Cloud Risk Assessment Challenge Thoughts

February 3, 2018

Technology is often at the center of efforts to sell new business models. From some perspectives, “Cloud” is more about new business models than about technology-enabled capabilities. Over the last decade or more, “cloud” marketers and hypists have constructed intricate structures of propaganda that trap the unwary in a matrix, a fog, a web of artifice and deceit.[1]  I think that a “cloud first” belief system is misused in ways that sometimes results in excessive risk-taking.  Belief systems are tricky to deal with and can cause some to dismiss or ignore inputs that might impact core tenets or dogma.

My reading and first hand experience lead me to believe that many are willing to migrate operations to other people’s computers — “the cloud” — without clearly evaluating impacts to their core mission, their risk management story-telling, and risk posture. Too many cloud vendors remain opaque to risk assessment, while leaning heavily on assertions of “compliance” and alignment with additionally hyped ancillary practices [containers, agile, encryption, etc.].

None of this rant implies that all Internet-centric service providers are without value. My core concern is with the difficulty in determining the risks associated with using one or another of them for given global Financial Services use cases.  That difficulty is only amplified when some involved exist within a reality-resisting “cloud first” belief system.

Because some “cloud” business models are exceptionally misaligned with global Financial Services enterprise needs and mandates, it is critically important to understand them. A given “cloud” vendor’s attack surface combined with a prodigious and undisciplined risk appetite can result in material misalignment with Financial Services needs. Again, this does not invalidate all “cloud” providers for all use cases, it elevates the importance of performing careful, thorough, clear-headed, evidence-informed risk assessments.  In our business, we are expected, even required, to protect trillions of dollars of other people’s money, to live up to our long and short term promises, and to comply with all relevant laws, regulations, and contracts.  And we are expected to do so in ways that are transparent enough for customers, prospects, regulators, and others to determine if we are meeting their expectations.

  • Evidence is not something to be used selectively to support beliefs.
  • Research is not hunting for justifications of existing beliefs.
  • Hunt for evidence. Use your cognitive capabilities to evaluate it.
  • Soberly analyze your beliefs.
  • Let the evidence influence your beliefs.
  • When needed, build new beliefs.[2]

Effective risk management has little room for anyone captured within a given belief system or abusing the power to create one’s own reality.

This remains a jumbled and unfinished thought that I will continue to evolve here.

What do you think?

[1] Derived from a phrase by Michelle Goldberg.
[2] Thank you Alex Wall, Johnston, IA. Author of a Letter to the Editor in the Feb 3, 2018 Des Moines Register.

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Another Exfiltration Tool

January 30, 2018

It is a challenge to keep up with the free HTTPS-enabled data exfiltration tools available.  As security professionals in global Financial Services enterprise, we have obligations to exhibit risk-reasonable behaviors.  Resisting easy, “invisible” data theft is a core deliverable in our layered security services.

Google is offering a cool “Cloud Shell” that falls into the category I was thinking of when I wrote the paragraph above.  It is a highly-functional Linux shell that is available to anyone with https access to the Internet.  There are lots of good reasons for Google to offer this service.  And they require an active credit card for initial on-boarding — allowing some to argue that there are limits to the anonymity this service might deliver.  There are also lots of global Financial Services enterprise misuse cases.  Quick, easy, difficult-to-understand data exfiltration being the first that came to mind.  Hosting “trustworthy” command and control applications is another.  With Internet access, sudo, and persistent storage the only limitations seem to be the creativity of any given hostile party.

Financial Services brands managing trillions of dollars for others need to protect against the misuse of tooling like this.  The challenge is that some of us use Google Cloud services for one or another subset of our business activities. And in those approved contexts, that represents risk-reasonable behavior.

This situation is just another example of external forces driving our internal priorities in ways that will require a quick response, and will also induce ongoing risk management workload.

So it goes.

REFERENCE:

Google Cloud Shell: https://cloud.google.com/shell/


Low Profile Office 365 Breach Reported

August 18, 2017

A couple years ago I wrote:

“I am told by many in my industry (and some vendors) that ‘if we put it in the cloud it will work better, cheaper, be safer, and always be available.’ Under most general financial services use cases (as opposed to niche functionality) that statement seems without foundation.”

