Data protection

Emerging threats spur technology updates and a new class of security devices

So you have network firewalls in place, antivirus software purring away and even an intrusion-detection system to catch those pesky threats that still somehow manage to find a way through the other protections. But if you think you have your security needs covered, you are fooling yourself.

Those solutions adequately protect against network-level threats but are ill-suited to handle the new regime of attacks that target vulnerabilities in applications. Even the best-configured firewall, for example, won't stop hackers from using SQL database calls to install malware. Nor will an intrusion-detection system stop attacks that have unknown signatures.

And as attackers' profiles increasingly change from mischief-minded adolescents to professional criminals, the target is not the network but the data that resides on the network.

Network security observers have been talking for a long time now about the vanishing perimeter, said Rufus Connell, information technology research director at Frost and Sullivan. Security is no longer all about putting a big wall outside the network to allow lots of trusted partners inside part or all of the network, he said.

That's forcing industry and public-sector officials to rethink how they apply security.

"In the past, we treated people inside the perimeter as 'good' and people outside as 'bad,'" Connell said. "I wonder how long it will be before individual assets such as files or databases are locked up and everyone is considered 'bad' until they can prove otherwise."

As a result, industry is developing a new set of security solutions to tackle looming threats.

"It's fair to say that, across the board, databases in general are not adequately protected, and that's scary," said Amit Yoran, former director of the Homeland Security Department's National Cyber Security Division and now president of Yoran Associates, which advises organizations on security risks. "That's spurring an emerging class of security devices such as data-specific firewalls."

Imperva's SecureSphere firewall, for example, aims to protect data centers from all attacks, whether via the Web, a database breach or a worm launched from outside or inside the network.

The solution uses what the company calls dynamic profiling to automatically model a particular application's actions. Based on what it observes, the product can recognize and allow valid changes and catch anomalous and potentially malicious actions before they cause damage.

"As organizations are beginning to fortify themselves against application-layer threats, the hackers have already advanced to the data level," said Shlomo Kramer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Imperva. Kramer also founded Check Point Software Technologies, a pioneer of network firewalls, 12 years ago. "The threat is not well-understood and most organizations are completely unprotected against it, though that is starting to change."

Developers of encryption products are also noticing the push to protect data. Faster hardware and the manufacture of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) assist developers. Unlike general-purpose processors, ASICs can be devoted to specific tasks such as data encryption.

By using those technologies, developers can encrypt stored data, said John Pescatore, a vice president and security analyst at Gartner. In the past, if someone broke through network defenses, they could copy the entire database, he said. Hardware-based devices make that increasingly difficult because they can encrypt data on the fly.

"A lot of work has been done in developing encryption for data that's transmitted over the network," including schemes such as Secure Sockets Layer protection, said Burt Kaliski, vice president of research at RSA Security. "That's everyday stuff. It's the protection of the data itself that's the big driving force in encryption now."

This kind of data protection has some constraints. For example, Kaliski said, organizations need answers to questions on encryption key management. Do you grant access to application keys based on employees' security clearances? Do you use the same key all of the time, or do you use different keys? Who assigns the keys?

Older systems might not be powerful enough to handle the new technologies, Kaliski said, which also places technical constraints on that level of encryption.

But the encryption is in immediate demand for some products, particularly laptop computers and personal digital assistants, which can carry significant amounts of data. According to recent news stories, a few government employees have lost laptop computers that had extremely sensitive data on their hard drives.

"And this isn't a problem that affects individual devices, it's an enterprisewide problem," said Thi Nguyen-Huu, president and CEO of WinMagic. "If you can deploy everything in the enterprise to this mobile edge of the network, then you need this kind of encryption."

WinMagic's SecureDoc product applies full hard-disk encryption that protects not only the data but also components such as virtual private networks and e-government applications that require authentication.

SecureDoc requires users to supply a password or smart card token before the system can boot. After that step, the system works as if it is not encrypted.

The need for broader security will drive the expansion of security systems' features, as several recent acquisitions show.

For example, Symantec bought WholeSecurity last month to add the company's behavior-based antivirus tools to Symantec technology that uses known signatures to recognize attacks by viruses, worms and other malware.

With WholeSecurity's products, Symantec can protect against phishing attacks, which observers say are one of the biggest threats to online transactions. The company can also stop zero-day and zero-hour threats, in which attacks can penetrate networks before anyone can analyze them or write signatures for them.

Likewise, McAfee bought Foundstone, a vulnerability management software and consulting services vendor, in August 2004 to complement its growing intrusion-protection business.

"We have strategically placed ourselves to where we can tackle [agencies'] overall security needs," said Mike Carpenter, vice president of McAfee's federal operations. "We can work with customers to identify all of their assets in their environment, rank them for vulnerability and then also patch them."

The Foundstone purchase gives McAfee the opportunity to provide the kind of consolidated solution that company officials believe will be the future of the IT security market. With threats proliferating in type and number, agencies no longer have the time or resources to track down best-of-breed products from different companies, Carpenter said. Now they are looking for solution-based answers.

