Stop Lingering

Software updates hold the key to cyber security

Security threats are on the rise and as IT security teams increase their scrutiny of all network-connected devices, it’s time for some new thinking about the design and maintenance of building security systems. Building security systems are inherently part of the Internet of Things (IoT), however they tend to be woefully neglected network devices. This point was underscored in a recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack, which enlisted IoT and security devices into a robot army directed at the Internet services provider DYN. Many of these devices had fundamental design flaws or default passwords that made them easy targets.

Fixing the Flaws

Today, many building security systems contain embarrassing rudimentary cyber-security flaws. Many remain on the same software and firmware versions for years at a time—even when critical patches are available. Too frequently, companies adopt the practice of deferring software maintenance until the system breaks or a new feature is needed. Quite often, building security systems are running obsolete operating systems along with outdated application software and device firmware with known exploits. For example, some of the devices used in the DYN attack were running firmware that was years old with known vulnerabilities that had long ago been patched by the manufacturers.

Security systems installers are complicit in sustaining these conditions by failing to offer pro-active maintenance plans or properly advising customers of the need for regular system patching.

Security system manufacturers often compound the problem by making updates expensive or time consuming to obtain and apply.

And yet, our building security systems are becoming more connected via the network and Internet. While things on the Internet are changing by the second, building security systems may be stuck in the past. These factors make building security systems prime targets for miscreants astonished at the luck of finding a highly interesting plaything with such obvious flaws.

But in many cases this is not a technical problem; it’s mostly a focus and financial issue. It’s the same dynamic that causes governments to require annual vehicle inspections or health plans to require periodic physicals or Apple to give you so many annoying prompts to upgrade your iPhone.

Most people just don’t have the time, money or inclination to pay attention to maintenance. Unless we are compelled to do it, there is always a reason to avoid doing it. So there is the answer— we must be compelled to do it.

This position is validated by information published in Cisco’s Mid-Year Security Report 2016. This report details the major differences between the strong auto-update policies of the Google Chrome web browser and the weaker update policies associated with Microsoft Office. The strong Chrome “opt-out” update policy drives around an 80 percent compliance with updates. Meanwhile Cisco’s statistics show that most users of Microsoft Office stay for very a long time on their installed version, even when updates are available.

“Many large vendors are holding up their end of the security bargain by releasing notifications, fixes, and distributions of vulnerability patches in a timely manner. But this attention to patching is not reflected in end users—and, as a result, they are compromising the safety of themselves and their businesses.”—Cisco Mid-Year Security Report 2016

These facts point to the reality that security is strengthened through a process of evolution and also that many of us need a stimulus to evolve. To support this end we need an updated approach to building security system maintenance.

The Value of Convenience

As consumers, we value convenience, cost and functionality perhaps at the peril of cyber security, at least until there is an incident involving one of our services or devices. At that point, we will turn to the provider or installer of the device and accuse them of malfeasance in the provision and support of “their” system.

The provider can certainly be blamed for failing to implement good security hygiene in the design of the device. The installer is accountable for leaving default passwords and open ports configured. But who is accountable for failing to provide continuous monitoring, vulnerability assessments and maintaining patch levels for building security systems?

As Shakespeare wrote, “the fault my dear Brutus lies not within the stars, but within ourselves.”

How can the manufacturer be responsible for vulnerabilities discovered in underlying components long after the device is purchased? How can the installer be accountable for keeping systems patched and up to date when the customer chooses not to pay for routine maintenance? How can the customer be blamed for not wanting to upgrade with a working system and risk some type of failure or outage? How can anyone be blamed when there is an explosion of devices and software that need constant attention?

To stop the blame game from continuing within the security industry the path forward requires three essential changes to the typical approach to design, installation and maintenance of building security systems:

All parties need to increase their “cyber IQ.” Everyone from manufacturers to installers to customers needs to understand and appreciate how their choices and actions impact network security. Ultimately security is a set of choices inside a race of imagination. If we don’t work to understand the threat, we are choosing to fail before the race has even started.

We need to adopt business models that contemplate a living system versus a one-time sale. There is 100 percent certainty that a system remaining unpatched for months or years will eventually contain a known vulnerability. Everyone in the value chain needs to be prepared for this reality. Manufacturers must include security patches in subscription services, installers must insist on contracted maintenance and provide routine upgrades, customers will need to accept and pay for updates that are not driven by features.

A technical model that minimizes transition risk and makes upgrades almost invisible to the customer. This is primarily a challenge for the manufacturers. We have to learn from the Google Chrome model and find ways to update software and firmware with minimal cost and interruption. We must implement strong auto-update capabilities that are readily available and seamlessly installed. We must take responsibility to monitor our own devices to ensure that they are secure and not recruited to form a bot-net army.

Fortunately much of what we need to respond to these conditions is available to us today. Cyber security education is widely available to us. We can follow secure development practices as we create our products. We can perform continuous monitoring and vulnerability testing of systems while in production. We can deploy patches uniformly and quickly across numerous devices in a cost effective way without inconveniencing customers. We can have the discipline to avoid insecure products and practices when delivering our solutions.

Many industries have proven that all of these things are possible. Now is the time for the security industry to step up to this challenge, as we are compelled to do it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Security Today.

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