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Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies

As attacks become more sophisticated and breaches abound, it's time for enterprises to change their cybersecurity thinking from the ground up, experts say

Layered security. Security integration. Defense in depth. For years now, cybersecurity professionals and vendors have been preaching sermons on the merits of an enterprise security strategy that mixes a variety of tools and technologies to create a complex barrier that hackers can't penetrate. "Layered security" has become as much a part of industry parlance as authentication or encryption.

There's just one problem: It isn't working.

While enterprises and government agencies have invested unprecedented resources in cybersecurity over the past few years, the incidence of new data threats and breaches remains at record highs. The most recent Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report (PDF) indicates that breaches involving hacking and malware were both up considerably last year, with hacking involved in 81 percent of incidents and malware involved in 69 percent. According to the Cost of a Data Breach Report, malicious attacks on enterprise data rose last year, and the cost of a breach is at an all-time high ($222 per lost record). According to figures posted this month by Panda Labs, more than 6 million new malware samples were detected in the third quarter alone, and more than a third of machines across the globe are already infected.

Is it time to hit the "reset" button on cybersecurity strategy? Should organizations challenge current thinking around security architecture -- and, particularly, the effectiveness of layered defense? Many experts think so.

"Organizations are implementing incremental improvements to their information security capabilities to provide short-term solutions -- without tackling the issues associated with the overall information security threat," says research and consulting firm Ernst & Young in its Global Information Security Survey 2012, published in October. "The need to develop a robust security architecture framework has never been greater."

However, 63 percent of organizations have no such framework in place, the study says. "For years, companies have been approaching security as a technical problem, usually by buying products to solve specific problems," says Jose Granado, principal and practice leader for IT security services at Ernst & Young and one of the authors of the new report. "There hasn't been much thought put to how those technologies will work together, or to the people and process sides of the equation."

While many large organizations have systems architects or network architects who help create the framework for the evolution of hardware and communications technology across the enterprise, most of E&Y's large clients do not have security architects, Granado says.

"There is a huge [difference] between organizations that have a security architect and those that don't," he comments. "When there is an architecture that's tied to the company's business goals, then there's a realization that security problems can't be solved in a silo." A well-defined architecture helps dictate how the various single-function security technologies will work together -- and makes it easier to find the weak spots in enterprise defenses, he says.

Vinnie Liu, partner and co-founder of Stach & Liu, a consulting firm that works with large enterprises on security architecture and tests companies' defense strategies, agrees that enterprises' historical focus on point solutions has prevented many organizations from developing a broader security strategy.

"The industry has been approaching the cybersecurity problem like the TSA has been approaching the air-security problem," Liu says. "First the bad guys brought guns on board, so they put in metal detectors. Then somebody put a bomb in his shoe, and now we all have to take our shoes off. Then they found liquid explosives, so now we can't bring on any liquids. It's one problem, one solution, with no real thought to the big picture."

If enterprises do have a broader defense strategy, then it's usually focused on "layering," in which the organization buys a variety of different point products, essentially creating an obstacle course that the attacker must navigate to get to the sensitive data, Liu observes. By implementing a patchwork of firewalls, antivirus software, intrusion prevention systems, and the like, the enterprise hopes to detect a wide variety of attacks and mitigate them before they can do much damage.

"The problem is that most of these tools are still signature-based, which means you're taking a known threat and blacklisting it. So what you're doing is essentially layering one technology with another layer of the same type of technology," Liu says. "It's sort of like putting on a coat, and then putting on another coat that covers the exact same parts of your body, and then wondering why you're still cold."

Stach & Liu recommends that rather than buying more point technology, organizations should perform a risk assessment that identifies the most sensitive areas of the business, the most likely threats, and a holistic defense strategy -- an architecture of technology and processes -- designed specifically to protect the business. The risk assessment, along with the definition of the business' specific security requirements, helps identify top priorities and most likely threats, as well as key goals -- such as compliance -- in order to develop a comprehensive, practical defense strategy.

"You need to define your [security] requirements, just as you would with any architecture," Liu says. "Most companies don't take this step, so when it comes to building out the architecture, they have a hard time. They're trying to defend against everything without really knowing what problems they're trying to solve."

Next Page: The most important piece of developing a security architecture. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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PrinceR
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PrinceR,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2013 | 4:46:32 AM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
On the whole, I liked this article and appreciated the points it raised regarding the cost/benefit evaluation it suggest is being made about the DiD security strategy. Food for thought for many of us charged by our organizations to select and execute a DiD security system.-Š

Lately, I've been asking myself whether the lack of 'success' achieved by DiD is due entirely to the factors already mentioned by many of those who responded to this article or if in fact its our 'thinking' about such strategies that is really the issue. Reading the quotes in this article, I was reminded of that line from Samuel Beckett's play, 'Waiting for Godot" .. -Š-ŠThereG«÷s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet".-Š

It's my view that while there is ample evidence that the DiD strategy, when executed incorrectly, does not-Šyield-Šthe expected results; it can also be argued that successful, ongoing-Šexecution of the strategy relies too heavily on factors and resources not readily available to most users (knowledge, skills, etc.)

