Why you should never neglect physical security

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    It’s a common occurrence in today’s modern world that virtually all organisations have a considerable budget (or a strong focus on) information and cyber security. Often, larger organisations spend millions annually on significant improvements to their security program or framework, yet overlook arguably the most fundamental basics which should be (but are often not) the building blocks of any fortified stronghold.

    We’ve spent so much time concentrating on the virtual aspect of security and all that it encompasses, but seem to have lost sight of what should arguably be the first item on the list – physical security. It doesn’t matter how much money and effort you plough into designing and securing your estate when you consider how vulnerable and easily negated the program or framework is if you neglect the physical element. Modern cyber crime has evolved, and it’s the general consensus these days that the traditional perimeter as entry point is rapidly losing its appeal from the accessibility versus yield perspective. Today’s discerning criminal is much more inclined to go for a softer and predictable target in the form of users themselves rather than spend hours on reconnaissance and black box probing looking for backdoors or other associated weak points in a network or associated infrastructure.

    Physical vs virtual

    So does this mean you should be focusing your efforts on the physical elements solely, and ignoring the perimeter altogether ? Absolutely not – doing so would be commercial suicide. However, the physical element should not be neglected either, but instead factored into any security design at the outset instead of being an afterthought. I’ve worked for a variety of organisations over my career – each of them with differing views and attitudes to risk concerning physical security. From the banking and finance sector to manufacturing, they all have common weaknesses. Weaknesses that should, in fact, have been eliminated from the outset rather than being a part of the everyday activity. Take this as an example. In order to qualify for buildings and contents insurance, business with office space need to ensure that they have effective measures in place to secure that particular area. In most cases, modern security mechanisms dictate that proximity card readers are deployed at main entrances, rendering access impossible (when the locking mechanism is enforced) without a programmed access card or token. But how “impossible” is that access in reality ?

    Organisations often take an entire floor of a building, or at least a subset of it. This means that any doors dividing floors or areas occupied by other tenants must be secured against unauthorised access. Quite often, these floors have more than one exit point for a variety of health and safety / fire regulation reasons, and it’s this particular scenario that often goes unnoticed, or unintentionally overlooked. Human nature dictates that it’s quicker to take the side exit when leaving the building rather than the main entrance, and the last employee leaving (in an ideal world) has the responsibility of ensuring that the door is locked behind them when they leave. However, the reality is often the case instead where the door is held open by a fire extinguisher for example. Whilst this facilitates effective and easy access during the day, it has a significant impact to your physical security if that same door remains open and unattended all night. I’ve seen this particular offence repeatedly committed over months – not days or weeks – in most organisations I’ve worked for. In fact, this exact situation allowed thieves to steal a laptop left on the desk in an office of a finance firm I previously worked at.

    Theft in general is mostly based around opportunity. As a paradigm, you could leave a £20 note / $20 bill on your desk and see how long it remained there before it went missing. I’m not implying here that anyone in particular is a thief, but again, it’s about opportunity. The same process can be aligned to Information security. It’s commonplace to secure information systems with passwords, least privilege access, locked server rooms, and all the other usual mechanisms, but what about the physical elements ? It’s not just door locks. It’s anything else that could be classed as sensitive, such as printed documents left on copiers long since forgotten and unloved, personally identifiable information left out on desks, misplaced smartphones, or even keys to restricted areas such as usually locked doors or cupboards. That 30 second window could be all that would be required to trigger a breach of security – and even worse, of information classed as sensitive. Not only could your insurance refuse to pay out if you could not demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that you had the basic physical security measures in place, but (in the EU) you would have to notify the regulator (in this case, the ICO) that information had been stolen. Not only would it be of significant embarrassment to any firm that a “chancer” was able to casually stroll in and take anything they wanted unchallenged, but significant in terms of the severity of such an information breach – and the resultant fines imposed by the ICO or SEC (from the regulatory perspective – in this case, GDPR) – at €20m or 4% of annual global (yes, global) turnover (if you were part of a larger organisation, then that is actually 4% of the parent entity turnover – not just your firm) – whichever is the highest. Of equal significance is the need to notify the ICO within 72 hours of a discovered breach. In the event of electronic systems, you could gain intelligence about what was taken from a centralised logging system (if you have one – that’s another horror story altogether if you don’t and you are breached) from the “electronic” angle of any breach via traditional cyber channels, but do you know exactly what information has taken residence on desks ? Simple answer ? No.

