The Rise in SSL-based Threats

February 23, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Derek Gooley, Security Researcher, Zscaler

The majority of Internet traffic is now encrypted. With the advent of free SSL providers like Let’s Encrypt, the move to encryption has become easy and free. On any given day in the Zscaler cloud, more than half of the traffic that inspected uses SSL. It is no surprise, then, that malicious actors have also been using the SSL protocol in their activities over the last several years. The increasing use of SSL creates problems for organizations that are unable to monitor SSL traffic, as they must rely on less-effective techniques like IP and domain blocking in an attempt to identify and block threats.

In this report, we will outline trends we have seen in the use of SSL in the malware lifecycle and in adware distribution, based on a review of traffic on the Zscaler cloud from August 2016 through January 2017. What follows is a graphic illustrating our findings, and an analysis of recent activities.


Malicious SSL Activity
During the six-month period, the ThreatLabZ research team observed that the Zscaler cloud blocked an average 600,000 malicious activities each day that used SSL, including exploit kit traffic, malware and adware distribution, malware callbacks, and other malicious traffic.

Figure 1. Total SSL blocks, August 2016 – January 2017

In our cloud, we observed an overall increase in malicious SSL traffic in nearly all categories — a trend we expect to continue — with periodic spikes, such as those in early August and late November, when SSL malware blocks reached nearly two million a day.

Browser Exploits and Payload Delivery
Exploit kit (EK) authors are more frequently including SSL in the infection chain at some point. Previous malvertising campaigns have been observed in which EKs took advantage of SSL-enabled advertising networks to inject malicious scripts into legitimate webpages. EK authors may also abuse services that provide free SSL certificates to add HTTPS support to their maliciously controlled domains. This maneuver enables them to bypass the SSL integrity checks built into modern web browsers.

Figure 2. SSL web exploit monthly total hits, August 2016 – January 2017

Figure 3. SSL web exploit blocks, August 2016 – January 2017

During the observation period, we saw an average of 10,000 hits per month for web exploits that included SSL as part of the infection chain.


Figure 4. Phishing blocks, August 2016 – January 2017

Phishing campaigns have been increasingly using SSL in their attacks. Many phishing attacks involve hosting the phishing page on a legitimate domain that has been compromised. Since the number of legitimate sites that support SSL is constantly increasing, so are the number of SSL-enabled phishing attacks. This rise presents a significant threat, because organizations, in an attempt to thwart ransomware and other phishing schemes, have implemented security hardware solutions to detect and block phishing, but few of them support SSL inspection.

Malware Families That Use SSL
Several years ago, it was rare to see malware using SSL to encrypt command-and-control (C&C) mechanisms. As malware design has become more sophisticated, and with the near ubiquity of SSL on the Internet, it made sense for malware authors to begin using SSL to hide their activities. Some malware families have gone further, using anonymity services such as Tor to hide the location of their C&C servers, connecting to (otherwise legitimate) HTTP Tor gateways via SSL.

Botnets typically use self-signed SSL certificates, frequently using the names and information of real companies to try to appear legitimate. The SSL Blacklist is a project that tracks the SSL certificates used by malware authors.

Figure 5. Malware callbacks over SSL, September 2016 – January 2017

Corresponding with the increase in malicious payload deliveries in November 2016, we also observed an increase in blocked malicious SSL traffic during that time.

In our analysis, we came across many malware families that were using SSL for malicious purposes. Some of the recent and notorious malware families actively using SSL are:

  • Dridex/Dyre/TrickLoader: The Dridex, Dyre, and TrickLoader banking Trojans are capable of communicating to the C&C servers via SSL using its own SSL certificate. These family previously used the common browser hooking technique for callbacks, but the latest versions can perform redirects via local proxy or local DNS poisoning to fake websites, controlled by the attacker.
  • Vawtrak: Vawtrak is a well-crafted piece of malware supporting the VNC and SOCKS proxies, screenshot and video capturing, and extensibility with regular updates from C&C servers. Vawtrak samples contain code for downloading and validating SSL certificates and are capable of initiating an HTTPS connection. The malware contains a list of HTTPS-secured hosts that contain updated lists of live C&C servers.
  • Gootkit: Gootkit is a stealth banking trojan with backdoor and spyware capabilities that uses fileless infection and communications over SSL. Gootkit intercepts user data via web injections into HTTPS traffic.

