In the past year I had a pleasure working with a number of startups on improving their security posture. I would like to share some common pain points here and what to do about them.
Advising startups on security is not easy, as it tends to be a ‘wicked’ problem for a cash-strapped company – we often don’t want to spend money on security but can’t afford not to because of the potential devastating impact of security breaches. Business models of some of them depend on customer trust and the entire value of a company can be wiped out in a single incident.
On a plus side, security can actually increase the value of a startup through elevating trust and amplifying the brand message, which in turn leads to happier customers. It can also increase company valuation through demonstrating a mature attitude towards security and governance, which is especially useful in fundraising and acquisition scenarios.
Security is there to support the business, so start with understanding the product who uses it. Creating personas is quite a useful tool when trying to understand your customers. The same approach can be applied to security. Think through the threat model – who’s after the company and why? At what stage of a customer journey are we likely to get exposed?
Are we trying to protect our intellectual property from competitors or sensitive customer data from organise crime? Develop a prioritised plan and risk management approach to fit the answers. You can’t secure everything – focus on what’s truly important.
A risk based approach is key. Remember that the company is still relatively small and you need to be realistic what threats we are trying to protect against. Blindly picking your favourite NIST Cybersecurity Framework and applying all the controls might prove counterproductive.
Yes, the challenges are different compared to securing a large enterprise, but there some upsides too. In a startup, more often than not, you’re in a privileged position to build in security and privacy by design and deal with much less technical debt. You can embed yourself in the product development and engineering from day one. This will save time and effort trying to retrofit security later – the unfortunate reality of many large corporations.
Be wary, however, of imposing too much security on the business. At the end of the day, the company is here to innovate, albeit securely. Your aim should be to educate the people in the company about security risks and help them make the right decisions. Communicate often, showing that security is not only important to keep the company afloat but that it can also be an enabler. Changing behaviours around security will create a positive security culture and protect the business value.
How do you apply this in practice? Let’s say we established that we need to guard the company’s reputation, customer data and intellectual property all the while avoiding data breaches and regulatory fines. What should we focus on when it comes to countermeasures?
I recommend an approach that combines process and technology and focuses on three main areas: your product, your people and your platform.
Think of your product and your website as a front of your physical store. Thant’s what customers see and interact with. It generates sales, so protecting it is often your top priority. Make sure your developers are aware of OWASP vulnerabilities and secure coding practices. Do it from the start, hire a DevOps security expert if you must. Pentest your product regularly. Perform code reviews, use automated code analysis tools. Make sure you thought through DDoS attack prevention. Look into Web Application Firewalls and encryption. API security is the name of the game here. Monitor your APIs for abuse and unusual activity. Harden them, think though authentication.
I talked about building security culture above, but in a startup you go beyond raising awareness of security risks. You develop processes around reporting incidents, documenting your assets, defining standard builds and encryption mechanisms for endpoints, thinking through 2FA and password managers, locking down admin accounts, securing colleagues’ laptops and phones through mobile device management solutions and generally do anything else that will help people do their job better and more securely.
Some years ago I would’ve talked about network perimeter, firewalls and DMZs here. Today it’s all about the cloud. Know your shared responsibility model. Check out good practices of your cloud service provider. Main areas to consider here are: data governance, logging and monitoring, identity and access management, disaster recovery and business continuity. Separate your development and production environments. Resist the temptation to use sensitive (including customer) data in your test systems, minimise it as much as possible. Architect it well from the beginning and it will save you precious time and money down the road.
Every section above deserves its own blog and I have deliberately kept it high-level. The intention here is to provide a framework for you to think through the challenges most startups I encountered face today.
If the majority of your experience comes from the corporate environment, there are certainly skills you can leverage in the startup world too but be mindful of variances. The risks these companies face are different which leads to the need for a different response. Startups are known to be flexible, nimble and agile, so you should be too.
JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) are quickly becoming a popular way to implement information exchange and authorisation in single sign-on scenarios.
As with many things, this technology can be either quite secure or very insecure at the same time and a lot is dependent on the implementation. This opens a number of possibilities for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities if this standard is poorly implemented or outdated libraries are sued.
