A Treatise on Information Security

One famous misquote of American Founding Father Ben Franklin goes like this, “Anyone who would sacrifice freedom for security deserves neither.” At first glance, this statement speaks to the heart of people who have spent hours waiting in line at the airport, waiting for a TSA agent to finish groping a 90 year old lady in a wheel chair so they can take off their shoes and be guided into a glass tube to be bombarded with the emissions of a full body scanner. But the reality of any kind of security, and Information Security in particular, is that any increase of security requires sacrificing freedom. The question we all have to ask, as IT professionals tasked with improving or developing proper security controls and practices, is whether or not the cost of lost freedom is worth the amount of increased security.

The Balancing Act

If you were to dig a little, like I have, you would find that Mr. Franklin actually said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This version of the quote demonstrates very eloquently one of the principle struggles of developing security policies in IT. After all, there is a famous axiom in the Industry (it’s quote day here at ACBrown’s IT World), “The most secure computer is unplugged.” Or something like that. I’m probably misquoting.

In a humorous demonstration of that axiom, I present a short story. When I was a contractor performing DIACAP (Go look it up) audits on US military bases, we were instructed to use a tool called the “Gold Disc.” The Gold Disc was developed by personnel in the military to scan through a workstation or server and check for configuration settings that violated the DISA (That’s the Defense Information Systems Agency) STIG (That’s Security Technical Implementation Guide. Not the guy that drives cars for that one TV show). The Gold Disc was a handy tool, but the final screen that gave you the results of the scan had a little button on it that we were expressly forbidden from ever pushing. That button said, simply, “Remediate All.” Anyone who pushed that button would find that they were instantly locked out of the network, unable to communicate with anything. Pushing the button on an important server would result in mass hysteria, panic, and sudden loss of employment for the person who pushed the button. You see, the Remediate All button caused the tool to change every configuration setting to comply exactly with the DISA STIG recommendations. If you’re not laughing yet, here’s the puchline…Perfectly implementing the DISA STIG puts computers in a state that makes it impossible for them to communicate with one another properly. <Insert follow up joke regarding Government and the problems it causes here>.

On the other hand, computers that blatantly failed to comply with the DISA STIG recommendations would (theoretically) be removed from the network (after 6 or 7 months of bureaucratic nonsense). In the end, there was a point in the middle where we wanted the systems to be. That balancing point was the point where computers were secure enough to prevent the majority of attacks from succeeding, but not so secure that they significantly inhibited the ability of people to do their jobs effectively and in a timely matter. As IT Security professionals, we have a duty to find the right balance of security and freedom for the environments we are responsible for.

The Costs of Security

Everything in IT has a cost. The cost can’t always be easily quantified, but there is always a cost associated. For instance, something as simple as password expiration in Active Directory has a very noticeable cost. How much time do system administrators spend unlocking accounts for people who forgot their password after it just reset? Multiply the number of hours spent unlocking accounts and helping people reset their passwords by the amount of money the average system administrator makes and you get the cost of that level of security in dollars. But that is only the direct cost.

Implementing password expiration and account lockout policies also reduce the level of freedom your employees have in controlling their user accounts. That lost freedom also translates into lost revenue as employees are forced to spend their time calling tech support to get their password reset. Then you also consider lost productivity due to people wasting time trying to remember the password they set earlier that morning.

With some estimates showing that nearly 30 percent of all help-desk work hours are devoted to password resets, the cost of enabling password expiration climbs pretty high.

The Cost of Freedom

On the other hand, every day an individual goes without resetting their passwords increases the likelihood of that password being discovered. Furthermore, every day a discovered password is left unchanged increases the likelihood of that password being used by an unauthorized individual. If the individual who lost the password is highly privileged (a CEO for example), the cost to the business who employs that individual can be astronomical. There are numerous cases of companies going bankrupt after major intrusions linked to exposed passwords

So while it may cost a lot to implement a password expiration policy, it can cost infinitely more not to. In comparison, the cost of implementing a password expiration policy is almost always justified. This is particularly true when working for organizations that fall under the purview of Regulatory Compliance laws (Queue the dramatic music).

