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The Computer Security Bookshelf, Part 1

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According to recent IT employment surveys, certification studies, and polls of IT professionals, system and network security are shaping up as "the" core competencies worthy of cultivation. To help you explore this fascinating field, and appreciate its breadth and depth, Ed Tittel has put together a collection of two articles that together cover information security (or infosec, as it's sometimes called) as completely as possible. All the books in here are worth owning — though you may not need to acquire all books on identical or related topics from these lists. Together this compilation documents the best-loved and respected titles in this field. This is the first of two parts, so be sure to check out its successor story as well.

Editor's Note: This article was fully revised and updated in December of 2004.

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In this story, I present the first installment of a two-part story on computer security books, in which I recommend titles that are bound to be noteworthy for those with an interest in this field. In my particular case, I'm still reading and studying to take the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) exam and digging my way through the most useful elements of a large body of work on this subject matter.

This list and its companion (" The Computer Security Bookshelf, Part 2") emerged from the following research:

  • I drew on my own reading in this field since the early 1990s. Currently, my bookcases already include 3-plus shelves of security books.
  • I consulted every expert security reading list I could find, including recommended reading for a broad range of security certifications, where available.
  • I asked my friends and colleagues who work in this field to provide feedback on my initial findings and to suggest additional entries.

Expert and ordinary reader reviews—and in about half the items mentioned here, my own personal experience—show me that there's an amazing number of truly outstanding books in this field. If you find yourself reading something you don't like or can't understand on this topic, don't be afraid to investigate the alternatives. There are plenty of them!

To avoid the potential unpleasantness involved in ranking these titles, I present them in alphabetical order indexed by the primary author's last name.

Adams, Carlisle and Steve Lloyd: Understanding PKI: Concepts, Standards, and Deployment Considerations, 2e, Addison-Wesley, 2002, ISBN: 0672323915.
Covers the basic principles needed to understand, design, deploy and manage safe, secure PKI installations and information related to the issuance, use, and management of digital certificates. Provides special emphasis on certificates and certification, operational considerations related to deployment and use of PKI, and relevant standards and interoperability issues. A great overall introduction to the topic of PKI that's not too deeply technical.

Allen, Julia H.: The CERT Guide to System and Network Security Practices, Addison-Wesley, 2001, ISBN: 020173723X.
Here, the author distills numerous best practices and recommendations from the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and its vast body of experience with computer security incidents, exploits, and attacks. Advice is couched generically rather than in terms of particular platforms or applications, so some translation will be necessary to implement that advice. Topics covered include hardening systems and networks, detecting and handling break-ins or other types of attack, and designing effective security policies.

Bishop, Matt: Computer Security: Art and Science, Addison-Wesley, 2003, ISBN: 0201440997.
Professor Matt Bishop packs his security expertise into this well-written, comprehensive computer security tome. This book has been successfully tested at advanced undergraduate and introductory graduate levels, and can be a useful addition to security certification courses. Topics covered include the theoretical and practical aspects of security policies, models, cryptography and key management, authentication, biometrics, access control, information flow and analysis, and assurance and trust.

Bosworth, Seymor and Michael E. Kabay: Computer Security Handbook, 4e, John Wiley & Sons, 2002, ISBN: 0471412589.
The fourth edition of a popular general computer security reference, this version provides updates to a great deal of useful and timely information. Essentially a series of articles on a broad range of topics, this book covers the full spectrum of important security matters reasonably well. Chapters are lengthy, detailed, and full of information. They cover important management issues such as security policy, legal issues, risk management, and computer crime; basic safeguards such as contingency planning, disaster recovery, security auditing, and application controls; and deal with all kinds of protection topics from hardware, to software and information security, ensuring security of data, records, and forms, encryption, using contractors and services, and applying security to PCs.

Caloyannides, Michael A.: Computer Forensics and Privacy, 2e, Artech House, 2004, ISBN: 1580538304.
A technical yet readable title that addresses privacy rights for individuals who seek to protect personal or confidential information from unauthorized access. Includes coverage of computer forensic tools and techniques, as well as methods individuals might use to combat them. Covers use of disk-wiping software, methods to achieve anonymity online, techniques for managing security, and confidentiality, encryption, wireless security, and legal issues.

