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8/6/2009
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Database Administrators Playing Increasingly Crucial Role In Security

Long left out of the security picture, DBAs now find themselves performing key tasks in the enterprise

[Excerpted from The Database Administrator's Guide To Security, a new report published today in Dark Reading's Database Security Tech Center.]

In the past, database administrators weren't expected to do much with security. Their focus was on the speed, performance, and accuracy of the data. Security was a relatively low priority.

Recently, however, that prioritization has begun to shift. The number of structured information stores is mushrooming within the enterprise. The value of the data increases as businesses share it with customers and partners. Regulators and auditors are taking a hard look at who has access to database information. And financially motivated hackers are salivating at the prospect of breaking into these concentrated -- and potentially lucrative -- repositories of data.

All of these trends are converging to form one universal truth of data protection: DBAs can no longer ignore security. Like their administrative counterparts in Windows and networking environments, DBAs must finally knuckle down and count security as a vital part of their jobs.

"In the Windows world it was not acceptable even years ago to be using default passwords on accounts or to let systems go unpatched," says Alexander Kornbrust, CEO of Red-Database-Security, a consultancy that specializes in securing Oracle databases. "But in the database world, people are still using default passwords, and they're still using outdated databases."

The scary fact is that, at the moment, more than one-quarter of Oracle shops still take more than six months to patch their databases, according to a recent poll conducted by the Independent Oracle Users Group. And the use of default passwords is so prevalent that "there are worms out there with automated scanners that are just looking for default administrative credentials on old systems," says Rich Mogull, founder of Securosis, a security consulting firm.

While the security team certainly plays a major factor in shoring up the defenses of enterprise databases, all of its work won't help much if DBAs don't lay the necessary risk mitigation groundwork first, experts say. In addition to improving patch management and password management practices, DBAs can help by taking the right steps in configuration management.

"Figuring out if you have the right privileges on certain tables is completely outside the scope of a network vulnerability scan," says Phil Neray, vice president of strategy for Guardium, a database security tool vendor. "The DBAs need to go and make sure the privileges are right -- not just for the items in the database, but also for files and executables outside the database."

DBAs also play a role in "database hardening," which includes the removal of unused applications, packages, and functions that could introduce unwanted vulnerabilities within the database. For example, Kornbrust says, simply revoking three particularly dangerous packages from Oracle -- DBMS_SQL, UTL_TCP, and DBMS_XMLGEN -- can drastically reduce an organization's attack surface.

In addition, DBAs can help security and compliance team members by implementing some database encryption. The important thing, experts say, is to remember that encryption alone will not solve security problems.

"Encrypt to satisfy regulation, not to provide control and not to prevent attacks," says Pete Lindstrom research director for Spire Security, "because the jury is out whether that is worth it."

To read more about what DBAs can do to aid in security -- and how -- click here.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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