Feb 18

no, it’s not the end user’s fault

By alberg best practices, CSO, deep thoughts, malware, online security, social engineering Comments Off on no, it’s not the end user’s fault

No, you’re not.

According to a survey released by endpoint security solution vendor Bromium, 79 percent of surveyed information security professionals view end users as their “number 1 security risk.”

What security people need to understand is that the end users are not the problem.  The end users are our customers (and one of the main reasons we have jobs).  The problem arises from the increasing sophistication of attackers and their tools and ruses.  In the olden days (a couple of years ago), we could arm our users with easy ways to recognize and avoid phishing (hover on the link and see if it matches the text) and social engineering (no, the Nigerian prince does not want to give you his money).  Since then, the attackers have been getting better and better at their jobs.  They send very professional looking email and social media bait which is very hard to distinguish from legitimate emails.  They do their homework, mining social media for personal and business information to make their clickbait more convincing.  End users receive hundreds of emails every day and they just don’t have the time or expertise to always avoid the bad stuff.

I am still a big proponent of end user education and awareness – it will help users avoid the “low hanging fruit” type of attacks and for some users, it will provide them with clues which can raise their suspicions about more sophisticated attacks.  It has a great return on investment for just about every organization.

We have reached an inflection point in the “endpoint wars” – we need to provide users with solutions which are better at spotting and preventing the sophisticated attacks for them.  Organizations need to beef up their email security, adding things like pre delivery attachment analysis, real time checking of clicked urls at both the time of message delivery and user action and sandboxing tools (EMET is free and pretty effective).

End users are not stupid.  They simply have different priorities than security people and are trying to keep up with an ever expanding flow of information every day.  We have to step up our efforts to protect them, not call them a problem.  That’s what we get paid for.

Go hug an end user today.

Nov 30

als, bls, cissp

By alberg deep thoughts, systemic risk Comments Off on als, bls, cissp

Those of you who have the misfortune to know me personally know that information security is but one piece of the pie that is Al Berg.  (mmmm…. pie…)  On Friday nights, I swap my desk for an ambulance of the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad where I am an Emergency Medical Technician.  Most of the time, these two parts of my life don’t really intersect, but this week, I saw something that seems to bridge the gap.

So, there are two different kinds of ambulances here in the US.  BLS (Basic Life Support) rigs are staffed by EMTs who are trained in basic life support techniques focused on airway, breathing and circulation.  EMTs do not administer drugs – we cannot even give you a Tylenol for pain.  If you are unfortunate enough to be meeting us on a day when you are having a cardiac arrest, we will do CPR, give you oxygen and maybe zap you with a automated defibrillator.  We’ll also call for our ALS (Advanced Life Support) colleagues – the paramedics – to respond and give you the advanced monitoring and interventions (EKG, intubation, intravenous drugs, and the like) that we can’t.

As an EMT, I am always happy to have paramedics on any call, especially a cardiac arrest, so I was really surprised to read an article this week which described a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found:

90 days after hospitalization, patients treated in BLS ambulances were 50 percent more likely to survive than their counterparts treated with ALS. The basic version was also “associated with better neurological functioning among hospitalized patients, with fewer incidents of coma, vegetative state or brain trauma.”

Now, to be clear, your chances of surviving an out of hospital cardiac arrest are pretty lousy… 9 out of 10 patients who ‘code’ in the field will not survive to hospital discharge.  CPR works way better on TV than it does in real life.

Anyway, while I am a bit skeptical of this study’s results, it does seem to me that there is a bit of an information security aspect to this.  Time and again we hear of companies who have spent big on flashy technology still getting owned by hackers.  For example, Target had purchased advanced anti malware defenses from FireEye as well as outsourced monitoring for those defenses.  According to reports, the people and tech detected the bad guys, but failing to do “information security BLS” by examining the systems which were showing signs of trouble sealed Target’s place on the front page.

There are a lot of “information security BLS” measures that don’t use flashy technology or wheelbarrows of money that we can take to protect our systems:

  • Documented policies and procedures
  • Least privilege for user accounts
  • Segmentation of internal networks
  • Applying security patches and updates in a timely fashion
  • Security awareness training
  • Sharing information with other organizations

These (and many other) “information security BLS” interventions go a long way towards keeping hackers away from corporate data.  They aren’t complicated, and you don’t need to buy all sorts of blinkie light boxes to implement them.  Yet, time and again, companies fail to pay enough attention to them.  Part of the problem is that infosec professionals want to get hands on with the latest technology and doing some of these low tech interventions requires serious time and planning to avoid negative impacts to the business.

So, my resolution for 2015 is to take another look at the Council on CyberSecurity’s Critical Security Controls list and make sure my organization is doing everything we can to implement them.   As an industry we need to make sure we are doing the BLS interventions right and apply the ALS level security-fu when it is needed.