Cheswick, William R. and Steven M. Bellovin: Firewalls and Internet Security, Addison-Wesley, 1994, ISBN: 0201633574.
I include this title because of its great coverage of IP security topics and its excellent analysis of a computer attack and its handling. The firewall coverage is superb; but the authors' coverage of Internet security topics and techniques is also timely, interesting, and informative.

Cole, Eric: Hackers Beware: Defending Your Network From The Wiley Hacker, New Riders, 2001, ISBN: 0735710090.
A star instructor at the SysAdmin, Audit, Network, Security (SANS) Institute, Cole distills his extensive knowledge and experience in this book. This book provides ample coverage of both offensive and defensive tools in the computer security arsenal, as well as a great overview of attack strategies, best security practices, security concepts and terminology. Thus, the book combines a useful examination of common vulnerabilities and attacks, with explanations that explain how those vulnerabilities may be exploited and attacks successfully waged. To the benefit of administrators and would-be security professionals, it also covers how to detect and respond to attacks when necessary, and to avoid or deflect them where possible.

Cooper, Mark et al.: Intrusion Signatures and Analysis, New Riders, 2001, ISBN: 0735710635.
In this book, numerous network and system attacks are documented and described, along with methods that administrators can use to recognize ("identify a signature," as it were) and deal with such attacks. Aimed in part at helping individuals seeking the GIAC Certified Intrusion Analyst (GCIA) certification, the book explores a large catalog of attacks, documents the tools intruders use to mount them, and explains how to handle or prevent them. By working from protocol traces, or intrusion detection or firewall logs, the book also teaches skills for recognizing, analyzing, and responding to attacks.

Crothers, Tim: Implementing Intrusion Detection Systems : A Hands-On Guide for Securing the Network, Wiley, 2002, ISBN: 0764549499.
Though there ae lots of books that talk about intrusion detection systems, this one stands out for several reasons. First, it's short, concise, and direct: a great introduction to the topic. Second it's leavened with good advice and best practices on deploying and using IDS technology, and includes great diagrams and explanations. It's probably not the only book you'll want on this topic, but it's a great place to start digging in.

Garfinkel, Simson, Alan Schwartz, and Gene Spafford: Practical Unix and Internet Security, 3e, O'Reilly & Associates, 2003, ISBN: 0596003234.
Newly updated, this book remains one of the best general security administration books around. Starts with the fundamentals of security and Unix, works its way through security administration topics and techniques clearly and systematically, and includes lots of great supplementary information that's still quite useful today. While it's focused on a particular operating system and its inner workings, this book will be useful even for those who may not rub shoulders with Unix every day.

Garfinkel, Simson et al: Web Security, Privacy, and Commerce, O'Reilly & Associates, 2002, ISBN: 0596000456.
Tackles the real root causes behind well-publicized attacks and exploits on Web sites and servers right from the front lines. Explains the sources of risk, and how those risks can be managed, mitigated, or sidestepped. Topics covered include user safety, digital certificates, cryptography, Web server security and security protocols, and e-commerce topics and technologies. A great title for those interested in Web security matters.

Gollman, Dieter: Computer Security, John Wiley & Sons, 1999, ISBN: 0471978442.
Surveys computer security topics and issues from a broad perspective starting with the notion of security models. It also covers what's involved in security operating and database systems, as well as networks. Widely adopted as an upper-division undergraduate or introductory graduate level textbook in computer science curricula. Also includes a comprehensive bibliography (though a bit dated now).

Harris, Shon: CISSP All-in-One Exam Guide, 2e, Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2003, ISBN: 0072229667.
There are numerous other titles about the CISSP exam available, but this is the only one to get high ratings from both security professionals and from ordinary book buyers. Covers the 10 domains in the Common Body of Knowledge (CBK) that is the focus of the CISSP exam, but also includes lots of examples, case studies, and scenarios. Where other books summarize, digest, and condense the information almost into almost unrecognizable forms, this book is well written, explains most key topics quite well, and lays out the landscape that the CISSP covers very well. Those with infosec training or backgrounds may be able to use this as their only study resource, but those who lack such background will want to read more widely. A value-add to this book are the accompanying simulated practice exams and video training on the CD.

Kahn, David: The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, Scribner, 1996, ISBN: 0684831309.
If you're looking for a single, comprehensive, and exhaustive treatment of the subject of cryptography, this is the book for you. Kahn starts with simple substitution ciphers that go all the way back to the invention of writing in the Tigris/Euphrates cultures to techniques used in the present day. Be warned that this book is rather more historical and descriptive in its coverage than it is a how-to book, but it is absolutely the right place to start for those who are interested in this topic and who want to get the best possible background before diving into more technical detail.