    It’s for this very reason that several firms operate a “clean desk” policy. Not just for aesthetic reasons, but for information security reasons. Paper shredders are a great invention, but they lack AI and machine learning to wheel themselves around your office looking for sensitive hard copy (printed) data to destroy in order for you to remain compliant with your information security policy (now there’s an invention…).

    But how secure are these “unbreakable” locks ? Despite the furore around physical security in the form of smart locks, thieves seem to be able to bypass these “security measures” with little effort. Here’s a short video courtesy of ABC news detailing just how easy it was (and still is in some cases) to gain access to hotel rooms using cheap technology, tools, and “how-to” articles from YouTube.

    Surveillance systems aren’t exempt either. As an example, a camera system can be rendered useless with a can of spray paint or even something as simple as a grocery bag if it’s in full view. Admittedly, this would require some previous reconnaissance to determine the camera locations before committing any offence, but it’s certainly a viable prospect of that system is not monitored regularly. Additionally, (in the UK at least) the usage of CCTV in a commercial setting requires a written visible notice to be displayed informing those affected that they are in fact being recorded (along with an impact assessment around the usage), and is also subject to various other controls around privacy, usage, security, and retention periods.

    Unbreakable locks ?

    Then there’s the “unbreakable” door lock. Tapplock advertised their “unbreakable smart lock” only to find that it was vulnerable to the most basic of all forced entry – the screwdriver. Have a look at this article courtesy of “The Register”. In all seriousness, there aren’t that many locks that cannot be effectively bypassed. Now, I know what you’re thinking. If the lock cannot be effectively opened, then how do you gain entry ? It’s much simpler than you think. For a great demonstration, we’ll hand over to a scene from “RED” that shows exactly how this would work. The lock itself may have pass-code that “…changes every 6 hours…” and is “unbreakable”, but that doesn’t extend to the material that holds both the door and the access panel for the lock itself.

    And so onto the actual point. Unless your “unbreakable” door lock is housed within fortified brick or concrete walls and impervious to drills, oxy-acetylene cutting equipment, and proximity explosive charges (ok, that’s a little over the top…), it should not be classed as “secure”. Some of the best examples I’ve seen are a metal door housed in a plasterboard / false wall. Personally, if I wanted access to the room that badly, I’d go through the wall with the nearest fire extinguisher rather than fiddle with the lock itself. All it takes is to tap on the wall, and you’ll know for sure if it’s hollow just by the sound it makes. Finally, there’s the even more ridiculous – where you have a reinforced door lock with a viewing pane (of course, glass). Why bother with the lock when you can simply shatter the glass, put your hand through, and unlock the door ?


    There’s always a variety of reasons as to why you wouldn’t build your comms room out of brick or concrete – mostly attributed to building and landlord regulations in premises that businesses occupy. Arguably, if you wanted to build something like this, and occupied the ground floor, then yes, you could indeed carry out this work if it was permitted. Most data centres that are truly secure are patrolled 24 x 7 by security, are located underground, or within heavily fortified surroundings. Here is an example of one of the most physically secure data centres in the world.


    Virtually all physical security aspects eventually circle back to two common topics – budget, and attitude to risk. The real question here is what value you place on your data – particularly if you are a custodian of it, but the data relates to others. Leaking data because of exceptionally weak security practices in today’s modern age is an unfortunate risk – one that you cannot afford to overlook.

    What are your thoughts around physical security ?

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    Anyone who uses dating agencies or even social media itself should be aware of the risk that a “catfish” poses. However, despite all of the media attention, catfish are constantly successful in their campaigns, and it seems as though everyday there is yet another victim. But why is this persistent campaign so successful ? In order to understand how a catfish scam operates, we first need to look at who they target, and why. Trust is gained as quickly as possible as the risk of being caught out very early in the process is much too high. Catfish campaigns tend to target individuals – particularly those considered vulnerable. But how do they know that these individuals are vulnerable and a healthy target in the first place ? More on that later. For now, let’s look at how a catfish will apply their skills on unsuspecting victims. By far the most common type of attack is via online dating, and seeing as there appears to be plenty of choice in terms of platforms and users adopting their services, the fruit on the tree is plentiful, and replenished at an alarming rate.

    How does a catfish select a target ?