Although many individuals have become more sophisticated in the ways they pitch ‘the cloud’ I still hear versions of this story on a fairly regular basis…

Today I learned about a recent Office 365 service outage that reminded me that issues concerning our use of ‘cloud’ technology and the commitments we in the Global Financial Services business make to our customers, prospects, marketers, investors, and regulators seem to remain very much unresolved.

What happened?

According to Microsoft, sometime before 11:30 PM (UTC) on August 3rd 2017, the company introduced an update to the Activity Reports service in the Office 365 admin center which resulted in customers usage reports of one tenant being displayed in another tenant’s administrative portal.

Some customer o365 administrators noticed that the reported email and SharePoint usage for their tenants had spiked. When they investigated, the o365 AdminPortal (https://portal.office.com/adminportal/) displayed activity for users from one or more AzureAD domains outside their tenant. In the most general terms, this was a breach. The breach displayed names and email addresses of those users along with some amount of service traffic detail, for example, user named X (having email address userNameX@domainY.com) sent 193 and received 467 messages, as well as uploaded 9 documents to SharePoint, and read 45 documents in the previous week.

Some subset of those 0365 customers reported the breach to Microsoft.

Microsoft reported that at they disabled the Activity Reports services at 11:40 PM UTC the same day, and that they had a fix in place by 3:35 AM UTC.

Why should I care?

As Global Financial Services Enterprises we make a lot of promises (in varying degrees of formality) to protect the assets for which we are responsible and we promote our ethical business practices. For any one or our companies, our risk profile is rapidly evolving in concert with expanded use of a range of cloud services. Those risks appear in many forms. All of us involved in Global Financial Services need our security story-telling to evolve in alignment with the specific risks we are taking when we choose to operate one or another portion of our operations in ‘the cloud.’ In addition, our processes for detecting and reporting candidate “breaches” also need to evolve in alignment with our use of all things cloud.

In this specific situation it is possible that each of our companies could have violated our commitments to comply with the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations: http://www.eugdpr.org/), had it happened in August 2018 rather than August 2017. We all have formal processes to report and assess potential breaches. Because of the highly-restricted access to Office 365 and Azure service outage details, is seems easy to believe that many of our existing breach detection and reporting processes are no longer fully functional.

Like all cloud stuff, o365 and Azure are architected, designed, coded, installed, hosted, maintained, and monitored by humans (as is their underlying infrastructure of many and varied types).
Humans make mistakes, they misunderstand, they miscommunicate, they obfuscate, they get distracted, they get tired, they get angry, they ‘need’ more money, they feel abused, they are overconfident, they believe their own faith-based assumptions, they fall in love with their own decisions & outputs, they make exceptions for their employer, they market their services using language disconnected from raw service-delivery facts, and more. That is not the whole human story, but this list attempts to poke at just some human characteristics that can negatively impact systems marketed as ‘cloud’ on which all of us perform one or another facet of our business operations.

I recommend factoring this human element into your thinking about the value proposition presented by any given ‘cloud’ opportunity. All of us will need to ensure that all of our security and compliance mandated services incorporate the spectrum of risks that come with those opportunities. If we let that risk management and compliance activity lapse for too long, it could put any or all of our brands in peril.

REFERENCES:
“Data Breach as Office 365 Admin Center Displays Usage Data from Other Tenants.”
By Tony Redmond, August 4, 2017
https://www.petri.com/data-breach-office-365-admin-center

European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations)
http://www.eugdpr.org/


Workforce Mobility = More Shoulder Surfing Risk

July 20, 2017

An individual recently alerted me to an instance of sensitive information being displayed on an application screen in the context of limited or non-existent business value. There are a few key risk management issues here – if we ship data to a user’s screen there is a chance that:

  • it will be intercepted by unauthorized parties,
  • unauthorized parties will have stolen credentials and use them to access that data, and
  • unauthorized parties will view it on the authorized-user’s screen.

Today I am most interested in the last use case — where traditional and non-traditional “shoulder surfing” is used to harvest sensitive data from user’s screens.