Apr 30

galaxy s5 fingerprint authentication and lastpass

By alberg authentication, deep thoughts, online security, risk, useful stuff Comments Off on galaxy s5 fingerprint authentication and lastpass

Interesting blog post from Graham Cluley on LastPass’ support for using the Galaxy S5’s fingerprint reader as the key to your password vault.   Since the S5’s fingerprint reader has been shown to be vulnerable to low sophistication fake fingerprint attacks, he wonders whether this (admittedly) very convenient feature is worth the risk.   As a LastPass user, I don’t think I would base the security of the keys to my entire digital life on this particular piece of hardware.  However, this does beg the question – is the low but non zero risk of someone getting hold of your phone and fingerprint exceed the risk of using the same damn password on every site you visit?  LastPass also offers a mitigation for this scenario – it is possible to specifically permission which mobile devices can access your account.  If you phone is lost or stolen, it is possible to revoke that permission (if you notice the loss or theft quickly enough).  This is a risk calculation that users will have to make for themselves.

Apr 18

is the news toxic?

By alberg deep thoughts Comments Off on is the news toxic?

Your friendly neighborhood pusher?


This is a really well written critique of our addiction to the news.  According to the author, “News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.”

For me, this is one of those cases where I totally and emphatically agree with the writer, but can’t even picture taking his advice.  I guess that I truly am a news junkie.

Feb 26

rsa 2013 – is crypto getting less important?

By alberg deep thoughts Comments Off on rsa 2013 – is crypto getting less important?

An interesting thought from Adi Shamir at #RSAC Cryptographers Panel… Cryptography has been becoming **less** important over the last few years. When you wanted to know Napoleon’s plans, you put a spy next to him. When you wanted to know Hitler’s plans, you eavesdropped on his comms. Today, spies are moving towards use of advanced persistent threats, which sit inside of the organization, and get/exfiltrate data before encryption happens. We need to start thinking about how to hide the important information from the APTs which are already in the organization.

Aug 14

sharks versus cows

By alberg CSO, deep thoughts Comments Off on sharks versus cows

OK – what are you more afraid of – sharks or cows?  Well, according to the folks at Popular Mechanics (via blog Boing Boing), it is the crazed bovine death machines which are the real threat:

Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 27 times the whopping four people killed in shark attacks in the United States during the same time period, according to the International Shark Attack File.

It seems to me that information security risks are a lot like sharks and cows.  We infosec professionals love to talk about, hunt and defend against sharks, like zero-day vulnerabilities, state sponsored cyber-weapons, and other exotic threats.  However, it is the cows of the infosec world, like unpatched software, misconfigured systems and devices, human errors, and users falling for malware laden links or emails, that are much more likely to result in a system compromise.

When making decisions about where to put our  limited infosec funds and resources, we need to decide whether the threat we are defending against is a shark or a cow.  Let’s take care of the cows first – before they take care of us.  Then we can have some fun and hunt the sharks!



May 01

gimme some of that old time religion (and malware)

By alberg deep thoughts, malware Comments Off on gimme some of that old time religion (and malware)

According to a recent study by security firm Symantec, you are far more likely to encounter malware when visiting religious web sites than when visiting, ahem, adult sites.   In an article describing the finding, Network World had this to say:

Symantec found that the average number of security threats on religious sites was around 115, while adult sites only carried around 25 threats per site–a particularly notable discrepancy considering that there are vastly more pornographic sites than religious ones. Also, only 2.4 percent of adult sites were found to be infected with malware, compared to 20 percent of blogs.

In (related?) news, the University of British Columbia reported a study showing that encouraging people to use their analytic thinking skills causes a reduction in religious belief, even in pious persons.  Unfortunately, the study did not touch on whether the reduction in superstition was tied to increased use of, ahem, adult sites.


Oct 17

you are lied to between 10 and 200 times per day

By alberg best practices, deep thoughts Comments Off on you are lied to between 10 and 200 times per day

According to LieSpotting author Pamela Meyer, we live in a sea of deception, lying and being lied to dozens if not hundreds of times per day.  However, you can learn to spot liars and get to the truth.  She explains some of the statistics on lying as well as techniques to spot lies in this 20 minute TED talk.  Worth a viewing for all Paranoid Peeps.

Oct 04

elephant repellent

By alberg CSO, deep thoughts Comments Off on elephant repellent

An elephant, a mouse, or a ghost?

Sometimes I feel like I’m selling elephant repellent:

I identify a particular species of elephant (for example, compromise of our networks due to spearphish delivered email).

I find examples of this particular elephant showing up on the networks of similar organizations.

