Hosts attached to a network - particularly the worldwide Internet - are exposed to a wider range of security threats than are unconnected hosts. Network security reduces the risks of connecting to a network. But by nature, network access and computer security work at cross-purposes. A network is a data highway designed to increase access to computer systems, while security is designed to control access. Providing network security is a balancing act between open access and security.
The highway analogy is very appropriate. Like a highway, the network provides equal access for all - welcome visitors as well as unwelcome intruders. At home, you provide security for your possessions by locking your house, not by blocking the streets. Likewise, network security generally means providing adequate security on individual host computers, not providing security directly on the network.
In very small towns, where people know each other, doors are often left unlocked. But in big cities, doors have deadbolts and chains. In the last decade, the Internet has grown from a small town of a few thousand users to a big city of millions of users. Just as the anonymity of a big city turns neighbors into strangers, the growth of the Internet has reduced the level of trust between network neighbors. The ever-increasing need for computer security is an unfortunate side effect. Growth, however, is not all bad. In the same way that a big city offers more choices and more services, the expanded network provides increased services. For most of us, security consciousness is a small price to pay for network access.
Network break-ins have increased as the network has grown and become more impersonal, but it is easy to exaggerate the extent of these security breaches. Over-reacting to the threat of break-ins may hinder the way you use the network. Don't make the cure worse than the disease. The best advice about network security is to use common sense. RFC 1244, Site Security Handbook , by Holbrook, Reynold, et al., states this principle very well:
This chapter emphasizes the simple controls that can be used to increase your network's security. A reasonable approach to security, based on the level of security required by your system, is the most cost-effective - both in terms of actual expense and in terms of productivity.
One of the most important network security tasks, and probably one of the least enjoyable, is developing a network security policy. Most computer people want a technical solution to every problem. We want to find a program that "fixes" the network security problem. Few of us want to write a paper on network security policies and procedures. However, a well-thought-out security plan will help you decide what needs to be protected, how much you are willing to invest in protecting it, and who will be responsible for carrying out the steps to protect it.
The first step toward developing an effective network security plan is to assess the threat that connection presents to your systems. RFC 1244 identifies three distinct types of security threats usually associated with network connectivity:
Assess these threats in relation to the number of users who would be affected, as well as to the sensitivity of the information that might be compromised. For some organizations, break-ins are an embarrassment that can undermine the confidence that others have in the organization. Intruders tend to target government and academic organizations that will be embarrassed by the break-in. But for most organizations, unauthorized access is not a major problem unless it involves one of the other threats: disclosure of information or denial of service.
Assessing the threat of information disclosure depends on the type of information that could be compromised. While no system with highly classified information should ever be directly connected to the Internet, systems with other types of sensitive information might be connected without undue hazard. In most cases, files such as personnel and medical records, corporate plans, and credit reports can be adequately protected by standard UNIX file security procedures. However, if the risk of liability in case of disclosure is great, the host may choose not to be connected to the Internet.
Denial of service can be a severe problem if it impacts many users or a major mission of your organization. Some systems can be connected to the network with little concern. The benefit of connecting individual workstations and small servers to the Internet generally outweighs the chance of having service interrupted for the individuals and small groups served by these systems. Other systems may be vital to the survival of your organization. The threat of losing the services of a mission-critical system must be evaluated seriously before connecting such a system to the network.
In his class on computer security, Brent Chapman classifies information security threats into three categories: threats to the secrecy, availability, and integrity of data. Secrecy is the need to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information. Availability means that you want information and information processing resources available when they are needed; a denial-of-service attack disrupts availability. The need for the integrity of information is equally obvious, but its link to computer security is more subtle. Once someone has gained unauthorized access to a system, the integrity of the information on that system is in doubt. Furthermore, some intruders just want to compromise the integrity of data. We are all familiar with cases where intruders gain access to a Web server and change the data on the server in order to embarrass the organization that runs the Web site. Thinking about the impact network threats have on your data can make it easier to assess the threat.
