How to secure a tech startup

scrum_boardIf you work for or (even better) co-founded a tech startup, you are already busy. Hopefully not too busy to completely ignore security, but definitely busy enough to implement one of the industrial security frameworks, like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). Although the CSF and other standards are useful, implementing them in a small company might be resource intensive.

I previously wrote about security for startups. In this blog, I would like to share some ideas for activities you might consider (in no particular order) instead of implementing a security standard straight away. The individual elements and priorities will, of course, vary depending on your business type and needs and this list is not exhaustive.

Product security

Information security underpins all products and services to offer customers an innovative and frictionless experience.

  • Improve product security, robustness and stability through secure software development process
  • Automate security tests and prevent secrets in code
  • Upgrade vulnerable dependencies
  • Secure the delivery pipeline

Cloud infrastructure security

To deliver resilient and secure service to build customer trust.

  • Harden cloud infrastructure configuration
  • Improve identity and access management practices
  • Develop logging and monitoring capability
  • Reduce attack surface and costs by decommissioning unused resources in the cloud
  • Secure communications and encrypt sensitive data at rest and in transit

Operations security

To prevent regulatory fines, potential litigation and loss of customer trust due to accidental mishandling, external system compromise or insider threat leading to exposure of customer personal data.

  • Enable device (phone and laptop) encryption and automatic software updates
  • Make a password manager available to your staff (and enforce a password policy)
  • Improve email security (including anti-phishing protections)
  • Implement mobile device management to enforce security policies
  • Invest in malware prevention capability
  • Segregate access and restrict permissions to critical assets
  • Conduct security awareness and training

Cyber resilience

To prepare for, respond to and recover from cyber attacks while delivering a consistent level of service to customers.

  • Identify and focus on protecting most important assets
  • Develop (and test) an incident response plan
  • Collect and analyse logs for fraud and attacks
  • Develop anomaly detection capability
  • Regular backups of critical data
  • Disaster recovery and business continuity planning

Compliance and data protection

To demonstrate to business partners, regulators, suppliers and customers the commitment to security and privacy and act as a brand differentiator. To prevent revenue loss and reputational damage due to fines and unwanted media attention as a result of GDPR non compliance.

  • Ensure lawfulness, fairness, transparency, data minimisation, security, accountability, purpose and storage limitation when processing personal data
  • Optimise subject access request process
  • Maintain data inventory and mapping
  • Conduct privacy impact assessments on new projects
  • Data classification and retention
  • Vendor risk management
  • Improve governance and risk management practices

Image by Lennon Shimokawa.


The Complexity of Risk Management – free audiobook chapter

My publisher kindly made one of the chapters of my audiobook available for free. In it, I discuss the role of uncertainty in making decisions and managing risk.


How to inventory your AWS assets

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Securing your cloud infrastructure starts with establishing visibility of your assets. I’ll be using Amazon Web Services (AWS) as an example here but principles discussed in this blog can be applied to any IaaS provider.

Speaking about securing your AWS environment specifically, a good place to start is the AWS Security Maturity Roadmap by Scott Piper. He suggests identifying all AWS accounts in your organisation as a first step in your cloud security programme. 

Following Scott’s guidance, it’s a good idea to check in with your DevOps team and/or Finance to establish what accounts are being used in your company. Capture this information in a spreadsheet, documenting account name, ID, description and an owner at a minimum. You can expand on this in the future to track compliance with baseline requirements (e.g. enabling CloudTrail logs).

Once we have a comprehensive view of the accounts used in the organisation, we need to find out what resources these accounts use and how they are configured. We can get metadata about the accounts using CloudMapper’s collect command. CloudMapper is a great open source tool and can do much more than that. It deserves a separate blog, but for now just check out setup instructions on its GitHub page and Scott’s detailed instructions on using the collect command.

The CloudMapper report will reveal the resources you use in all the regions (the image at the top of this blog is from the demo data). This can be useful in scenarios where employees in your company might test out new services and forget to switch them off or nobody knows what these services are used for to begin with. In either case, the company ends up paying for these, so it makes economic sense to investigate, and disabling them will also reduce the attack surface.

