Information Security

The National Shortage of Cyber Security Professionals

The sophistication of techniques and tactics employed by cyber criminals have ascended to a point where U.S. government and private industry must participate in a cyber “arms race” in order to protect their assets from malefactors. This arms race requires the talents of thousands of cyber security professionals to keep national information assets safe. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of talent available in the marketplace to meet this demand. As a result of this shortage, national cyber-defense capabilities are not growing to keep pace with both the number and the sophistication of these attacks on the United State’s strategic information assets. In addition, current security professionals are feeling stressed by staff shortages, which can also lead to a drop in security effectiveness.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan think tank headquartered in Washington D.C. that focuses on defense and security policies. In their report titled “A Human Capital Crisis in Cyber Security”, they highlight a “desperate shortage” of people with the skills to “design secure systems, write safe computer code, and create the ever more sophisticated tools needed to prevent, detect, mitigate and reconstitute from damage due to system failures and malicious acts” (Evans & Reader, 2013, pg. 4). Furthermore, according to the CIA’s Clandestine Information Technology Office, there are currently one thousand security specialists in the United States who have the specialized skills to operate effectively in cyberspace; however, the United States needs about ten to thirty thousand such individuals. (Evans & Reader, 2013)

Competent cyber security specialists are needed on two fronts; the first front deals with the operating and maintaining of defense systems and tools that are already in place. The second front pertains to a need for creators and designers who establish new solutions that prevent, detect and mitigate attacks. With respect to those cyber professionals who can contribute on either of these two fronts, organizations wrestle with the questions of “Where do we recruit these individuals and how do we retain them?” Right now the Executive Branch has formulated a “Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative”, where one of its aims is to expand cyber education. The initiative states, “we must develop a technologically-skilled and cyber-savvy workforce and an effective pipeline of future employees. It will take a national strategy, similar to the effort to upgrade science and mathematics education in the 1950’s, to meet this challenge” (National Security Council, 2013, pg.4).

CSIS also offers four elements of a strategy that aims to fill the cyber talent pipeline. These elements are paraphrased and listed below as offered by Evans & Reader (2013, pg. 3):

  • Promote and fund the development of more rigorous curricula in our schools:
    • Several U.S. colleges, funded under the Scholarship for Service program, have been graduating security experts with advanced technical skills. The Scholarship for Service program is offered by the National Science Foundation and provides scholarships to students in cyber security under the condition that they work for the government for a period equal to the duration of the scholarship. Unfortunately, the total number of new graduates with very deep technical skills is around 200 per year.
  • Support the development and adoption of technically rigorous professional certifications that include a tough educational component and a monitored practical component:
    • Emphasize hard technical skills. Do not rely solely on written examinations as an indicator of competence.
  • Use a combination of the hiring process, the acquisition process, and training resources to raise the level of technical competence of those who build, operate, and defend governmental systems:
    • Ensure that those who are hired have the necessary skill sets to be effective. Help those that are currently employed in the security field obtain the necessary knowledge and credentials.
  • Assure there is a career path as with other disciplines, like engineering or medicine, and reward and retain those with high-level technical skills, both in the civilian workforce and in the uniformed services.

Recruiting cyber professionals with highly in-demand skills and certifications also requires special considerations and challenges. Competition for this talent creates a bidding war that may prove costly to companies. Bureaucracies and resistance to change mentalities of typical corporations need to be adjusted to consider the higher than average compensation that in-demand cyber security professionals expect. The same organizational bureaucracy presents a challenge when trying to on-board candidates quickly. Federal agencies are known to have long hiring processes as individuals wait to pass security clearances. Individuals in high demand can often times take a position at another more efficient organization during a protracted wait.

In addition, true superstars may have limited credentialing to demonstrate their expertise as self taught hackers. Other “reformed” players from cyber security’s “dark side” may be the best prospects (Barr, J., 2012 b, pg. 3).

References:

Barr, J. G. (a) (November 2012). Recruiting Cyber Security Professionals. Faulkner Information Services.

Evans, K., & Reeder, F. (2013). “A Human Capital Crisis in Cybersecurity Technical Proficiency Matters” A Report of the CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency. Retrieved April 15, 2013 from http://csis.org/files/publication/101111_Evans_HumanCapital_Web.pdf

National Security Council. (2013). The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative. Retrieved April 15, 2013 http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/cybersecurity.pdf

Image courtesy of cjgphotography / 123RF Stock Photo

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Protection Against Injection: The SQL Injection Attack

As we are all well aware, data is everywhere. Every organization generates and stores data and unfortunately too many bad apples are willing to exploit application weaknesses.  A very popular technique used by hackers of all hats to compromise data confidentiality and integrity is the SQL injection attack. “In terms of the attack methods used by hackers, SQL injection remains the number one exploit, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all vulnerabilities used by hackers” (Howarth, 2010). Don’t believe the hype? Visit the SQL Injection Hall of Fame.