Here are some of the possible attack scenarios:
- A attackers can modify the token and hashing algorithm to indicate, through the ‘none’ keyword, that the integrity of the token has already been verified, fooling the server into accepting it as a valid token
- Attackers can change the algorithm from ‘RS256’ to ‘HS256’ and use the public key to generate a HMAC signature for the token, as server trusts the data inside the header of a JWT and doesn’t validate the algorithm it used to issue a token. The server will now treat this token as one generated with ‘HS256’ algorithm and use its public key to decode and verify it
- JWTs signed with HS256 algorithm could be susceptible to private key disclosure when weak keys are used. Attackers can conduct offline brute-force or dictionary attacks against the token, since a client does not need to interact with the server to check the validity of the private key after a token has been issued by the server
- Sensitive information (e.g. internal IP addresses) can be revealed, as all the information inside the JWT payload is stored in plain text
I recommend the following steps to address the concerns above:
- Reject tokens set with ‘none’ algorithm when a private key was used to issue them
- Use appropriate key length (e.g. 256 bit) to protect against brute force attacks
- Adjust the JWT token validation time depending on required security level (e.g. from few minutes up to an hour). For extra security, consider using reference tokens if there’s a need to be able to revoke/invalidate them
- Use HTTPS/SSL to ensure JWTs are encrypted during client-server communication, reducing the risk of the man-in-the-middle attack
- Overall, follow the best practices for implementing them, only use up-to-date and secure libraries and choose the right algorithm for requirements
OWASP have more detailed recommendations with Java code samples alongside other noteworthy material for common vulnerabilities and secure coding practices, so I encourage you to check it out if you need more information.
Cyber security is a manpower constrained market – therefore the opportunities for AI automation are vast. Frequently, AI is used to make certain defensive aspects of cyber security more wide reaching and effective: combating spam and detecting malware are prime examples. On the opposite side there are many incentives to use AI when attempting to attack vulnerable systems belonging to others. These incentives could include the speed of attack, low costs and difficulties attracting skilled staff in an already constrained environment.
Current research in the public domain is limited to white hat hackers employing machine learning to identify vulnerabilities and suggest fixes. At the speed AI is developing, however, it won’t be long before we see attackers using these capabilities on mass scale, if they don’t already.
How do we know for sure? The fact is, it is quite hard to attribute a botnet or a phishing campaign to AI rather than a human. Industry practitioners, however, believe that we will see an AI-powered cyber-attack within a year: 62% of surveyed Black Hat conference participants seem to be convinced in such a possibility.
Many believe that AI is already being deployed for malicious purposes by highly motivated and sophisticated attackers. It’s not at all surprising given the fact that AI systems make an adversary’s job much easier. Why? Resource efficiency point aside, they introduce psychological distance between an attacker and their victim. Indeed, many offensive techniques traditionally involved engaging with others and being present, which in turn limited attacker’s anonymity. AI increases the anonymity and distance. Autonomous weapons is the case in point; attackers are no longer required to pull the trigger and observe the impact of their actions.
It doesn’t have to be about human life either. Let’s explore some of the less severe applications of AI for malicious purposes: cybercrime.
Social engineering remains one of the most common attack vectors. How often is malware introduced in systems when someone just clicks on an innocent-looking link?
The fact is, in order to entice the victim to click on that link, quite a bit of effort is required. Historically it’s been labour-intensive to craft a believable phishing email. Days and sometimes weeks of research and the right opportunity were required to successfully carry out such an attack. Things are changing with the advent of AI in cyber.
Analysing large data sets helps attackers prioritise their victims based on online behaviour and estimated wealth. Predictive models can go further and determine the willingness to pay the ransom based on historical data and even adjust the size of pay-out to maximise the chances and therefore revenue for cyber criminals.
Imagine all the data available in the public domain as well as previously leaked secrets through various data breaches are now combined for the ultimate victim profiling in a matter of seconds with no human effort.
When the victim is selected, AI can be used to create and tailor emails and sites that would be most likely clicked on based on crunched data. Trust is built by engaging people in longer dialogues over extensive periods of time on social media which require no human effort – chatbots are now capable of maintaining such interaction and even impersonate the real contacts by mimicking their writing style.
Machine learning used for victim identification and reconnaissance greatly reduces attacker’s resource investments. Indeed, there is even no need to speak the same language anymore! This inevitably leads to an increase in scale and frequency of highly targeted spear phishing attacks.
Sophistication of such attacks can also go up. Exceeding human capabilities of deception, AI can mimic voice thanks to the rapid development in speech synthesis. These systems can create realistic voice recordings based on existing data and elevate social engineering to the next level through impersonation. This, combined with other techniques discussed above, paints a rather grim picture.
So what do we do?
Let’s outline some potential defence strategies that we should be thinking about already.
Firstly and rather obviously, increasing the use of AI for cyber defence is not such a bad option. A combination of supervised and unsupervised learning approaches is already being employed to predict new threats and malware based on existing patterns.
Behaviour analytics is another avenue to explore. Machine learning techniques can be used to monitor system and human activity to detect potential malicious deviations.
