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Federal Network Security: 4 Easy Steps to Get the Basics Right

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By Greg Kushto September 2, 2014

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Greg Kushto is director of the security practice at Force 3.

In federal IT, it’s easy to want to focus on protecting your organization from the next big security threat, whether it’s the Heartbleed flaw, advanced persistent threats or even the next Edward Snowden. Every time there is a major public incident like these, it seems everyone’s focus goes toward preventing it from happening again.

And that’s a good thing.

But these types of attacks are sophisticated, complex and require a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources to prevent and protect against. With so many resources focused on these types of attacks, are we leaving our networks vulnerable to all of the other threats out there?

In other words, when it comes to securing our federal networks, are we getting the basics right?

The Pareto Paradox

You might be familiar with the saying that “80 percent of your sales comes from 20 percent of your customers.” Often referred to as the 80/20 rule, it’s based on a paradox called the Pareto principle, which basically states that for a given event, 80 percent of the outcome stems from 20 percent of the effort.

But when it comes to network security, we’re seeing the opposite: organizations spending much of their resources dealing with a very small percentage of their problems.

Unfortunately, this leaves their networks vulnerable to the rest of the threats out there.  Additionally, if adversaries can use old exploits to attack your network, they won’t even bother to spend the hours on new zero day attacks.

To better protect our federal networks, we need to turn this paradox around and work toward a security infrastructure that protects agencies from the majority of threats out there today -- not only the most high-profile.

The best way to build that infrastructure is to simply go back to security basics.

1. Know What’s on Your Network

The first step is to know what's on your network. 

Before you can take any measures to secure your network, you have to know exactly what is on it. You want to get an overall picture of how many servers you have, what applications are running and what devices are connected to your network.

There are several tools available that can help you perform an internal security audit. To get the full picture, consider using a vulnerability management system along with an endpoint management system. Together, these systems will look at your network and be able to report back, letting you know, for example, you have a laptop connected to your network. But these programs can also tell you what programs are running on the laptop -- and which ones are allowed.

You will also want to look at network traffic using a Network Access Control program or suite that can recognize which devices are trying to communicate with the network and whether or not you know them. If it is recognized, the program will let it talk to someone on the network. If not, the program will not only refuse to let it talk to anything on the network, it will go a step further and shut down the network port too, ensuring only authorized endpoints are communicating on the network.

2. Update and Maintain

If you use vulnerability and endpoint management systems along with network traffic tools to perform an internal security audit, you should have a clear picture of everything that is on your network.

These tools will also help you with the next step: Updating and maintaining your network. 

This is a basic step but one that so many overlook. When you are notified of an update or patch but never take the time to run it, you’re putting not only yourself but your entire network at risk.  Additionally, if you are letting end users or system administrators decide when to apply patches, you will never be 100 percent secure.  You must control the network, servers and endpoints to ensure that all patches are downloaded and applied in a timely manner.

With these tools in place, whenever there is an update or patch, you can quickly fix the problem across your network. For example, the vulnerability management system will help you to identify problems as they occur, and tell you how many of your computers have the problem. Then, you can easily patch all of them at once.

This “eternal vigilance” is the price of free and open Internet. Whenever a vendor releases a patch, organizations have to make sure it is applied to all of the affected parts of their network. The updates and patches are constantly released to meet evolving new threats as they are developed.

3. Block Everything Else

You’ve determined exactly what’s on your network, assured that there is nothing that shouldn’t be there, and verified that all patches are up-to-date.

The next step is to examine any other potential threats and block them by implementing firewalls and intrusion-detection and -protection systems.  Ensuring that your access control lists are minimal, updated and reviewed in a timely way is a big step.  Testing and applying updated block lists, threat intelligence and reputation scoring are key steps as well.

For security engineers, these steps might seem like the “eating your vegetables” of network security. It’s not the under-the-hood security work that most engineers would prefer -- forensics and penetration testing, decoding malware, figuring out how attackers got in – and which is much more exciting.

But before you can do any of those, you have to make sure you that you’ve got the basics in place to protect your network. Look at it like college: You can’t succeed in a 400-level class before you’ve passed 101.

4. Protect Against Known Threats

In reality, developing those high-profile types of zero day attacks is incredibly complex, and expensive. The much more common and likely threat is one of the many that we have seen before, easily accessible and affordable for the bad guys.

To better protect their networks from these security threats, federal agencies need to make sure they have the basics covered. Once they do, they can better position themselves to protect against other, lesser-known scenarios, making our networks a little safer for all the good guys.

(Image via asharkyu/Shutterstock.com)

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