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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Security Paradigm Shift

Yes, I really did use the term, "Paradigm Shift." This actually is going to be my newsletter topic this month. But not in the buzzword-y sense.

Let's start with some definitions:

Paradigm: An example serving as a model or pattern (from a Greek word I can't even hope to pronounce, meaning to show side-by-side)

To put something aside and replace it with another

Paradigm Shift:
A change from one model or pattern of thought (or action) to another.

We all live in many different paradigms, and we switch between them all the time. For example:
  • In my home paradigm, I dispense fatherly advice and bad jokes, to my kids. I (usually) help around the house. I fix (and sometimes break) things.
  • In my work paradigm, I call and/or take calls from customers, and help them with their computer problems. I deal with the finances. I work on Sales and Marketing.
  • In my religious paradigm, I go to synagogue, pray and generally do my best to keep the laws and traditions of my belief-system.
When we need to quickly figure out how to respond to something, we look to the paradigm we're using at the time. If a client has a problem, and needs my help, my response shouldn't be to pray or dispense fatherly advice. Knowing which paradigm I'm in, at a given moment, gives me the context to understand how to respond, pretty much intuitively.

Which Paradigm?

But it's not always so easy to determine which paradigm you should be in. Sometimes, we can make mistakes. Consider this scenario:

You're walking to the door of your office building. It's a secure key-card access door. Someone else is walking up behind you. Do you hold the door for him? On the one hand, there is clearly concern about security here. On the other hand, closing the door in the guy's face might be rude.

The problem here is that no one's clarified the appropriate paradigm. If Security was an underlying rule of thumb, it would be obvious, and closing the door in his face wouldn't be considered rude at all - in fact it would be expected. If you don't believe it, ask anyone who's ever worked on a military base, or in a secure government facility. (I've worked in both.)

Every business owner I've spoken to, says that they want their business to be "secure". Then, many of them insist that everyone in the office use the same user name and password, or no password at all, for network access. In fact, according to a recent InfoWorld article, a similarly recent Symantec survey says that small businesses tend to "shun" basic security measures. Once again, the problem is usually an unclear paradigm.

Security Policy

This is where a Security Policy can be really useful, even for a small business. It communicates the organization's security foundations; what's important to the company, from a security perspective. Basically, it's the documented security paradigm for the company. And it doesn't need to be really complicated either. In fact, simpler is better. Should you enforce stronger password policies? Well, if the policy says, "Everyone should be able to get to anything they want, without restriction," then the answer is immediately clear. It's also clear if the policy says, "Users should be able to reach only the information required for them to do their job." These statements also answer questions, like, "Should everyone have Administrative privileges?" and "Should we lock the doors at night?" and "Should the janitor be able to get into QuickBooks?" - Alright, so they probably need a little work... but perhaps not too much. Remember, the intent here is to have a guide, not a detailed manual covering every possible situation.

Why not be more detailed? Because that's often why businesses don't write policies. It's why we never even get started: The task becomes too huge to contemplate. So don't let it. Just try covering some topics like:
  • Passwords
  • Access privileges
  • Internet access
  • Anti-virus
  • File-sharing networks (i.e. BitTorrent and Gnutella)
  • Software piracy
You can always add to it later.

There's more to be said, and I may even say some more of it in another letter, or on our blog. In the meantime, think about your company's security position, and whether it fits your vision for the company.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Acceptable Internet Use

Much concern has been raised by many business owners, about how to handle inappropriate Internet use at work. Frankly, I'm not sure they're concerned enough. Let's look at some interesting statistics. Now mind you. these statistics are from 2006, but I think we can safely presume the situation hasn't gotten any better:

Stats are from the LocalTel Business Content Web Filter site.

  • 64% of employees admit to using the Internet for personal interest during working hours.
  • 70% of all pornography traffic occurs during the nine-to-five work day.
  • 60% of all online purchases are made during working hours.
  • 37% of at-work internet users in the US had visited an X-rated Web Site from work.
  • 37% of employees report searching for jobs online at work.
  • 27% of Fortune 500 companies have defended themselves from claims of sexual harassment stemming from inappropriate e-mails and Internet use.
All this results in an estimated 30% - 40% loss of productivity. And this doesn't even consider the effect of the bandwidth spent on this and other things like streaming audio, which could impact even the performance of the users who are trying to use the Internet for business purposes.

