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Building Internet Firewalls

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1.3 How Can You Protect Your Site?

What approaches can you take to protect against the kinds of attacks we've outlined in this chapter? People choose a variety of security models, or approaches, ranging from no security at all, through what's called "security through obscurity" and host security, to network security.

1.3.1 No Security

The simplest possible approach is to put no effort at all into security, and run with whatever minimal security your vendor provides you by default. If you're reading this book, you've probably already rejected this model.

1.3.2 Security Through Obscurity

Another possible security model is the one commonly referred to as "security through obscurity." With this model, a system is presumed to be secure simply because (supposedly) nobody knows about it - its existence, contents, security measures, or anything else. This approach seldom works for long; there are just too many ways to find an attractive target.

Many people assume that even though attackers can find them, they won't bother to. They figure that a small company or a home machine just isn't going to be of interest to intruders. In fact, many intruders aren't aiming at particular targets; they just want to break into as many machines as possible. To them, small companies and home machines simply look like easy targets. They probably won't stay long, but they will attempt to break in, and they may do considerable damage if they do get in while they try to cover their tracks.

To function on any network, the Internet included, a site has to do at least a minimal amount of registration, and much of this registration information is available to anyone, just for the asking. Every time a site uses services on the network, someone - at the very least, whoever is providing the service - will know they're there. Intruders watch for new connections, in the hope that these sites won't yet have security measures in place. Some sites have reported automated probes apparently based on new site registrations.

You'd probably be amazed at how many different ways someone can determine security-sensitive information about your site. For example, knowing what hardware and software you have and what version of the operating system you're running gives intruders important clues about what security holes they might try. They can often get this information from your host registration, or by trying to connect to your computer. Many computers disclose their type of operating system in the greeting you get before you log in, so an intruder doesn't need access to get it.

Intruders have a lot of time on their hands, and can often avoid having to figure out obscure facts by simply trying all the possibilities. In the long run, relying on obscurity is not a smart security choice.

1.3.3 Host Security

Probably the most common model for computer security is host security. With this model, you enforce the security of each host machine separately, and you make every effort to avoid or alleviate all the known security problems that might affect that particular host. What's wrong with host security? It's not that it doesn't work on individual machines; it's that it doesn't scale to large numbers of machines.

The major impediment to effective host security in modern computing environments is the complexity and diversity of those environments. Most modern environments include machines from multiple vendors, each with its own operating system, and each with its own set of security problems. Even if the site has machines from only one vendor, different releases of the same operating system often have significantly different security problems. Even if all these machines are from a single vendor and run a single release of the operating system, different configurations (different services enabled, and so on) can bring different subsystems into play (and into conflict) and lead to different sets of security problems. And, even if the machines are all absolutely identical, the sheer number of them at some sites can make securing them all difficult. It takes a significant amount of up-front and ongoing work to effectively implement and maintain host security. Even with all that work done correctly, host security still often fails due to bugs in vendor software, or due to a lack of suitably secure software for some required functions.

Host security also relies on the good intentions and the skill of everyone who has privileged access to any machine. As the number of machines increases, the number of privileged users generally increases as well. Securing a machine is much more difficult than attaching it to a network, so insecure machines may appear on your network as unexpected surprises. The mere fact that it is not supposed to be possible to buy or connect machines without consulting you is immaterial; people develop truly innovative purchasing and network-connection schemes if they feel the need.

A host security model may be highly appropriate for small sites, or sites with extreme security requirements. Indeed, all sites should include some level of host security in their overall security plans. Even if you adopt a network security model, as we describe in the next section, certain systems in your configuration will benefit from the strongest host security. For example, even if you have built a firewall around your internal network and systems, there will be certain systems exposed to the outside world that need host security. (We discuss this in detail in Chapter 5, Bastion Hosts.) The problem is, the host security model alone just isn't cost-effective for any but small or simple sites; making it work requires too many restrictions and too many people.

1.3.4 Network Security

As environments grow larger and more diverse, and as securing them on a host-by-host basis grows more difficult, more sites are turning to a network security model. With a network security model, you concentrate on controlling network access to your various hosts and the services they offer, rather than on securing them one by one. Network security approaches include building firewalls to protect your internal systems and networks, using strong authentication approaches (such as one-time passwords), and using encryption to protect particularly sensitive data as it transits the network.

A site can get tremendous leverage from its security efforts by using a network security model. For example, a single network firewall of the type we discuss in this book can protect hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of machines against attack from networks beyond the firewall, regardless of the level of host security of the individual machines.

NOTE: Although this book concentrates on network security, please note that we aren't suggesting you ignore host security. As mentioned above, you should apply the strongest possible host security measures to your most important machines, especially to those machines that are directly connected to the Internet. You'll also want to consider using host security on your internal machines in general, to address security problems other than attacks from the Internet.

1.3.5 No Security Model Can Do It All

No security model can solve all your problems. No security model - short of "maximum security prison" - can prevent a hostile person with legitimate access from purposefully damaging your site or taking confidential information out of it. To get around powerful host and network security measures, a legitimate user can simply use physical methods. These may range from pouring soda into your computers to carrying sensitive memos home. You can protect yourself from accidents and ignorance internally, and from malicious external acts, but you cannot protect yourself from your legitimate users without severely damaging their ability to use their computers. Spies succeed in breaching government security with depressing regularity despite regulations and precautions well beyond the resources and tolerance of civilians.

No security model can take care of management problems; computer security will not keep your people from wasting time, annoying each other, or embarrassing you. Sites often get sucked into trying to make security protect against these things. When people are wasting time reading Usenet news, annoying each other by playing tricks with window systems, and embarrassing the company with horrible email, computer security looks like a promising technological solution that avoids difficult issues. Unfortunately, a security model won't work here. It is expensive and difficult to even try to solve these problems with computer security, and you are once again in the impossible situation of trying to protect yourself from legitimate users.

No security model provides perfect protection. You can expect to make break-ins rare, brief, and inexpensive, but you can't expect to avoid them altogether. Even the most secure and dedicated sites expect to have a security incident every few years.[2]

[2] You can impress a security expert by saying you've only been broken into once in the last five years; if you say you've never been broken into, they stop being impressed and decide that either you can't detect break-ins, or you haven't been around long enough for anyone to try seriously!

Why bother, then? Security may not prevent every single incident, but it can keep an incident from seriously damaging or even shutting down your business. At one high-profile company with multiple computer facilities, a manager complained that his computer facility was supposed to be the most secure, but it got broken into along with several others. The difference was that the break-in was the first one that year for his facility; the intruder was present for only eight minutes; and the computer facility was off the Internet for only 12 hours (from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M.), after which it resumed business as usual with no visible interruption in service to the company's customers. For one of the other facilities, it was the fourth time; the intruder was present for months before being detected; recovery required taking the facility down for four days; and they had to inform customers that they had shipped them tapes containing possibly contaminated software. Proper security made the difference between an annoying occurrence and a devastating one.


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