Not everyone is a DBA or a security expert but if you care about data, you need to have a basic understanding of how this attack can be used to potentially compromise your web exposed data. In 2009 infamous hacker Albert Gonzalez was indicted by grand juries in Massachusetts and New York for stealing data from companies such as Dave & Buster’s Holdings, TJ Maxx, BJ’s Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Barnes & Noble and The Sports Authority by using SQL injection attacks. All of these attacks were enabled due to poorly coded web application software (Vijayan, 2009). He masterminded “the combined credit card theft and subsequent reselling of more than 170 million card and ATM numbers from 2005 through 2007—the biggest such fraud in history” (Wikipedia, Albert Gonzalez). As an aside, Mr. Gonzalez is serving 20 years in prison for his crimes.

In short, a SQL injection is a malicious hacking method used to compromise the security of a SQL database. Invalid parameters are entered into a user input field on a website and that user input is submitted to a web application database server for execution. A successful exploit will allow the hacker to remotely shell into the server and take control or simply obtain sensitive information from a hacked SQL SELECT statement. The exploiter may be able to further exploit SQL commands and escalate privileges to read, modify or even delete information at will.

A popular method to test the vulnerability of a site is to place a single quote character, ‘, into the query string of a URL (Krutz, R. L. & Vines, R. D., 2008). The desired response is to see an error message that contains an ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) reference. ODBC is a standard database access protocol used to interact with applications regardless of the underlying database management system. Krutz et. al (2008) offer the example of typical ODBC error message:

Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers error ‘80040e14’
[Microsoft][ODBC SQL Server Driver][SQL Server]Incorrect syntax near the
keyword ‘and’. /wasc.asp, line 68

An error message like this contains a wealth of information that an ill-intentioned hacker can use to exploit an insecure system. It would be in the best interests of a secure application to return a custom generic error response. Furthermore, it is not necessary to be an experienced hacker to take advantage of this exploit; there are automated SQL injection tools available that can make carrying out this attack fairly simple for someone with a script kiddie level of understanding.

There are ways to protect against SQL injection attacks; the most obvious way is to apply input validation. Rejecting unreasonably long inputs may prevent exploitation of a buffer overflow scenario. Programmers due to the extra work involved, sometimes skip validation steps, however the extra safety margin may be worth the cost. Encrypting the database contents and limiting privileges on those accounts which execute user input queries is also ideal (Daswani, N., Kern, C., & Kesavan, A., 2007)

From a SQL Server perspective, here are a few best practice tips shared from Microsoft TechNet to consider for input validation:

    • You should review all code that calls EXECUTE, EXEC, or sp_executesql
    • Test the size and data type of input and enforce appropriate limits. This can help prevent deliberate buffer overruns.
    • Test the content of string variables and accept only expected values. Reject entries that contain binary data, escape sequences, and comment characters. This can help prevent script injection and can protect against some buffer overrun exploits.
    • Never build Transact-SQL statements directly from user input.
    • Use stored procedures to validate user input.
    • In multitiered environments, all data should be validated before admission to the trusted zone. Data that does not pass the validation process should be rejected and an error should be returned to the previous tier.
    • Implement multiple layers of validation. Validate input in the user interface and at all subsequent points where it crosses a trust boundary. For example, data validation in a client-side application can prevent simple script injection. However, if the next tier assumes that its input has already been validated, any malicious user who can bypass a client can have unrestricted access to a system.
    • Never concatenate user input that is not validated. String concatenation is the primary point of entry for script injection.

References
Albert Gonzalez. In Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Gonzalez

Howarth.F. (2010). Emerging Hacker Attacks. Faulkner Information Services.

Krutz, R. L. & Vines, R. D., ( © 2008). The CEH Prep Guide: The Comprehensive Guide to Certified Ethical Hacking.

Microsoft TechNet. SQL Injection. https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms161953%28v=sql.105%29.aspx

Vijayan, J. (2009). “U.S. says SQL injection caused major breaches.” Computerworld, 43(26), 4-4.

From White Hat to Cyber Terrorist: The Seven Types of Hackers

The traditional definition of a hacker is someone who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data. “Hacks” are deployed for various reasons as diverse as the thrill of the conquest, protests, profit or bolstering status within the hacker community. Some security professionals question whether the term “ethical hacker” is a contradiction in terms, as hacking was originally defined as a criminal activity (Wikipedia, Certified Ethical Hacker).