    The more experienced catfish will have multiple targets and campaigns running concurrently. Adopting this approach as a “beginner” is actually unwise, as there is too much detail to remember in order to pull off an effective deception without raising suspicion. Can you imagine grooming a target then getting their name wrong, or other key information they may have unwittingly provided ? No. For this exact reason, the novice catfish will target one individual at a time. Whilst this doesn’t sound very enterprising, the experienced catfish, however, will operate multiple campaigns simultaneously. This produces a significantly higher yield, but it also means that the risk of exposure is greater. Based on this, each campaign is carefully tracked and “scripted” - in fact, each campaign has a written story - pretext if you will, that is simply copied and pasted in communications. This provides the assurance that the particular “story” being used does not stray off course, or arouse suspicion unintentionally. Based on official evidence, the origin of where most catfish campaigns originate from is Nigeria. In fact, it’s big business - well over USD 2bn in fact.

    Here’s a video courtesy of ABC that describes some of the techniques I have mentioned above - including the “scripted” mechanism.

    The catfish selects their target based on a number of factors – with social skills being top the list. A personality of a wet blanket is seldom effective, so the catfish must create an online persona (usually a Facebook profile) that is credible, and can be reinforced and intertwined with real life events. Such an example of this is a soldier serving in Afghanistan (there are many others, although this is an active campaign which is known to succeed). It would appear that the military lifestyle, the uniform, and the exciting stories are enough to entice a lonely individual looking for friendship and romance. A vital component of the scam is that the occupation of a soldier allows multiple periods where contact can be minimal for various “military” reasons that the catfish informs their target they cannot divulge for official secrecy reasons.

    This actually provides the perfect cover in order for the scam to progress. Time is required in order to plan the next stages of the campaign if it is to succeed. Another important element to remember is that the catfish needs to be mindful of time zones – you cannot be based in Nigeria and use the same timezone when you are supposedly stationed in Afghanistan, for example. The catfish would have collected enough intelligence about their target to remain one step ahead at all times. This typically involves research, with most of the required information sadly provided by social media. This includes dates and places of birth, interests, hobbies, and a myriad of other useful data that all adds up to the success of the campaign. The catfish uses this information to form trust with the target, and, coupled with the online persona created previously, the wheels are firmly attached. The con is on, so to speak. Using the data collected earlier, the catfish makes use of a variety of techniques in order to gain confidence and trust, with the social element being of utmost importance. Another key point for the catfish is the ability to engage in discussion, be articulate, and most of all, come across as being intelligent. Spelling is important, as is the ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly.

    Those of us who are “grammar snobs” can easily spot a deception in the form of a social media message or email owing to the notoriously poor grammar – usually always the result of English not being the primary language in use. Bearing in mind that most initial contact is via instant messaging, online chat, and email, it is important for the catfish to avoid suspicion and early detection - and in essence, remain “under the radar” at all times.

    How much effort is involved ?

    The amount of effort a catfish will put in generally depends on multiple factors. The sole aim of the perpetrator is financial, and any seasoned criminal will be looking to gain trust quickly, and will always have a story prepared. The point here is that the target needs to be a willing participant – nobody is holding a gun to their head, and they must be convinced of the integrity of their new online beau in order to part with money of their own volition. The previously constructed story needs to be consistent, and plausible if the campaign is to succeed. Once the target is engaged, the catfish is then in a position to effectively “groom” the individual, and uses the response and personality of the target to gauge when the next part of the plan should be executed. This in itself can be a fine art depending on the target. If they are intelligent, it may take a considerable amount of time and effort to reel them in. Before the catfish makes this investment, they have to be sure it will be worth it. But how ? Again, social media to the rescue. You’d be hard pressed to believe this, but money and the associated social lifestyle it provides and promotes is a key focal point of social networking, and by definition, “engineering”.

