Although patches offer some defence against viruses and worms, until software becomes more robust businesses must remain on their guard, says Simon Moores.
Back from Nice and Unisys’ Zero Gap security conference, a thought leadership event that assembled more than 60 "experts" from big business, banks, government and even the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) and Interpol, to discuss today’s very real information security challenges.
Unfortunately, the event was under Chatham House rules, so this might have been a very short story if I hadn’t jotted down my impressions in the diary that never leaves my side.
So, without revealing names such as 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 which is, quite possibly, the best 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 the network.
Without breaching the conditions of my non-disclosure agreement, 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 such as 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 that, “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 32Mbytes 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 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.
Finally, there’s a concern that having explored, in some detail, the mechanics of the Blaster worm, 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 if 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, but everyone recognises that software in general is vulnerable to exploits from the internet with Microsoft, just happening 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 Windows 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.
What do you think?
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Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit www.zentelligence.com