There is a common plot line that underlies most of the breach stories in the news. Software written by bad guys gets into places on the corporate network where it shouldn’t be. It looks around, finds vulnerable systems, grabs valuable data and transmits it off the network. The term most commonly used to describe this behavior is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT). 

“Besides the APTs themselves, some of the big risks security professionals face today are the things that enable these sophisticated attacks in the first place,” says Dave Frymier, Chief Information Security Officer at Unisys. “Much has been made of the extent to which the traditional corporate network perimeter has been made porous by such things as the consumerization of IT and the advent of BYOD and BYO-app – either sanctioned or not. Also, the corporate belt-tightening that happened as a result of the financial shocks in the last 10 years have left plenty of skeletons in the digital closet.” Those include:

•  Legacy systems– These could be running on outdated platforms and were perhaps created in a time before modern security controls and defensive programming techniques. Usually very expensive to replace, these apps tend to just live on – the older they get, the more vulnerable they become.

•  Dark matter– In physics, dark matter is material/mass we infer exists, but can’t find.  Many corporate networks are full of it as well – PCs and servers that are on our networks, but not participating in inventory, patch management and anti-virus/malware environments. These systems are there, but they generally can’t be seen. Where do they come from? Some of them are personal machines; some may be systems that weren’t properly disposed of after a refresh.  Also, the larger an organization, the more likely there are business units that will buy their own computers and put them on the network.

•  Shadow IT– Business units decide that corporate IT processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too restrictive for what they want to do, so they create their own. This is a bonanza for the bad guys, since these systems are connected to the main corporate network and are almost never properly monitored. Once compromised, these systems can be used as a base for exploiting the rest of the corporate environment. 

•  Phishing emails and MS domain credentials – It has been estimated that as much as 80 percent of workstation infections come from employees clicking on something they shouldn’t in a phishing email. Once malware has a toe-hold on a Windows workstation or server, it is ridiculously easy to dump the local password store and capture any credentials stored there. If it contains domain credentials – and it usually does – these can be used to log into other computers on the network. 

•  Third-party interfaces– The trend toward outsourcing all sorts of service functions from sales force automation to print services to HVAC monitoring means that other companies have access to at least parts of the corporate network. These interfaces should be firmly controlled, limiting their access to specifically the functions they need and nothing else.


What has been the biggest APT to date? Could it be Shellshock?

The biggest APT to date would probably be Home Depot, followed by Target. Shellshock isn’t an APT – it’s a vulnerability. It could provide an opening for an attack, but it’s not the attack itself.


How can a security enterprise executive stop employees from clicking on something they shouldn’t in a phishing email?

Security awareness training is the best way to stop negligence, but this has been historically insufficient. More attention is being paid to this area now, and some companies are making a business of it (SANS, Digital Defense). Unfortunately, it tends to be a dry topic.


What do you mean when you say that business units create their own IT processes? Doesn’t that add to the complexity of a network?  

In this day and age of BYO-everything, all a business unit needs is a couple of tech-savvy people and a willingness to break the corporate rules. They can take a credit card and inexpensively buy an entire virtual IT infrastructure from Google, Amazon or any other cloud provider, load software on it – and away they go. This is how most startups handle their IT these days. In a larger organization, sooner or later, if such an initiative is successful, it will grow beyond the capabilities of a couple of tech-savvy people to handle – and then the fire alarm goes out to the real IT department.  


How can third-party outsourcing be controlled? 

How to exert due diligence without cramping the capabilities of the outsourcer that led you to engage them in the first place is a major issue as well.  First, you need a good contract. Second, you need some sort of audit rights – so they know you will be watching. Third, there are some emerging technical controls that could be used to hide sensitive data from third-party service providers using encryption techniques. Unisys Stealth and products from NetApp and Vormetric are examples of this.