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6 hard truths security pros must learn to live with

Roger A. Grimes | April 29, 2015
Caveat emptor: Security solutions will always fall short in addressing the fundamental flaws of securing IT systems.

In the late 1980s when boot viruses were all the rage, it literally took years to get out the message that users should pop out their floppy disk before rebooting their computer. In fact, boot viruses didn't go away until the demise of the floppy drive. Now we have USB autorun viruses doing the same. Macro viruses hit us with a vengeance in the 1990s, and it took a decade to tell people to not open every file attachment, especially if it was unexpected. We're still trying to get people to understand that message.

All attackers have to do is slightly modify their techniques and they're successful again. For example, we warn people about fake antivirus messages, and they get fooled by a fake disk-compacting program. We warn people about patching their OS and attackers move on to popular browser apps.

Today, most attacks are launched from exploited websites. You're more likely to be exploited from a website you trust and visit every day than from a porn site. Now we're trying to tell people not to run the link or executable they've been offered in their browser window or not to give their logon credentials to people who send emails. I wonder how long it will take for us to effectively teach and learn these current lessons.

We haven't learned how to stop attackers from exploiting our PCs, and they're already moving onto our mobile devices. Nearly every threat we had in the PC world is being repeated in the mobile world. Worse, we're very bad at transferring lessons learned on one platform to another. It will only get worse as the Internet of things (IoT) accelerates. Smart televisions, cars, toasters, clothing -- everything will be targeted for attack.

Lack of focus on the right risks
But the biggest problem with computer defense may be the inability to appropriately prioritize competing risks. Some of the hundreds of possible ways to exploit a company are far more likely to happen than others. This makes for a huge gulf between your highest-rated threats and your most likely ones. Success belongs to those who focus their security efforts more often on the latter.

I frequently ask IT security personnel to list every computer security defense they're implementing at their company, the money spent, and the staff resources dedicated to each project and operation. I then ask them to tell me the most common ways their company is exploited. Rarely do I hear two answers that are the same. If the IT security employees don't agree on what's wrong, how can you efficiently defend your environment?

More often than not, the No. 1 problem is unpatched software, and the No. 2 problem is social engineering. In the case of unpatched software, it's usually only one to three unpatched applications, out of the hundreds you need to patch, that are responsible for most exploits by outsiders. But how many companies focus on patching those few applications perfectly, to the expense of most nearly everything else? Almost none.


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