Block Attack Vectors, Not Attackers

When an army is configuring defenses, it is not merely the placement of troops and equipment that must be considered, but the likely avenues of attack, directions the attack could develop if it is successful, the terrain around the avenues of attack – because the most likely avenues of attack will be those most favorable to the attacker – and emplacements. Emplacements include such things as barricades, bunkers, barbed wire, tank traps, and land mines. While the long term effects of land mines on civilian populations has recently become evident, there is no denying that they hinder an enemy, and will continue to be used for the foreseeable future. That is because the emplacement category has several things, land mines being one of the primary ones, known as “force multipliers”.

I’ve mentioned force multipliers before, but those of you who are new to my blog and those who missed that entry might want a quick refresh. Force multipliers swell the effect of your troops (as if multiplying the number of troops) by impacting the enemy or making your troops more powerful. While the term is relatively recent, the idea has been around for a while. Limit the number of attackers that can actually participate in an attack, and you have a force multiplier because you can bring more defenses to bear than the attacker can overcome. Land mines are a force multiplier because they channel attackers away from themselves and into areas more suited to defense. They can also slow down attackers and leave them in a pre-determined field of fire longer than would have been their choice. No one likes to stand in a field full of bombs, picking their way through, while the enemy is raining fire down upon them.

A study of the North African campaign in World War II gives a good understanding of ways that force multipliers can be employed to astounding effect. By cutting off avenues of attack and channeling attackers to where they wanted, the defenders of Tobruk – mostly from the Australian 9th Infantry Division - for example, held off repeated, determined attacks because the avenues left open for attacks were tightly controlled by the defenders.

And that is possibly the most effective form of defense that IT Security has also. It is not enough to detect that you’re being attacked and then try to block it any more. The sophistication of attackers means that if they can get to your web application from the Internet, they can attack application and OS in a very rapid succession looking for known vulnerabilities. While “script kiddie” is a phrase of scorn in the hacker community, the fact is that running a scripted attack to see if there are any easy penetrations is simple these days, and script kiddies are as real a threat as full on high skill hackers. Particularly if you don’t patch on the day a vulnerability is announced for any reason.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Let’s start talking about detecting malevolent connections before they touch your server, about asking for login credentials before they can footprint what OS you are running, and sending those who are not trusted off to a completely different server, isolated from the core datacenter network. While we’re at it, let’s start talking about an interface to the public Internet that can withstand huge DDoS and 3DoS attacks without failing, so not only is the attack averted, it never actually makes it to the server it was intended for, and is shunted off to a different location and/or dropped. Just like force multipliers in the military world, these channel traffic the way you want, stop it before the attack gets rolling, and leaves your servers and security staff free to worry about other things. Like serving legitimate customers.

It really is easy as a security professional to get cynical. After all, it is the information security professional’s job to deal with ne’er-do-wells all of the time. And to play the bad cop whenever the business or IT has a “great new idea”. Between the two it could drag you down. But if you have these two force multipliers in place, more of those great ideas can get past you because you have a solid wall of protection in place. In fact, add in a Web Acceleration Firewall (WAF) for added protection at the application layer, and you’ve got a solid architecture that will allow you to be more flexible when a “great idea” really sounds like one. And it might just return some optimism, because the bad guys will have fewer avenues of attack, and you’ll feel just that bit ahead of them.

If information technology is undervalued in the organization, information security is really undervalued. But from someone who knows, thank you. It’s a tough job that has to be approached from a “we stopped them today” perspective, and you’re keeping us safe – from the bad guys, and often from ourselves. I’ve done it, and I’m glad you’re doing it. Hopefully technological advances will force you to do less that resembles this picture.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, F5 makes products that vaguely fill all of the spaces I mention above. That doesn’t mean no one else does. For some of the spaces anyway. This blog was inspired by a whitepaper I’m working on, so no surprise the areas top-of-mind while writing it are things we do. Doesn’t make them bad ideas, in fact I would argue the opposite. It makes them better ideas than fluff thrown out there to attract you with no solutions available.


PS: Trying out a new “Related Articles and Blogs” plug-in that Lori found. Let me know if you like the results better.


Related Articles and Blogs:

F5 at RSA: Multilayer Security without Compromise
Making Security Understandable: A New Approach to Internet Security
Committing to Overhead: Proceed With Caution.
F5 Enables Mobile Device Management Security On-Demand
RSA 2012 - Interview with Jeremiah Grossman
RSA 2012 - BIG-IP Data Center Firewall Solution
RSA 2012 - F5 MDM Solutions
The Conspecific Hybrid Cloud

Why BYOD Doesn't Always Work In Healthcare
Federal Cybersecurity Guidelines Now Cover Cloud, Mobility

Published Feb 29, 2012
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