In cases where employees download pirated software, music or videos, the businesses could be found liable - even if they didn't know about it.

And that's not even to mention the lawsuits that can be brought, particularly if the material is sexual in nature, against the company if a hostile workplace suit is brought.

Bottom line: You need to protect your business.

How? Well, there are a number of components to this, and technical solutions can play an important part of it. But the most important piece, and the one that most businesses - especially small businesses - don't do, is to put an Internet Acceptable Use Policy in place. This is a policy that explains what is and is not acceptable, and the consequences of non-compliance. If the employees don't have such a policy, they can always claim they didn't know it wasn't okay. Click here for some sample policies.

Once the policy is made available, there are technologies that can be put into place to help monitor and safeguard access. Systems can be as rigid or flexible as the company feels appropriate, while still being protected from inappropriate use.

Keep your business safe!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Where DOES that link really go?

One of the things I always caution my customers about is clicking links in email messages. Just because a link says it's going to http://www.foxnews.com, doesn't really mean that it is. (Yes, it's safe to click on the link - would I send you somewhere bad?)

One of the easy ways to check where a link is actually going, is usually in your browser or mailer window. If you read your email in a browser window, there's usually a link identifier somewhere in the window (in IE and Firefox, it's down at the bottom-left of your browser window) which will tell you where the link is actually going. In your mailer, there's usually a similar function. In Outlook, for example, you need to hover over the link for a second or so, and the actual link address will pop up over it. If it isn't a site that looks right, you probably don't want to click on it.

Why does it matter?

Why? Because the link could redirect you wherever they want to. It could be a malware site (see this link for a demonstration of how that might work), that actually does something to your computer, like install a trojan. Or it could be a phishing site, trying to fool you into revealing something about yourself, or your web accounts. These are typically sites that look like the real site, and convince you to enter your username and password, which they can then use to access your accounts later.

How can you tell?

How do you tell if a site looks right? Well, that can actually be tough, because the bad guys... well, they don't want you to know. So it might look something like this: http://tyza91.sezkmvob.cn/?nuglmukj=yykyeumeop&pjwa=bef2e5ced686&qmobpqoani=roepyh, which just looks like it has so much random junk in it, that you may not be able to tell where it's from. Or it might say something like http://onlinesecurity.wachovia.com.fraud.ur.pl, or http://fraud.prevention.br/bankofamerica.com/security, all of which could look very serious when looked at casually.

But a closer look reveals an important clue, if you know what you're looking for: The most important parts of the website address, most of the time, are the last two dotted sections. Let's look at the URLs. The ends of the dotted sections are:
  • sezkmvob.cn
  • ur.pl
  • prevention.br

Now I don't know what the first one is purporting to be (I pulled it off a spam message I got, and modified it so it doesn't really go anywhere I know of), but I do know that the server location is CN - China. The other two are intentionally fraudulent. They're using the name of a bank somewhere in their URL, in order to make you believe that they're from that bank. But looking at the domains from which they actually come, show us that one is from a domain in PL - Poland, and the other is from a domain in BR - Brazil. It's pretty unlikely that either of these are from the banks!

So a little bit of care in watching what you click, before you click on it, can save you from a world of hurt.

That said, there is an additional wrinkle involved, which I'll save for another post. In the meantime, be safe!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tagged.com - The Non-Virus Virus

This morning, I received an email message from a service called Tagged.com. In fact, I received about 8 email messages from them, telling me that there were pictures they wanted to share, and that I'd been "tagged".

Now, the email service that I use has some pretty decent spam filtering, so I was a bit intrigued as to how it got through, since it didn't really seem on the up-and-up. So I loaded up Firefox in a Sandboxie sandbox (and if you don't know what that is, let me know - you should!), and checked out the site.

Tagged.com promotes itself as a social networking service, with all the usual blah-blah. It then explained that I needed to sign up in order to see the content it had promised. I clicked on the sign up link, and looked at the form. I was looking for the Terms of Service checkbox that almost everything has, and lo and behold, it was there on the bottom of the page.

I make it my practice to at least skim through the TOS on just about everything I sign up for these days. It's fascinating what you discover, and frankly, it's something more people should be doing. Here's what I found interesting in Tagged.com's TOS:

E) Notice Regarding Commercial Email


I read this as meaning, "You're giving us permission to use your email address to spam other people." And my guess is that's exactly what happened. I don't think that the person who sent me the email actually intended to "invite" me, per se. I think they just sent me out an email, from her personal address. Perhaps she used their handy "upload your contacts" feature, or something like that.