Kruse, Warren G. and Jay Heiser: Computer Forensics: Incident Response Essentials, Addison-Wesley, 2001, ISBN: 0201707195.
A current computer security buzzword is "incident response" or "incident handling," meaning the activities involved in detecting and responding to attacks or security breaches. This book describes a systematic approach to implementing incident responses, and focuses on intruder detection, analysis of compromises or damages, and identification of possible culprits involved. The emphasis is as much on preparing the "paper trail" necessary for successful prosecution of malefactors as it is in exploring the principles involved in formulating incident response teams, strategies, security enhancements, and so forth. Coverage extends to analysis of attack tools and strategies, as well as monitoring and detecting tools and techniques. An interesting read, and a very useful book.

McClure, Stuart, Joel Scambray, and George Kurtz: Hacking Exposed: Network Security Secrets & Solutions, 4e, Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2003, ISBN: 0072227427.
One of the best-selling computer security books of all time, this latest edition updates the authors’ catalog of hacker tools, attacks, and techniques with a keen eye on striking the right defensive posture. By operating system and type of attack, readers get a chance to learn about what tools are used for attacks, how they work, what they can reveal or allow, and how to defend systems and networks from their illicit use. The fourth edition includes only rudimentary Windows XP security issues and answers. A companion CD ROM includes tools, Web pointers, and other text supplements. Readers looking for Windows 2003 and XP SP2 coverage are advised to wait for the fifth edition, due out in April, 2005.

Nash, Andrew et al.: PKI: Implementing & Managing E-Security, Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2001, ISBN: 0072131233.
Prepared by a team of authors at leading security firm RSA Technologies, this book explores the security needs that motivate deployment and use of PKI, as well as the underlying concepts, terminology, tools, and techniques related to the subject. Making excellent use of diagrams to illuminate case studies and proposed configurations, the also addresses key concepts including managing keys and certificates, authentication, and trust models in great detail. Also addresses how to calculate ROI on PKI investments.

Northcutt, Stephen et al.: Inside Network Perimeter Security: The Definitive Guide to Firewalls, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Routers, and Intrusion Detection Systems, New Riders, 2002, ISBN: 0735712328.
Readers will enjoy the broad yet deep coverage this book offers regarding all aspects of network perimeter protection. The authors skillfully teach the reader how to "think" about security issues—threats, hack attacks, exploits, trends, and so on—rather than handhold the reader with step-by-step solutions to specific problems. This approach helps network security professionals learn how to use a variety of tools, analyze the results, and make effective decisions. Topics covered include designing and monitoring network perimeters for maximum security, firewalls, packet filtering, access lists, and expanding or improving the security of existing networks. Because the book was developed jointly with SANS Institute staff, it can be used as a study aid for individuals preparing for GIAC Certified Firewall Analyst (GCFW) certification.

Northcutt, Stephen and Judy Novak: Network Intrusion Detection, 3e, New Riders, 2002, ISBN: 0735712654.
A short but information-packed book that works it way through numerous real, documented system attacks to teach about tools, techniques, and practices that will aid in the recognition and handling of so-called "security incidents." The authors make extensive use of protocol traces and logs to explain what kind of attack took place, how it worked, and how to detect and deflect or foil such attacks. Those who work through this book's recommendations should be able to foil the attacks it documents, as they learn how to recognize, document, and respond to potential future attacks. One of the best books around for those who must configure router filters and responses, monitor networks for signs of potential attack, or assess possible countermeasures for deployment and use.

Peltier, Thomas R.: Information Security Risk Analysis, Auerbach, 2001, ISBN: 0849308801.
If there's one key activity that captures the essence of the discipline involve in practicing systems and network security, it's the analysis of risks and related exposures that properly precede the development of any well-formulated security policy. The techniques introduced in this book permit its readers to recognize and put price tags on potential threats to an organization's computer systems, be they malicious or accidental in nature. Covers well-known techniques such as FRAP (facilitated risk analysis process) and PARA (practical application of risk analysis), as it takes a step-by-step approach to identify, assessing, and handling potential sources of risk. The second edition of this book is scheduled for release in the Spring of 2005.