In global financial services, most of us have been through periods of data display “elimination” from legacy applications. In the last third of the 20th century United States, individual’s ‘Social Security Numbers’ (SSN) evolved into an important component of customer identification. It was a handy key to help identify one John Smith from another, and to help identify individuals whose names were more likely than others to be misspelled. Informtation Technology teams incorporated SSN as a core component of individual identity across the U.S. across many industries. Over time, individual’s SSNs became relatively liquid commodities and helped support a broad range of criminal income streams. After the turn of the century regulations and customer privacy expectations evolved to make use of SSN for identification increasingly problematic. In response to that cultural change or to other trigger events (privacy breach being the most common), IT teams invested in large scale activities to reduce dependence on SSNs where practical, and to resist SSN theft by tightening access controls to bulk data stores and by removing or masking SSNs from application user interfaces (‘screens’).

For the most part, global financial services leaders, application architects, and risk management professionals have internalized the concept of performing our business operations in a way that protects non-public data from ‘leaking’ into unauthorized channels. As our business practices evolve, we are obligated to continuously re-visit our alignment with data protection obligations. In software development, this is sometimes called architecture risk analysis (an activity that is not limited to formal architects!).

Risk management decisions about displaying non-public data on our screens need to take into account the location of those screens and the assumptions that we can reliably make about those environments. When we could depend upon the overwhelming majority of our workforce being in front of monitors located within workplace environments, the risks associated with ‘screen’ data leakage to unauthorized parties were often managed via line-of-sight constraints, building access controls, and “privacy filters” that were added to some individual’s monitors. We designed and managed our application user interfaces in the context of our assumptions about those layers of protection against unauthorized visual access.

Some organizations are embarked on “mobilizing” their operations — responding to advice that individuals and teams perform better when they are unleashed from traditional workplace constraints (like a physical desk, office, or other employer-managed workspace) as well as traditional workday constraints (like a contiguous 8, 10, or 12-hour day). Working from anywhere and everywhere, and doing so at any time is pitched as an employee benefit as well as a business operations improvement play. These changes have many consequences. One important impact is the increasing frequency of unauthorized non-public data ‘leakage’ as workforce ‘screens’ are exposed in less controlled environments — environments where there are higher concentrations of non-workforce individuals as well as higher concentrations of high-power cameras. Inadvertently, enterprises evolving toward “anything, anywhere, anytime” operations must assume risks resulting from exposing sensitive information to bystanders through the screens used by their workforce, or they must take measures to effectively deal with those risks.

The ever more reliable assumption that our customers, partners, marketers, and vendors feel increasingly comfortable computing in public places such as coffee shops, lobbies, airports and other types of transportation hubs, drives up the threat of exposing sensitive information to unauthorized parties.

This is not your parent’s shoulder surfing…
With only modest computing power, sensitive information can be extracted from images delivered by high-power cameras. Inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous multi-core machines, GPUs, and cloud computing makes computing cycles more accessible and affordable for criminals and seasoned hobbyists to extract sensitive information via off-the-shelf visual analysis tools

This information exposure increases the risks of identity theft and theft of other business secrets that may result in financial losses, espionage, as well as other forms of cyber crime.

The dangers are real…
A couple years ago Michael Mitchell and An-I Andy Wang (Florida State University), and Peter Reiher (University of California, Los Angeles) wrote in “Protecting the Input and Display of Sensitive Data:”

The threat of exposing sensitive information on screen
to bystanders is real. In a recent study of IT
professionals, 85% of those surveyed admitted seeing
unauthorized sensitive on-screen data, and 82%
admitted that their own sensitive on-screen data could
be viewed by unauthorized personnel at times. These
results are consistent with other surveys indicating that
76% of the respondents were concerned about people
observing their screens, while 80% admitted that
they have attempted to shoulder surf the screen of a
stranger .

The shoulder-surfing threat is worsening, as mobile
devices are replacing desktop computers. More devices
are mobile (over 73% of annual technical device
purchases) and the world’s mobile worker
population will reach 1.3 billion by 2015. More than
80% of U.S. employees continues working after leaving
the office, and 67% regularly access sensitive data at
unsafe locations. Forty-four percent of organizations
do not have any policy addressing these threats.
Advances in screen technology further increase the risk
of exposure, with many new tablets claiming near 180-
degree screen viewing angles.

What should we do first?
The most powerful approach to resisting data leakage via user’s screens is to stop sending that data to those at-risk application user interfaces.