A common function of adware is to inject unwanted advertisements into web traffic. These advertisements can also lead to malicious infections, as exploit authors frequently take advantage of less-scrupulous advertising networks to distribute exploit redirect scripts. Securing web traffic with SSL/HTTPS prevents this distribution in most cases. Adware installed on a client machine would not be able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack with a self-signed certificate due to the HTTPS safeguards included in modern browsers.

However, in several notable cases, major adware distributions have circumvented these safeguards to inject advertisements into HTTPS traffic. The two most high-profiles examples are the Superfish and PrivDog adware distributions, which were first abusing SSL in 2015. Both of these adware programs install a self-signed root CA certificate onto the victim’s computer, and intercept all web traffic in order to inject advertisements into web pages. PrivDog in particular was a serious concern because it did not validate SSL certificates on its end of the proxy, allowing users to inadvertently navigate to websites with invalid SSL certificates, exposing them to additional threats.

Adware variants have also started to host their files on HTTPS sites. We came across a family of adware called InstallCore, which was doing this kind of activity. InstallCore is a Potentially Unwanted Application (PUA) that installs a program to display and/or download unwanted advertisements and toolbars, and tracks a computer’s web usage to feed the victim undesired ad pop-ups; some versions can even hijack a browser’s start or search pages, redirecting the user to a different site or search engine.

InstallCore is often delivered by tricking the user into installing the Flash plugin or a Java update. In some cases, InstallCore is delivered by misdirected download buttons. These fake pop-ups of the Flash player or download buttons appear on content distribution sites, like torrent sites, or free software sites that work on HTTPS.

Figure 6. Fake Flash download pop-up

Due to the rising use of SSL encryption to hide exploit kits, malware, and other threats, it is important to have a security infrastructure that can detect and block these threats. The problem is that SSL inspection is compute-intensive, so even organizations whose security appliances support SSL inspection often disable this feature, as its use would slow traffic throughput to unacceptable levels. Dedicated appliances for SSL inspection are available, but their price puts them out of reach for many organizations. SSL inspection is built into the Zscaler security platform, which, due to its scale, can inspect all SSL traffic without latency.

Research by: Derek Gooley, Jithin Nair, Manohar Ghule

The Growth of Macs in the Enterprise Is Challenging the PC’s Dominance

February 22, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Jeremy Zoss, Managing Editor, Code42

The PC has long been the default choice for business computers, but perhaps not for much longer. The growth of Macs in the enterprise has been exponential in recent years, as illustrated by the infographic below.

For context on why Macs are growing in popularity in the workplace, look at some of the big-name companies embracing the platform. Once a sworn enemy of Macintosh, IBM has become a high-profile proponent of Macs for its own workforce. Cisco allows its employees to choose between iOS and Windows devices, and now has 35,000 Macs in use. At SAP, the company believes that “offering Mac is key for any modern enterprise.

Mac usage lowers IT costs
Simpler IT support for Macs and a high level of user self-service drive the bulk of this cost savings. IBM reports that just 3.5 percent of its Mac users currently call the help desk, compared to 25 percent of its PC users. Media company Buzzfeed maintains only a small IT staff for its thousands of employees–only 30-35 employees use Windows machines, while the rest operate on Macs.

User preference—not business value—still drives most Mac adoption
IT cost savings aren’t the only thing driving Mac adoption among big names in business tech. Security and productivity are also driving Mac adoption. Deloitte says iOS is “the most secure platform for business” and states that “Apple’s products are essential to the modern workforce.” Cisco stated it believes Apple devices accelerate productivity. Basic user satisfaction is another important factor. IBM reports a 91 percent satisfaction rate among Mac users and says its pro-Mac policies help the company attract and retain top talent.