    If the target regularly posts about dining out, drinking, holidays, etc., then this is a clear indicator that they are worth perusing and exploiting, as they clearly have money to spend. Once the catfish has been able to convince the target of their sincerity, the deception then proceeds to the next level. Using the tried and tested “soldier based in another country, shortly completing his tour of duty, and leaving the army” scam, this provides an ideal mechanism to extort money from the target after they have been convinced that the individual they have been talking to wants to start a business, and needs capital etc in order to get started. Another well-known and successful ruse is to claim that they have a sick child (or children) that need urgent hospital care, and they don’t have the money to finance this. Another additional means of topping up the “fund” is the additional ruse that the soldier is not a citizen in the target country, and wants to be with his “new partner”. The by now besotted target agrees to pay for air fare, visa costs, and other associated permits in order to make their dream romance a reality – without realising that they are parting with a significant sum that carries absolutely no guarantee that it will be delivered. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. In a cruel twist, the catfish instructs their target to pay the funds into an account setup and accessible by the criminals involved, where it is collected without delay - often by a “mule” (more on this later).

    The target is completely unaware this has taken place, and only realises what has happened after their romance never materialises, the person they trusted never arrives, and a gaping hole has appeared in their finances as a result. They are now left with the inevitable emotional and financial damage this scam creates, and they must somehow come to terms with the impact – and the associated consequences. The ultimate twist of fate is that the victim transferred their money of their own free will – it wasn’t stolen from them, and, believe it or not, no crime has been committed based on this fact (it sounds crazy, and it is absolutely fraud - but that’s the law). You will also find yourself hard pressed to convince any bank that you have not acted negligently.

    Reducing the risk

    So how can you reduce the risk ? Whilst the below list should start with “…never talk to strangers…”, its not that simple. The below points are guidelines, but should be used along with your own judgement. - Never engage in discussions of a financial or personal nature with people you do not know. The internet is a dangerous place, and the anonymity it provides only makes this worse.

    If you join a dating agency, ensure that all requests for contact are fully screened by the agency themselves before being sent on to you. Most agencies now insist on home visits to new clients in order to combat this growing trend. Never agree to setup a new bank account, or transfer cash – this is a smoking gun, and should be avoided at all costs. Never allow the discussions to continue “off platform” – in other words, always use the dating agency’s systems so that any conversations are captured and recorded. This means no texts, no personal messaging systems, and strictly no contact over social media If someone sends you a friend request on Facebook, ask yourself basic questions, such as “do I actually know this person ?” and “why are they contacting me ?”. If you don’t know them, don’t accept. Try to avoid being tempted by emotional flattery. Whilst we all like praise and the feelgood factor it brings, don’t be reeled in by a catfish. This is one of the core weapons in their arsenal, and they will deploy it whenever necessary Remember – relationships have their foundations firmly rooted in trust. This has to be earned and established over the course of time – it’s not something that appears overnight.
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    Over the years, I’ve been exposed to a variety of industries - one of these is aerospace engineering and manufacturing. During my time in this industry, I picked up a wealth of experience around processing, manufacturing, treatments, inspection, and various others. Sheet metal work within the aircraft industry is fine-limit. We’re not talking about millimeters here - we’re talking about thousands of an inch, or “thou” to be more precise. Sounds Imperial, right ? Correct. This has been a standard for years, and hasn’t really changed. The same applies to sheet metal thickness, typically measured using SWG (sheet / wire gauge). For example, 16 SWG is actually 1.6mm thick or thereabouts and the only way you’d get a true reading is with either a Vernier or a Micrometer. For those now totally baffled, one mm is around 40 thou or 25.4 micrometers (μm). Can you imagine having to work to such a minute limit where the work you’ve submitted is 2 thou out of tolerance, and as a result, fails first off inspection ?

    Welcome to precision engineering. It’s not all tech and fine-limit though. In every industry, you have to start somewhere. And typically, in engineering, you’d start as an apprentice in the store room learning the trade and associated materials.

    Anyone familiar with engineering will know exactly what I mean when I use terms such as Gasparini, Amada, CNC, Bridgeport, guillotine, and Donkey Saw. Whilst the Donkey Saw sounds like animal cruelty, it’s actually an automated mechanical saw who’s job it is to cut tough material (such as S99 bar, which is hardened stainless steel) simulating the back and forth action manually performed with a hacksaw. Typically, a barrel of coolant liquid was connected to the saw and periodically deposited liquid into the blade to prevent it from overheating and snapping. Where am I going with all this ?

    Well, through my tenure in engineering, I started at the bottom as “the boy” - the one you’d send to the stores to get a plastic hammer, a long weight (wait), a bubble for a spirit level, sky hooks, and just about any other imaginary or pointless tool you could think of. It was part of the initiation ceremony - and the learning process.

