Mitigating Cyber Risks: Part 1

My entire career has been surrounded by risk; mostly in the technology arena.  Regardless of the job role, from a technology engineer through risk manager, solutions architect, IT leader, and into my current role as a consulting engineer one thing has been commonplace – risk must be mitigated.  Today, risk is common place with every organization and thrives in the form of cyber threats; among others.  Technology has brought us vast advances in manufacturing, banking, medicine, and retail – with it comes significant increase in our risk footprints leading to financial, data, or reputation loss.

Before we can begin the process of mitigating cyber risks (some call this risk management; which is an incorrect term in my opinion), we need to understand them and their potential impacts.  The risks themselves are varied but from a high-level can be categorized as:

  • Accidental & Intentional Security Breaches
  • Operational Systems Failures
  • Downline & Upline Risks

Let’s break these down.

  • Security breaches are the exposure of systems or data beyond their intended and authorized access footprints. When looking at accidental security breaches, this can include things like a database backup left unsecured, private data sent to the wrong party, or something as simple as a data center cage left open while the engineer was on a smoke break.  These may seem trivial, but when your data is breached, or your corporate secrets are exposed – you will be left shouldering the responsibility.  Then there are intentional security breaches, those that wreaked havoc on the NSA, Adobe, and the Veterans Administration.  These come in the form of virtual or physical attacks intended to either steal data or disrupt services to an organization or individual.  These are the attacks that most organizations try to prevent first and foremost – often at the expense of other attack vectors.
  • Operational system failures are a form of cyber risk that I see frequently as a direct result of poor systems maintenance, lifecycle management, and a general overuse of the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Remember, just because something is working does not mean it should not be replaced, patched, upgraded – or in the world of vehicles, have its oil changed – on a routine basis.  Remember, a five-year lifecycle is about the maximum you should try to squeeze out of IT systems – and really, three years is where you should be to mitigate risks.  Before we move on here, how long can your business run without access to any of its data because you failed to replace your SAN before it failed due to drive age?
  • So, what are downline and upline risks? Well, these are risks that you assume because of doing business with vendors/suppliers. Truly, most of these types of risks fall to the business side of the world, right? Wrong. What happens when your phone systems are down, internet, international circuits, hosted email, CRM, payroll systems?  People tend to get upset right?  These are the risks that you can’t control completely, but are responsible for.

Next up in, how do we mitigate against security breaches from a high level?  Certainly, there are already thoughts in your mind – areas that you know you need to address.  Well, that is a good place to start until next post…

 

A Data Center Engineers Look At Ransomware Protection

Your worst nightmare just happened.  You have just been presented with a screen popup telling you that your data is being encrypted and that you have so many days to pay.  It gets worse.  Every day you delay, chunks of your data are deleted.   It happens.  I have been on the outside – helping restore data, remove the threats, and salvage business operations and prevent further damage.  I have a unique perspective on ransomware.

We have things like Cisco AMP, a truly robust and state of the art anti-malware system that integrates at every level from the firewall to the endpoint with telemetry systems and response rates beyond anything else in the industry at a crazy fast 13 hours!  However, even Cisco will tell you that it is not possible to rely on prevention alone.  That is why they embed their AMP endpoints into everything – they keep watch for Malware that may have slipped through that 13-hour window.  If you don’t have Cisco AMP, you could have a much larger “window”, an industry average of 100 days.

So, how do you as a data center engineer protect your data when something gets through.  How do you guarantee the ability to recover and restore?  Will you be ready when that popup box shows up?

Backups

This may seem obvious, but backups are critical to a recovery.  When your data is encrypted, there is a very strong chance you will not be able to recover it using decrypting tools, so having proper backups will help.  So, what is a proper backup?  I like Veeam Backup & Replication as it has some really handy features that can make it, and its backups a little more resilient to malware.

  • Out of the box, it will backup its own configuration and repository data. If the Veeam Controller is infected, you have the ability to restore the Veeam system quickly.
  • It can replicate itself. In fact, it should if you can.  Having a secondary copy in another location can be handy – especially if you have non-real-time replication scheduled for the Controller.
  • It can backup to a variety of locations, including the cloud to protect your data from afar.
  • You can backup to deduplication appliances like Dell EMC Data Domain appliances that use protocols that are not typically prone to malware attacks.

If you don’t have Veeam, you can still achieve some of this, or all of it.  It just may not be as easy.  Either way, multi-location and multi-type backup and/or replication strategies are critical to protecting data.

SAN Snapshots

How can snapshots help?  If you are using a snapshot inclusive EMC Unity or Nimble Storage array, you can configure snapshots with retention schedules to allow you to quickly rollback to a point in time – BEFORE the malware got into the system.  You might lose a few minutes or an hour of data, but it is much better than the alternative.  If your SAN supports snapshots and you are not using them, set them up as soon as you can.

Patching

Patching is crucial.  Without patching you are more vulnerable to ransomware and malware attacks.  Typically, security patches for software are free.  A no cost or low cost measure to protect your systems, yet they are so often overlooked.  Why?  Usually it is a lack of a management system or personnel to perform the patching.  This can be addressed with things like WSUS, Microsoft System Center, or VMware Update Manager.  Use them.

Control System Access

This is more than making sure you have passwords for employees – it is often protecting employees from themselves.  You can invest in, or make use of several of the following options to restrict access to data – which is how ransomware propagates in general – through data access.

  1. Grant read-only access. If ransomware can’t write – it can’t encrypt.  Write access should be only as necessary.  This applies to databases, file systems, servers, Active Directory, etc.  You can use things like Microsoft Identity Manager to help control and automate that access.
  2. Use VDI to your advantage. Create an air-gap of sorts between your end user’s local systems and the critical systems.  Lock down folder redirection and USB redirection.  Both Citrix XenDesktop and VMware Horizon with View apply here.
  3. Use Group Policies to lock systems down. If allowing users to set a screen background worth losing all your data?
  4. Use things like Cisco ISE with posturing to ensure that only secure systems connect to the network.

You will be attacked.  That attack may not breach your systems – or it might.  Don’t say I did not warn you.  Protect your data.  Thank me later.


For the record, I work a lot with Microsoft, EMC Unity, VMware, Cisco, VCE, EMC Data Domain, Veeam, and the other technologies here.  They are what I know best, so if you feel I am biased — well, I am.  They are what I know best!