• United States



by George Viegas

Too many CSOs ignore the reality of today’s threats

Jun 21, 20134 mins
CSO and CISOCybercrimeData and Information Security

George Viegas argues that recent research, like Mandiant's APT1 report, finds too many security managers suffer from "ain't gonna happen to me" syndrome and fail to protect their business because of it. Do you have it?

Richard Ramirez is remembered all across southern California for the terror he invoked during the early 80’s. The serial killer, who died in prison earlier this month, was nicknamed the ‘Night Stalker’ and was known for the ease with which he entered his victim’s homes. He did not break and enter, he didn’t shatter windows or climb down the chimneys. For the most part, Richard ‘walked’ into homes either through screen doors left unlocked or windows left open. Many of his crimes I’ve been told, were committed close to freeway ramps to facilitate a fast getaway.

What was very interesting to note about Ramirez’s victims is that even though the city was aware of a serial killer on the loose, people still left their windows open or the screen doors open. I know I would batten down the hatches and take extra precautions until I heard the killer had been caught. So what makes people be lax and laissez-faire, in the face of a known and omnipresent danger?

[Related: The seven deadly sins of building security]

Enter what I coin as the ‘aint’ gonna happen to me’ syndrome. It’s the opposite of the ‘safety in numbers’ effect. It’s when people think that’s its such a big situation that they cannot possibly be the target. It’s when individuals think that ‘its a big city and there’s thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of people, surely nobody’s going to stop by my house and single me out’. But yet Ramirez did just that and time and time again he found homes with little or no security and he walked right in with minimal effort.

Does this ring a bell now folks?

Fast forward to today and the Advance Persistent Threats (APT) that are a clear and omnipresent danger. There’s probably very few IT and business people who have not heard of the Chinese hackers attacking our systems and stealing valuable business intelligence through APT. Mandiant first published information about APT in their January 2010 (M-trends report). The latest 2013 Mandiant APT1 report indicates a broad campaign of espionage, conducted from a Chinese based group, dating from as far back as 2006. In fact per the Mandiant report, the Chinese-based espionage group maintained access to victim’s networks for an average of 365 days.

And yet in the face of this very clear danger, we continue to have a lot of open windows and open doors. Mandiant’s latest threat landscape assessment indicates that the median number of days that advanced hackers are on the network before being detected is 243 days. Systems that are unpatched, privileged accounts that are inadequately protected, a reliance on anti-virus alone for security — these are all examples of open windows and doors that allow an attacker to easily ‘walk’ into our network and take way all that is dear to the business.

[Social engineering: 5 security holes at the office]

Not only are these hackers accessing our systems but they return time and time again to pillage and plunder at will. The APT1 report also reveals that these attackers returned to their victim’s network periodically over several months or years taking with them valuable business information including technology blueprints, manufacturing process information, business plans, pricing etc. So the doors were open, the windows were open and the attackers entered our corporate ‘homes’ at will. We might as well have thrown in a welcome mat to finish the story.

As with Richard Ramirez, we know about the threat, we are aware of the danger, yet how many of us are actually doing something about it? Are we walking around our corporate ‘homes’ looking for the open windows and open backdoors and shutting them down or do we hide behind the ‘aint gonna happen to me’ façade?

The ‘ain’t gonna happen to me’ façade only works until someone attacks you and by then it is too late to do anything about it.

George Viegas, CISSP, CISA is Director of Information Security at a leading multinational information and media company based in Los Angeles.