    One other extremely dull task was to cut “blanks’’ in the store room from 8’ X 4’ sheets of CRS (cold rolled steel) or L166 (1.6mm aerospace grade aluminium, poly coated on both sides). These would then be used to make parts according to the drawing and spec you had, or could be for tooling purposes. My particular “job” (if you could call it that) in this case was to press the footswitch to activate the guillotine blade after the sheet was placed into the guide. The problem is that after about 50 or so blanks, you only hear the trigger word requiring you to “react”. In this case, that particular word was “right”. This meant that the old guy I was working with had placed the sheet, and was ready for me to kick the switch to activate the guillotine. All very high tech and vitally important - not.

    And so, here it is. Jim walks into the store room where we’re cutting blanks, and asks George if he’d like coffee. After 10 minutes, Jim returns with a tray of drinks and shouts “George, coffee!”. George, fiddling with the guillotine guide responds with “right”…. See if you can guess the rest…

    George went as white as a sheet and almost fainted as the guillotine blade narrowly missed his fingers. It took more than one coffee laden with sugar to put the colour back into his cheeks and restore his ailing blood sugar level.

    The good news is that George finally retired with all his fingers intact, and I eventually progressed through the shop floor and learned a trade.

    The purpose of this post ? In an ever changing and evolving security environment, have your wits about you at all times. It’s not only your organisation’s information security, but clients who have entrusted you as a custodian of their information to keep it safe and prevent unauthorised access. Information Security is a 101 rule to be adhered to at all times - regardless of how experienced you think you are. Complacency is at the heart of most mistakes. By taking a more pragmatic approach, that risk is greatly reduced.

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    @kurulumu-net CSS styling is now addressed and completed.

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    One of the most important safety nets in IT Operations is contingency. Every migration needs a rollback plan in the event that things don’t quite go the way you’d expect, and with a limited timeline to implement a change, or in some cases, a complete migration, the rollback process is one that is an essential component. Without a plan to revert all changes back to their previous state, your migration is destined for failure from the outset. No matter how confident you are (I’ve yet to meet a project manager who doesn’t build in redundancy or rollback in one form or another) there is always going to be something you’ve missed, or a change that produces undesirable results.

    It is this seemingly innocent change that can have a domino effect on your migration - unless you have access to a replica environment, the result of the change cannot be realistically predicted. Admittedly, it’s a simple enough process to clone virtual machines to test against, but that’s of no consequence if your change relates to those conducted at hardware level. A classic example of this is a firewall migration. Whilst it would be possible to test policies to ensure their functionality meets the requirement of the business, confirming VPN links for example isn’t so straightforward - especially when you need to rely on external vendors to complete their piece of the puzzle before you can continue. Unless you’re deploying technology into a greenfield site, you do not have the luxury of testing a VPN into a production network during business hours. Based on this, you have a couple of choices

    You perform all testing off hours by switching equipment for the replacement, and perform end to end testing. Once you are satisfied everything works as it should, you put everything back the way you found it, then schedule a date for the migration. You configure the firewall using a separate subnet, VLAN, and other associated networking elements meaning the two environments run symmetrically

    But which path is the right one ? Good question. There’s no hard and fast rule to which option you go for - although option 2 is more suited to a phased migration approach whilst option 1 is more aligned to “big bang” - in other words, moving everything at the same time. Option 2 is good for testing, but may not reflect reality as you are not targeting the same configuration. As a side note, I’ve often seen situations where residual configuration from option 1 has been left behind, meaning you either land up with a conflict of sorts, or black hole routing.

    Making use of a rollback

    This is where the rollback plan bridges the gap. If you find yourself in a situation where you either run out of time, or cannot continue owing to physical, logical or external constraints, then you would need to invoke your rollback plan. It’s important to note at this stage that part of the project plan should include a point where the progress is reviewed and assessed, and if necessary, the rollback is executed. My personal preference is within around 40% of the allocated time window - all relevant personnel should reconvene and provide status updates around their areas of responsibility, and give a synopsis of any issues - and be fully prepared to elaborate on these if the need arises. If the responsible manager feels that the project is at risk of overrunning it’s started time frame, or cannot be completed within that window, he or she needs to exercise authority to invoke the rollback plan. When setting the review interval, you should also consider the amount of time required to revert all changes and perform regression testing.