Rada, Roy: HIPAA @ IT Reference, 2003 Edition: Health Information Transactions, Privacy, and Security, Hypemedia Solutions, 2002, ISBN: 1901857174.
HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a maze of US Government regulations that surround the electronic packaging, storage, use, and exchange of medical records. Because HIPAA has a surprising reach into the private sector (it affects any business that handles medical records in any way), this topic receives coverage on most security certification exams and is of concern to IT professionals in general. This book is designed as a reference for such professionals and succeeds admirably in its purpose; basically, it condenses and explains what it takes the US Government thousands of pages to document in under 300 pages.

Russell, Deborah and G. T. Gangemi: Computer Security Basics, O'Reilly & Associates, 1991. ISBN: 0937175714.
In a clear sign that this book lives up to its title, it's still around (and in print) over 10 years after its initial release. An excellent primer on basic security concepts, terminology, and tools, the book also covers key elements of the US Government's security requirements and regulations as well. Although dated, it also provides useful coverage of security devices, as well as communications and network security topics. Many experts recommend this title as an ideal "my first computer security book."

Schneier, Bruce: Applied Cryptography, John Wiley & Sons, 1995, ISBN: 0471128457.
Although there are many good books on cryptography available (others appear in this list) none of the others approaches this one for readability and insight into the subject matter. This book covers the entire topic as completely as possible in a single volume, and includes working code examples for most encryption algorithms and techniques (which makes an interesting alternative to more common mathematical formulae and proofs so common to this subject). Even so, the book is informative, useful, and interesting even for those who do not read the code.

Schneier, Bruce: Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World, John Wiley & Sons, 2004, ISBN: 0471453803.
A well-known and respected figure in the field of computer and network security, Schneier brings his unique perspective to the broad topic of digital security matters in this book. He manages to be informative and interesting, often funny, on topics normally known for their soporific value. He also presents an interesting philosophy on "security as a perspective or a state of mind" rather than as a recipe for locking intruders, malefactors, or others out of systems and networks. Along the way, he also presents a useful exposition of the tools, techniques, and mind games hackers use to penetrate systems and networks around the world. One of the best possible choices on this list for "my first computer security book"—except that other titles (even those on this list) will have a mighty tough act to follow!

Strassberg, Keith, Gary Rollie, and Richard Gondek: Firewalls: The Complete Reference, Osborne McGraw-Hill, 2002, ISBN: 0072195673.
In keeping with its name, this guide truly offers complete coverage of firewall topics, from design, to installation and configuration, and finally, maintenance and management. In addition, the authors offer handy tips on product evaluation—valuable information in this area of high-speed, high-cost hardware. Firewalls discussed in-depth include Check Point Firewall-1, Cisco Private Internet Exchange (PIX), NetScreen, SonicWall, and Symantec Enterprise Firewall 6.5, in addition to Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000.

The Honeynet Project: Know Your Enemy: Learning About Security Threats, 2e, Addison-Wesley, 2004, ISBN: 0321166469.
In computer security jargon, a honeypot is a system designed to lure and snare would-be intruders; by extension, a honeynet is a network designed to do the same thing. The original Honeynet Project involved two years of effort from security professionals who set up and monitored a set of production systems and networks designed to be compromised. The pedigree of the group involved is stellar, and so are their results in this second edition, which shares the results of their continuing and detailed observations of attacks and exploits, and their recommendations on how to deal with such phenomena.

Zwicky, Elizabeth D. et al.: Building Internet Firewalls, 2e, O'Reilly & Associates, 2000, ISBN: 1565928717.
A follow-up to one of the original "big books" of computer security, this second edition walks well in the footsteps of its predecessor. Widely acknowledged as "the" firewall book, it digs into the principles and practices that go into building and implementing Internet firewalls like no other resource I know of. It does not address capabilities or configurations for today's turnkey firewalls, but does do an excellent job of analyzing and describing security strategies and configuration, both good and bad. New, timely topics added include streaming media, ActiveX, Java, IPv6, and so on, but the book maintains a focus on securing Internet services and constructing secure firewalls.

Here are some additional interesting infosec bibliographies, if you'd like to see other takes on this subject matter (you'll find more in the second part of this story as well):

Please send me feedback on my selections, including your recommendations for possible additions or deletions. I can't say I'll act on all such input, but I will consider all of it carefully.

Kim Lindros provided research and fact checking for this article.

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