In addition to that, the report includes a section on security findings and will alert of potential misconfigurations on the account. It also provides recommendations on how to address them. Below is an example report based on the demo data. 

Findings

As we are just establishing the view of our assets in AWS at this stage, we are not going to discuss remediation activities in this blog. We will, however, use this report to understand how much work is ahead of us and prioritise accordingly.

Of course, it is always a good idea to tackle high criticality issues like publicly exposed S3 buckets with sensitive information but don’t get discouraged by a potentially large number of security findings. Instead, focus on strategic improvements that will prevent these issues from happening in the future.

To lay the foundation for a security improvements programme at this point, I suggest adding all the identified accounts to an AWS Organisation if you haven’t already. This will simplify account management and billing and allow you to apply organisation-wide service control policies.


How to respond to a security incident

In this blog I would like to outline a process of responding to a security incident, including a breach of personal data. It is intended to be high-level in nature to allow for adaptation to different types of incidents and specific needs of your organisation.

There are many definitions of a security incident out there. I prefer this one: a security incident is an attempted or successful unauthorised access, use, theft, disclosure, modification or destruction of information, or interference with or misuse of information processing infrastructure, applications and data. A personal data breach is one of the types of a security incident which occurs when personal information is subject to loss or unauthorised access, use, disclosure, copying or modification.

Read the rest of this entry »


Cyber security in divestments

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A company may divest its assets for a number of reasons: political, social or purely financial in order to free up resources to focus on core business. Regulators may also demand a divestment to prevent one company holding a monopoly. When such a decision is made, the security function can support the business by managing risks during this process. These risks not only include the obvious legal and regulatory compliance ones, but also risks related to business disruption and leaks of intellectual property or other sensitive information. Security teams can also help the business identify value adding opportunities through, for instance, saving costs on software licenses.

The scale of divestments vary and depend on the nature of the organisation: they can range from a single subsidiary to a whole division. Information usually accompanies physical assets, which opens up potential challenges with data governance when these assets change hands. The magnitude of such risks differ depending on specific conditions of the deal, for example:

  • Number of assets is scope
  • Criticality of assets
  • Location of assets and applicable jurisdictions

In my experience, divestments are almost always associated with aggressive timelines for completion usually in the form of legally binding agreements. Therefore, as a security professional, the last thing you want to do is to slow down the process and prevent the business from meeting these timelines.

You need to balance this, however, with the risk exposure. It helps when the security team gets involved early to support the process from the start. All too often, however, the business can be asking for security sign-off after the finalisation of the deal. This can be disappointing, particularly when a number of data transfer requirements have already been violated.

So if you’re one of the lucky ones, and the business is asking for your advice on divesting securely, what should you tell them? What areas do you consider? Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Information asset inventories and data maps. These might include data, software and infrastructure assets. You can’t help securely transfer something you don’t know exists. Start with establishing visibility and interdependencies.
  • Access control. Who has access to what? Do they need that access? Will they need that access in the future? Segregation of duties and least privilege principles are not just abstract philosophical concepts – they have real applications when it comes to divestments.
  • Consider legal and regulatory requirements when it comes to data asset transfer, retention and disposal. Involve your legal team, but don’t forget about technical controls, like encryption and secure data wipes.
  • Availability of skilled resource and mature IT function on the ‘buy’ side. Remember, whoever is buying the assets must have their infrastructure ready to support the acquisition and integration of new assets. Despite being perceived as a ‘buyer’s problem’, risks like that can negatively impact the overall project and should be considered.

All in all, the divestment process can be challenging but the early integration of security professionals ensures the appropriate oversight is given to all relevant areas for a smooth transfer to the buyer.

Image by Jason Kuffer.


Vulnerability scanning gone bad

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Security teams often have good intentions when they want to improve the security posture of a company by introducing new tools.

In one organisation, for example, they might want to mitigate the risk of exploiting application vulnerabilities and decide to deploy a code-scanning tool. This would make sure that applications are tested for exploits before they are released. Great idea but the uptake on the use of this tool was surprisingly low and created a lot of friction.