    Rollback provides the ideal opportunity to put everything back how it was before you started on your journey - but it does depend on two major factors. Firstly, you need to allocate a suitable time period for the rollback to be completed within. Secondly, unless you have a list of changes that were made to hardware - inclusive of configuration, patching, and a myriad of others, how can you be sure that you’ve covered everything ?

    Time after time I see the same problem - something gets missed, and turns out to be fundamental on Monday morning when the changes haven’t been cross checked.

    So what should a contingency plan consist of ?

    One surefire way to ensure that configurations are preserved prior to making changes is to create backups of running configs - 2 minutes now can save you 2 days of troubleshooting when you can’t remember which change caused your issue.  For virtual machines, this is typically a snapshot that can be restored later should the need arise. A word to the wise though - don’t leave the machine running on snapshot for too​ long as this can rapidly deplete storage space. It’s not a simple process to recover a crashed VM that has run out of disk space.

    Keep version and change control records up to date - particularly during the migration. Any change that could negatively impact the remainder of the project should be examined and evaluated, and if necessary, removed from the scope of works (provided this is a feasible step - sometimes negating a process is enough to make a project fail)

    Document each step. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. I understand that we all want to get things done in a timely manner, but will you realistically remember all the changes you made in the order they were implemented ?
    Use differential tools to examine and easily highlight changes between two configurations. There are a number of free tools on the internet that do this. If you’re using a Windows environment, a personal favourite of mine is WinMerge. Using a diff tool can separate the wood from the trees quickly, and provides a simple overview of changes - very useful in the small hours, I can assure you.
    Working on a switch or firewall ? Learn how to use the CLI. This is often superior in terms of power and usually contains commands that are not available from the GUI. Using this approach, it’s perfectly feasible to bulk load configuration, and also back it out using the same mechanism.

    What if your rollback plan doesn’t work ? Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to simulate a rollback during project planning, and this is often made worse by many changes being made at once to multiple systems. It’s not that the rollback doesn’t work - it’s usually always a case of settings being reverted before they should be. In most cases, this has the knock on effect of denying yourself access to a system - and it’s always in a place where there are no local support personnel to assist - at least, not immediately. For every migration I have completed over my career, I’ve always ensured that there is an alternative route to reach a remote device should the primary path become inaccessible. For firewalls, this can be a blessing - particularly as they usually permit access on the public interfaces.

    However, delete a route inadvertently and you are toast - you lose access to the firewall full stop - get out of that one. What would I do in a situation like this where the firewall is located in Asia for example, and you are in London ? Again - contingency. You can’t remove a route on a firewall if it was created automatically by the system. In this case, a VLAN or directly connected interface will create it’s own dynamic route, and should still be available. If dealing with a remote firewall, my suggestion here would be Out Of Band Management (OOBM), but not a device connected directly to the firewall itself, as this presents a security risk if not configured properly. A personal preference is a locally connected laptop in the remote location that uses either independent WiFi or a 3G / Mifi presence. Before the migration starts, establish a WebEx or GoToMeeting session (don’t forget to disable UAC here as that can shoot you in the foot), and arrange for a network cable to be plugged into switch fabric, or directly. Direct is better if you can spare the interface, as it removes potential routing issues. Just configure the NIC on the remote machine with an address in the same subnet add the interface you’re connected to, and you’re golden.

    I’ve used the above as a get out of jail free card on several occasions, and I can assure you it works.

    So what are the takeaways here ?

    The most important aspect is to be ready with a response - effectively a “plan b” when things go wrong. Simple planning in advance can save you having to book a flight, or foot the expense of a local IT support firm with no prior knowledge of your network - there’s the security aspect as well; you’d need to provide the password for the device which immediately invokes a change once the remediation is complete. In summary

    Thoroughly plan each migration and allow time for contingency steps. You may not need them, and if you don’t, then you effectively gain time that could be used elsewhere. Have an alternative way of reaching a remote device, and ensure necessary third party vendors are going to be available during your maintenance window should this be necessary. Take regular config backups of all devices. You don’t necessarily need an expensive tool for this - I actually designed a method to make this work using Linux, a TFTP server, and a custom bash script - let me know if you’d like a copy 🙂 Regularly analyse (automated diff) configuration changes between configurations. Any changes that are undocumented or previously approved are a cause for alarm and should be investigated Ensure that you have adequate documentation, and steps necessary to recover systems in the event of failure

    Any thoughts or questions ? Let me know !

