Archive for September, 2015


Where Compliance Fits

Based on some of the comments I get from blog readers and articles I see espousing the “compliance is not security” mantra, I think it is time for a refresher on where compliance fits into an organization’s security program or any other audit/assessment program.

As a reminder, Miriam Webster defines compliance as:

“Conformity in fulfilling official requirements”

Therefore, for PCI, an organization is conforming to the PCI DSS when they assess. For ISO 27K, the organization is conforming to the ISO 27K standard. For a financial audit, an organization conforms to the Generally Accepted Audit Principles (GAAP). The list can go on and on.

Where things get confusing and messy is whether or not the compliance program is detailed and tight enough to ensure security. Programs such as the PCI DSS, ISO 27K and others have to be written in such a way that any organization (regardless of technology, architecture, applications, etc.) can assess to it. Whether we are talking about the PCI DSS, ISO 27K, COBIT or any other assessment program, there must be flexibility to allow for all sorts of solutions, not just a preferred or “perfect” one. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility built in that produces a not so tight security program. This therefore means that being secure requires going beyond what the compliance program requires.

But compliance is only a part of an overall security program. I have discussed the control triad in prior posts, but it bears repeating here. There are three parts to any effective security program: protection, detection and correction.

Control TriadA good compliance program is part detection and part correction. The detection side of compliance relates to detecting controls that are not functioning as designed or are missing altogether. Changes to the environment are always the culprit in controls not functioning properly or missing. The correction side of compliance is defining what needs to be corrected in order to address the shortcomings determined during an audit/assessment.

Where the “compliance does not equal security” naysayers first go wrong is with ignoring execution. A compliance program is all about assessing the execution of an organization’s security program and ensuring that an organization is executing that program flawlessly. But an annual assessment such as with the current PCI process is only part of the overall compliance process. Compliance must be assessed constantly which is why the PCI SSC is introducing the concept of business as usual (BAU). BAU is meant to drive organizations to constantly assess compliance with requirements based on their risk assessment. Some requirements may have to be assessed daily, whereas other requirements might only be assessed weekly, monthly or even semi-annually

A working compliance program points out any execution issues with the security program and recommends solutions. To paraphrase the numerous security professionals that has pointed this out over the years, “To ensure the security of our organization, we have to get it right every minute of every hour of every day. Attackers only have to get it right once.” Therefore a compliance program is the mechanism that keeps the security program functioning as close to “right” as is humanly possible. But as I always point out, security is not perfect. So even with a good compliance program, security issues will still occur.

But that is where security has its biggest issues are with execution. If organizations could execute any security program, even the PCI DSS, with almost 100% accuracy every day, the number and seriousness of data breaches would be virtually non-existent. But that is where most organizations get burned is with execution. I have yet to encounter any organization that can execute all parts of any security program above 90% and that is on a good day. In most cases organizations are well below that percentage. As a result, regardless of the security measures in place, the controls are not functioning as defined and therefore security holes abound resulting in a myriad of ways to defeat security. Add in the human errors that occur and I think you start to understand the challenges of keeping a security program working effectively.

The second place that the naysayers go wrong is not recognizing the inherent limitations of the assessment programs. Every security program I have ever encountered has a multitude of limitations due to the necessity that they fit all situations. Then there is the fact that they are, after all, mere baselines for security, not a “be all to end all”. To truly be secure an organization must go well beyond what the PCI DSS, ISO 27K or any other security programs call out. That is not to say that a company cannot be reasonably secure following only these programs. But then we go back to my earlier statement that the program must be executed close to 100% compliance every day which is where organizations get burned. It is not the program that causes the security issues; it’s the inability to execute the security program consistently that is the cause.