Network threats are not, of course, the only threats to computer security, or the only reasons for denial of service. Natural disasters and internal threats (threats from people who have legitimate access to a system) are also serious. Network security has had a lot of publicity, so it's a fashionable thing to worry about; but more computer time has probably been lost because of fires than has ever been lost because of network security problems. Similarly, more data has probably been improperly disclosed by authorized users than by unauthorized break-ins. This book naturally emphasizes network security, but network security is only part of a larger security plan that includes physical security and disaster recovery plans.
Many traditional (non-network) security threats are handled, in part, by physical security. Don't forget to provide an adequate level of physical security for your network equipment and cables. Again, the investment in physical security should be based on your realistic assessment of the threat.
One approach to network security is to distribute responsibility for, and control over, segments of a large network to small groups within the organization. This approach involves a large number of people in security, and runs counter to the school of thought that seeks to increase security by centralizing control. However, distributing responsibility and control to small groups can create an environment of small networks composed of trusted hosts. Using the analogy of small towns and big cities, it is similar to creating a neighborhood watch to reduce risks by giving people connection with their neighbors, mutual responsibility for one another, and control over their own fates.
Additionally, distributing security responsibilities formally recognizes one of the realities of network security - most security actions take place on individual systems. The managers of these systems must know that they are responsible for security, and that their contribution to network security is recognized and appreciated. If people are expected to do a job, they must be empowered to do it.
Subnets are a possible tool for distributing network control. A subnet administrator should be appointed when a subnet is created. She is then responsible for the security of the network and for assigning IP addresses to the devices connected to the networks. Assigning IP addresses gives the subnet administrator some control over who connects to the subnet. It also helps to ensure that she knows each system connected and who is responsible for that system. When the subnet administrator gives a system an IP address, she also delegates certain security responsibilities to the system's administrator. Likewise, when the system administrator grants a user an account, the user takes on certain security responsibilities.
The hierarchy of responsibility flows from the network administrator, to the subnet administrator, to the system administrator, and finally to the user. At each point in this hierarchy the individuals are given responsibilities and the power to carry them out. To support this structure, it is important for users to know what they are responsible for and how to carry out that responsibility. The network security policy described in the next section provides this information.
If your site adopts distributed control, you must develop a system for disseminating security information to each group. Mailing lists for each administrative level can be used for this purpose. The network administrator receives security information from outside authorities, filters out irrelevant material, and forwards the relevant material to the subnet administrators. Subnet administrators forward the relevant parts to their system administrators, who in turn forward what they consider important to the individual users. The filtering of information at each level ensures that individuals get the information they need, without receiving too much. If too much unnecessary material is distributed, users begin to ignore everything they receive.
At the top of this information structure is the information that the network administrator receives from outside authorities. In order to receive this, the network administrator should join the appropriate mailing lists and newsgroups and browse the appropriate Web sites. A few places to start looking for computer security information are the following:
Security is largely a "people problem." People, not computers, are responsible for implementing security procedures, and people are responsible when security is breached. Therefore, network security is ineffective unless people know their responsibilities. It is important to write a security policy that clearly states what is expected and who it is expected from. A network security policy should define:
Connecting to the Internet brings with it certain security responsibilities. RFC 1281, A Guideline for the Secure Operation of the Internet , provides guidance for users and network administrators on how to use the Internet in a secure and responsible manner. Reading this RFC will provide insight into the information that should be in your security policy.
A great deal of thought is necessary to produce a complete network security policy. The outline shown above describes the contents of a network policy document, but if you are personally responsible for writing a policy, you may want more detailed guidance. I also recommend that you read RFC 1244. It is a very good guide for developing a security plan.
Security planning (assessing the threat, assigning security responsibilities, and writing a security policy) is the basic building block of network security, but a plan must be implemented before it can have any effect. In the remainder of this chapter, we'll turn our attention to implementing basic security procedures.