Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More On What IT Wants To Tell You

Last Tuesday, I was contacted by Vauhini Vara, author of the now infamous WSJ article published last week (FYI, if you haven't listened to the podcast related to the article, it's worth it) with advice on how to circumvent the IT security controls their companies had put in place. The email thanked me for my comments and asked for some help in writing a response to that article. I took a long time creating a response before realizing that I'd gotten way off topic from the request. So I have cleaned it up a bit and posted it below.

The follow up article was published today and is available to everyone for free, just as was the original article. While the latest does give a voice to some of the concerns many security professionals had, it seems to serve mainly to placate those with concerns. I don't believe this is something the author should be faulted for, but merely reflects everyone's interest in seeing the story be over. At the risk of seeming unappeasable, I think that the article lacks the intensity of the first and seems to demonstrate a lack of true understanding of the topic.

Again, I don't see this as Vauhini's fault, she has the near impossible task of taking something some people spend their entire lives doing and tries to boil it down to a couple of hundred words to fit into a column. Without an in depth understanding of the subject and a gift for succinctness (which I don't have), this is incredibly difficult to do. I would imagine that the only way to get this right would be to collaborate with a subject matter expert, allowing editing and revisions. But this is not appropriate to the typical journalistic process.

I won't spend any more time talking about this subject because there will never be complete agreement between IT security people and the employees over where an acceptable boundary is between protecting the organization and ease and freedom of use. There isn't even total agreement between employees or between IT security folks. So this post will, thankfully, be my last on the subject.

More thoughts on the topic
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the IT department is involved in businesses to enable productivity and to contribute to the bottom line. The information security professionals are there to provide technical oversight in the way that the physical security people do. Several things are involved in this oversight, like being involved in the design process, putting in place administrative and technical controls, and auditing the organization's procedures.

The difference between the physical security and information security is that physical security is something we are born and bred to recognize and respond to. Things like protecting valuable assets, restricting access to locations, and preventing attacks are well understood by people because they have had to deal with these issues all their lives. However, when computers are involved, it makes these same principles seem alien. Computers and information networks are incredibly complicated systems and understanding them is too large a task. Therefore it is difficult for people to have an intuitive sense of what security and usability balances are made.

In designing a good access control system, for example, it is widely acknowledged that access to a facility should be granted only to those people who have a need to be there. So systems have been put in place to make sure people walking into the building should be there, whether it is a security guard, an ID badge reader, etc. IT security is no different in practice. When we design, say wireless network, we also want to make sure that these precautions are taken. Having access to an organization's network can be just as damaging, more or less, as having physical access to the home office. While employees may recognize the potential danger in propping open a door to the outside, they may not realize that this is the same principle as bringing in a wireless access point from home.

One of the main interfaces, and problems, people have with IT security is web page filtering. They typically don't view it as anything but trying to keep them productive on the job. So they view circumventing this technology as a relatively benign thing to do, especially if they are taking a break. But productivity is almost certainly not the reason why the web blocker was brought into the network. Malicious content (whether hosted on reputable sites or on maliciously designed sites) and legal precautions (regulatory requirements, sexual discrimination law, etc.) top the list of reasons why IT security departments want to be able to block certain websites.

Along with filtering web content, monitoring Internet traffic is one of the important tasks that IT security personnel perform. In some industries, this is driven more by organizational needs than by regulatory requirements. Many companies and governmental institutions have a need to know what comes in and goes out of their network. Internet monitoring is one tool to help with this. In cases where secret, confidential, or regulated information is involved, knowing if it escapes the network is critical. This can be accidental, like a consultant emailing important documents to himself, or it can be malicious, like a key logging program transmitting credit card numbers a half a world away.

However, web filtering and monitoring devices have been tasked to try and decrease the amount of time employees spend not working while they are at work. And this is when most people come into conflict with the technology. A worker who wants to visit the New York Times webpage and finds it blocked may feel that these technical controls are unreasonable. This may, in turn, cause him or her to try to circumvent them in the process of doing normal business. For example, if an employee needs to send a log file to a vendor and it is too large to go out through the email system, using a web page to host the file might seem like an ideal way to get this done. However, if we pretend in this scenario that the log contains records of all patients admitted to the Emergency Department of a hospital, those records are exposed on the Internet for anyone to access.

With those things in mind, here are some tips to help people to work with, instead of against your IT security people. These positive suggestions will likely work better than their "don't do this" counterparts.

1. We're here to help you help the company make money. That's how we get fat bonuses and better toys! If you have a legitimate business need to do something that we're preventing, talk to us.

2. We love playing with new toys! We'd love to spend 50 grand on new wireless access points and have them around to play with. If you can help us build a business case to do that, we'll work with you.

3. Come to us with your problems and ask us to help. We may know an easier way of doing something through automation or simplification. Give us the opportunity and freedom to be flexible and creative when fixing your problem and we might amaze you!

4. We take our jobs seriously and have pride in our knowledge and skills. If you treat us with professional respect, we will do the same for you. If you are patient and friendly with us, we are more likely to want to help you. If you treat us well consistently, we don't forget it.

5. We enjoy being thanked and appreciated. Some things might take a lot of work or be especially challenging. Thanking us sincerely is the easiest way to show you recognize this. Baked goods and complimenting us to our boss is the best way to get us to work twice as hard for you next time!

Working in IT can give you quite a few good horror stories to share. IT security can produce some especially gruesome ones. Some of the stories are protected by confidentiality agreements or legal order, but many of these would not be safe to print anyway.

I won't give any specific stories about the type of pornography that I have seen in my job, but I have to say that I've seen more things than I could have imagined existed. While I haven't seen anything that would be illegal, I have certainly had my eyes opened to the variety of things that people find erotic.

My organization fought a network worm shortly after I became involved with information security. It wasn't a terribly destructive or widespread one, but we spent over 200 hours cleaning it up. After some investigation, it was determined that the worm exploited a new vulnerability and was probably brought in by someone using a personal laptop.

Several times a day, the Internet monitor alerts me to the fact that someone has sent their own (or sometimes a friend or associate) personal information out on the Internet. Whether it is their tax return being sent to their webmail address, their application for a car or payday loan or job, a background check for a tenant, many people don't realize that the information they send out can be seen by many people they don't intend. Most of the time we, try to contact the person or company responsible for the information to make sure that they are aware of the issue.

Occasionally, we have had viruses or spyware infect computers embedded in products that we are prohibited from working on and to which we do not have access. In these cases, we attempt to contact the vendor and, depending on the severity of the attack, treat the device as if it were nonfunctional, remove it from the workflow, and power it off.

Lack of communication is one of the biggest problems that we have. From things as simple as a vendor needing Internet access to do a presentation to departmental changes that will require hardware moves and substantial changes to organization software, sometimes people don't understand what is involved for us in doing that work. We can't always fix a problem immediately, even if we don't have a full schedule -- they take real time and effort.

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