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No Reverse Gear

Back from Nice and Unisys’ ‘Zero Gap’ security conference, a ‘Thought Leadership’ event that assembled over sixty ‘experts’ from big business, banks. Government and even the NHTCU and Interpol, to discuss today’s very real, information security challenges.

Unfortunately, the event was under Chatham House rules, so this might be a very short story if I hadn’t jotted down my impressions in the black moleskine diary that never leaves my side.

So without revealing names like Microsoft, Vodafone, the Prudential or even Privacy International, what new ideas did Unisys coax out of us with a little help from a free bar, quite honestly, the best possible instrument of thought provocation available.

First, there are no radically new ideas in the information security business. at least none that I can see. What we have are old methods increasingly wrapped in better processes or the recognition that some processes are no longer effective, simply offering an illusion of security, which can be rudely shattered by the arrival of a worm in one’s network.

Without breaching the conditions of my NDA, I’ll focus on a few points of personal interest from the conference.

Patching we all know has to improve and Microsoft is promising that by the end of this year, we will see a qualitative difference in the way the company responds to threats like Blaster.

One IS Director of a globally recognised company, commented to me that this summer’s patching exercise had halted the roll-out of an entire project and also added. “Microsoft are bringing out new products faster than we can black box them”.

The second problem is that patches are still too big, which may be fine for Broadband users on the end of a large corporate pipe but of little consolation to the consumer customer who has to rely on a dial-up connection to the Internet. In repairing my own crashed machine last week, I had to download 32 Megabytes of ‘critical’ security updates from Microsoft.Com, which over the Unisys broadband link, took almost an hour to download and install on my XP laptop. This simply is not a tenable solution in the real world and Microsoft is now treating it as a matter of urgency.

In fact, the company faces a harsh dilemma. It would like to distribute CDs ‘en masse’ with the latest security patches included but recognises that the moment it passes distribution to a third party, a magazine perhaps, then it no longer has quality control over what appears on the CD. From my own experience over five years ago, I’m reminded of a cover CD where a Microsoft executive’s PowerPoint presentation had been imaginatively re-edited along the way and the company’s worst case scenario involves having a Windows update CD ‘hijacked’ at the production stage. You can’t blame them either.

Finally, there’s a concern that having explored, in some detail, the mechanics of the Blaster worm, that there is significant potential for a threat which takes the example of Blaster a stage further and ‘Trashes’ a company’s Servers, forcing a complete rebuild. Now if you happen to work for one of our largest banks or retail stores, the prospect of losing the servers in all your branches at the same time is a little frightening, particularly of each has to be rebuilt. How would you replace a thousand Servers, each with its link to head office? How long would this take and how much would it cost your company in terms of business interruption?

Good procedures and strong policy can keep most of the threats at bay and everyone recognises that software in general is vulnerable to exploits from the Internet and Microsoft, with the largest market share, just happens to be the favourite and fattest target. Over time the threats are expected to diminish as the response becomes faster and the software more robust. There is however a gap in the collective defences, represented by the sheer size of the Windows NT base which has yet to migrate to Widows Server 2003. As long as business is wedded, for sensible cost and operational reasons, to earlier and more vulnerable versions of Windows, the risk remains high and with it, the near certain inevitability of another attack to mimic the impact of SQL-Slammer or Blaster.


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