It also is apparent that our 'adversaries' have the-Šadvantage-Šof fighting a-Šguerrilla-style-Šwar against security professionals in which the very tools we use to blunt their attacks are being turned against us. I've noticed an inherently,-Šasymmetrical aspect to each battle-Šsecurity professionals fight; -Šthe advantage is our adversaries' learn more about our defenses,-Šadapt-Šfaster, and with greater agility of deployment than we obtain from our analysis of their attacks. The evidence cited by the article about the continuing increase in security breaches despite greater security spend suggests that we defenders are missing something-Šfundamental in our attempts to build better security systems and controls.-Š

So in what new direction should we be looking to find a way to turn the tide of this war in our favor? I've taken a closer look at the fundamental underpinnings of my own approach to thinking about security strategy and I found a few insightful and thought-provoking ideas in the work done by-ŠJames A. Dewar of the RAND Corporation on Assumption-Based Planning (ABP) and that of Prof. Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester's, "design reality gap" model. I hope to have a paper submitted to ISACA by the end of the summer which discusses how one might apply these ideas to develop a new-Šapproach in-Šbuilding security infrastructure.-Š
_stephan_
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_stephan_,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/2/2013 | 2:37:49 AM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
A blog post I wrote that is along the same lines - I definitely agree with most of what was said above --Šhttp://blog.ioactive.com/2013/...
SgS125
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SgS125,
User Rank: Moderator
1/17/2013 | 7:27:19 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
I think they are correct, the layered approach is just the same template over and over.-Š The only real tool that seems to work is direct analysis of the traffic, and connections.-Š I would still keep all the "hard crunchy outside" stuff, but I would much rather see what is being accepted past my defenses rather than what is stopped.-Š Especially what is leaving the network and where it is going.-Š They are right we have to have the talent and the desire to work on the issue.-Š Most places I have been do not take security seriously once they think the firewalls make them safe.

You are right, once the system is built it is time to keep it up to date....daily.
MichaelSB
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MichaelSB,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/17/2013 | 6:19:55 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
very insightful article, although I disagree with your assumption that a layered defense is not working.-Š Your title should have said a misconfigured layered defense is not working.-Š Defense in depth is a proven strategy if properly implemeted.-Š I do agree with some of your points, especially with new and emerging threats.-Š Vigiliance is the key here.-Š You can't configure your security solution then sit back.-Š As the threats evolve so must your solution.
MROBINSON000
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MROBINSON000,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/14/2013 | 8:39:47 AM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
Really insightful article! There
isnG«÷t a security threat that you can think of that some security companyG«÷s
marketing literature doesnG«÷t promise a solution for. But despite the zeal of
marketers and the production of many great security solutions, there are still
many threats to enterprise IT that simply cannot be offset, mitigated or
prevented by a single technology solution. Because this topic is so important
to the industry, here are a series of blogs that cover four genres of tools and
technologies. The blogs discusses pros & cons; and, most importantly, what
each genre can and cannot protect against: http://blog.securityinnovation...
Here are the 4 genres: Development tools; Test tools; IT/Network defenses; Standards,
Policies, and Maturity Models. Hope you and your readers find it useful! Keep
up the good work! -Š
psmith531
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psmith531,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/8/2013 | 4:45:43 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
The title of the article is pointless. Basically the article says that the problem is not the layered defense, but the implementation of it. People don't have any idea of how their networks and applications work and basically just throw products at it in the hope that something will catch a problem. If you understand how applications and networks work, then you can build layered defenses against these problems that will stop it. All applications, whether they are good or bad will behave in a certain way. When they don't, then something is wrong and you should be able to see that.

The problem is not the layered approach. The problem is the lack of understanding how to build the layered approach and the proper processes and procedures around it.
Don Gray
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Don Gray,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/4/2013 | 3:43:13 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
I was following the premise of the article for the most part. -Š

And agree that having the right personnel with the right skills is if not the hardest part of the problem to solve, one of the hardest. -ŠOften times we see organizations fail to make use of security capabilities inherent in the infrastructure they already have because as mentioned, they don't have a risk based approach to securing the enterprise and they don't have the depth of expertise -Šrequired.

