Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 2/19/2013 | 22 comments

Andrew Froehlich
Being an IT security software business isn't for the faint of heart. It seems like every time there's a high-profile security breach in the news, the security vendor ultimately gets the blame.

The most recent example of this is a Forbes article titled "Symantec Gets a Black Eye In Chinese Hack of The New York Times." In it, the author said the following about Symantec, the antivirus software vendor that the NY Times was using at the time of the breach:

Having your email hacked and malicious software spread on your servers for months may be embarrassing. But being outed as the antivirus vendor that failed to catch the vast majority of that malware is likely more humiliating still.

In my opinion, this isn't a fair statement. When looking at the events that ultimately led to the successful hack, there isn't a security vendor in the world that would have been successful in preventing the breach. Here's why:

The method that the Chinese hackers used to get their foot in the door initially wasn't some overly complex exploit that targeted the NY Times servers. Instead, it all started as a very common spear-phishing technique directed toward employees that unknowingly downloaded custom-created malware onto their system that sat on The New York Times network. Since the malware did not use commonly-known malware signatures, it's likely that no AV software around would have flagged the code as malicious. Even more important is the fact that this whole thing started out with simple social engineering. Again, it points out that the weakest link of any IT infrastructure is the employee.

Secondly, the revelation that complex passwords were not being used was glossed over. The NY Times postmortem states: "Hashed passwords can easily be cracked using so-called rainbow tables -- readily available databases of hash values for nearly every alphanumeric character combination, up to a certain length." The "can be easily cracked" statement is only true if the password policies are not set strictly enough. If policies are set and enforced where users are required to create a complex, random string of 12+ characters, cracking hashed passwords becomes nearly impossible.

Lastly, Symantec had reportedly responded to the Forbes article by stating in the comments section:

Turning on only the signature-based anti-virus components of endpoint solutions alone are not enough in a world that is changing daily from attacks and threats. We encourage customers to be very aggressive in deploying solutions that offer a combined approach to security. Anti-virus software alone is not enough.

In other words, while the Times had deployed Symantec's AV software, that's only one piece of the puzzle. To truly fend off sophisticated attacks, companies must deploy a robust and layered defense in-depth strategy. Only with overlapping security measures can you ever hope to protect your network.

This incident should serve as a lesson to all of us involved in IT security. We can't simply rely on one or two tools to protect us from today's ever-increasing threats. Multiple tactics need to be deployed. Additionally, it is almost impossible to protect data when employees freely open doors for hackers. Employee education regarding social engineering techniques needs to be taken more seriously and training should be performed on an annual basis to keep everyone up to date on the latest techniques used.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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soozyg   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   3/4/2013 4:12:33 PM
Re: Internal factors
Yes, the weak link is definitely those dang humans.
batye   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   3/3/2013 9:36:26 PM
Re: security is a multidimentional issue
interesting... normaly security always on the last to do page... after breach it on must to do now page... but it a bit to late... at the same time after breach finger pointing game starts... but no one willing to admit... everyone was saying - Yes, for putting security on last to do page.... before.
singlemud   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 10:53:22 PM
Pont fingers
Security breach is a big thing, somebody could be fired, and nobody want to be fired, so they point finger to each other.
Pedro Gonzales   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 9:30:36 PM
security is a multidimentional issue
I think you are right, its easy for the media to look at security in a very simplistic way, thinking that with only an antifivirus an enterprise can protect itself from complex attacks, specially if the security flaws are not in the technology but on its people, employees whom do not take the organization security seriously.  
Sara Peters   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 1:33:44 PM
Sara Peters
Re: cop-out
@Umair  As you say, "Numerous events remind the importance of creating a strong and unique password but unfortunately most of the lessons are ignored just for the sake of simplicity even at the top most level."  I just don't have a lot of forgiveness for organizations that allow really weak passwords because password policies are one of the things that can easily be enforced by technology. You don't have to just say "hey everyone, use a strong password or we'll be very cross with you," you can set up the system so that users must use a password that's more than 8 characters long and has a mixture of uppercase letters, lowercast letters, numbers, and special characters; and that it be changed every three months, and when you change it, it can't be the same as any password you've had previously. That's not hard. And it's not expensive either.
kstaron   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 11:42:03 AM
Nothing's perfect but training helps
I admit that I may have been guilty of muttering about my anti-virus software when it got through and tried to eat my computer, but it's unfortunately unrealistic to expect that I should have perfect security if I download anything. That goes for me as my personal PC or for a big company too. When I worked for one we had employee training that included recognizing phishing attacks. Train your employees so a mistake doesn't turn into a massive breach.
stotheco   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 9:08:49 AM
Re: Internal factors
People always play the blame game when something like security breaches happen. While it's important to conduct an investigation to find out what happened, blaming others doesn't. Instead of all this blaming, people should just get to work on figuring out the breach, why it happened, fix it, and make relevant or necessary changes to policy to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Damian Romano   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/21/2013 7:58:47 AM
Re: Data worth...
@Umair - Security is insurance, plain and simple. It's the PR firm, physical security, customer retention all wrapped into one unit. The more I study and learn about Info Security the more I tend to agree with the US military budget in that regard.
Umair Ahmed   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/20/2013 8:30:06 PM
Re: Data worth...
Unfortunately, decision makers often don't bother to ponder this question until after an incident occurs.

@ Andrew: this is really unfortunate. True importance of the security is usually realized when it is breached. Loss of productivity, reputation damage, cost of detection, customer switching and legal action can all be unfavorable impacts of a security breach which are not considered in good times. What exactly an IT administrator should do to highlight the importance of security to the management or organization where the security culture is much relaxed?
Zaius   Stop Blaming Security Vendors for Your Breaches   2/20/2013 8:20:21 PM
Re: Internal factors
It is always the same game. If a burgler steals someones valuable from home, blame goes to police. We forget that the doors should be locked and anyone knocking the door should not let inside without questioning.
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