Importantly though, when using AI for defence, we should assume that attackers anticipate it. We must also keep track of AI development and its application in cyber to be able to credibly predict malicious applications.
In order to achieve this, a collaboration between industry practitioners, academic researchers and policymakers is essential. Legislators must account for potential use of AI and refresh some of the definitions of ‘hacking’. Researchers should carefully consider malicious application of their work. Patching and vulnerability management programs should be given due attention in the corporate world.
Finally, awareness should be raised among users on preventing social engineering attacks, discouraging password re-use and advocating for two-factor-authentication where possible.
The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation 2018
Cummings, M. L. 2004. “Creating Moral Buffers in Weapon Control Interface Design.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (Fall 2004), 29–30.
Seymour, J. and Tully, P. 2016. “Weaponizing data science for social engineering: Automated E2E spear phishing on Twitter,” Black Hat conference
Allen, G. and Chan, T. 2017. “Artificial Intelligence and National Security,” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,
Yampolskiy, R. 2017. “AI Is the Future of Cybersecurity, for Better and for Worse,” Harvard Business Review, May 8, 2017.
I was recently asked to develop a two-day tabletop cyber wargaming exercise. Here’s the agenda.
Please get in touch if you would like to know more.
Module 1: What is Business Wargaming?
How Does Business Wargaming Work?
Module 2 Cyber Fundamentals
- Practical Risk Management
- Problems with risk management
- Human aspects of security
- Conversion of physical and information security
- Attacker types and motivations
- Security Incident management
- Security incident handling and response
- Crisis management and business continuity
- Cyber security trends to consider
Module 3: Introducing a Case Study
- Company and organisational structure
- Processes and architecture
Module 4 Case study exercises
- Case study exercise 1: Risk Management
- Case study exercise 2: Infrastructure and Application Security
Introducing a wagaming scenario
Roles and responsibilities
Simulated exercise to stress response capabilities
The scenario will be testing:
- How organisations responded from a business perspective
- How organisations responded to the attacks technically
- How affected organisations were by the scenario
- How they shared information amongst relevant parties
Feedback to the participants
Course wrap up
Image courtesy zirconicusso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Daniel Schatz: It is generally appreciated if security professionals understand that they are supposed to support the strategy of an organisationPosted: April 3, 2014
Interview with Daniel Schatz – Director for Threat & Vulnerability Management
Let’s first discuss how you ended up doing threat and vulnerability management. What is your story?
I actually started off as a Banker at Deutsche Bank in Germany but was looking for a more technical role so I hired on with Thomson Reuters as Senior Support Engineer. I continued on to other roles in the enterprise support and architecture space with increasing focus on information security (as that was one of my strong interests) so it was just logical for me to move into that area. I particularly liked to spend my time understanding the developing threat landscape and existing vulnerabilities with the potential to impact the organisation which naturally led me to be a part of that team.
What are you working on at the moment and what challenges are you facing?
On a day to day basis I’m busy trying to optimise the way vulnerability management is done and provide advice on current and potential threats relevant to the organisation. I think one of the challenges in my space is to find a balance between getting the attention of the right people to be able to notify them of concerning developments/situations while doing so in a non-alarmist way. It is very easy to deplete the security goodwill of people especially if they have many other things to worry about (like budgets, project deadlines, customer expectations, etc.). On the other hand they may be worried about things that they picked up on the news which they shouldn’t waste time on; so providing guidance on what they can put aside for now is also important. Other than that there are the usual issues that any security professional will face – limited resources, competing priorities with other initiatives, etc.
Can you share your opinion on the current security trends?
I think it is less valuable to look at current security trends as they tend to be defined by media/press and reinforced by vendors to suit their own strategy. If you look at e.g. Nation state cyber activities; this has been ongoing for a decade at least yet we now perceive it as a trend because we see massive reporting on it. I believe it is more sensible to spend time anticipating where the relevant threat landscape will be in a few months or years’ time and plan against that instead of trying to catch up with today’s threats by buying the latest gadget. Initiatives like the ISF Threat Horizon are good ways to start with this; or follow a DIY approach like I describe in my article
What is the role of the users in security?
I think this is the wrong approach to ask this question to be honest. Culture and mind-set are two of the most important factors when looking at security so the question should emphasise the relationship of user and security in the right way. To borrow a phrase from JFK – Do not ask what users can do for security, ask what security can do for your users.
How does the good security culture look like?
One description of culture I like defines it as ‘an emotional environment shared by members of the organisation; It reflects how staff feels about themselves, about the people for whom and with whom they work and about their jobs.’ In this context it implies that security is part of the fabric of an organisation naturally weaved in every process and interaction without being perceived to be a burden. We see this at work within the Health & Safety area, but this didn’t happen overnight either.
