Sunday, November 20, 2005

Response to Security Awareness: Waste of Time?

Richard Bejtlich posted an excellent topic on Security Awareness Training on his blog. I say this is an excellent topic because it brings up the teetering balance of usability vs. security in today’s IT based workplace, and the question of the balance of power between IT staff and Business Staff. I responded to his post here.

Now I'm not advocating abandoning IS Awareness. If even one intrusion is prevented as a result, then it was a success. A previous poster pointed out that in saying it is “another layer or protection”. Just because a firewall can be bypassed doesn’t mean you throw it out the window, the same with an IDS that doesn’t detect 0-day exploits. It’s that it is horribly inefficient, as the author’s case study shows. The problem is the target audience does not have the aptitude to understand that the "dancing donkey" email from their friend isn't really from their friend, or that their friend is just forwarding emails that they get in their "joke" distribution list. Here is the typical scenario I come across:

Employee gets email from friend.
Employee clicks on the singing Happy Bunny, it has a Trojan, infects computer.
Staff cleans up the infection.
Staff tells employee to be careful about the email they receive.
Employee mentally tells the staff to "F*** off" since they are not going to tell their friend to stop sending them messages.
Employee gets another email from friend.
Employee sends back message saying "Your last message had a virus, are you sure this one is OK".
Friend sends back message "Yes, its fine, I just ran it on my system"

I don’t mean to belittle the target audience, and I am not insinuating they are slow, although that applies to some. I am not going to say these people are stupid because they don’t understand the basic principles of social engineering and how to avoid them, because they are the same people that will talk circles around me in areas like finance, politics, investment services, and can easily “persuade” me to buy that piece of junk car on their used car lot (or in my recent headaches, motorcycle, but that’s another story). Its not that these people are stupid, its like Richard Bejtlich indicated in his article, there is a “Division of Labor”, and these people are professionals in their divisions. A lot of these employees still have the old school mindset of how a business runs, and are trying to adapt. In their minds, there is still a hierarchical structure, and things that are not the specific function of their branch are not their concern. However, they are overwhelmed with their BAU workload created by today’s networked environments as they receive messages on the fly, which is creating a boundary-less organization. As a result, they try to adapt by trying to provide results at a pace that keeps up with the changing of business. With multiple requests coming in, are they going to tell a VP no, investigate every request and still keep pace? In a way, this contributes to Social Engineering, and makes IS awareness necessary, but at the same time, detracts from its usefulness by opposing the “Now, Now, Now” results expectancy timeframe of the boundary-less organization. This is one of the many reasons I believe we try to put technology into too many things that really do not need it. I agree with Rich, if IM and external web browsing are not necessary for an employees job function, and does demonstrate a potential risk due to the number of vulnerabilities in browser software and exploits for those vulnerabilities that may be out there, then remove those functionalities for those employees. Unless the user can demonstrate a clear need for desktop administrative access, do not give them that access. There needs to be a clear, distinct reason for a user to have said access. In the company I work for, we call that a Standard Operating Environment (SOE), every user that does not have an exceptional necessity for escalated functionality gets the same access that everyone else does.

While the above is an argument for giving IT more administrative power, I believe that IT political power should go in the exact opposite direction. Here is a true story. We had a series of physical incidents on PC's at our company. One case, a person sat down at my desk, and began doing something on my PC (which was locked, he apparently had Domain Admin access or knew the local Admin password). One of my staff members noticed this, approached him, and began immediately questioning him about who he was and what he was doing. This person left immediately. As a result, I put on the bios password of my PC since I have potentially sensitive information that no one is privy to except myself, HR, and the individuals in question. One weekend, an IT manager came in with his staff to do some routine maintenance, and of course, they couldn't get in to my system. When I returned on Monday, the IT manager called, and instead of being professional, he threatened to fire me (a power he did not have, and was called on it) for "subverting his authority", and other choice niceties at a decibel level that was unacceptable for a work environment. I found his behavior unprofessional, and fortunately my superiors backed me up on this incident. In due time, and I assume several incidents of this nature later, he was reassigned to a position that was "less customer facing", customers in this context being the employees of our company. Myself and other in my organization are leery of IT for this very reason. This was not an isolated incident within my company either, as I have spoken with a number of individuals in different companies with similar experiences from their IT staff. This kind of behavior leads to the “Nick Burns, Your Company Computer Guy” stereotype that IT staff receive for being arrogant, condescending, and rude individuals, and sometimes it is not undeserving. This is not the caliber of person that should be given more political authority under any circumstances. This distrust lends itself to the lack of effectiveness in Security Awareness training by IT staff.

The clear indication is there is a definite lack of communication between IT and the Business. Floor managers do not understand terms like “virus”, “exploit”, “buffer overflow”, and “social engineering”. They do understand terms like “cost of repair”, “shrink”, and “loss of profit”. As I suggested, a local IT department that understands the needs and logic of the business and has that relationship with the floor managers can more easily explain the potential risks to information assets in a language more easily understood than “Nick Burns” can (There is a reason that skit is so funny, because there is truth to it). A centralized IT department servicing all the business units will, by design, be ineffective since there are too many variations to account for and a lack of a common language between the principle parties.

1 comment:

Richard Bejtlich said...

Great insights John. Best Nick Burns skit -- the one with Jackie Chan.