Friday, November 02, 2018

Cybersecurity and Class M Planets

I was considering another debate about appropriate cybersecurity measures and I had the following thought: not all networks are the same. Profound, right? This is so obvious, yet so obviously forgotten.

Too often when confronting a proposed defensive measure, an audience approaches the concept from their own preconceived notion of what assets need to be protected.

Some think about an information technology enterprise organization with endpoints, servers, and infrastructure. Others think about an industrial organization with manufacturing equipment. Others imagine an environment with no network at all, where constituents access cloud-hosted resources. Still others think in terms of being that cloud hosting environment itself.

Beyond those elements, we need to consider the number of assets, their geographic diversity, their relative value, and many other aspects that you can no doubt imagine.

This made me wonder if we need some sort of easy reference term to capture the essential nature of these sorts of diverse environments. I thought immediately of the term "class M planet," from Star Trek. From the Wikipedia entry:

[An] Earth-like planet, the Class M designation is similar to the real-world astronomical theory of life-supporting planets within the habitable zone... Class M planets are said to possess an atmosphere composed of nitrogen and oxygen as well as an abundance of liquid water necessary for carbon-based life to exist. Extensive plant and animal life often flourishes; often, a sentient race is also present. 

In contrast, consider a class Y planet:

Class Y planets are referred to as "demon" worlds, where surface conditions do not fall into any other recognized category. Such worlds are usually hostile and lethal to humanoid life. If life forms develop on these worlds they usually take on many bizarre forms, like living crystal or rock, liquid or gaseous physical states, or incorporeal, dimensional, or energy-based states. 

Given their work providing names for various offensive security activities in ATT&CK, I wonder if MITRE might consider creating a naming scheme to capture this idea? For example, a "class M" network might be an enterprise organization with endpoints, servers, and infrastructure, of a certain size. Or perhaps M1 might be "small," M2 "medium," and M3 "large," where each is associated with a user count.

Perhaps an environment with no network at all, where constituents access cloud-hosted resources, would be a class C network. (I'm not sure "network" is even the right term, if there is no "network" for which the organization is responsible.)

With such a scheme in place, we could begin a cybersecurity discussion by asking, "given a class M network, what defensive processes, people, or technology are appropriate," versus "given a class C network, what defensive processes, people, or technology are appropriate."

This is only an idea, and I'd be happy if something was already created to address this problem. Comments below are welcome (pending moderation to repel trolls and spammers.) Alternatively, reply to my announcement of this post via @taosecurity on Twitter.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Have Network, Need Network Security Monitoring

I have been associated with network security monitoring my entire cybersecurity career, so I am obviously biased towards network-centric security strategies and technologies. I also work for a network security monitoring company (Corelight), but I am not writing this post in any corporate capacity.

There is a tendency in many aspects of the security operations community to shy away from network-centric approaches. The rise of encryption and cloud platforms, the argument goes, makes methodologies like NSM less relevant. The natural response seems to be migration towards the endpoint, because it is still possible to deploy agents on general purpose computing devices in order to instrument and interdict on the endpoint itself.

It occurred to me this morning that this tendency ignores the fact that the trend in computing is toward closed computing devices. Mobile platforms, especially those running Apple's iOS, are not friendly to introducing third party code for the purpose of "security." In fact, one could argue that iOS is one of, if not the, most security platform, thanks to this architectural decision. (Timely and regular updates, a policed applications store, and other choices are undoubtedly part of the security success of iOS, to be sure.)

How is the endpoint-centric security strategy going to work when security teams are no longer able to install third party endpoint agents? The answer is -- it will not. What will security teams be left with?

The answer is probably application logging, i.e., usage and activity reports from the software with which users interact. Most of this will likely be hosted in the cloud. Therefore, security teams responsible for protecting work-anywhere-but-remote-intensive users, accessing cloud-hosted assets, will have really only cloud-provided data to analyze and escalate.

It's possible that the endpoint providers themselves might assume a greater security role. In other words, Apple and other manufacturers provide security information directly to users. This could be like Chase asking if I really made a purchase. This model tends to break down when one is using a potentially compromised asset to ask the user if that asset is compromised.

In any case, this vision of the future ignores the fact that someone will still be providing network services. My contention is that if you are responsible for a network, you are responsible for monitoring it.

It is negligent to provide network services but ignore abuse of that service.

If you disagree and cite the "common carrier" exception, I would agree to a certain extent. However, one cannot easily fall back on that defense in an age where Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are being told to police their infrastructure or face ever more government regulation.

