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09:56 AM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer

Make Security About Security, Not Compliance

The lack of follow-through and belief in any type of lifecycle for security is one that really bothers me when working with clients who are looking only to meet the minimum compliance requirements.

The lack of follow-through and belief in any type of lifecycle for security is one that really bothers me when working with clients who are looking only to meet the minimum compliance requirements.If you're a security consultant, you've probably experienced at some point, or will in the future, a client that wants you to perform a penetration test or wireless survey in order to check off a box to make the auditors happy. While you'll be happy to do it because you're getting paid, the unfortunate thing you'll come to realize is this is the only time they think about security. After the penetration test is performed, they'll work to correct the issues found and then they're done thinking about security until the following year.

What's wrong with this picture? Heartland Payment Systems comes to mind. They suffered a huge breach in 2008 at a time when they were considered PCI-compliant with the PCI DSS. And I'm guessing they checked off all the little boxes on their PCI compliance checklist saying they met the requirements but never bothered to be sure they were actually secure.

While that's probably the last time Heartland will make this mistake, it's the problem that many security professionals cite with compliance--companies assume being compliant means they are secure--and as we've seen numerous times, that's not the case. Security needs to be baked into IT and business operations from the start, and security needs to be something ongoing and not just a concern when it's time to fill out the auditors' checklists.

So what can be done? Well, obviously, having a penetration test done every month is unreasonable and costly, but what about the other tasks that are only required a few times or less each year? The requirement for quarterly wireless scanning is one example. Instead of performing a wireless survey every few months, the PCI DSS states that a wireless intrusion detection system can be put in place as long as it is properly configured to send alerts to staff.

Often small companies shy away from the wireless IDS option because of the cost, but cost doesn't have to be the limiting factor. For example, low-cost DIY options exist such as the free and open source software Kismet. Combined with consumer-grade hardware, Kismet can be configured as a distributed wireless IDS. The drones can monitor for new wireless networks and wireless attacks, then report the information back to a central Kismet console.

Of course, there are plenty of commercial solutions from companies like AirMagnet, AirTight Networks, and Cisco, but they often come with a hefty price tag that small companies can't afford.

My best advice for companies seeking compliance is to not get stuck thinking inside the box. In other words, think creatively to solve the compliance riddle while making sure that it's bringing you closer to being secure -- and not just closer to the final check box on your checklist.

John H. Sawyer is a senior security engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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