Most of us learned that during our SSN cleanup efforts. In global financial services there were only the most limited use cases where an SSN was needed on a user’s screen. Eliminating SSNs from the data flowing out to those user’s endpoints was a meaningful risk reduction. Over time, the breaches that did not happen only because of SSN-elimination activities could represent material financial savings and advantage in a number of other forms (brand, good-will, etc.).

As we review non-public data used throughout our businesses, and begin the process of sending only that required for the immediate use case to user’s screens, it seems rational that we will find lots of candidates for simple elimination.

For some cases where sensitive data may be required on ‘unsafe’ screens Mitchell, Wang, and Reiher propose an interesting option (cashtags), but one beyond the scope of my discussion today.

REFERENCES:
“Cashtags: Protecting the Input and Display of Sensitive Data.”
By Michael Mitchell and An-I Andy Wang (Florida State University), and Peter Reiher (University of California, Los Angeles)
https://www.cs.fsu.edu/~awang/papers/usenix2015.pdf


​The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016

April 25, 2017

The Cloud Security Alliance published “The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016” last year.  I just saw it cited in a security conference presentation and realized that I had not shared this reference.  For those involved in decision-making about risk management of their applications, data, and operations, this resource has some value.  If you have not yet experienced a challenge to host your business in “the cloud”** it is likely you will in the future.

In my opinion, the Cloud Security Alliance is wildly optimistic about the business and compliance costs and the real risks associated with using shared, fluid, “cloud” services to host many types of global financial services business applications & non-public data.  That said, financial services is a diverse collection of business activities, some of which may be well served by credible “cloud” service providers (for example, but not limited to, some types of sales, marketing, and human resource activities).  In that context, the Cloud Security Alliance still publishes some content that can help decision-makers understand more about what they are getting into.

“The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016” outlines what “experts identified as the 12 critical issues to cloud security (ranked in order of severity per survey results)”:

  1. Data Breaches
  2. Weak Identity, Credential and Access Management
  3. Insecure APIs
  4. System and Application Vulnerabilities
  5. Account Hijacking
  6. Malicious Insider
  7. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
  8. Data Loss
  9. Insufficient Due Diligence
  10. Abuse and Nefarious Use of Cloud Services
  11. Denial of Service
  12. Shared Technology Issues

For each of these categories, the paper includes some sample business impacts, supporting anecdotes and examples, candidate controls that may help address given risks, and links to related resources.

If your role requires evaluating risks and opportunities associated with “cloud” anything, consider using this resource to help flesh out some key risk issues.

 

**Remember, as abstraction is peeled away “the cloud” is an ecosystem constructed of other people’s “computers” supported by other people’s employees…

REFERENCES:

Cloud Security Alliance:
https://cloudsecurityalliance.org

“The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016”
https://downloads.cloudsecurityalliance.org/assets/research/top-threats/Treacherous-12_Cloud-Computing_Top-Threats.pdf


Do Not Use On-Line Services to Encode or Encrypt Secrets

March 17, 2017

I received an excellent reminder about protecting secrets from a developer this morning. His advice included:

In the course of development work, many of us need to encode or encrypt strings.  He had just bumped into a situation where teams were using an Internet-available, public service to base 64 encode OAuth key/secret pairs.  These OAuth “secrets” are used all over the Internet to authenticate against web service interfaces.  Too often they are static/permanent strings — which means that once stolen they are useful to anyone, hostile or otherwise, for long periods of time.  This type of authentication credential must be very carefully protected throughout its entire life-cycle.
[Please stick with me even if you are not familiar with base 64 or OAuth, because this is broadly reusable advice]

The specific site is not really important as it could have been one of thousands of other free data encoding/encrypting sites.

The risk issue is associated with the fact that the “free” encoding service cloud site knows the client’s source IP address (plus other endpoint/user-identifying metadata) and the secrets that the user inputs. Using that information, they can infer (with some confidence) that a given company is using these secrets, and can sometimes also infer what the secrets are used for by the structure of the inputs. Nothing on the Internet is truly free. We need to assume that these sites earn revenue by monetizing what they learn. Cyber-crime is a business, and it is often less expensive to buy information about specific or classes of candidate targets than to independently perform the initial reconnaissance. So we should expect that some percentage of what free sites learn ends up as inputs to cyber-crime planning and activities. In that context, our secrets would not remain secret — and our risks would be elevated. In addition, extruding secrets in this way would also violate company policy at every global Financial Services enterprise.