At the end of the day, using modern Internet services means, by definition, using someone's network. Whoever is providing that network will need to instrument it, if only to avoid the liability associated with misuse. Therefore, anyone operating a network would do well to continue to deploy and operate network security monitoring capabilities.

We may be in a golden age of endpoint visibility, but closure of those platforms will end the endpoint's viability as a source of security logging. So long as there are networks, we will need network security monitoring.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Network Security Monitoring vs Supply Chain Backdoors

On October 4, 2018, Bloomberg published a story titled “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies,” with a subtitle “The attack by Chinese spies reached almost 30 U.S. companies, including Amazon and Apple, by compromising America’s technology supply chain, according to extensive interviews with government and corporate sources.” From the article:

Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code. The illicit chips could do all this because they were connected to the baseboard management controller, a kind of superchip that administrators use to remotely log in to problematic servers, giving them access to the most sensitive code even on machines that have crashed or are turned off.

Companies mentioned in the story deny the details, so this post does not debate the merit of the Bloomberg reporters’ claims. Rather, I prefer to discuss how a computer incident response team (CIRT) and a chief information security officer (CISO) should handle such a possibility. What should be done when hardware-level attacks enabling remote access via the network are possible?

This is not a new question. I have addressed the architecture and practices needed to mitigate this attack model in previous writings. This scenario is a driving force behind my recommendation for network security monitoring (NSM) for any organization running a network, of any kind. This does not mean endpoint-centric security, or other security models, should be abandoned. Rather, my argument shows why NSM offers unique benefits when facing hardware supply chain attacks.

The problem is one of trust and detectability. The problem here is that one loses trust in the integrity of a computing platform when one suspects a compromised hardware environment. One way to validate whether a computing platform is trustworthy is to monitor outside of it, at places where the hardware cannot know it is being monitored, and cannot interfere with that monitoring. Software installed on the hardware is by definition untrustworthy because the hardware backdoor may have the capability to obscure or degrade the visibility and control provided by an endpoint agent.

Network security monitoring applied outside the hardware platform does not suffer this limitation, if certain safeguards are implemented. NSM suffers limitations unique to its deployment, of course, and they will be outlined shortly. By watching traffic to and from a suspected computing platform, CIRTs have a chance to identify suspicious and malicious activity, such as contact with remote command and control (C2) infrastructure. NSM data on this C2 activity can be collected and stored in many forms, such as any of the seven NSM data types: 1) full content; 2) extracted content; 3) session data; 4) transaction data; 5) statistical data; 6) metadata; and 7) alert data.

Most likely session and transaction data would have been most useful for the case at hand. Once intelligence agencies identified that command and control infrastructure used by the alleged Chinese agents in this example, they could provide that information to the CIRT, who could then query historical NSM data for connectivity between enterprise assets and C2 servers. The results of those queries would help determine if and when an enterprise was victimized by compromised hardware.

The limitations of this approach are worth noting. First, if the intruders never activated their backdoors, then there would be no evidence of communications with C2 servers. Hardware inspection would be the main way to deal with this problem. Second, the intruders may leverage popular Internet services for their C2. Historical examples include command and control via Twitter, domain fronting via Google or other Web sites, and other covert channels. Depending on the nature of the communication, it would be difficult, though not impossible, to deal with this situation, mainly through careful analysis. Third, traditional network-centric monitoring would be challenging if the intruders employed an out-of-band C2 channel, such as a cellular or radio network. This has been seen in the wild but does not appear to be the case in this incident. Technical countermeasures, whereby rooms are swept for unauthorized signals, would have to be employed. Fourth, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that NSM sensors tasked with watching for suspicious and malicious activity are themselves hosted on compromised hardware, making their reporting also untrustworthy.

The remedy for the last instance is easier than that for the previous three. Proper architecture and deployment can radically improve the trust one can place in NSM sensors. First, the sensors should not be able to connect to arbitrary systems on the Internet. The most security conscious administrators apply patches and modifications using direct access to trusted local sources, and do not allow access for any reason other than data retrieval and system maintenance. In other words, no one browses Web sites or checks their email from NSM sensors! Second, this moratorium on arbitrary connections should be enforced by firewalls outside the NSM sensors, and any connection attempts that violate the firewall policy should generate a high-priority alert. It is again theoretically possible for an extremely advanced intruder to circumvent these controls, but this approach increases the likelihood of an adversary tripping a wire at some point, revealing his or her presence.

