Security Sieves: Misused Technology Leaving Networks Vulnerable

Despite the big money IT executives are spending to protect their companies from security breaches, industry analysts and security consultants say most are misusing the technology they already have installed.
Despite the big money IT executives are spending to protect their companies from security breaches, industry analysts and security consultants say most are misusing the technology they already have installed.

"The problem is pretty widespread," says Paul Robertson, director of risk assessment at Herndon, Va.-based TruSecure Corp. "We did a study that showed that about 70% of companies with firewalls are vulnerable to attack because they're not configured properly or they weren't deployed correctly. And my gut says that's actually a low percentage."

Robertson and other analysts say the problem is only growing as users demand more features, layoffs dwindle the number of trained IT and security workers, the quick turnaround of new software versions leaves little time to master new features, and companies focus on making things easy to access at the expense of making their information secure.

"It is a problem," says Richard Power, editorial director of the Computer Security Institute. "Most companies don't have a dedicated security staff. Instead, it's just part of some over-worked administrator's job. That's simply not enough and it's leading to some real problems."

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And those problems are leaving many companies unprotected from attack.

Faulty Firewall Configurations

A firewall, for instance, is only as beneficial as its configuration, according to TruSecure's Robertson, who admittedly has a stake in convincing companies to test their security setups and to hire outside help. The mistake that many companies make is to open their firewalls wide by turning on access to protocols and basically permitting everything inside to go out through and everything outside to come in.

"The focus of the Internet is all about connectivity and users want more and more connectivity," says Robertson. "IT has to balance that with security. The more you let through, the less you're protected."

And firewalls aren't the only part of the problem. Robertson adds that email gateways should be set up to filter out most attachments but rarely are. "There are very few companies that have any reason to have most of the attachments that are going through their mail," he notes. "The next click-on-me-to-launch virus should be stopped at the gateway. If we could do even that, we'd have less of a virus problem than we do now. It would cost us less to deal with. Malicious code is still one of the biggest IT costs."

Robertson also points out that companies should think of VPNs as communication devices and not necessarily security devices. And users shouldn't be allowed to be connected to the Internet at the same time as they're connected to the internal network. Robertson also points out that users should never be allowed to connect to the network from their own personal computers at home, since the company then can't control how many family members or friends have access to it.

"These are things we think about continually," says Deb Parks, infrastructure analyst at John Deere Ottumwa. "They're very particular here about configurations and setup... You've got to have people on hand who have the knowledge to keep on top of it all. The money for it needs to be there. The technology needs to be there and the people who know how to really use it need to be in place."

It Takes More Than Technology

Michael Rasmussen, director of research and information security at Giga Information Group, agrees technology alone isn't the answer to developing strong network security.

"Don't throw products at it until you know what you're trying to protect -- until you know exactly how they work," says Rasmussen. "It's complex. You've got people. You've got policies. You've got training. You've got to work them all together."

But Mike Riley, chief scientist at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. a Chicago-based printing company, says the technology craze that preceded the current economic downturn infected many IT executives with a zeal for the latest and greatest devices and software that overrode their staffs' ability to technically keep pace.

"In the boom days, technology was developing so rapidly and money was free flowing," says Riley. "It used to be, 'Let's get the equipment in here and look at business models later.' They would have just finished installing, configuring and testing the latest release of something when the next release would be out. Not enough focus was put on learning the new features and if you don't know the baseline features, you'll never figure out the ones that are going to be built on top of them."






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