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Building Internet Firewalls

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Security Strategies
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3.5 Fail-Safe Stance

Another fundamental principle of security is that, to the extent possible, systems should fail safe; that is, if they're going to fail, they should fail in such a way that they deny access to an attacker, rather than letting the attacker in. The failure may also result in denying access to legitimate users as well, until repairs are made, but this is usually an acceptable tradeoff.

Safe failures are another principle with wide application in familiar places. Electrical devices are designed to go off - to stop - when they fail in almost any way. Elevators are designed to grip their cables if they're not being powered. Electric door locks generally unlock when the power fails, to avoid trapping people in buildings.

Most of the applications we discuss automatically fail safely. For example, if a packet filtering router goes down, it doesn't let any packets in. If a proxying program goes down, it provides no service. On the other hand, some host-based packet filtering systems are designed such that packets are allowed to arrive at a machine that runs a packet filtering application and separately runs applications providing services. The way some of these systems work, if the packet filtering application crashes (or is never started at boot time), the packets will be delivered to the applications providing services. This is not a fail-safe design and should be avoided.

The biggest application of this principle in network security is in choosing your site's stance with respect to security. Your stance is, essentially, your site's overall attitude towards security. Do you lean towards being restrictive or permissive? Are you more inclined to err in the direction of safety (some might call it paranoia) or freedom?

There are two fundamental stances that you can take with respect to security decisions and policies:

It may seem obvious to you which of these is the "right" approach to take; from a security point of view, it's the default deny stance. Probably, it will also seem obvious to your users and management; from their point of view, it's the default permit stance. It's important to make your stance clear to users and management, as well as to explain the reasons behind that stance. Otherwise, you're likely to spend a lot of unproductive time in conflict with them, wondering "How could they be so foolish as to even suggest that?" time and again, simply because they don't understand the security point of view.

3.5.1 Default Deny Stance: That Which Is Not Expressly Permitted Is Prohibited

The default deny stance makes sense from a security point of view because it is a fail-safe stance. It recognizes that what you don't know can hurt you. It's the obvious choice for most security people, but it's usually not at all obvious to users.

With the default deny stance, you prohibit everything by default; then, to determine what you are going to allow, you:

Services are enabled on a case-by-case basis. You start by analyzing the security of a specific service, and balance its security implications against the needs of your users. Based on that analysis and the availability of various remedies to improve the security of the service, you settle on an appropriate compromise.

For one service, you might determine that you should provide the service to all users and can do so safely with commonly available packet filtering or proxy systems. For another service, you might determine that the service cannot be adequately secured by any currently available means, but that only a small number of your users or systems require it. In the latter case, perhaps its use can be restricted to that small set of users (who can be made aware of the risks through special training) or systems (which you may be able to protect in other ways; e.g., through host security). The whole key is to find a compromise that is appropriate to your particular situation.

3.5.2 Default Permit Stance: That Which Is Not Expressly Prohibited Is Permitted

Most users and managers prefer the default permit stance. They tend to assume that everything will be, by default, permitted, and that certain specific, troublesome actions and services will then be prohibited as necessary. For example:

They want you to tell them what's dangerous; to itemize those few (they think) things that they can't do, and to let them do everything else. This is definitely not a fail-safe stance.

First, it assumes that you know ahead of time precisely what the specific dangers are, how to explain them so users will understand them, and how to guard against them. Trying to guess what dangers might be in a system or out there on the Internet is essentially an impossible task. There are simply too many possible problems, and too much information (e.g., new security holes, new exploitations of old holes, etc.) to be able to keep up to date. If you don't know that something is a problem, it won't be on your "prohibited" list. In that case, it will go right on being a problem until you notice it and you'll probably notice it because somebody takes advantage of it.

Second, the default permit stance tends to degenerate into an escalating "arms race" between the firewall maintainer and the users. The maintainer prepares defenses against user action or inaction (or, he just keeps saying, "Don't do that!"); the users come up with fascinating new and insecure ways of doing things; and the process repeats, again and again. The maintainer is forever playing catch up. Inevitably, there are going to be periods of vulnerability between the time that a system is set up, the time that a security problem is discovered, and the time that the maintainer is able to respond to the problem. No matter how vigilant and cooperative everyone may be, some things are going to fall through the cracks forever: because the maintainer has never heard about them, because he has never realized the full security consequences; or because he just plain hasn't had time to work on the problem.

About the only people who benefit from the default permit stance are potential attackers, because the firewall maintainer can't possibly close all the holes, is forever stuck in "fire fighting" mode, and is likely to be far too busy to notice an attacker's activities.

For example, consider the problem of sharing files with collaborators at another site. Your users' first idea will probably be to use the same tool that they use to share files internally - NFS. The problem is, NFS is completely unsafe to allow across a firewall (for reasons discussed in Chapter 2, Internet Services and Chapter 8, Configuring Internet Services). Suppose that your stance is a permissive one, and you haven't specifically told your users that it's not safe to run NFS across your firewall (or even if you have told them, but don't remember or don't care). In this case, you're probably going to find yourself running NFS across your firewall because it seemed like a good idea to somebody who didn't understand (or care about) the security issues. If your stance is default deny, on the other hand, your users' attempts to set up NFS will fail. You'll need to explain why to them, suggest alternatives that are more secure (such as FTP), and look for ways to make those more secure alternatives easier to use without sacrificing security.

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