As I said earlier, all security programs are the bare minimum for security. As a result, in order to be secure an organization needs to go beyond the requirements specified by any security program. Unfortunately, it is the rare organization that goes beyond any of the recognized security programs. Why? For most organizations, the security personnel just do not have the time to develop their security program beyond what is already called out by ISO 27K or PCI DSS. Some of this is due to staffing issues, but more often than not, it is due to a lack of upper management recognition and understanding of what true security really takes in personnel, time and other resources. A lot of that lack of understanding comes from the organization’s risk assessment or more likely the lack of one. Without a good understanding of the information security risks to the organization, it is very hard to determine what measures need to be taken, why they need to be taken and what resources are necessary. Once everyone can understand the risks, then a true security program can be developed for the organization taking into account the PCI DSS, ISO 27K or any other security standards that need to be followed.

Finally, compliance programs are never ever static. They need to be constantly adjusted to reflect the introduction of new technologies, changes to the existing environment and the removal of technologies.

For example, if an organization implements a new security information and event management (SIEM) solution, the compliance program needs to be changed to reflect that new SIEM. The most likely changes are the addition of new conditions that will be monitored for and alerts generated. The compliance program needs to add those new conditions to their testing and make sure that alerts are truly generated when the conditions are encountered. In addition, if the new SIEM introduces any changes to existing alerts, those changes also need to be adjusted in the compliance testing. Finally, if some SIEM conditions are being removed, the compliance program needs to reflect that removal as well.

Changes to the environment also need to be reflected in the compliance program. Application changes can result in changes to the compliance program particularly if the application controls its own authentication processes, encryption of sensitive data and other critical controls. Another area is network changes that also need to be reflected in a compliance program. While adding new physical locations is typically only a minor change to a compliance program, changing firewalls, routers or switches can result in significant changes to the compliance program.

One of the biggest things neglected with compliance is when technology is removed from the environment. Nine times out of 10, the compliance team is never notified of the decommissioning of equipment. Security professionals might think that compliance is not affected if something is removed. However the control environment might be significantly affected with the removal of technology because security is unaware of other areas that are relying on a technology for controls. Then once the compliance team comes out for their assessment they find that, with the removal of certain technology, there are now numerous controls that are no longer performing as designed and security gaps exist as a result.

An example of a change that can adversely affect compliance but is typically overlooked is staff reductions. One of my clients a number of years ago terminated a number of personnel in an effort to save costs. A couple of the staff let go were performing manual processes that were critical to monitoring the security environment and identifying security issues that were critical to their PCI compliance efforts. Management believed that these people were superfluous to their operation, i.e., a nice way of saying they were unnecessary overhead, so they were terminated. Obviously when these people were terminated, those critical controls were no longer functioning. To add insult to injury, this situation was not identified until almost 10 months later during their PCI compliance assessment. Then the organization had only two months to somehow put these critical controls back into place without the necessary resources to do them manually. What eventually happened was that people had to step up and add these tasks to their own already heavy workloads. While that got the organization through their PCI assessment for the current period, the stress of keeping those controls operating as designed proved to be too much and some people quit creating new control failure situations. Ultimately management had to admit that more people were needed as well as some new tools were necessary to minimize control failures as well as minimize the number of people required.

The bottom line is that the compliance assessment process is the check and balance to make sure that an organization’s security program is designed appropriately and is functioning effectively. Hopefully you now have an appreciation as to the purpose of an effective compliance program and why it is important to the overall security process.

So the next time you say that “compliance is not security” think about this post and understand the implications of your statement. Without the compliance process, you have no idea as to whether your security program is effective or not.


Why Security Fails

I am writing this more than anything because I am dreading taking my lawn mower apart to replace the cable that engages the self-propulsion system. From what I have seen online, some sadistic engineer has made this an ugly job of taking the bottom end of the mower mostly apart just to get to the drive system to unhook the cable in the first place. But I digress.