After closer examination, it turns out that this was primarily due to challenges with communication with the development teams that would need to use the tool. The impacted teams weren’t sufficiently trained on the use of it and there wasn’t enough support from the management to adopt it.

Development teams have tight timelines and budgets to work to in order to meet the business objectives. Anything that could disrupt these aspects is viewed with caution.

As a result, applications that should have had their code scanned either hadn’t, or had to be scanned at a much later stage of the development cycle. It was not incorporated in the DevOps pipeline– the scans were run as part of a manual check before release in production. Not only the risk of having applications with flaws in them remain largely unchanged, the whole process of delivering working software was prolonged.

These new applications were being delivered to facilitate revenue growth or streamline exiting processes to reduce cost and complexity. The impact on the business was that the new functionality they were expecting took longer to materialise, resulting in users’ frustration.

What can you do to prevent such situations from happening? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Communicate frequently and at the right level. Communication must start at the top of an organisation and work its way down, so that priorities and expectations can be aligned. A person may need to hear the same message multiple times before they take action.
  2. Articulate the benefits. Security and risk teams need to ensure they position any new processes or tools in a way that highlights the benefits to each stakeholder group.
  3. Provide clear steps. In order to ensure the change is successful, security professionals should clearly outline the steps for how to start realising these benefits.

Communicating and providing support on new security policies, tools and practices to impacted teams is absolutely critical. This is especially important in large organisations with many stakeholder groups spread across multiple geographies. Always keep the people in mind when introducing a change, even if it’s the one for the better.

Image by Hugo Chinaglia


Transparency in security

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I was asked to deliver a keynote in Germany at the Security Transparent conference. Of course, I agreed. Transparency in security is one of the topics that is very close to my heart and I wish professionals in the industry not only talked about it more, but also applied it in practice.

Back in the old days, security through obscurity was one of the many defence layers security professionals were employing to protect against attackers. On the surface, it’s hard to argue with such a logic: the less the adversary knows about our systems, the less likely they are to find a vulnerability that can be exploited.

There are some disadvantages to this approach, however. For one, you now need to tightly control the access to the restricted information about the system to limit the possibility of leaking sensitive information about its design. But this also limits the scope for testing: if only a handful of people are allowed to inspect the system for security flaws, the chances of actually discovering them are greatly reduced, especially when it comes to complex systems. Cryptographers were among the first to realise this. One of Kerckhoff’s principles states that “a cryptosystem should be secure even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge”.

Modern encryption algorithms are not only completely open to public, exposing them to intense scrutiny, but they have often been developed by the public, as is the case, for example, with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). If a vendor is boasting using their own proprietary encryption algorithm, I suggest giving them a wide berth.

Cryptography aside, you can approach transparency from many different angles: the way you handle personal data, respond to a security incident or work with your partners and suppliers. All of these and many more deserve attention of the security community. We need to move away from ambiguous privacy policies and the desire to save face by not disclosing a security breach affecting our customers or downplaying its impact.

The way you communicate internally and externally while enacting these changes within an organisation matters a lot, which is why I focused on this communication element while presenting at Security Transparent 2019. I also talked about friction between security and productivity and the need for better alignment between security and the business.

I shared some stories from behavioural economics, criminology and social psychology to demonstrate that challenges we are facing in information security are not always unique – we can often look at other seemingly unrelated fields to borrow and adjust what works for them. Applying lessons learned from other disciplines when it comes to transparency and understanding people is essential when designing security that works, especially if your aim is to move beyond compliance and be an enabler to the business.

Remember, people are employed to do a particular job: unless you’re hired as an information security specialist, your job is not to be an expert in security. In fact, badly designed and implemented security controls can prevent you from doing your job effectively by reducing your productivity.

After all, even Kerckhoff recognised the importance of context and fatigue that security can place on people. One of his lesser known principles states that “given the circumstances in which it is to be used, the system must be easy to use and should not be stressful to use or require its users to know and comply with a long list of rules”. He was a wise man indeed.