Conrad Constantine a research engineer at the security management company AlienVault states, “The term ‘ethical’ is unnecessary – it is not logical to refer to a hacker as an ‘ethical hacker’ because they have moved over from the ‘dark side’ into ‘the light’… The reason companies want to employ a hacker is not because they know the ‘rules’ to hacking, but because of the very fact that they do not play by the rules” (Bodhani, pg. 66)

There are many subgroups within the hacker community that encompass more than the traditional black hat, white hat dichotomy. Here are a few of the different types of hackers and their aims:

  • White Hat: Commonly referred to as an Ethical Hacker. Holders of the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification who uphold the values of the EC-Council (aka the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants) would be classified as white hat hackers. The aim of the white hat is to legally and non maliciously perform penetration testing and vulnerability assessments against computer systems in order to improve security weaknesses. White hats are typically employed by security consulting firms that perform penetration testing.
  • Black Hat: Commonly referred to as a “cracker”. Black hats are the opposite of a white hat hacker in that black hats attempt to penetrate computer systems illegally and without prior consent. A Black hat hacker is interested in committing a range of cybercrimes such as identity theft, destroying data, destabilizing systems, credit card fraud etc.
  • Grey Hat: The ethics of the grey hat lies somewhere between those of the white hat and black hat hackers. A grey hat may use the tools and skill sets of a black hat to penetrate into a system illegally but will exhibit white tendencies in that no harm is caused to the system. Typically, the grey hat will notify the system owner of any systems vulnerabilities uncovered.
  • Blue Hat: An outside external security professional invited by Microsoft to exploit vulnerabilities in products prior to launch. This community gathers every year in a conference sponsored by Microsoft; the blue signifies Microsoft’s corporate color. “BlueHat’s goal is to educate Microsoft engineers and executives on current and emerging security threats in an effort to help address security issues in Microsoft products and services and protect customers” (Microsoft, 2013, para. 1)
  • Hacktivists: These hackers will compromise a network or system for political or socially motivated purposes. Website defacement or denial-of-service attacks are the favored methods used by Hacktivists (Wikipedia, Hacker (Computer Security)).
  • Script Kiddies: These “hackers” are amateurs who follow directions and use scripts developed and prepared by advanced hackers. The script kiddie may be able to successfully perform a hack but has no thorough understanding of the actual steps employed.
  • Cyber Terrorists: According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, cyberterrorism is any “premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which results in violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents. Unlike a nuisance virus or computer attack that results in a denial of service, a cyberterrorist attack is designed to cause physical violence or extreme financial harm. According to the U.S. Commission of Critical Infrastructure Protection, possible cyberterrorist targets include the banking industry, military installations, power plants, air traffic control centers, and water systems” (Search Security)

Bodhani, A. (January, 2013). “Ethical hacking: bad in a good way.” Engineering and Technology Magazine, 7(12), Pg.64-64

Cyberterrorism. In Search Security. Retrieved April 16, 2013 from http://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/cyberterrorism

Microsoft. (2013). BlueHat Security Briefings. Retrieved April 16, 2013 from http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/security/cc261637.aspx

Image courtesy of pat138241 at freedigitalphotos.net

Spear Phishing

Regarding this New York Time article: Hackers in China Attacked The Times for Last 4 Months

Spear phishing attacks against businesses, diplomatic and government agencies seem to be very popular with cyber espionage networks. You only need one person to take the wrong action and the entire system is compromised as the New York Times is discovering.

China in 2012 used spear phishing and a .pdf file that exploited a vulnerability in Windows to launch spear phishing attacks against Tibetan activist groups. Antivirus software did not widely recognize the threats as was the case with the NYT’s imbroglio. [1]

In a similar vein to the attacks on the NYT, targeted spear phishing was used in a very recent incident called Operation Red October (lending to the fact that the attacks emanated from a Russophone country). The malware produced from this attack is called ‘Rocra’ and it is aimed at governments and research institutions in former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe.

The New York Times article states “Once they take a liking to a victim, they tend to come back. It’s not like a digital crime case where the intruders steal stuff and then they’re gone. This requires an internal vigilance model.”

It’s intriguing that the Red October attacks embody the spirit of that quote in the design of its malware:

“Red October also has a “resurrection” module embedded as a plug-in in Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office applications. This module made it possible for attackers to regain control of a system even after the malware itself was discovered and removed from the system.”

This is pretty scary stuff but ingenious nonetheless. Organizations need to take heed and make sure they are doing absolutely everything they can to combat attacks and training users about the dangers of spear phishing.

[1] http://www.scmagazineuk.com/chinese-spears-attack-tibetan-activists/article/231923/

[2] http://www.wnd.com/2013/01/red-october-cyberattack-implodes/