>What’s Lurking In The Update?

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In defense, it is a well-known principle that you determine your critical infrastructure, and then harden those defenses—to protect it.

This is also called risk-based management, because you determine your high impact assets and the probability that they will be “hit” and deem those the high risks ones that need to be most protected.

In buttressing the defenses of our critical infrastructure, we make sure to only let in trusted agents. That’s what firewalls, anti-virus, spyware, and intrusion prevention systems are all about.

In so-called “social engineering” scams, we have become familiar with phony e-mails that contain links to devastating computer viruses. And we are on the lookout for whether these e-mails are coming from trusted agents or people we don’t know and are just trying to scam us.

What happens though when like the Trojan Horse in Greek times, the malware comes in from one of the very trusted agents that you know and rely on, for example, like from a software vendor sending you updates for your regular operating system or antivirus software?

ComputerWorld, 10 May 2010, reports that a “faulty update, released on April 21, [by McAfee] had corporate IT administrators scrambling when the new signatures [from a faulty antivirus update] quarantined a critical Windows systems file, causing some computers running Windows XP Service Pack 3 to crash and reboot repeatedly.”

While this particular flawed security file wasn’t the result of an action by a cyber-criminal, terrorist or hostile nation state, but rather a “failure of their quality control process,” it begs the question what if it was malicious rather than accidental?

The ultimate Trojan Horse for our corporate and personal computer systems are the regular updates we get from the vendors to “patch” or upgrade or systems. The doors of our systems are flung open to these updates. And the strategic placement of a virus into these updates that have open rein to our core systems could cause unbelievable havoc.

Statistics show that the greatest vulnerability to systems is by the “insider threat”—a disgruntled employee, a disturbed worker, or perhaps someone unscrupulous that has somehow circumvented or deceived their way past the security clearance process (or not) on employees and contractors and now has access from the inside.

Any well-placed “insider” in any of our major software providers could potentially place that Trojan Horse in the very updates that we embrace to keep our organizations secure.

Amrit Williams, the CTO of BIGFIX Inc. stated with regards to the faulty McAfee update last month, “You’re not talking about some obscure file from a random third party; you’re talking about a critical Windows file. The fact that it wasn’t found is extremely troubling.”

I too find this scenario unnerving and believe that our trusted software vendors must increase their quality assurance and security controls to ensure that we are not laid bare like the ancient city of Troy.

Additionally, we assume that the profit motive of our software vendors themselves will keep them as organizations “honest” and collaborative, but what if the “payoff” from crippling our systems is somehow greater than our annual license fees to them (e.g., terrorism)?

For those familiar with the science fiction television series BattleStar Galactica, what if there is a “Baltar” out there ready and willing to bring down our defenses to some lurking computer virus—whether for some distorted ideological reason, a fanatical drive to revenge, or a belief in some magnanimous payoff.

“Trust but verify” seems the operative principle for us all when it comes to the safety and security of our people, country and way of life—and this applies even to our software vendors who send us the updates we rely on.

Ideally, we need to get to the point where we have the time and resources to test the updates that we get prior to deploying them throughout our organizations.

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