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Chapter 12. Network Security

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 to those systems. 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 requires adequate security on individual host computers. Simply securing the network with a firewall is not enough.

In very small towns where people know each other, doors are often left unlocked. But in big cities, doors have deadbolts and chains. The Internet has grown from a small town of a few thousand users into 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. Overreacting 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, now replaced by RFC 2196, stated this principle very well:

Common sense is the most appropriate tool that can be used to establish your security policy. Elaborate security schemes and mechanisms are impressive, and they do have their place, yet there is little point in investing money and time on an elaborate implementation scheme if the simple controls are forgotten.

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.

12.1. Security Planning

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.

12.1.1. Assessing the Threat

The first step toward developing an effective network security plan is to assess the threat that connection presents to your systems. RFC 2196, Site Security Handbook, identifies three distinct types of security threats usually associated with network connectivity:

Unauthorized access

A break-in by an unauthorized person.

Disclosure of information

Any problem that causes the disclosure of valuable or sensitive information to people who should not have access to the information.

Denial of service (DoS)

Any problem that makes it difficult or impossible for the system to continue to perform productive work.

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 network access controls and 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.

An insidious aspect of DoS appears when your system becomes an unwitting tool of the attackers. Through unauthorized access, intruders can place malicious software on your system in order to use your system as a launching pad for attacks on others. This is most often associated with Microsoft systems, but any type of computer system can be a victim. Preventing your system from becoming a tool of evil is an important reason for protecting it.

In his class on computer security, Brent Chapman classifies information security threats into three categories: threats to the secrecy, to the availability, and to the 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. Some intruders just want to compromise the integrity of data; we are all familiar with cases where web vandals 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 and power outages 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.

12.1.2. Distributed Control

One approach to network security is to distribute the responsibility for and control over different 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, easily monitored networks composed of a known user community. Using the analogy of small towns and big cities, it is similar to creating a neighborhood watch to reduce risks by giving people connections 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. Use subnets to distribute control

Subnets are a possible tool for distributing network control. A subnet administrator should be appointed when a subnet is created. The administrator 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 the administrator knows each system that is connected and who is responsible for that system. When the subnet administrator gives a system an IP address, he 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. Use the network to distribute 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 alerts and other real-time information. An internal web site can be used to provide policy, background, and archival information as well as links to important security sites.

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:

Your Unix vendor

Many vendors have their own security information mailing lists. Most vendors also have a security page on their web sites. Place a link on your internal web site to the vendor information that you find important and useful.

The Bugtraq archive

Bugtraq reports on software bugs, some of which are exploited by intruders. Knowing about these bugs and the fixes for them is the single most important thing you can do to improve system security. Bugtraq is widely available on the Web. Two sites I use are http://www.geek-girl.com/bugtraq and http://www.securityfocus.com, which provide access to a wide range of security information.

Security newsgroups

The comp.security newsgroups -- comp.security.unix, comp.security.firewalls, comp.security.announce, and comp.security.misc -- contain some useful information. Like most newsgroups, they also contain lots of unimportant and uninteresting material. But they do contain an occasional gem.

FIRST web site

The Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams (FIRST) is a worldwide organization of computer security response teams. FIRST provides a public web site for computer security information.

NIST Computer Security Alerts

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Computer Security Division maintains a web site with pointers to security-related web pages all over the world. Follow the Alerts link from http://csrc.nist.gov.

CERT advisories

The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) advisories provide information about known security problems and the fixes to these problems. You can retrieve these advisories from t he CERT web site at http://www.cert.org.

SANS Institute

The System Administration, Networking and Security (SANS)Institute offers informative security newsletters that are delivered weekly via email . They also have a useful online reading room. These resources are available from their web site, http://www.sans.org.

Exploit sites

Most intruders use canned attack scripts that are available from the Web. Sites that provide the scripts often provide discussions of the current security vulnerabilities that might affect your system. http://www.insecure.org is a good site because it provides descriptions of current exploits as well as plenty of other useful information.

12.1.3. Writing a Security Policy

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 from whom. A network security policy should define:

The network user's security responsibilities

The policy may require users to change their passwords at certain intervals, to use passwords that meet certain guidelines, or to perform certain checks to see if their accounts have been accessed by someone else. Whatever is expected from users, it is important that it be clearly defined.

The system administrator's security responsibilities

The policy may require that every host use specific security measures, login banner messages, or monitoring and accounting procedures. It might list applications that should not be run on any host attached to the network.

The proper use of network resources

Define who can use network resources, what things they can do, and what things they should not do. If your organization takes the position that email, files, and histories of computer activity are subject to security monitoring, tell the users very clearly that this is the policy.

The actions taken when a security problem is detected

What should be done when a security problem is detected? Who should be notified? It is easy to overlook things during a crisis, so you should have a detailed list of the exact steps that a system administrator or user should take when a security breach is detected. This could be as simple as telling the users to "touch nothing, and call the network security officer." But even these simple actions should be in the written policy so that they are readily available.

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 recommend that you read RFC 2196, which 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 the 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.

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