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    @crazycells I guess the worst part for me was the trolling - made so much worse by the fact that the moderators allowed it to continue, insisting that the PeerLyst coming was seeing an example by allowing the community to “self moderate” - such a statement being completely ridiculous, and it wasn’t until someone else other than myself pointed out that all of this toxic activity could in fact be crawled by Google, that they decided to step in and start deleting posts.

    In fact, it reached a boiling point where the CEO herself had to step in and post an article stating their justification for “self moderation” which simply doesn’t work.

    The evidence here speaks for itself.

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    The recent high profile breaches impacting organisations large and small are a testament to the fact that no matter how you secure credentials, they will always be subject to exploit. Can a password alone ever be enough ? in my view, it’s never enough. The enforced minimum should be at least with a secondary factor. Regardless of how “secure” you consider your password to be, it really isn’t in most cases – it just “complies” with the requirement being enforced.

    Here’s classic example. We take the common password of “Welcome123” and put it into a password strength checker
    According to the above, it’s “strong”. Actually, it isn’t. It’s only considered this way because it meets the complexity requirements, with 1 uppercase letter, at least 8 characters, and numbers. What’s also interesting is that a tool sponsored by Dashlane considers the same password as acceptable, taking supposedly 8 months to break
    How accurate is this ? Not accurate at all. The password of “Welcome123” is in fact one of the passwords contained in any penetration tester’s toolkit – and, by definition, also used by cyber criminals. As most of this password combination is in fact made up of a dictionary word, plus sequential numbers, it would take less than a second to break this rather than the 8 months reported above. Need further evidence of this ? Have a look at haveibeenpwned, which will provide you with a mechanism to test just how many times “Welcome123” has appeared in data breaches

    Why are credentials so weak ?

    My immediate response to this is that for as long as humans have habits, and create scenarios that enable them to easily remember their credentials, then this weakness will always exist. If you look at a sample taken from the LinkedIn breach, those passwords that occupy the top slots are arguably the least secure, but the easiest to remember from the human perspective. Passwords such as “password” and “123456” may be easy for users to remember, but on the flip side, weak credentials like this can be broken by a simple dictionary attack in less than a second.

    Here’s a selection of passwords still in use today – hopefully, yours isn’t on there
    We as humans are relatively simplistic when it comes to credentials and associated security methods. Most users who do not work in the security industry have little understanding, desire to understand, or patience, and will naturally choose the route that makes their life easier. After all, technology is supposed to increase productivity, and make tasks easier to perform, right ? Right. And it’s this exact vulnerability that a cyber criminal will exploit to it’s full potential.

    Striking a balance between the security of credentials and ease of recall has always had it’s challenges. A classic example is that networks, websites and applications nowadays typically have password policies in place that only permit the use of a so-called strong password. Given the consolidation and overall assortment of letters, numbers, non-alphanumeric characters, uppercase and lowercase, the password itself is probably “secure” to an acceptable extent, although the method of storing the credentials isn’t. A shining example of this is the culture of writing down sensitive information such as credentials. I’ve worked in some organisations where users have actually attached their password to their monitor. Anyone looking for easy access into a computer network is onto an immediate winner here, and unauthorised access or a full blown breach could occur within an alarmingly short period of time.

    Leaked credentials and attacks from within

    You could argue that you would need access to the computer itself first, but in several historical breach scenarios, the attack originated from within. In this case, it may not be an active employee, but someone who has access to the area where that particular machine is located. Any potential criminal has the credentials – well, the password itself, but what about the username ? This is where a variety of techniques can be used in terms of username discovery – in fact, most of them being non-technical – and worryingly simple to execute. Think about what is usually on a desk in an office. The most obvious place to look for the username would be on the PC itself. If the user had recently logged out, or locked their workstation, then on a windows network, that would give you the username unless a group policy was in place. Failing that, most modern desk phones display the name of the user. On Cisco devices, under Extension Mobility, is the ID of the user. It doesn’t take long to find this. Finally there’s the humble business card. A potential criminal can look at the email address format, remove the domain suffix, and potentially predict the username. Most companies tend to leverage the username in email addresses mainly thanks to SMTP template address policies – certainly true in on premise Exchange environments or Office 365 tenants.