And all this from a site that promotes itself as being for teen use... giving out personal email addresses - sheesh...

In any case, this means that this spam wasn't due so much to infection, as it was part of the service she signed up for. And since I did turn out to know her, she sailed through my spam filters.

I'm not a lawyer. I don't even play one on TV. But the bad guys will continue to use laws against the generally law-abiding. Know what you are agreeing to. You could regret it otherwise.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Keeping Patches Current

Patches? We don't need no steenking patches!

This seems to be the attitude of many business people, regarding their computer systems. But keeping your machines updated is a critical part of their regular maintenance. Kind of like dusting them out, or washing the keyboards in the dishwasher. (Don't actually try that one, although I do know of people who have done it!)

Why don't they keep their computers current? For some, it's the fear that something will suddenly go wrong with their computers, and their business software will just stop working. For others, it's just the bother of having to go around to all those computers, and do the updates, especially since things seem to be working as they are. Many people are convinced that their machines are set to automatically update, and therefore must be current... and by the way, what does that little yellow shield in the tray mean, anyway? And let's face it... some of us are just lazy, especially when it comes to dealing with things we really don't understand anyway.

But small business owners can't afford to be lazy, when it comes to our security. For most of us, our entire businesses are on our computers. When they're down, we're down; we're not making money, or we're severely hampered in our ability to do so.

How important are they?
Remember the Conficker worm that caused everyone to panic, back in March and April? It spreads, mostly, through a security flaw that Microsoft patched in an update made available back in October 2008! Well, according to industry pros, including Symantec, there are still some 50,000 new machines infected every day! Many, if not most, still don't have the patch installed that would have prevented it.

What should we know?

Well, for one thing, that little yellow shield often means that your machine is not up-to-date, no matter what the auto-update settings are. Many people have their machines set to download, but not install updates automatically. And there are many updates and patches that want user-interaction, and just won't do the automatic update without it. Often, these are required in order for other updates to be installed - if you don't install them, you don't even know about the others.

Security vulnerabilities cost money
In fact, they cost a lot of money. A Computer Economics article, from 2007, showed damages of more than $13 billion almost every year since 1999, and that data's already aging. Malware costs companies in equipment, in professional services - like the computer technician who has to come in to fix the problem, or the attorney who has to defend you and your company from claims that you did not make adequate efforts to protect customer data - and in time... lots and lots of time. Time that the computers are out of service; time that the users may be sitting around idly.

Keeping your machines updated can prevent many outbreaks, by locking down the vulnerabilities before malware is commonly available to exploit them. Keeping them updated can save you money!

What about the concern that some of your business software will develop problems, after an update? Well, if you're running old software, this actually could be an issue. In some cases, it's actually necessary to roll back a security update on a particular machine, until another solution becomes available. Perhaps there's a patch provided by the software manufacturer to address the problem. Maybe you need to consider an upgrade or even a replacement to your current software. A consultation with your technology advisors can help you to make the appropriate business decision.

Deployment difficulties
Software update deployment can be a real pain, especially for a small business with a lot of computers. It can take hours to get around to each desktop, downloading and installing updates. Again, your technology advisors can be very helpful here. Updates, and even new software packages, can often be scheduled and deployed to hundreds of machines, automatically.

This can help the lazy among us too. You don't have to remember to install updates and patches, because you've got someone else doing that for you, automatically.

You need to know
Like everything else in your business, information is key. How do you know if your computers are all up-to-date with their security patches? How do you make sure they get deployed without causing you a lot of time, trouble, and headache?

By contacting companies like Working Nets, of course! (Hey - it's our blog. You can't expect us to completely avoid the occasional shameless plug!) Give us a call to learn how our new Managed Services Program can help you make sure that your systems are up-to-date, and much more!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Adobe Acrobat Vulnerabilities

In the last couple of weeks, Adobe has acknowledged a number of vulnerabilities in their Acrobat products, including a "Zero Day Exploit" (which means exploit code was found "in the wild" before the vulnerability was even known by the Security Community), all involving their use of JavaScript. (See this link for more details.)