The bottom line is that NSM must be a part of the detection and response strategy for any organization that runs a network. Collecting and analyzing the core NSM data types, in concert with host-based security, integration with third party intelligence, and infrastructure logging, provides the best chance for CIRTs to detect and respond to the sorts of adversaries who escalate their activities to the level of hardware hacking via the supply chain. Whether or not the Bloomberg story is true, the investment in NSM merits the peace of mind a CISO will enjoy when his or her CIRT is equipped with robust network visibility.

This post first appeared on the Corelight blog.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Firewalls and the Need for Speed

I was looking for resources on campus network design and found these slides (pdf) from a 2011 Network Startup Resource Center presentation. These two caught my attention:



This bothered me, so I Tweeted about it.

This started some discussion, and prompted me to see what NSRC suggests for architecture these days. You can find the latest, from April 2018, here. Here is the bottom line for their suggested architecture:






What do you think of this architecture?

My Tweet has attracted some attention from the high speed network researcher community, some of whom assume I must be a junior security apprentice who equates "firewall" with "security." Long-time blog readers will laugh at that, like I did. So what was my problem with the original recommendation, and what problems do I have (if any) with the 2018 version?

First, let's be clear that I have always differentiated between visibility and control. A firewall is a poor visibility tool, but it is a control tool. It controls inbound or outbound activity according to its ability to perform in-line traffic inspection. This inline inspection comes at a cost, which is the major concern of those responding to my Tweet.

Notice how the presentation author thinks about firewalls. In the slides above, from the 2018 version, he says "firewalls don't protect users from getting viruses" because "clicked links while browsing" and "email attachments" are "both encrypted and firewalls won't help." Therefore, "since firewalls don't really protect users from viruses, let's focus on protecting critical server assets," because "some campuses can't develop the political backing to remove firewalls for the majority of the campus."

The author is arguing that firewalls are an inbound control mechanism, and they are ill-suited for the most prevalent threat vectors for users, in his opinion: "viruses," delivered via email attachment, or "clicked links."

Mail administrators can protect users from many malicious attachments. Desktop anti-virus can protect users from many malicious downloads delivered via "clicked links." If that is your worldview, of course firewalls are not important.

His argument for firewalls protecting servers is, implicitly, that servers may offer services that should not be exposed to the Internet. Rather than disabling those services, or limiting access via identity or local address restrictions, he says a firewall can provide that inbound control.

These arguments completely miss the point that firewalls are, in my opinion, more effective as an outbound control mechanism. For example, a firewall helps restrict adversary access to his victims when they reach outbound to establish post-exploitation command and control. This relies on the firewall identifying the attempted C2 as being malicious. To the extent intruders encrypt their C2 (and sites fail to inspect it) or use covert mechanisms (e.g., C2 over Twitter), firewalls will be less effective.

The previous argument assumes admins rely on the firewall to identify and block malicious outbound activity. Admins might alternatively identify the activity themselves, and direct the firewall to block outbound activity from designated compromised assets or to designated adversary infrastructure.

As some Twitter responders said, it's possible to do some or all of this without using a stateful firewall. I'm aware of the cool tricks one can play with routing to control traffic. Ken Meyers and I wrote about some of these approaches in 2005 in my book Extrusion Detection. See chapter 5, "Layer 3 Network Access Control."

Implementing these non-firewall-based security choices requries a high degree of diligence, which requires visibility. I did not see this emphasized in the NSRC presentation. For example:


These are fine goals, but I don't equate "manageability" with visibility or security. I don't think "problems and viruses" captures the magnitude of the threat to research networks.

The core of the reaction to my original Tweet is that I don't appreciate the need for speed in research networks. I understand that. However, I can't understand the requirement for "full bandwidth, un-filtered access to the Internet." That is a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, if you define partner specific networks, and allow essentially site-to-site connectivity with exquisite network security monitoring methods and operations, then I do not have a problem with eliminating firewalls from the architecture. I do have a problem with unrestricted access to adversary infrastructure.

I understand that security doesn't exist to serve itself. Security exists to enable an organizational mission. Security must be a partner in network architecture design. It would be better to emphasize enhance monitoring for the networks discussed above, and think carefully about enabling speed without restrictions. The NSRC resources on the science DMZ merit consideration in this case.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Twenty Years of Network Security Monitoring: From the AFCERT to Corelight

I am really fired up to join Corelight. I’ve had to keep my involvement with the team a secret since officially starting on July 20th. Why was I so excited about this company? Let me step backwards to help explain my present situation, and forecast the future.

