Java Fallout: 4 SMB Security Resolutions

Fixing this kind of security issue doesn't require going head-to-head with organized crime rings or hacktivist groups. It just requires some human elbow grease.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

January 14, 2013

6 Min Read

Who Is Hacking U.S. Banks? 8 Facts

Who Is Hacking U.S. Banks? 8 Facts

Who Is Hacking U.S. Banks? 8 Facts (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The knock on us small and midsize businesses (SMBs) is that we're inherently insecure. That premise is sometimes based in reality – we have fewer financial and human resources relative to big businesses or government agencies, for example. But SMBs should treat poor security as a myth. Otherwise, we might as well wave the white flag of surrender.

Instead, what do you say we make some New Year's resolutions, right around the time when most people begin to give up on theirs?

Using security technologies to help manage risks is certainly prudent for many SMBs and a good place to start. But trusting those technologies too much is a mistake. Even the best technologies can't foolproof for the biggest risk of all: People. Let's look at four ways to better manage the human element -- and human error -- in information security.

1. Deal With Known Liabilities.

Procrastination is human. It's why we put off things we know we're supposed to do: Trips to the dentists, trips to the gym. (That's the dangerous thing about New Year's resolutions: You can always fall back on next year.) The latest Java security fail offers a timely example: Did you respond quickly and disable Java in your Web browsers, or uninstall it altogether? Do you make sure your end users did the same? Better still, were you already prepared for the risks? It's not like this came out of nowhere. Java has a history of security issues and is a popular target for online crooks.

[ Step inside the mind of an online crook. Read How Cybercriminals Choose Their Targets. ]

"Java is now installed on approximately 3 billion devices, according to Oracle. Such a massive installation base is extremely tempting for criminals," Gavin O’Gorman, senior threat intelligence analyst at Symantec Security Response, said via email. "A single zero day exploit can net an attacker hundreds of thousands of compromised computers, as we saw in April of 2012 with the Flashback Trojan."

O'Gorman noted that most Java exploits are delivered via Web browser. Oracle's subsequent patch was a necessity, but the fundamental prevention strategy should already have been in place. "Managing the interface between these two technologies is one of the best ways to mitigate Java-based zero day attacks," O'Gorman said. "Disabling Java browser plug-ins for untrusted sites ensures that criminals cannot take advantage of Java to deliver malware, yet a user need not uninstall Java or completely disable the Java plug-in."

It's one thing to be blindsided by an unforeseen threat. It's another when security incidents occur as a result of known risks. They're all around us: That un-patched Internet-connected PC. The employee who "stores" his passwords on Post-it notes plastered all over his PC monitor. A complete lack of corporate policy for the bring-your-own-everything era. Fixing these and similar issues doesn't require going head--to-head with organized crime rings or so-called hacktivist groups. It just requires some human elbow grease.

2. Test People, Not Just Systems.

If you don't test it, it's not secure, no matter what "it" might be in your organization. That's true of networks, applications and the like. It's also true of people. No matter how secure IT is, the human error is always lurking. There's a reason why phishing and social engineering scams continue to thrive: They work. There's a sucker born every minute, the saying goes, although we might need to update that to "every second" in the age of ubiquitous email, social media, mobile devices and other threat vectors. A post over at the Naked Security blog noted a recent phishing attack targeting Hotmail and MSN users, one that should be painfully obvious as a scam.

"It's a brand new year and you would like to think that computer users are getting smarter about securing their systems, and not falling for the age-old tricks used by cybercriminals," Sophos security researcher Graham Cluley wrote. Alas, the bad guys are betting that's simply not the case. "It's a highly unsophisticated attack," Cluley continued, "but if it works against just a small number of people that the spammers send it out to, what does that matter?"

Employee education and training, like those trips to the dentist, are easy to put off. They're also easy to do half-heartedly. Recommit to better user training, like the folks at Lake Trust Credit Union. The midsize bank has a fraction of the resources of a Bank of America or a Wells Fargo, but it doesn't use that as an excuse for poor security. Rather, it gets creative -- running simulated phishing and social engineering scams on unsuspecting employees, or sending people into the office dressed as exterminators to test potential vulnerabilities.

3. Turn Pain Points Into Business Justification.

The human element in security extends well beyond an unwitting employee sharing his network credentials or inviting malware inside the corporate perimeter. It includes executives and other stakeholders responsible for budgets, approvals and so on. Budget and related restrictions are often real problems, but the strategic IT pro can find ways to turn those pain points into rock-solid business cases. The various acronyms of regulatory compliance -- HIPAA, SOX, PCI -- are a good example. Turn them into your security allies when it comes to budget approval.

Another tactic: Translate security risks into a currency that even the company's least technical executive can understand, such as a law firm's billable hours.

4. The Human Element Can Be A Good Thing.

When we discuss the human element in security, it's usually in a negative light. We're often to blame for our own security breaches -- we click on the wrong link, respond to the wrong email, don't stay current with the right patches and upgrades. But making smart, informed choices is as important as avoiding bad ones. Again, technology is a key part of the answer, but not all of it. Returning to the recent Java flaw: It would be ill-advised to simply install the patch and assume all is fixed forever. Likewise, the flip-side of that coin -- saying goodbye to Java altogether -- might be just as rash. Take a serious but sensible approach to security strategy. "As with all security decisions, technology needs to be managed judiciously to ensure a high level of security, but at the same time not stifle the user," Symantec's O'Gorman said. "It’s perfectly reasonable for users to re-enable Java in their browser, but we’d suggest only for those sites they trust."

Recent breaches have tarnished digital certificates, the Web security technology. The new, all-digital Digital Certificates issue of Dark Reading gives five reasons to keep it going. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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