    The credentials are now paired. The password has been retrieved in clear text, and by using a simple discovery technique, the username has also been acquired. Sometimes, a criminal can get extremely lucky and be able to acquire credentials with minimal effort. Users have a habit of writing down things they cannot recall easily, and in some cases, the required information is relatively easily divulged without too much effort on the part of the criminal. Sounds absurd and far fetched, doesn’t it ? Get into your office early, or work late one evening, and take a walk around the desks. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised at what you will find. Amongst the plethora of personal effects such as used gym towels and footwear, I guarantee that you will find information that could be of significant use to a criminal – not necessarily readily available in the form of credentials, but sufficient information to create a mechanism for extraction via an alternative source. But who would be able to use such information ?

    Think about this for a moment. You generally come into a clean office in the mornings, so cleaners have access to your office space. I’m not accusing anyone of anything unscrupulous or illegal here, but you do need to be realistic. This is the 21st century, and as a result, it is a security measure you need to factor in and adopt into your overall cyber security policy and strategy. Far too much focus is placed on securing the perimeter network, and not enough on the threat that lies within. A criminal could get a job as a cleaner at a company, and spend time collecting intelligence in terms of what could be a vulnerability waiting to be exploited. Another example of “instant intelligence” is the network topology map. Some of us are not blessed with huge screens, and need to make do with one ancient 19″ or perhaps two. As topology maps can be quite complex, it’s advantageous to be able to print these in A3 format to make it easier to digest. You may also need to print copies of this same document for meetings. The problem here is what you do with that copy once you have finished with it ?

    How do we address the issue ? Is there sufficient awareness ?

    Yes, there is. Disposing of it in the usual fashion isn’t the answer, as it can easily be recovered. The information contained in most topology maps is often extensive, and is like a goldmine to a criminal looking for intelligence about your network layout. Anything like this is classified information, and should be shredded at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps one of the worst offences I’ve ever personally experienced is a member of the IT team opening a password file, then walking away from their desk without locking their workstation. To prove a point about how easily credentials can be inadvertently leaked, I took a photo with a smartphone, then showed the offender what I’d managed to capture a few days later. Slightly embarrassed didn’t go anywhere near covering it.

    I’ve been an advocate of securing credentials for some time, and recently read about the author of “NIST Special Publication 800-63” (Bill Burr). Now retired, he has openly admitted the advice he originally provided as in fact, incorrect

    “Much of what I did I now regret.” said Mr Burr, who advised people to change their password every 90 days and use obscure characters.

    “It just drives people bananas and they don’t pick good passwords no matter what you do.”

    The overall security of credentials and passwords

    However, bearing in mind that this supposed “advice” has long been the accepted norm in terms of password securuty, let’s look at the accepted standards from a well-known auditing firm

    It would seem that the Sarbanes Oxley 404 act dictates that regular changes of credentials are mandatory, and part of the overarching controls. Any organisation that is regulated by the SEC (for example) would be covered and within scope by this statement, and so the argument for not regularly changing your password becomes “invalid” by the act definition and narrative. My overall point here is that the clearly obvious bad password advice in the case of the financial services industry is negated by a severely outdated set of controls that require you to enforce a password change cycle and be in compliance with it. In addition, there are a vast number of sites and services that force password changes on a regular basis, and really do not care about what is known to be extensive research on password generation.

    The argument for password security to be weakened by having to change it on a frequent basis is an interesting one that definitely deserves intense discussion and real-world examples, but if your password really is strong (as I mentioned previously, there are variations of this which are really not secure at all, yet are considered strong because they meet a complexity requirement), then a simple mutation of it could render it vulnerable. I took a simple lowercase phrase


    The actual testing tool can be found here. So, does a potential criminal have 26 nonillion years to spare ? Any cyber criminal who possesses only basic skills won’t need a fraction of that time as this password is in fact made up of simple dictionary words, is all lowercase, and could in fact be broken in seconds.

    My opinion ? Call it how you like – the password is here to stay for the near future at least. The overall strength of the password or credentials stored using MD5, bCrypt, SHA1 and so on are irrelevant when an attacker can use established and proven techniques such as social engineering to obtain your password. Furthermore, the addition of 2FA or a SALT dramatically increases password security – as does the amount of unsuccessful attempts permitted before the associated account is locked. This is a topic that interests me a great deal. I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.

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    9 Posts

    Well, just remember - No matter where ya’ go, there you are. 🏇 🐎 🐴

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    12 Posts