Officials at Cisco Systems, a long-established player in the network security arena with its PIX firewalls, acknowledged that trend earlier this year when they announced that they have added intrusion-protection capabilities to security systems in their appliances and software.

Several other trends are shaping security from the network perspective, said Tom Russell, director of product marketing in Cisco's security technology group. Developers are placing security in the fabric of the network rather than at the perimeter, he said, and organizations want to efficiently implement security so that they can deploy it across the network infrastructure. Security systems must be able to communicate effectively to inform one another of threats, he added.

"There's always room for improvement in [older] security technologies so they can provide a broader threat profile," Russell said. "But the real innovation is in how you tie all of these technologies together, and that's where security is heading now."

Don Wheeler, federal solutions manager at Juniper Networks, said he believes government agencies are realizing that they need to implement a layered approach to security.

"Even until fairly recently, most believed that the perimeter firewall was the answer, but that's not the case now given the need for both perimeter and internal security," he said. "Now they realize they have to deal with application-layer threats also, which means they have to also look for intrusion protection if they are to have an active level of security."

Increasingly, vendors believe customers will also ask them to deliver those consolidated solutions in a single product, such as Top Layer Networks' Attack Mitigator IPS 5500 intrusion- protection system. The IPS 5500 is a purpose-built hardware platform that includes a number of ASICs and a set of chips called field-programmable gate arrays, which can be reprogrammed in the field. Many other chips have their logic set when they are manufactured.

Those technologies allow the IPS 5500 system to provide the analysis and deep packet inspection necessary to guard against network- and application-layer threats. They also facilitate intrusion-prevention capabilities that allow for real-time, proactive defense against attacks.

Agencies may not be ready to widely adopt systems such as the IPS 5500, said Mike Paquette, Top Layer's vice president of marketing and product management, because many customers are still skeptical that the kind of solution they need exists. Concerns about flaws, such as intrusion-detection systems that produce false positives or alarms, are also stunting the market's growth, he said.

"But what most of them have in place now is inadequate to protect against the kind of virus, phishing and other threats that are prevalent today," Paquette said. "It's getting to the point where they need to add something like" an intrusion-prevention system.

Many agency firewalls are as much as 8 years old, he said. In another two years or so, when agencies go through their regular technology refresh process, he believes they'll go after the kind of converged technology systems that many vendors are introducing now.

Secure Sockets Layer under attack?

Encryption has been one of the most stable areas of security technology in the past decade, but it was badly shaken earlier this year when three Chinese researchers claimed they had found ways to break the Federal Information Processing Standard 180-1 — Secure Hash Algorithm-1 — which has been used since 1994.

SHA-1 is the basis for Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a private-key technology used to secure information such as credit card numbers for online commerce. It has been of fundamental importance to the Internet's development.

Furthermore, chip makers use it for the hardware-based security that's built into many of today's PCs and other devices.

However, William Burr, manager of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Security Technology Group, said the impact of the researchers' claim is in the eye of the beholder.

"SHA-1 is considered the gold standard, so for cryptanalysts, this is a major event," he said. "But if you are kind of a practical guy, there might not be a whole lot of implications."

That's because of the esoteric nature of the Chinese researchers' discovery.

Experts used to think it would take 280 hash operations to find a break in the algorithm. Instead, the researchers claimed they found ways to do it in just 269 operations.

That might not look like much of a reduction but, in terms of the computer processing power needed to break the algorithm, it's significant. In contrast, Burr said that if the break point could be reduced to 240 operations, "that can be done in an afternoon on a PC."

Burt Kaliski, vice president of research at RSA Security, cautioned against making too much of this news. All algorithms have a shelf life, he said, not because they go out of date overnight but because they no longer provide the kind of flexibility that's needed in new encryption tools.

"For the most part, despite the researchers' findings, SHA-1 is still adequate today for most peoples' purposes," he said. "And there's already a move away from it toward other" algorithms.

Indeed, Microsoft recently announced it was banning its developers from using some of the older encryption algorithms, including certain elements of SHA-1, which it said had become creaky at the edges.

Nevertheless, in large part because of the Chinese researchers' findings, NIST has become concerned enough about the strength of current hash functions that it's hosting a Cryptographic Hash Workshop Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 at its Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters to collect public input on the best ways to move forward in this critical area of security.

— Brian Robinson

Three layers of protection

As the number and sophistication of cyberthreats increase, so does the need for multilayered protection that combines tried-and-true security systems with new tools.

Soon no well-protected enterprise will be able to function without the following elements, all working in concert with one another.

  • Network-level protection. This approach focuses on the use of firewalls and, increasingly, intrusion-detection systems to catch and block any attacks with known signatures that attempt to enter the network with regular network traffic.
  • Application-level protection. Application-level firewalls and intrusion-prevention systems stop threats that masquerade as normal traffic but insert malicious software into various applications and then propagate themselves from within the enterprise.
  • Data-level protection. This approach uses new classes of devices such as data-specific firewalls to protect databases, which are increasingly the targets of professional cybercriminals, or by using encryption to make the data inaccessible even if someone steals it.
  • — Brian Robinson

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