What is JavaScript? Well, it's a scripting language... essentially a relatively light programming language. It's used in many web sites, and web-based applications.

But Acrobat is supposed to be a "cross-platform" document format, meaning that the same document can be displayed, and printed, in the same way, regardless of what computer you're using. Windows, Mac, Linux - it doesn't matter.

So why do we need JavaScript in an Acrobat Document?

Frankly, I'm not really sure that we do. It certainly doesn't enhance the ability to use the basic functionality for which it was designed: Creating and reading documents.

At this point, Adobe, and other Security professionals are recommending that you just turn it off. Here's how to do it (at least on Windows systems, but other platforms should be similar):
  1. Open Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader.
  2. Click the Edit menu item.
  3. Click the Preferences menu item.
  4. In the Categories box, along the left side, look for JavaScript, and select it.
  5. Uncheck the Enable Acrobat JavaScript checkbox.
  6. Click OK.
That's it. You can now close Acrobat, or use it for reading documents. Whatever you want.

The Internet's a bit like the Wild Wild West. There are great opportunities out there, but it can be a dangerous place. As Michael Conrad's character used to say after his daily briefings, in the old Hill Street Blues series, "Let's be careful out there..."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Disaster Preparedness

Disaster Recovery Planning has developed into an industry unto itself. There are firms that specialize in this, providing comprehensive planning systems, often costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you're a large enough enterprise, they're worth every penny.

But there's a lot that a small business can do to help prepare for a business disruption too. Obviously, insurance is an important component, but insurance isn't going to prevent your customers from finding other vendors, while you're trying to get things up and running again. No, I don't sell insurance, but if you need some, I know a guy...

The point is, you want to get as much of your business back up, as quickly as possible - even if it means getting a couple of computers set up in your living room for a few weeks.

Redundancy is the key!

The more redundant your systems, the less you will suffer, within reason. That's the idea behind data backups, but there are other things you will need "backed up," besides your data itself.

Here is a short list of things you can do that will greatly decrease the time you'll need to bring your computerized systems back quickly:
  • If you have applications that run your business - even if it's just Microsoft Office - be sure to have copies of the CDs and, if possible, the documentation stored somewhere offsite.

  • Have a list of all your critical system passwords stored in at least two locations: one onsite, and one offsite. Restoring your data doesn't help you, if you can't log into the computer. This list doesn't have to be computerized, by the way. It does, however, have to be a "living document," in that, when you change the information, all copies get updated. And of course, you'll want all copies to be secured.

  • Where possible, use automation to alert you when your critical systems go down. No one really wants a text message at 2:30am, but believe me - you'd rather know than not.

  • Document everything! This is an important one, so let me repeat it: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!!! (How's that for being redundant?) Pretend you had to bring in someone new to get your computers up and running again, and he knows nothing whatsoever about your business. He'll need all the information we've mentioned above, as well as:
    • Your restore procedures, including how to get to the backup software and media, as well as any documentation he might need to operate it.
    • Vendor information, including account numbers and system credentials (username/password), as well as a list of the software you're using.

  • Do periodic run-throughs of your recovery procedures. This will help identify anything you've left out of your plans, and keep everyone familiar with them.

A basic Disaster Recovery Planning worksheet is available at our website. Click here to get it.

We all hope never to suffer a business disaster, but it happens. As they say in the Boy Scouts, be prepared.

How Often Do You Backup?

"How often do you backup your data?" is a question I very often ask small business owners. Now, I'll admit that, as pickup lines go, that's an odd one. But for business owners, there aren't very many questions more important than that. Almost all businesses today rely on computer data to run their business. Whether it's their Quickbooks files, or those contracts, proposals, or other work-product they've been working on for weeks, that data represents the core of their businesses.

So it might be surprising to learn that, while 85% of computer users say that they're concerned about the prospect of losing their data, only 25% actually do regular backups! That's a scary thought, because some 70% of small firms that experience a major data loss are gone within a year.

Here are some questions to think about for your business:
  • How often do you backup your data?
  • Where do you back it up to?
  • Do you keep the backup media somewhere near your computer, where it can get destroyed by the same catastrophe that wiped out your computer in the first place?
And here's one that even those who backup regularly tend not to consider properly:
  • How often do you test your restores? (Hint: The time to test them is not when you've suffered a data loss, and need to get your data back now!)