-04 Information Security Is Not a Matter of Compliance

A Radio On a Piano

Information Security Is Not a Matter Of Compliance But a Matter of Some Regular and Boring Activities

Making conclusions from experience is not always a scientific approach but a blog is a place where to share experience. Today, I would like to share my past experience with information security and especially how much it's difficult to reach some security with the specific compliance detour proposed by the industry or even the society.

Compliance is a Different Objective Than Information Security

Many compliance mechanisms exist in the information security to ensure on paper the security of a service, a company, a process. I won't list all of them but you might know PCI-DSS, TS 101 456, ISO/IEC 27001 and so on… Very often the core target of a company is to get the final validating document at the end of the auditing process.

Of course, many of those validation processes are requiring many strong security requirements on the procedural aspect of the information security management within the company. This is usually a great opportunity for the information security department to increase somehow their budget or their attraction. Everything is nice. But usually when the paper work is finished, the company got their golden certificate and the investment in information security is just put aside.

But concrete information security is composed of many little dirty jobs that no one wants really do. Usually in the compliance documents those tasks are underestimated (e.g. a check-box at the end of a long list) or even not mentioned (e.g. discarded during the risk assessment because they seem insignificant). Those tasks are usually a core part of information security. Not only for protecting but also to detect misuse earlier.

I summarized the tasks in three large groups (it's not an exhaustive view) but show some of the core jobs to be performed in the context of protecting information systems:

Reading and Analyzing Never Ending Log Files

The log analysis is usually the main trigger to find a compromised system. When Clifford Stoll found that the system was compromised at LBL, it was due to a specific 75 cents accounting issue. Like the recent security breach at discovered by an error in the log from a non-installed software (Xnest) or a pop up of an invalid certificate, that's how infection or compromised infrastructure get discovered.

But to discover those discrepancies, you need someone at the end. The answer, here, is not a machine to read your logs (I already hear the SIEM vendors claiming this can be automatized). It's a human having some knowledge (with some doubts) to pick something unusual that can lead to the detection of something serious.

The log analysis is a tedious work that needs curious and competent people. It's something difficult to describe in a compliance document. The analysis job can be boring and not really rewarded. That's why sometime you see the idea of "outsourcing" log analysis but can an outsourced analysis detect an accounting issue because he knows that some user is not working during that time shift?

IMHO, it's sometime better to invest into people and promote the act of regular logs analysis than pursue into an additional security certification without the real security activities associated.

Reducing the Attack Surface

The less software you have the better it is for its security. It sounds very obvious but that's a core concept. We pile more and more features in each software used. I never saw a control in a security standard or certification that recommends to have a policy to reduce software or remove old legacy systems. If you carefully look at "Systems Development Life Cycle", this always shows the perfect world without getting rid of old crappy code.

Maintaining the Software and Hardware

Maintaining software and hardware could fall into the category of "reducing the attack surface" but it's another beast, often under estimated in many security compliance processes. A software is like a living organism, you have to care of it. You don't acquire a tiger and put in your garden without taking care of it. Before maintaining, you obviously need to design systems with "flaw-handling in mind" as Marcus J. Ranum said or Wietse Venema or Saltzer and Schroeder in 1975 . In today's world, we are always not going in that direction so you have to maintain the software to keep out the daily security vulnerabilities.

The main issue with a classical information system is the interactions with the other systems and its environment. If you (as a security engineer) recommend to update a software in a specific infrastructure, you always hear the same song "I can't update it", "It will be done with the yearly upgrade" (usually taking 4 years), "Do you know the impact of this update on my software?" (and obviously you didn't write his software), "It's done" (while checking it's still giving the old version number), "It's not connected so we don't need to patch" (looking at the proxy logs you scare yourself by the volume of data exchanged) and … the classical "it's not managed by us" (while reading the product name in the title of the user who answers that).

Yes, upgrading software (and hardware) is a dirty job, you have to bother people, chase them every days. Even in information security, upgrading software is a pain and you usually break stuff.

All those dirty jobs are part of protecting information systems, we have to do them. Security certification is distracting a lot of professionals from those core activities. I know it's arduous to do them and not rewarded, but we have to do those tasks if we want to make the field more difficult for the attackers.

You might ask why a picture with a radio on a piano… both can do the same "music" but are operated in a different way. Just like information security on a system or an paper are done in two different ways.