I try to calculate the damage which said elephant would cause (which nearly always includes hard to quantify types of damage to things like “reputation” and “trust.”)

I run some tests to show that, yes, some of our users would in fact happily open the gates of the village to this particular elephant by clicking on just about any link emailed to them.

I then look for some sort of elephant repellent – a policy, a procedure, education, some technology or a combination of the above to keep said pachyderm from rampaging through our village.

Of course, elephant repellent is not free… there is a cost in productivity, usability, share of user attention, or cold hard cash. If the risk to cost ratio seems right, I take action, spraying elephant repellent all around the village. Time passes. No elephants show up, I proudly announce the success of this particular elephant repellent and start looking for the next elephant to repel. Of course, the question remains as to whether the lack of elephantine activity in the village is due to the repellent, well, repelling or whether the elephants never would have shown up at the village gates in the first place. (or whether the elephants will get clever and will show up next week and trample the place in spite of my efforts)

Elephants come in a variety of sizes. Some of them can rampage through the village and leave a wide path of destruction. Other elephants sound scary, but end up being more mouse like in their impact. If you ring the elephant alarm every day, the villagers (in particular, the village elders) are going to pay less attention as time goes on. Elephants are also unpredictable – sometimes they show up, other times, they pass your village by and trample the village next door. You gotta pick your elephants. I guess that is part of the “art” side of infosec (anticipating howls of protest from the quantitative guys on this).

At least Infosec people don’t usually have to deal with elephants which kill people – let’s say, a devastating earthquake. The stakes are, of course, very high in these cases and the village elders can get very angry when these elephants make it through the village gates. In fact, six seismologists and a government official are currently on trial for manslaughter in Italy for failing to predict an earthquake which struck the L’Aquila region in April, 2009. Yes, you read that right… While this episode may be an outlier, it does point out the rising expectations of all sorts of village elders (both corporate and governmental) as to the risk experts’ ability to make very accurate predictions of risks – expectations which may not be possible to achieve. Call it the “CSI effect” – we are used to seeing all sorts of cool technology providing definite answers to questions and we have come to expect that all questions can be answered in this way.

We as Infosec professionals have to strike a balance between the quantitative and qualitative approaches to choosing which elephants to worry about. To add to the problem, some of us (particularly in highly regulated industries like finance) are given a set of elephants which we must repel by regulators and other stakeholders. These “default elephants” may pose less risk to the village than other, less famous, elephants, but we have to divert resources (and repellent) to deal with them in order to stay in business.

So… the takeaway? We need to share best practices for spotting, measuring and evaluating risk from both a qualitative and quantitative point of view. Organizations like the FS-ISAC (and other industry ISACS) where we can share information in confidence with our peers are a great place to do this. We need to up the level of information sharing in these fora – while it is great to get lists of bad IP addresses and URLs, I’d also like to see more (anonymous) sharing of stories about risks and repellents. The more people looking at the elephant and reporting on what it did when it visited their villages the better picture we can put together.

Aug 15

telex to freedom / telex to chaos

By alberg deep thoughts, online security Comments Off on telex to freedom / telex to chaos

The latest in anti censorship tech

When I read about Telex, a research project aimed at making it easier to get past Internet censorship, my “split personality” – lover of freedom and justice versus corporate security guy kicked in right away.  You see, if widely implemented, Telex would make it much easier and safer for people living under repressive regimes to get past said regimes’ censorship of the Internets.  Built on client software, some clever crypto in packet headers and servers hosted by friendly ISPs, Telex would turn the idea of a proxy server inside out, effectively making the entire Internet (it’s a series of tubes, you know) one big proxy.

This would be really great – I would love to see the US government as well as non profit organizations host Telex servers to allow people in China, the middle east, and other places where freedom of expression is curtailed… however, Telex would also make my job as a security professional that much more difficult.  By installing a Telex client, the users on my corporate network might be able to bypass the web filtering we have put in place.  While some of that filtering is aimed at keeping people away from “non work appropriate sites,” there are other reasons to filter Internet access in the workplace as well.  For example, we block access to sites known to host malware.  We block access to sites which would put us in violation of various legal and regulatory mandates.  These are all legitimate things to do in a corporate environment, and our employees have unfettered access to the Internet outside of the office.  Employees using a system like Telex would put our company at risk.

Telex is stil in the proof of concept stage and there needs to be a lot more software and infrastructure development done before it can be a reality on a large scale. As I said, I am 1000% pro Telex as a tool for people to bypass repressive regimes’ Internet censorship.  But I think that corporate Internet censorship (hate that word) is another kettle of fish altogether and we security professionals need to keep an eye on Telex and similar technologies.  I feel like I should be dressing like these guys after writing this…


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