Forward-facing security by remembering the past

Looking forward to newer, smarter technologies is not always the most effective strategy for delivering an efficient, nimble and resilient security program. The best advice often is to properly implement the tools and technologies that have been available for years.

As the new year begins, it’s a good time to look forward to what’s on the horizon and reflect on the successes and struggles of the past 12 months. Given the speed with which technologies emerge, these moments give us perspective when planning to make the coming year a stronger and more successful one.

When it comes to government IT, everyone is hoping to find a silver bullet – that next generation of software or technologies that will revolutionize the way we deliver value to constituents, protect critical data, safeguard our national infrastructure and create even stronger layers of security to support these functions.

Researchers are already predicting that further advances in processing power will completely change the security landscape as we know it.  Brian LaMacchia, Microsoft’s director of security and cryptography, is quoted as saying that “quantum-resistant public-key algorithms” are his wish for 2016.

Certainly, quantum computers hold immense promise, and, without a doubt, many government security professionals will start looking to these and similar advancements as ways to improve upon their security programs. But this forward-looking mentality and desire to be on the bleeding edge of the newest technologies is not always the most effective strategy for delivering an efficient, nimble and resilient security program. In fact, the best advice has already been given time and time again: properly implement the tools and technologies that have been available for years.

This is nothing new, but yet we continue to tout (and then not follow) that same advice. Why is that? George Santayana could not have predicted the state of technology then as we know it today when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yes, we must be looking forward, ever vigilant to see if the latest and greatest technologies will serve to change the game for us, or worse, if malicious entities will use these cutting edge tools against us. But this is not a reason to forget the lessons of the past or neglect to take advantage what’s available to us now. Data breaches are still happening, and when the forensic teams finish determining the causes for these attacks, they usually find the same methods of ingress that we’ve seen for the past decade or more. In government agencies and across industries, we’re not embracing the lessons, tools, technologies and processes that we currently have at our disposal.

Has your agency implemented a well-defined security policy with supporting procedures? It may not be the most exciting thing to develop and maintain, but many organizations still do not have this most basic security tool. The security policy provides a framework for the entire organization to work from and can be a powerful tool to get multiple stakeholders on the same page about what needs to be done for protecting the most critical assets in the agency.

If your agency is without a detailed security policy, then add this to your list of “new” technologies to implement for 2016.

What about strong credential management? We know that the majority of data breaches come from some sort of abuse of administrator and other high-access credentials stored in various systems and directory services throughout a network. Controlling who can or can not access and use these types of credentials -- arguably, the most important credentials in any organization -- can provide an immediate and profound increase in the security posture of any security program.

Patch management is another area that comes to mind when we consider well-known, existing technologies that are underutilized. Many government organizations have gotten very good at using Microsoft technologies to deploy Microsoft patches to Microsoft systems. Yet when the conversation turns to software products like Java or Flash, we often discover that these patches are not being deployed. Considering these are two of the most-attacked pieces of commercial software out there, it’s absolutely imperative that they be kept up-to-date.

Yet rather than leverage the existing patch management technologies we have today to address this issue, too often the temptation is to look for another security tool like in-line anomaly detection or stronger, more-advanced firewalls to keep intruders out. Looking forward to newer, smarter technologies does not truly address the basic problem of simply patching the software that needs to be patched. The return on tackling those software vulnerabilities is far greater than simply adding a new layer of defense in front of everything.

We will always be facing future-forward in the technology community. But, as the new year gets started, let’s take some time to reflect on what’s come before and leverage the tools already at our disposal to start bringing real change to the way our organizations protect data, build resilient infrastructures and establish confidence with constituents. Remembering the past will help us be in a better position to take advantage of what’s yet to come.

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