But then you mentioned this:

"There's a shakeup that's going to occur in enterprises because there have been so many breaches," Prisco says. "There was a day when we could say, 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,' but, at this point, there are no safe choices in technology ... If management finds out that a breach occurred -- and there was technology that could have stopped it and you didn't buy it -- then it doesn't matter how safe your choices were."

Which to me seems to invalidate the entire point of the article!

You can't have it both ways. -ŠEither you do a risk assessment and make risk based decisions or you "buy stuff" and hope it works. -Š

True risk based decision making forces the issue of justifying and weighing the costs of a solution versus the costs of a breach and incorporating the organizations risk tolerance. -ŠThat means sometimes you don't spend money on a piece of technology.

But traditional risk based approaches don't account for things like black swans and I would argue are often based on flawed models of the risks they are trying to address. -ŠIn many risk based approaches I have seen there is a lack of discernment between what is-Švaluable-Šand what is not. -ŠAnd there is a misunderstanding of what is likely and what is not. -ŠThis inevitably leads to the highest value assets being under protected and the lowest value assets being over protected.

In my opinion that needs to be improved before we can avoid the scenario you outlined where the decision making comes down to "better safe than sorry" buying decisions.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/2/2013 | 7:08:56 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
@ubm_techweb_disqus_sso_-81bca6e80f13f2acea45f6242555c4e2:disqus-ŠLayered security is the practice of buying a [usually best-of-class] set of security solutions (which encompass products/services from multiple vendors that are intended to work well together to provide that classic "Defense-in-Depth -- aka DiD").
The NSA IATF, who created DiD, included operational practices/procedures and personnel (individual capital, aka "talented people"). Unfortunately, security product/service vendors did not include this. They assumed this would be left up to their customers, the companies and organizations who hire their own people for Information Security Management and Risk Management (such as CISOs or CSOs). Modern CISO/CSOs aren't even aware of the frameworks (e.g. ISO 27k), let alone the easy-do-it-in-a-day frameworks (e.g. Visible Ops Security) -- and they don't use them. They use COBIT, if anything. Most are just compliance-nerds, placating to PCI DSS or GLBA/HIPAA.

What basically resulted was companies hiring [often multiple] highly-paid CISO/CSOs with huge bonuses and incentives to stockpile security product technology without any staff to operate or optimize the products. This is why many security appliances, firewall, and web-application firewall technology is often referred to as "door-stops".

The demand for security-producing solutions has overpopulated the information security industry with less-than-talented individuals because the industry has over-focused on vendor-specific-solutions instead of holistic (e.g. "Reverse Deception") problem-solving activities.

We are in the "triage" state of information security management and risk management. If you went to the hospital, and the triage nurses and doctors told you to go home bleeding and dying because they don't know how to diagnose (let alone treat) your disorder -- wouldn't that be a lawsuit waiting to happen? Instead, staff that perform triage at the hospital need to be aware of all of the potential outcomes and pass that information to the specialized ER team. In the information security world -- these are our needed "security architects" and their patient is the business, not some IT manager focused on vendor solutions.

When it comes time to add specialists, security architects can add them as Incident Response (IR) personnel tied to the type of breaches that are occurring. Add IR staff at a rate that is quantitatively tied to the rate of breaches. If you do this correctly, you'll have a baseline level of staff necessary to tackle information security management and risk management programs for your organization.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/2/2013 | 6:44:42 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
@stu8king:twitter-ŠYou are thinking of classic "posture" or "point-in-time" based risk assessments. I think what's being suggested instead here is just that holistic approach you see as flawed, but more "on-going" in nature: a security improvement program with a security improvement process.

What I took as the point of this article is that technology-focused security products/services, even when they fit into a solution or reference architecture, are oversold, underutilized, and ineffective.

Instead, leaders need to lead and their security professionals need to hack their way secure -- but they MUST coordinate these efforts TOGETHER focused on their SPECIFIC needs in order to even HOPE for any small successes.
stu8king
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stu8king,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/2/2013 | 3:01:50 PM
re: Rethinking IT Security Architecture: Experts Question Wisdom Of Current 'Layered' Cyberdefense Strategies
The article is good in that it points out the truism that security strategies are, to a large degree, flawed and need a new approach, but then falls back on the old cliches of "do a risk assessment", "think holistically." The point is that new ways of thinking are needed - risk assessments are and have always been a flawed approach because of the natural bias inherent whenever people try to figure out what's important. You have to start from the perspective of protecting revenue. It's all about money. The greatest risk is where the most money or losses can occur. Face it - you don't need a risk assessment to figure out the assets that are most important to your business - you need some degree of common sense and the ability to communicate a decent plan. Finally - if you think technology is the solution then you do not understand the problem.-Š
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