Every time the headlines are full of the latest Cyber Crime or malware Scare story such as the Flame virus, the need to review the security standards employed by your organization takes on a new level of urgency.
The 2012 APT (Advanced Persistent Threat)
The Advanced Persistent threat differs from a regular hack or Trojan attack in that it is as the name suggests, advanced in technology and technique, and persistent, in that it is typically a sustained theft of data over many months.
So far the APT has largely been viewed as Government sponsored cyber-espionage in terms of the resources needed to orchestrate such an attack, such as the recent Flame malware which appears to have been a US or Israeli backed espionage initiative against Iran. However you always see the leading edge of technology become the norm a year later, so expect to see APT attacks reach the more mainstream, competitor-backed industrial espionage, and 'hacktivist' groups like Lulzsec and Anonymous adopting similar approaches.
The common vector for these attacks is a targeted spear phishing infiltration of the organization. Using Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media makes identification of targets much easier today, and also what kind of phishing 'bait' is going to be most effective in duping the target into providing the all-important welcoming click on the tasty links or downloads offered.
Phishing is already a well-established tool for Organized Crime gangs who will utilize these same profiled spear phishing techniques to steal data. As an interesting aside regarding organized crimes' usage of 'cybermuscle', it is reported that prices for botnets are plummeting at the moment due to oversupply of available robot networks. If you want to coerce an organization with a threat of disabling their web presence, arm yourself with a global botnet and point it at their site - DDOS attacks are easier than ever to orchestrate.
Something Must Be Done...
To be clear on what we are saying here, it isn't that AV or firewalls are no use, far from it. But the APT style of threat will evade both by design and this is the first fact to acknowledge - like the first step for a recovering alcoholic the first step is to admit you have a problem!
By definition, this kind of attack is the most dangerous because any attack that is smart enough to skip past standard defense measures is definitely going to be one that is backed by a serious intent to damage your organization (note: don't think that APT technology is therefore only an issue for blue chip organizations - that may have been the case but now that the concepts and architecture of the APT is in the mainstream, the wider hacker and hacktivist communities will already have engineered their own interpretations of the APT)
So the second fact to take on board is that there is an 'art' to delivering effective security and that requires a continuous effort to follow process and cross-check that security measures are working effectively.
The good news is that it is possible to automate the cross-checks and vigilance we have identified a need for, and in fact there are already two key technologies designed to detect abnormal occurrences within systems and to verify that security best practices are being operated.
FIM and SIEM - Security Measures Underwritten
File Integrity Monitoring or FIM serves to record any changes to the file system i.e. core operating system files or program components, and the systems' configuration settings i.e. user accounts, password policy, services, installed software, management and monitoring functions, registry keys and registry values, running processes and security policy settings for audit policy settings, user rights assignment and security options. FIM is designed to both verify that a device remains hardened and free of vulnerabilities at all time, and that the filesystem remains free of any malware. Therefore even if some form of APT malware manages to infiltrate a critical server, well implemented FIM will detect file system changes before any rootkit protective measures that may be employed by the malware can kick in.
Likewise SIEM, or Security Information and Event Management, systems are designed to gather and analyze all system audit trails/event logs and correlate these with other security information to present a true picture of whether anything unusual and potentially security threatening is happening.
It is telling that widely adopted and practiced security standards such as the PCI DSS place these elements at their core as a means of maintaining system security and verifying that key processes like Change Management are being observed.
At the core of any comprehensive security standard is the concept of layered security - firewalling, IPS, AV, patching, hardening, DLP, tokenization, secure application development and data encryption, all governed by documented change control procedures and underpinned by audit trail analysis and file integrity monitoring. Even then with standards like the PCI DSS there is a mandated requirement for Pen Testing and Vulnerability Scanning as further checks and balances that security is being maintained.
In summary, your security policy should be built around the philosophy that technology helps secure your organizations' data, but that nothing can be taken for granted. Only by practicing continuous surveillance of system activity can you truly maintain data security, very much the essence of the Art of Layered Security.