Best Practice is best for a Reason
- By Jeff Nigriny
- Jan 25, 2021
We are still learning the extent of the impact from the SolarWinds hack across the 33K customers who used their Orion software. Just as we are working to fully understand the impact, we are still learning the mechanisms employed to carry it out. While we may never know the full extent of either; there are some early lessons learned.
The attackers were able to leverage legitimate credentials for malicious purposes, unchecked, for months - possibly longer. With these credentials, they gained administrative access and were able to move laterally on all affected networks with relative ease. The latest trend in cybersecurity is zero trust, which, at its core, means everyone should be authenticated at all times, regardless of who they are or where their device sits on the network.
Traditionally, in cybersecurity, any device or user already inside the network is presumed ‘safe’ for cost savings and user convenience. An assumption which, ultimately, aided the SolarWinds perpetrators.
By contrast, zero trust is inherent to physical access because it is expected that every person in the company, from the CEO down, will badge through a barrier for entry each time. Just because someone gains access through the front door, that does not mean they have been authenticated to pass through other doors in the building. Even more, most PACS operators would not consider using a system that did not provide anomalous credential usage reporting. Even residential security systems employ this.
In physical access, just like cyber security, there are credentials for individuals, devices and servers. Most obvious are the proximity or smartcard-based cards and tokens used to interact with door readers. Now, there is a shift to making these keys virtual, stored on mobile devices scanned optically or sent wirelessly.
Some of these credentials are behind the scenes, authenticating communication between system components. Identity credentials, serving as keys, are throughout access control. In cybersecurity, a credential is a key that opens a lock a lock, as well. The distinction between identity credentials and keys, physical tokens and virtual ones, even physical and cyber security are all blurring – becoming the same thing.
Yet, when it comes to monitoring of these credentials, physical and cybersecurity focus on monitoring the locks alone, which does not provide 100% situational awareness. The keys must be monitored, as well. The SolarWinds hack reminds us that attackers are most dangerous when they can use legitimate credentials for malicious means unchecked.
Over the past decade, there has been a transition from less secure authenticators like passwords and proximity badges in cyber and physical security to higher assurance networked credentials that can be used simultaneously in both physical and logical access control systems. Not only must credentials be closely monitored, but equally as important, is the monitoring of the credential issuers. The ‘credential network’ that supports the security of an organization’s data network provides valuable insight into the risk associated with accepting certain types of keys.
We see this concept in action in other industries – for example, credit card companies mitigate fraud with similar monitoring practices. Our transactions are monitored for anomalous usage, issuing banks for batches of compromised cards and so on.
Consumers take for granted the existence of this monitoring, feeling safer that their identity is secure or at least their financial exposure is reduced as a result. High assurance government and commercial credentials were created as a network backed technology with this type of monitoring in mind.
Security suffers where assumptions are made. Do not simply assume a credential is valid because it is genuine; instead, continuously monitor the trustworthiness of your entitled users’ credentials. The stakes have never been higher and cyber and physical security depends on using all the capabilities at your disposal, the best practices from all corners of security, whether traditionally physical, cyber or financial.