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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

1.7 Human Issues

Implementing computer security controls is complex, and in a large organization procedural controls often become vague or cumbersome. Regardless of the strength of the technical controls, if nontechnical considerations affect their implementation and use, the effect on security can be severe. Moreover, if configured or used incorrectly, even the best security control is useless at best and dangerous at worst. Thus, the designers, implementers, and maintainers of security controls are essential to the correct operation of those controls.

1.7.1 Organizational Problems

Security provides no direct financial rewards to the user. It limits losses, but it also requires the expenditure of resources that could be used elsewhere. Unless losses occur, organizations often believe they are wasting effort related to security. After a loss, the value of these controls suddenly becomes appreciated. Furthermore, security controls often add complexity to otherwise simple operations. For example, if concluding a stock trade takes two minutes without security controls and three minutes with security controls, adding those controls results in a 50% loss of productivity.

Losses occur when security protections are in place, but such losses are expected to be less than they would have been without the security mechanisms. The key question is whether such a loss, combined with the resulting loss in productivity, would be greater than a financial loss or loss of confidence should one of the nonsecured transactions suffer a breach of security.

Compounding this problem is the question of who is responsible for the security of the company's computers. The power to implement appropriate controls must reside with those who are responsible; the consequence of not doing so is that the people who can most clearly see the need for security measures, and who are responsible for implementing them, will be unable to do so. This is simply sound business practice; responsibility without power causes problems in any organization, just as does power without responsibility.

Once clear chains of responsibility and power have been established, the need for security can compete on an equal footing with other needs of the organization. The most common problem a security manager faces is the lack of people trained in the area of computer security. Another common problem is that knowledgeable people are overloaded with work. At many organizations, the "security administrator" is also involved in system administration, development, or some other secondary function. In fact, the security aspect of the job is often secondary. The problem is that indications of security problems often are not obvious and require time and skill to spot. Preparation for an attack makes dealing with it less chaotic, but such preparation takes enough time and requires enough attention so that treating it as a secondary aspect of a job means that it will not be performed well, with the expected consequences.

Lack of resources is another common problem. Securing a system requires resources as well as people. It requires time to design a configuration that will provide an adequate level of security, to implement the configuration, and to administer the system. It requires money to purchase products that are needed to build an adequate security system or to pay someone else to design and implement security measures. It requires computer resources to implement and execute the security mechanisms and procedures. It requires training to ensure that employees understand how to use the security tools, how to interpret the results, and how to implement the nontechnical aspects of the security policy.

1.7.2 People Problems

The heart of any security system is people. This is particularly true in computer security, which deals mainly with technological controls that can usually be bypassed by human intervention. For example, a computer system authenticates a user by asking that user for a secret code; if the correct secret code is supplied, the computer assumes that the user is authorized to use the system. If an authorized user tells another person his secret code, the unauthorized user can masquerade as the authorized user with significantly less likelihood of detection.

People who have some motive to attack an organization and are not authorized to use that organization's systems are called outsiders and can pose a serious threat. Experts agree, however, that a far more dangerous threat comes from disgruntled employees and other insiders who are authorized to use the computers. Insiders typically know the organization of the company's systems and what procedures the operators and users follow and often know enough passwords to bypass many security controls that would detect an attack launched by an outsider. Insider misuse of authorized privileges is a very difficult problem to solve.

Untrained personnel also pose a threat to system security. As an example, one operator did not realize that the contents of backup tapes needed to be verified before the tapes were stored. When attackers deleted several critical system files, she discovered that none of the backup tapes could be read.

System administrators who misread the output of security mechanisms, or do not analyze that output, contribute to the probability of successful attacks against their systems. Similarly, administrators who misconfigure security-related features of a system can weaken the site security. Users can also weaken site security by misusing security mechanisms (such as selecting passwords that are easy to guess).

Lack of training need not be in the technical arena. Many successful break-ins have arisen from the art of social engineering. If operators will change passwords based on telephone requests, all an attacker needs to do is to determine the name of someone who uses the computer. A common tactic is to pick someone fairly far above the operator (such as a vice president of the company) and to feign an emergency (such as calling at night and saying that a report to the president of the company is due the next morning) so that the operator will be reluctant to refuse the request. Once the password has been changed to one that the attacker knows, he can simply log in as a normal user. Social engineering attacks are remarkably successful and often devastating.

The problem of misconfiguration is aggravated by the complexity of many security-related configuration files. For instance, a typographical error can disable key protection features. Even worse, software does not always work as advertised. One widely used system had a vulnerability that arose when an administrator made too long a list that named systems with access to certain files. Because the list was too long, the system simply assumed that the administrator meant to allow those files to be accessed without restriction on who could access them—exactly the opposite of what was intended.

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