The primary reason security fails at most organizations is the level of complexity involved in their IT. Organizations have legacy systems, other internal systems, outsourced systems, cloud solutions and a sundry variety of third parties and business partners. With all of these solutions in play, is it any wonder why organizations cannot identify whether or not they have been breached? Where do you start and where do you end? How do you determine if it is a false positive or real? It is such a hard task in fact, that no one wants to or has the time to take the effort to research every incident or they do only cursory research resulting in what they think happened.

Next to complexity the next reason security fails is the reliance on security tools. It is not that tools are not important, but there is mistaken belief that tools are all that you need to be secure. Tools are necessary to identify and focus personnel on potential issues, but tools by themselves are not the complete answer. All security professionals have to do is look to the ubiquitous intrusion prevention system (IPS) that almost every organization has as the prime example of a tool that does not live up to its potential. IPSs are installed but are hardly ever enabled to actually prevent intrusions nor can they truly prevent all intrusions even when fully enabled.

But tools bring other issues. You have organizations that seem to have every security tool under the sun. Now let us be clear here. Organizations may have lots of security tools; however in my experience very few of those tools are ever fully implemented. There are lots of reasons for this but one of the biggest is the revolving door of security leadership. A leader comes in and they have their own security vendor alliances and push their vendor tool agenda. However, that leader either moves on or gets ejected and the next security leader comes along with their security tool world view. As a result, organizations acquire a lot of tools but none are ever fully implemented because of the leadership revolving door.

The second reason security tools tend to miss full implementation is that the implementation runs into significant issues that halt or slow their implementation. There are two reasons for this situation. The first is vendor hyperbole about their solution. My example of the IPS is a prime example of hyperbole. How many IPSs were bought under the promise that it was a “silver bullet” solution?

The second reason tools miss full implementation goes back to the first reason security fails – the complexity of the environment. Environmental complexity makes implementation of anything difficult and, in some cases, impossible. In the case of security tools, the most common situation that stymies a tool’s rollout is the acquisition of a new company. Resources get reallocated to the acquisition and when the fire drill is over, people have forgotten about the tool implementation that was going on before that drill. In the end, the tools do not fully integrate into the environment for whatever reason and therefore leaves gaps in coverage.

But the last reason tools fail is due to a lack of ongoing care and feeding. The tool gets implemented and then gets turned over to the team that will keep it functioning into the future. As time goes on people rotate through the area, training on the tool is not kept up, maintenance on the tool suffers and slowly but surely the tool becomes ineffective.

My favorite example of this was a SIEM implementation at one of my clients. When it first went in it was amazing what it identified both from a security perspective, but also a variety of operational issues that had never had any exposure. However over the next five years, the SIEM system became a backwater for security. There was a belief by IT and security management that the SIEM was somehow self-managing and did not need high caliber personnel. That last year I reviewed the SIEM I was interviewing one of the personnel responsible for it and they said that they had practically tuned out all of the false positives. I inquired why and was shown in the demonstration of the SIEM. Sure enough, very few alerts were even generated and those were few and far between. But then it became alarmingly clear as to why when the person pulled up the systems network map generated by the tool. Most of the corporate network was missing. Further review of the SIEM generated diagram indicated that the organization’s move from their corporate data center to a better equipped co-location facility had apparently not been reflected in the SIEM. How this occurred was a discussion over the next months and it was never clear how the ball got dropped.

Then there are the organizational culture issues. A lot of personnel seem more interested in trying to dodge responsibility and accountability like it is the plague. The more I encounter this attitude, the more I think this behavior can be traced to employers making their employees feel like they are a dime a dozen and can be replaced on demand. But I also believe it is a result of the ugly corporate cultures that have been created over the last couple of decades.

There is no denying that some organizations have created corporate cultures that stress “dog eat dog”, “step over the bodies” and similar tactics if you intend to get ahead. I chalk this up to Jack Welch and his GE corporate culture which he claimed weeded out all but the best of the best. But it is also the result of our own culture and society through reality shows like ‘Survivor’, ‘The Apprentice’, ‘Big Brother’ and similar shows that glorify underhandedness and other questionable tactics versus the virtue of pure teamwork to getting ahead. Because these corporate cultures want people to go after one another, is it even possible that any progress is accomplished in corporations. That is because everyone is so scared of being attacked and losing their job, they do anything to avoid that possibility by tossing anyone else under the bus at the first sign of trouble. It rapidly devolves into a gross and disgusting exercise in a swirling mess of finger pointing and the “Blame Game”.