Twenty years ago this month I joined the Air Force Computer Emergency Response Team (AFCERT) at then-Kelly Air Force Base, located in hot but lovely San Antonio, Texas. I was a brand new captain who thought he knew about computers and hacking based on experiences from my teenage years and more recent information operations and traditional intelligence work within the Air Intelligence Agency. I was desperate to join any part of the then-five-year-old Information Warfare Center (AFIWC) because I sensed it was the most exciting unit on “Security Hill.”

I had misjudged my presumed level of “hacking” knowledge, but I was not mistaken about the exciting life of an AFCERT intrusion detector! I quickly learned the tenets of network security monitoring, enabled by the custom software watching and logging network traffic at every Air Force base. I soon heard there were three organizations that intruders knew to be wary of in the late 1990s: the Fort, i.e. the National Security Agency; the Air Force, thanks to our Automated Security Incident Measurement (ASIM) operation; and the University of California, Berkeley, because of a professor named Vern Paxson and his Bro network security monitoring software.

When I wrote my first book in 2003-2004, The Tao of Network Security Monitoring, I enlisted the help of Christopher Jay Manders to write about Bro 0.8. Bro had the reputation of being very powerful but difficult to stand up. In 2007 I decided to try installing Bro myself, thanks to the introduction of the “brolite” scripts shipped with Bro 1.2.1. That made Bro easier to use, but I didn’t do much analysis with it until I attended the 2009 Bro hands-on workshop. There I met Vern, Robin Sommer, Seth Hall, Christian Kreibich, and other Bro users and developers. I was lost most of the class, saved only by my knowledge of standard Unix command line tools like sed, awk, and grep! I was able to integrate Bro traffic analysis and logs into my TCP/IP Weapons School 2.0 class, and subsequent versions, which I taught mainly to Black Hat students. By the time I wrote my last book, The Practice of Network Security Monitoring, in 2013, I was heavily relying on Bro logs to demonstrate many sorts of network activity, thanks to the high-fidelity nature of Bro data.

In July of this year, Seth Hall emailed to ask if I might be interested in keynoting the upcoming Bro users conference in Washington, D.C., on October 10-12. I was in a bad mood due to being unhappy with the job I had at that time, and I told him I was useless as a keynote speaker. I followed up with another message shortly after, explained my depressed mindset, and asked how he liked working at Corelight. That led to interviews with the Corelight team and a job offer. The opportunity to work with people who really understood the need for network security monitoring, and were writing the world’s most powerful software to generate NSM data, was so appealing! Now that I’m on the team, I can share how I view Corelight’s contribution to the security challenges we face.

For me, Corelight solves the problems I encountered all those years ago when I first looked at Bro. The Corelight embodiment of Bro is ready to go when you deploy it. It’s developed and maintained by the people who write the code. Furthermore, Bro is front and center, not buried behind someone else’s logo. Why buy this amazing capability from another company when you can work with those who actually conceptualize, develop, and publish the code?

It’s also not just Bro, but it’s Bro at ridiculous speeds, ingesting and making sense of complex network traffic. We regularly encounter open source Bro users who spend weeks or months struggling to get their open source deployments to run at the speeds they need, typically in the tens or hundreds of Gbps. Corelight’s offering is optimized at the hardware level to deliver the highest performance, and our team works with customers who want to push Bro to the even greater levels. 

Finally, working at Corelight gives me the chance to take NSM in many exciting new directions. For years we NSM practitioners have worried about challenges to network-centric approaches, such as encryption, cloud environments, and alert fatigue. At Corelight we are working on answers for all of these, beyond the usual approaches — SSL termination, cloud gateways, and SIEM/SOAR solutions. We will have more to say about this in the future, I’m happy to say!

What challenges do you hope Corelight can solve? Leave a comment or let me know via Twitter to @corelight_inc or @taosecurity.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Defining Counterintelligence

I've written about counterintelligence (CI) before, but I realized today that some of my writing, and the writing of others, may be confused as to exactly what CI means.

The authoritative place to find an American definition for CI is the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center. I am more familiar with the old name of this organization, the  Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX).

The 2016 National Counterintelligence Strategy cites Executive Order 12333 (as amended) for its definition of CI:

Counterintelligence – Information gathered and activities conducted to identify, deceive,
exploit, disrupt, or protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations, or persons, or their agents, or international terrorist organizations or activities. (emphasis added)

The strict interpretation of this definition is countering foreign nation state intelligence activities, such as those conducted by China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR RF), Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, or the military intelligence services of those countries and others.

In other words, counterintelligence is countering foreign intelligence. The focus is on the party doing the bad things, and less on what the bad thing is.