How one can develop it in his/her company?
There is no cookie cutter approach but talking to the Health & Safety colleagues would not be the worst idea. I also think it is generally appreciated if security professionals understand that they are supposed to support the strategy of an organisation and recognise how their piece of the puzzle fits in. Pushing for security measures that would drive the firm out of the competitive market due to increased cost or lost flexibility is not a good way to go about it.
What are the main reasons of users’ non-secure behaviour?
Inconvenience is probably the main driver for certain behaviour. Everyone is unconsciously constantly doing a cost/benefit calculation; if an users expected utility of opening the ‘Cute bunnies’ attachment exceeds the inconvenience of ignoring all those warning messages a reasonable decision was made, albeit an insecure one.
What is the solution?
Either raise the cost or lower the benefit. While it will be difficult to teach your staff to dislike cute bunnies, raising the cost may work. To stick with the previous example, this could be done by imposing draconian punishment for opening malicious attachments or deploying technology solutions to aid the user in being compliant. There is an operational and economic perspective to this of course. If employees are scared to open attachments because of the potential for punishment it will likely have a depressing consequence for your business communications.
Some will probably look for ‘security awareness training’ as answer here; while I think there is a place for such training the direct impact is low in my view. If security awareness training aims to change an organisations culture you’re on the right track but trying to train users utility decisions away will fail.
Thank you Daniel!
Interview with Konrads Smelkovs – Incident Response
Could you please tell us a little bit about your background?
I work at KPMG as a manager, and I started working with security when I was around thirteen years old. I used to go to my mother’s work, because there was nobody to look after me. There used to be an admin there who used to run early versions of Linux, which I found to be rather exciting. I begged him to give me an account on his Linux box, but I didn’t know much about that, so I started searching for information in Altavista. The only things you could find there was how to hack into Unix, and there were no books at the time I could buy. I downloaded some scripts off the internet and started running them. Some university then complained that my scripts were hacking them, though I didn’t really understand much of what I was doing. So my account got suspended for about half a year, but I got hooked and found it rather interesting and exciting, and developed an aspiration in this direction. I then did all sorts of jobs, but I wanted a job in this field. So I saw an add in the newspaper and applied for a job at KPMG back in Latvia, 6 or 7 years ago. I was asked what it is I could do, and I explained to them the sort of things I had done in terms of programming: “a little bit of this, a little bit of that…”, I did some reading about security before the interview, and they then asked me if I could do penetration testing. I had a vague idea of what it entailed, because I understood web applications quite well. So I said, “yeah, sure. I can go ahead and do that because I understand these things quite well.”
What are you working on at the moment?
In the past I used to focus mainly on break-ins. Now people resort to me for advice on how to detect on-going intrusions, which takes up a large portion of my time at the moment, but more at a senior level. I do threat modelling for a corporation. I have to know how to break-in in order to give them reasonable advice, but it’s mainly in the form of PowerPoint presentations and meetings.
When you develop threat models for corporations, how do you factor in insider threats as well as the human aspect of security?
I believe the industry oscillates from one extreme to the other. People spoke a lot about “risk” but they understood very little about what this risk entailed. They then spoke about IT risks, but it was more of a blank message. Then it all became very entangled, and there was talk about vulnerability thinking: “you have to patch everything.” But then people realised that there is no way to patch everything, and then started talking about defence strategies, which pretty much everybody misunderstands, and so they started ignoring vulnerabilities. This especially happened because we all had firewalls, but we know that those don’t help either. So what we are trying to do here is to spread common sense in one go. When we talk about threat models, we have to talk about who is attacking, what they are after, and how they will do it. So the “who” will obviously have a lot of different industry properties, why they are doing it, what their restrictions and their actions are and so on. Despite the popular belief in the press, in The Financial Times, CNN, and so on, everybody talks about the APT, these amazing hackers hacking everything. They don’t realise that the day-to-day reality is quite different. There are two main things people are concerned about. One of them is insider threats, because insiders have legitimate access, and just want to elevate that access by copying or destroying information. The second is malware, which is such a prevalent thing. Most malware is uploaded by criminals who are not specifically after you, but are after some of your resources: you are not special to them. There are very few industries where there is nation-state hacking or where competitive hacking is current. So when we talk about threat models, we mainly talk about insider threats within specific business units and how they work. This is what I think people are most afraid of: the exploitation of trust.
How do you normally advice executives in organisations about proper information security? Do you focus on building a proper security culture, on awareness training, technological/architectural means, or what do you consider is the most important thing they should keep in mind?