Regulatory Compliance

One of the unfortunate realities of the IT world is that some organizations have outright failed to consider the costs of *not* having a good security policy and just plain failed to have good security. Those organizations got hit hard and either lost data that cost the business huge amounts of money, or worse, data that put their customers at risk of identity theft. So, because the kids couldn’t play safe without supervision, most Governments around the world have developed laws that tell businesses in key industries things that they must do when developing their IT infrastructure.

For instance, the Healthcare industry in the US must follow the HITECH addition to HIPAA (so many acronyms) which mandates the need for utilizing IT infrastructure that prevents the unauthorized disclosure of certain types of patient information. Publicly owned corporations in the US are required to follow the rules outlined in the Sarbanes Oxley act, which requires companies to maintain adequate records of business dealings for a significant period of time. The aforementioned DIACAP audits are performed to verify whether military installations are complying with the long list of instructions and requirements developed by the DoD (if you ever have trouble sleeping…).

Organizations that fall under the umbrella of one or more Regulatory Compliance laws are compelled to ensure their IT infrastructure meets the defined requirements. Failing to do so is often punishable with significant fines. Failing to do so and getting attacked in a way that makes use of security holes meant to be plugged by regulations is a huge problem (not just for the organization itself). For regulatory compliance applicable organizations, the costs associated with violating regulations must always be considered when developing a security policy. This is mostly a good thing, since the costs of actually meeting the regulations is occasionally extremely high.

Mitigating Costs – Not Always Worth It

There are actually a lot of technical solutions in the IT industry that exist entirely to reduce the costs associated with implementing security technologies. For instance, utilizing a Self-Service Password Reset (SSPR, cause that’s a lot of typing) solution can significantly reduce the number of man-hours required by help-desk staff to reset passwords and unlock accounts. But such solutions also have costs associated with them. Aside from the purchase cost, many of these solutions significantly reduce security in an organization.  SSPRs, again, increase user freedom and control of their user account, which makes things less secure again. However, depending on the SSPR in use, how much security is reduced depends on how users interact with the software. An SSPR that only requires someone to enter their username and current password is likely to reduce security significantly more than an SSPR that requires users to answer 3 “security questions,” which will, in turn, reduce security much more than an SSPR that requires people to provide their Social Security Number, submit a urine sample, and authenticate with a retina scan while sacrificing a chicken from Uruguay with a special ceremonial dagger. But, again, the time spent by employees resetting their own password (not to mention the cost of importing chickens from Uruguay) increases the cost of such solutions. The key to determining which solutions and technologies to use is a matter of finding the right balance of freedom and security in the environment.

When Security Costs Too Much Freedom

There are times when the financial costs and the cost of freedom associated with a security measure are obviously too high (I’m looking at you, TSA). Implementing longer passwords may have many technical security advantages, but doing so includes a risk that the loss of freedom is too great for people to handle. For instance, implementing a 20 character minimum password policy that includes password complexity requirements might cause some employees with bad memories to write their password down and put it in a place that easy for them to remember. Like on a post-it note stuck to their monitor. Suddenly, that very secure password policy is defeated by a low-tech solution. Now you have a password accessible to anyone walking around in the office (like Janitor Bob) that can be used to access critical information and sell it to the highest bidder (AKA, your competitor). This is a prime example of the unconsidered costs of security being too high. Specifically, the security requirement costs so much freedom and negatively impacts employees so much that they end up bypassing security entirely.

Balancing Act

In the end, IT security is a massive balancing act. To properly balance security and freedom in IT, it is necessary to ask questions and obtain as much knowledge about the environment as possible. The investigative part is among the most important phases in any security policy. Organizations looking to increase security need to have balance in their security implementations. Decisions on IT security must always be thoughtful ones.

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