The Three Most Common Myths in Enterprise Security

October 7, 2014
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Editor’s note: This post by Invincea CEO Anup Ghosh first appeared at LinkedIn. We knew this would be of interest to you and posted it here with the author’s permission.-bg

I’ll say it up front, your security program does not work because it is based on three common myths we hold as unquestionable truths in enterprise security:

Myth 1: We can patch our way to security

Myth 2: We can train our users to not do “stupid” things

Myth 3: We can defeat targeted attacks by sharing signatures.

Don’t act surprised. We are in a technology field that is hyper-accelerated not just by technology advancement, but by adversaries constantly shifting tactics. If you held these truths in the year 2010, it’s time to update not only your security program, but also your thinking.

If you already accept these as the myths they are, then you can stop reading now, or absorb them to dispel them with your enterprise security colleagues. If you hold these myths as truths, read on.

Myth 1: We can patch our way to security

Let’s face it — the foundation of every major enterprise security program begins and ends with patching. If you haven’t patched your software, then the conventional wisdom is you are negligent (by corporate governance, compliance, and reputationally) in your job. It makes such perfect sense: if you know you have a vulnerability and a patch exists, then patch it already. Better yet, it is the one security vulnerability and control we can measure: what percentage of vulnerabilities lie unpatched? Not only does it make it measurable — a rarity in security — but it also can be used in performance evaluations. These are the very reasons why patching is the foundation of many security programs, compliance regimes, and ridicule when your software lies unpatched.

So why can’t we patch our way to security? Start with this chart:

3632307 The Three Most Common Myths in Enterprise Security


Notice that Java 1.7x remains 42% unpatched even with 145 vulnerabilities. That doesn’t even cover all the Java 1.5, 1.6 that is running in enterprises. Is it criminal negligence on the part of CISO and IT staffs that Java remains unpatched, especially given the vast majority of exploits are Java based? If you live outside the enterprise operations space, this seems ridiculous and negligent, especially since most software is auto-updating and it represents an obvious attack surface. In fact, the numbers 1, 3, 6, 7, and 8 top un-patched software programs also correspond to the top attack surfaces today on endpoints (not a coincidence of course). Clearly if we kept these programs patched, we would have much more secure enterprise networks.

Well it turns out, this is not a human behavior or motivation problem for enterprise IT. The reality of enterprise IT is these programs are not patched because application incompatibilities with legacy enterprise server apps forces enterprises to run unpatched older versions of software on the desktop. Java is the biggest culprit of this as so many back-office applications such as payroll, timesheets, finance, CRM and intranet applications were developed on versions of Java that are no longer current and incompatible with current versions.

Two take-aways:

  1. Many applications in the enterprise space, including the most exploited ones, remain unpatched for enterprise IT application compatibility reasons. We cannot patch our way to security for this reason.
  2. A security strategy based on patching software is inherently flawed. Enterprises must find ways of running unpatched software such as Java, Adobe plug-ins, Adobe Reader, and Internet Explorer while mitigating the risk of this attack surface. See isolation and containerization strategies to mitigate this risk.

Myth 2: We can train our users to not do “stupid” things

Most large enterprise security programs have Security Training for users. Many have posters on walls that show them what a phishing email looks like. Computer based training (CBTs) and CBT platforms and campaigns, and the cottage industry of spear-phish training, have emerged specifically to train and test users to recognize phishing campaigns.

The popularity of security training is predicated on the myth that we can teach users to make the Internet a safer place, if only they won’t be, well, humans. And since this is Cyber Security Awareness Month, this makes me the bearer of bad news for all the CSAM people who think focusing on security this month will make our networks, oh so much more secure. And better yet, victim blaming and shaming is all the rage in security and convenient to point the finger at the user. So rather than having to put in a security program that works, we can deflect by blaming the victim — users — for doing what comes natural — clicking on links and opening attachments — and in many cases is expected in their roles.

We cannot untrain millenia of human psychology evolutionary development to get humans to ignore fundamentals that phishing and spear-phishing campaigns appeal to:

  • trust in other humans
  • fear that not acting will result in something bad
  • greed that by taking some action they will become richer or better
  • desire that leads us to do things that fulfill us in, well, other ways.

Effective spear/phishing adversarial campaigns take advantage of these human emotions/frailties to get users to click on links and open attachments. In fact, as the chart below from Verizon Business data shows, the odds of getting a user to click on a link as part of a phishing campaign approaches 100% asymptotically as the number of emails (targeted users) reaches 17.

05f5725 The Three Most Common Myths in Enterprise Security

Two take-aways:

  1. Users will click on links or an attachment. It is only a question of when. Phishing and spear-phishing campaigns are always successful for this reason. You are guaranteed a click or open with little marginal cost for each additional email sent.
  2. A security strategy based on training users to not click on links or opening attachments will fail. You must find a security solution that accounts for the fact that users will click on links and open attachments, because they will. Strategies that defeat attacks regardless of what links a user clicks on address this problem.

Myth 3: We can defeat targeted attacks by sharing signatures.

The final myth that most large enterprise security people don’t want to hear today is that we can defeat targeted attacks by sharing signatures. I am a big advocate for sharing threat intelligence and full disclosure on the back of breaches. However, the myth to pierce is that sharing signatures of targeted attacks will defeat these attacks against organizations elsewhere.

Let’s face it, most of the public-private consortia is based on the notion of sharing attack signatures. The anti-virus industry was predicated on the notion that an attack signature taken from one victim can be used to protect the rest of the herd that has not yet been victimized by that attack. And these are very large consortia, public policy, and an industry predicated on this one myth: that by sharing attack signatures we can defeat an adversary elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this does not apply to targeted attacks — attacks specifically targeting an organization. When organizations are targeted, exploit toolkits are used to generate unique payloads that defeat anti-virus engines as well as network based signature scanning. Capturing the signature and sharing it among other institutions will only stop the laziest or most ignorant of attackers. The rest simply develop another unique payload rendering the shared signatures useless. This is why the security industry has moved to detection of compromise (post-breach) instead of prevention, because prevention-only approaches based on signatures no longer work.

However, all is not lost from sharing. Rather, what is shared is more important. Sharing tactics, techniques, and protocols (TTPs) is more important than sharing signatures. Sharing code can be equally useful — not just the signature. Sharing human intelligence about the adversary, if any is available and vetted, is valuable. Sharing network command and control can be useful, though this is diminishing with time as domains and exploit landing pages are becoming transient with half-lives measured in hours.

Two important take-aways:

  1. Sharing signatures of attacks is not particularly useful in defeating targeted attacks. If you are in a sector (finance, defense, government, healthcare, manufacturing, technology, energy, critical infrastructure, among others) that is targeted, sharing signatures of attack is insufficient.
  2. Building off of point 1 above, demand useful intelligence from public/private consortia, including TTPs, code, HUMINT, and adversarial command and control infrastructure. Better yet, demand or incentivize real-time intelligence from breach victims.

Share if you agree. Leave comments below if you don’t.


anup The Three Most Common Myths in Enterprise SecurityAnup Ghosh is founder and CEO at Invincea, Inc an Advanced Threat Protection company that provides protection from targeted attacks against enterprises including 0days, Web-based Drive-by aattacks Spear-Phishing and Watering Hole style attacks. Invincea has the largest global footprint of any endpoint security company in the Advanced Threat Protection space with over 35,000 organizations running our software. Named one of Top 5 Most Admired CEOs in Technology by the Washington Business Journal.