You then add into this toxic environment IT Operations and/or IT Security personnel who are culturally emasculated thanks to that terrific previously discussed corporate culture borrowed from GE. These people care, but only to a point. The culture just implies that the boss will end your career if you ever bring them “bad news” because people are a dime a dozen. All this results in a situation where people might recognize an alert or something awry, but are reluctant to bring it to anyone’s attention because of the adverse consequences that will likely result. After all, it is the low level minions that get let go first in these situations long before the CISO or CSO. And those minions do not get the great golden parachutes that higher ups get. So why should they bother to put their necks out?

All you have to do is to take a look at the Neiman Marcus and Target breaches. In both cases security operations personnel received alerts indicating something might be wrong. In both cases, these personnel wrote off those alerts and moved on. According to the media, at least in the case of Target these personnel notified higher ups who in turn contacted their security solutions providers and then those people were told to ignore the alerts because they were likely false positive results. However, such a response reinforces the misconception that the tools are not factual when more research should be done to prove that fact.

A long time ago, I paraphrased Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan in the movie ‘A League of their Own’. “Security is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.” Security is hard enough even without all of the other barriers some organizations put in the way.

As a result, is it any wonder that organizations outsource security to a managed service provider? Outsourcing takes security out of the corporate culture and away from internal politics. It also puts all of the tool implementation responsibilities on the outsourcer’s back, not your organization. As long as the outsourcer is kept in the loop regarding changes to the environment, you can have much better assurance that your environment is actually being monitored. And that is where most outsourcing arrangements end up going bad is that the outsourcer is unware of changes made and therefore cannot maintain security because now there are gaps.

Regardless of whether you outsource or you get your organization to own up to the responsibilities required to maintain security, security requires a significant commitment of any organization.

Oh and for those of you that ended up curious about the outcome of my lawn mower project. I finally stepped up after writing this post and got the drive cable replaced. It turned out to be quite the project, but thanks to the Internet and a few postings by people, I had a decent path to follow. The hardest part of the project was that the aforementioned sadistic engineer mounted the cable attachment on the top of the drive mechanism making it a true exercise in patience and manual dexterity to reconnect the new drive cable to the transmission. It took more time to get just that one task done than the teardown and reassembly processes. However, I now have a self-propelled lawn mower again.


They Are Just Words

QSAs get asked a lot of “what ifs”.

  • If I do ‘A’, will that result in ‘B’?
  • What if I do ‘C’, will that accomplish ‘D’?
  • If I do ‘E’, will that cause ‘F’?

Where this really hits hard is when an organization is trying to reduce scope in their cardholder data environment (CDE). Another area where this becomes problematic is when organizations are re-architecting their networks and want to take into account PCI or any other regulatory or security requirements. Nine times out of ten, the client wants a QSA to review the new network architecture and “bless it” as PCI compliant. We can discuss scope reduction strategies all day long but, until they are implemented and physically exist, they are all just a theory. And as I like to famously say, “In theory, theory works.”

I know this frustrates organizations, but the essence of PCI compliance is validation. A QSA can review proposed network architectures and state that they “appear” that they will be PCI compliant, but the proof is in the implementation. It is only when the organization can provide all of the configurations and penetration testing results for review that a QSA can then determine the PCI compliance of a network and the related devices.

So the next time you are asking your QSA a hypothetical question, do not get all wound up when the QSA responds with what appears to be a lame, “weasel worded” sounding answer. Until you provide concrete evidence, it is all just words, pretty pictures and a thought exercise.

September 2015