The definition, however, is loose enough to encompass others; "organizations," "persons," and "international terrorist organizations" are in scope, according to the definition. This is just about everyone, although criminals are explicitly not mentioned.

The definition is also slightly unbounded by moving beyond "espionage, or other intelligence activities," to include "sabotage, or assassinations." In those cases, the assumptions is that foreign intelligence agencies and their proxies are the parties likely to be conducting sabotage or assassinations. In the course of their CI work, paying attention to foreign intelligence agents, the CI team may encounter plans for activities beyond collection.

The bottom line for this post is a cautionary message. It's not appropriate to call all intelligence activities "counterintelligence." It's more appropriate to call countering adversary intelligence activities counterintelligence.

You may use similar or the same approaches as counterintelligence agents when performing your cyber threat intelligence function. For example, you may recruit a source inside a carding forum, or you may plant your own source in a carding forum. This is similar to turning a foreign intelligence agent, or inserting your own agent in a foreign intelligence service. However, activities directing against a carding forum are not counterintelligence. Activities directing against a foreign intelligence service are counterintelligence.

The nature and target of your intelligence activities are what determine if it is counterintelligence, not necessarily the methods you use. Again, this is in keeping with the stricter definition, and not becoming a victim of scope creep.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why Do SOCs Look Like This?

When you hear the word "SOC," or the phrase "security operations center," what image comes to mind? Do you think of analyst sitting at desks, all facing forward, towards giant screens? Why is this?

The following image is from the outstanding movie Apollo 13, a docudrama about the challenged 1970 mission to the moon.


It's a screen capture from the go for launch sequence. It shows mission control in Houston, Texas. If you'd like to see video of the actual center from 1970, check out This Is Mission Control.

Mission control looks remarkably like a SOC, doesn't it? When builders of computer security operations centers imagined what their "mission control" rooms would look like, perhaps they had Houston in mind?

Or perhaps they thought of the 1983 movie War Games?


Reality was way more boring however:


I visited NORAD under Cheyenne Mountain in 1989, I believe, when visiting the Air Force Academy as a high school senior. I can confirm it did not look like the movie depiction!

Let's return to mission control. Look at the resources available to personnel manning the mission control room. The big screens depict two main forms of data: telemetry and video of the rocket. What about the individual screens, where people sit? They are largely customized. Each station presents data or buttons specific to the role of the person sitting there. Listen to Ed Harris' character calling out the stations: booster, retro, vital, etc. For example:


This is one of the key differences between mission control and any modern computerized operations center. In the 1960s and 1970s, workstations (literally, places where people worked) had to be customized. They lacked the technology to have generic workstations where customization was done via screen, keyboard, and mouse. They also lacked the ability to display video on demand, and relied on large television screens. Personnel with specific functions sat at specific locations, because that was literally the only way they could perform their jobs.

With the advent of modern computing, every workstation is instantly customizable. There is no need to specialize. Anyone can sit anywhere, assuming computers allow one's workspace to follow their logon. In fact, modern computing allows a user to sit in spaces outside of their office. A modern mission control could be distributed.

With that in mind, what does the current version of mission control look like? Here is a picture of the modern Johnson Space Center's mission control room.



It looks similar to the 1960s-1970s version, except it's dominated by screens, keyboards, and mice.

What strikes me about every image of a "SOC" that I've ever seen is that no one is looking at the big screens. They are almost always deployed for an audience. No one in an operational role looks at them.

There are exceptions. Check out the Arizona Department of Transportation operations center.


Their "big screen" is a composite of 24 smaller screens showing traffic and roadways. No one is looking at the screen, but that sort of display is perfect for the human eye.

It's a variant of Edward Tufte's "small multiple" idea. There is no text. The eye can discern if there is a lot of traffic, or little traffic, or an accident pretty easily. It's likely more for the benefit of an audience, but it works decently well.

Compare those screens to what one is likely to encounter in a cyber SOC. In addition to a "pew pew" map and a "spinning globe of doom," it will likely look like this, from R3 Cybersecurity:


The big screens are a waste of time. No one is standing near them. No one sitting at their workstations can read what the screens show. They are purely for an audience, who can't discern what they show either.

The bottom line for this post is that if you're going to build a "SOC," don't build it based on what you've seen in the movies, or in other industries, or what a consultancy recommends. Spend some time determining your SOC's purpose, and let the workflow drive the physical setting. You may determine you don't even need a "SOC," either physically or logically, based on maturing understandings of a SOC's mission. That's a topic for a future post!