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Perimeter

8/5/2009
11:14 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary
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Marines Jump The Gun On Social Networking

Being on the front line of IT security, it often feels like the equivalent of holding a hammer during a game of Whack-A-Mole. One day it's a client-side vulnerability in Adobe Acrobat, and the next, it's an unsubstantiated vulnerability in OpenSSH. At the end of the day, we're just trying to find that balance between usability,productivity, and security. That's why the news that the U.S. Marines are banning social networking sites completely makes me think they're jumping the gun.

Being on the front line of IT security, it often feels like the equivalent of holding a hammer during a game of Whack-A-Mole. One day it's a client-side vulnerability in Adobe Acrobat, and the next, it's an unsubstantiated vulnerability in OpenSSH. At the end of the day, we're just trying to find that balance between usability,productivity, and security. That's why the news that the U.S. Marines are banning social networking sites completely makes me think they're jumping the gun.While outright bans make sense for some things, it is rarely the best first step to address a general problem, especially when other less restrictive controls can be put in place instead. We all know that social networks carry a burden of risk because most of the site is user-generated content. But is the risk so high that it justifies denying access to our users? It's this very content that makes the sites both desirable by the users and a threat to the systems that view the content.

I'm sure that sites like Facebook and Twitter are not out to be a "proven haven for malicious actors and content" and be "particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries" as stated in the Marines' ban notice. They just happen to be victims of their own success, and their reliance on user-generated content make them easier to abuse than other sites.

Since the Pentagon now has stated that it is currently reviewing its policy on the usage of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, I have a suggestion for them: Allow access from only certain hosts and networks that do not access or store classified information, then scan all traffic heavily for things like malware and sensitive information, filter against known malicious IPs and domains, implement proper egress filtering, proxy everything, and lock down the local hosts using a combination of antivirus, host intrusion protection, and the principle of least privilege.

The immediate ban is likely to cut off communication channels that family and friends were using with active duty personnel overseas. And, while it's not an issue impacting the ability to carry out their jobs, it may impact morale.

There's always the chance that we're not getting the whole story on why the Marines issued an immediate ban before the Pentagon has had the chance to review the policies, but if you remember the ban on all USB devices from DoD networks thanks to Conficker, then you know it isn't the first time we've seen a knee-jerk reaction regarding military networks. Let's hope the Pentagon takes the time to consult experts to see what all the options are before deciding on a full ban -- including a detailed policy covering the usage of these sites and what information can be shared should accompany user awareness efforts and technical controls.

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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