Lucky for all of us, there are easy alternatives to using Internet-available public services to encode/encrypt our secrets.

Encoding can be as simple as a PowerShell or Python one-liner:

powershell "[convert]::ToBase64String([Text.Encoding]::UTF8.GetBytes(\"mySecret\"))"

or

python -c "import base64; encoded=base64.b64encode(b'mySecret'); print encoded;"

Or you can use any other development language of choice to easily assemble a utility to encode secrets. This is not technically difficult or especially risky.

Encrypting safely is a greater challenge. Understand your goals first. Once you know what you need to achieve, you can work with a professional to select a cryptosystem and coding/operational processes that should have a chance of meeting those goals. Cryptography can go wrong. Do not attempt to invent your own.


Another Example of How Cloud eq Others Computers

March 2, 2017

I have a sticker on my laptop reminding me that “The cloud is just other people’s computers.” (from StickerMule)  There is no cloud magic.  If you extend your global Financial Services operations into the cloud, it needs to be clearly and verifiably aligned with your risk management practices, your compliance obligations, your contracts, and the assumptions of your various constituencies.  That is a tall order.  Scan the rest of this short outline and then remember to critically evaluate the claims of the hypesters & hucksters who sell “cloud” as the solution to virtually any of your challenges.

Amazon reminded all of us of that fact this week when maintenance on some of their cloud servers cascaded into a much larger 2 hour service outage.

No data breach.  No hack.  Nothing that suggests hostile intent.  Just a reminder that the cloud is a huge, distributed pile of “other people’s computers.”  They have all the hardware and software engineering, operations, and life-cycle management challenges that your staff find in their own data centers.  A key difference, though, is that they are also of fantastic scale, massively shared, and their architecture & operations may not align with global Financial Services norms and obligations.

Amazon reported that the following services were unavailable for up to two and half hours Tuesday Morning (28 Feb, 2017):

  • S3 storage
  • The S3 console
  • Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) new instance launches
  • Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes
  • AWS Lambda

This resulted in major customer outages.

Here is how Amazon described the outage:

  1. “…on the morning of February 28th. The Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) team was debugging (a billing system) issue…”
  2. “At 9:37AM PST, an authorized S3 team member using an established playbook executed a command which was intended to remove a small number of servers for one of the S3 subsystems that is used by the S3 billing process.”
  3. “Unfortunately, one of the inputs to the command was entered incorrectly and a larger set of servers was removed than intended.”
  4. “The servers that were inadvertently removed supported two other S3 subsystems.”
  5. “One of these subsystems, the index subsystem, manages the metadata and location information of all S3 objects in the region. This subsystem is necessary to serve all GET, LIST, PUT, and DELETE requests.”
  6. “The second subsystem, the placement subsystem, manages allocation of new storage and requires the index subsystem to be functioning properly to correctly operate. The placement subsystem is used during PUT requests to allocate storage for new objects.”
  7. “Removing a significant portion of the capacity caused each of these systems to require a full restart.”
  8. “While these subsystems were being restarted, S3 was unable to service requests.”
  9. “Other AWS services in the US-EAST-1 Region that rely on S3 for storage, including the S3 console, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) new instance launches, Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes (when data was needed from a S3 snapshot), and AWS Lambda were also impacted while the S3 APIs were unavailable.”

There is no magic in the cloud. It is engineered and operated by people. Alignment between your corporate culture, your corporate compliance obligations, your contractual obligations, and those of your cloud providers is critical to your success in global Financial Services. If those cloud computers and the activities by armies of humans who manage them are not well aligned with your needs and obligations, then you are simply depending on “hope” — one of the most feeble risk management practices. You are warned — again.

What do you think?

REFERENCES:
“The embarrassing reason behind Amazon’s huge cloud computing outage this week.”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/03/02/the-embarrassing-reason-behind-amazons-huge-cloud-computing-outage-this-week/
By Brian Fung, March 2

“Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region.”
https://aws.amazon.com/message/41926/


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