We need to implement lots of things. I believe that a lot of the information security awareness training is misguided. It is not about teaching people how to recognise phishing or these sort of things. It is about explaining to them why security is important and how they play a part in it.
Very few insiders develop overnight and I believe that there is a pattern, and even then, insiders are rare. Most of the time you have admins who are trying to make themselves important, or, who out of vengeance, try to destroy things. So whenever you have destruction of information, you have to look at what kind of privileged access there is. Sometimes people copy things in bulk when they leave the company, to distribute it to the company’s competitors.
So lets say you develop a threat model and present it to the company, who’s executives accepted and use to develop a policy which they then implement and enforce. Sometimes, these policies my clash with the end-users’ performance and affect the way business within the company is done. Sometimes they might resist new controls because privileges get taken away. How would you factor in this human aspect, in order to avoid this unwanted result?
Many companies impose new restrictions on their employees without analysing the unwanted result it may lead to. So for example, if companies don’t facilitate a method for sharing large files, the employees might resort to Dropbox which could represent a potential threat. Smart companies learn that it is important to offer alternatives to the privileges they remove from their employees.
How do you go by identifying what the users need?
They will often tell you what it is they need and they might even have a solution in mind. It’s really about offering their solutions securely. Rarely is the case when you have to tell them that what they want is very stupid and that they simply should not do it.
Finally, apart from sharp technical skills, what other skills would you say security professionals need in order to qualify for a job?
You have to know the difference between imposing security and learning how to make others collaborate with security. Having good interpersonal skills is very important: you need to know how to convince people to change their behaviour.
Thank you Konrads.
An insider attack is one of the biggest threats faced by modern enterprises, where even a good working culture might not be sufficient to prevent it. Companies implement sophisticated technology to monitor their employees but it’s not always easy for them to distinguish between an insider and an outside attack.
Those who target and plan attacks from the outside might create strategies for obtaining insider knowledge and access by either resorting to an existing employee, or by making one of their own an insider.
They may introduce a problem to both individuals (in the form of financial fraud, for example) and companies (by abusing authorization credentials provided to legitimate employees). In this scenario, a victim and an attacker are sharing physical space, which makes it very easy to gain login and other sensitive information.
According to CERT, a malicious insider is; a current or former employee, contractor, or business partner who has or had authorised access to an organisation’s network system or data and intentionally exceeded or misused that access in a manner that negatively affected the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of the organisation’s information. Furthermore, CERT split insider crimes into three categories:
- Insider IT Sabotage, where IT is used to direct specific harm at an organisation or an individual.
- Insider Theft of Intellectual Property is the use of IT to steal proprietary information from an organisation.
- Insider Fraud uses IT to add, modify and/or delete an organisation’s data in an unauthorised manner for personal gain. It also includes the theft of information needed for identity crime.
But how can companies detect and prevent such attacks?
In his paper, Framework for Understanding and Predicting Insider Attacks, Eugene Schultz suggests that insiders make human errors, which when spotted can help in preventing such threats. Therefore, constant monitoring, especially focused on low-level employees, is one of the basic measures for preventing insider attacks and gathering evidence.
There are a number of precursors of insider attacks that can help to identify and prevent them:
- Deliberate markers – These are signs which attackers leave intentionally. They can be very obvious or very subtle, but they all aim to make a statement. Being able to identify the smaller, less obvious markers can help prevent the “big attack.”
- Meaningful errors – Skilled attackers tend to try and cover their tracks by deleting log files but error logs are often overlooked.
- Preparatory behaviour – Collecting information, such as testing countermeasures or permissions, is the starting point of any social engineering attack.
- Correlated usage patterns – It is worthwhile to invest in investigating the patterns of computer usage across different systems. This can reveal a systematic attempt to collect information or test boundaries.
- Verbal behaviour – Collecting information or voicing dissatisfaction about the current working conditions may be considered one of the precursors of an insider attack.
- Personality traits – A history of rule violation, drug or alcohol addiction, or inappropriate social skills may contribute to the propensity of committing an insider attack.
There are a number of insider attackers who are merely pawns for another inside or outside mastermind. He or she is usually persuaded or trained to perpetrate or facilitate the attack, alone or in collusion with other (outside) agents, motivated by the expectation of personal gain.
Organisations may unknowingly make themselves vulnerable to insider attacks by not screening newcomers properly in the recruitment, not performing threat analyses, or failing to monitor their company thoroughly. Perhaps the most important thing they overlook is to keep everybody’s morale high by communicating to employees that they are valued and trusted.