When Secure Systems Are Not

My company makes security software for UNIX, Linux and Mac OS X computers. Those of you not familiar with these operating systems might be asking why we don’t do this for Windows since it’s so often Windows that’s the subject of security flaws in the popular press. The answer is that is a bit more complicated than you might think.

A lot of our business is driven by security regulations. SOX, PCI, HIPAA and other laws/initiatives require that computers that are in scope employ adequate security measures. The cost of non-compliance can be signficant: shareholder lawsuits, criminal charges or, worst of all, increased credit card transaction costs. If a company fails to attain the top PCI rating, it can be forced to pay higher fees that can run into tens millions of dollars a year for large e-commerce firms.

A computer is considered in scope from the perspective of security regulations if it is involved in the processes covered by the regulation. For HIPAA, any system that stores patient data would be considered in scope. For SOX, any system that feeds data into corporate financial reports would be in scope.

It is not surprising to find many non-Windows systems in scope (or put another way, it is not surprising to find that a disproportionate number of in scope systems are running operating systems other than Windows). Since Windows is more frequently the target of hacker attacks and has more known exploits, companies like to use non-Windows systems for security critical applications, especially if the applications run “on the network edge” — they’re available on the Internet. By definition, e-commerce applications are on the network edge and PCI, particularly, brings a lot of non-Windows systems into regulatory scope.

Now here’s the kicker: for the most part, non-Windows systems employ terrible security practices!

What good is it that the operating system is well-written and tested if the root password is weak? How about if all the admins regularly login as root and, thus, all know its password? How about if adequate logging facilities aren’t available because everyone is logging in as root?

These hypothetical scenarios occur much more often than you think. Why? Because most companies do not have any centralized account management for their non-Windows systems.

Their Windows systems typically use Microsoft Active Directory (AD). Users login with their personal accounts and are granted special privileges by being made members of specific administrative groups. Files and programs are tagged with access control lists (ACLs) that only allow authorized users to access them. Windows and AD support group policy features that allow standardized security practices to be enforced throughout the corporation. Special audit ACLs can be defined to keep track of accesses to restricted resources.

These practices, for the most part, are completely alien to non-Windows systems. Although there are several LDAP directories (from Sun, IBM, Red Hat, Novell, others) that can be used for centralized account management, these are rarely implemented. Either they’re too expensive or they are too clumsy to use.

A few companies use NIS servers (developed by Sun) for this purpose but NIS is, itself, not secure and the “NIS replacement business” is also a healthy source of income for us.

There is no analog for group policy in the non-Windows world. Implementing standard security practices across all non-Windows systems usually means using manual processes and settling for the least common denominator solution. Some old versions of UNIX restrict passwords to 8 characters in length, for example, and disallow the use of punctuation marks. They may not provide any mechanism for forcing periodic password changes, for requiring strong passwords or for reusing recent passwords.

The Likewise Software solution is to connect these systems to Microsoft Active Directory and to implement a powerful group policy solution for non-Windows systems. We allow companies to connect over 110 flavors of UNIX, Linux and Mac OS X to AD and to use the same username and password on all these systems. We enable effective and efficient use of sudo to implement role-based access control and eliminate the broad use of root logins.

So, the next time you’re considering the security of your company’s computing infrastructure, look beyond the evening news and spend a little time thinking about how your own practices affect the vulnerability of your systems.