You Can’t Patch People

December 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Data Protection, Endpoint Security, Human Factors in Security | Leave a comment
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In a recent blog post, Bruce Schneier highlighted how a commercially available and low-cost  (around £200) forensics tool is capable of cracking passwords for common commercial whole disk encryption products.

As I mentioned in a previous post, use of PGP Desktop to encrypt all laptop disks  is compulsory at IBM and is enforced through our end-user computing standards.

The default power management configuration for laptops often just suspends the laptop when the lid is closed or when ‘sleep’ button is pressed. unless the laptop user selects ‘hibernate’ the disk drives are not encrypted. standards dictate that laptop configuration should be changed to hibernate in these circumstances, but how many users actually make the necessary changes?

The comprehensive help documents provided by IBM for configuring the whole disk encryption software step the user through making a ‘rescue disk’ to allow recovery in the event of a lost encryption password. So, how many users take any precautions to protect that?

Going back to the potential attack against whole disk encryption, it relies on the attacker being able to recover the encryption key from memory dumps or hibernation files, after the disk has been decrypted. Of course, if the laptop is always left safe (ie. powered down or at least hibernating) then that attack vector isn’t available. However, how many users leave their laptop unattended and logged in when they believe the environment is ‘safe’? And, how many leave their laptop unattended before the hibernation process has completed?

The common thread through all of this is that if users are careless, they can inadvertently cancel out any benefits from technical countermeasures. It’s simple enough to describe the exact behaviour that will prevent this. In Public sector security, we call this Security Operating Procedures, or SyOPs for short.

It’s usual to define the IT security risk management process as starting with risk assessment to select the right security controls, followed by incident management to deal with residual risk, invoking crisis management and BCP when required, to recover from the most severe incidents. I strongly believe that SyOP production and security awareness training for end users must form part of the risk management process and must be in place before a service is activated to ensure that the security controls operate as designed and to defend against the sort of attack described here.

As I said in the title, users are the one part of the system that can’t be patched to remove vulnerabilities.  It’s vitally important to explain the importance of what we ask them to do and then to reinforce that through adherence to mandatory written instructions, in order to establish the ‘habit’.

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