While IBM and others put total cost of ownership, security and productivity as top reasons for Mac adoption, a survey conducted by Code42 shows user preference continues to be the main reason that enterprises are embracing Macs today.

Top reasons for Mac adoption

1. Happier end users (37%)
2. Fewer help desk tickets (14%)
3. Better OS security (12%)

Top IT challenges are Macs’ top strengths
Macs also offer advantages in areas that are typically sources of major challenges for IT. According to our survey, the most time-consuming tasks for IT are tech refresh and help desk tickets, followed by malware and ransomware. These are actually areas where Macs excel. Macs traditionally enable a much higher level of self-service, and Code42 enables user-driven tech refresh for Mac users (and PC users, too). This level of self-service produces the kind of IT cost savings IBM has seen with its dramatically reduced help desk tickets.

Avoid the Heartbreak of Insider Threat

February 14, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Ashley Jarosch, Manager/Marketing Programs, Code42

While everyone else is celebrating love and romance this Valentine’s Day, here at Code42 we’re reflecting on heartbreak—specifically, the heartbreak of insider threat.

The Heartbreak and Betrayal of Insider Threat
It’s a feeling anyone in the enterprise world is familiar with. Someone you trust—someone you hired, work with, maybe even talk to daily—betrays that trust and steals data, deletes data or gives away access credentials. In fact, you’ve probably had it happen recently. Nine in 10 organizations experience at least one insider threat each month—and according to the Ponemon Institute, one in three of those incidents are the result of intentional or malicious insider activities.

You Don’t Have to Be a Cynic—Just Know the Warning Signs
What’s truly heartbreaking is that most organizations don’t see these insider threats coming. They miss the signs of disgruntled employees and suspicious or risky behavior. They’re shocked by insider threat and they end up bitter and cynical—feeling like they can’t trust their own employees.

But you don’t have to be a cynic. By knowing the warning signs, you can spot the employees most likely to steal or destroy sensitive data—and get back to the trusting relationship that empowers the rest of your staff to do good, honest work.

The New CSA Consultancy Program Will Ensure Best Practices in Secure Cloud Implementation

February 13, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Daniele Catteddu, Chief Technology Officer, CSA

As increasing numbers of enterprises begin the move to the cloud in earnest, there has simultaneously developed a host of third-party consultancy firms, offering guidance on cloud technology best practices and implementation. Recognizing that there is a genuine need for a trusted network, where organizations and professionals can be relied on to provide high-quality cloud security consultancy services based on CSA best practices, we are launching a new initiative–the CSA Consultancy Program (CSA-CP) that will go live in mid-2017 with Optiv as the first certified provider.

The overreaching goal of the CSA-CP is to support organizations looking to improve their cloud security posture and implement high standards of compliance and assurance. This new program will provide a registry–the CSA Consultancy Services Registry (CSA-CSR)–a web repository similar to the CSA STAR Registry and in doing so will simplify the research for trusted consultancy services and speed the adoption of effective, secure cloud implementations.

Grounded with CSA’s best practices, the program will be offered from a highly-vetted, trusted network of organizations and professionals, and we couldn’t be more pleased to count Optiv as our first provider.

“As a long-time supporter of CSA’s best practices, certifications and guidance, we look forward to helping organizations better understand how to implement an effective cloud security posture and ensure compliance and assurance standards are met,” said JD Sherry, Vice President, GM, Cloud Security & Strategy, Optiv, Inc. “The consultancy program will serve an excellent purpose in this regard and we are proud that Optiv is part of what we expect to be a valuable program in the future.”

The qualifications that must be met are rigorous. In order to be listed as a CSA Qualified Consultancy Service Provider, organizations must demonstrate they have completed and passed the:

  • Certificate of Cloud Security Knowledge (CCSK) examination,
  • CSA CCM training course,
  • CSA STAR Certification Qualified Auditor designation and/or Consultant designation, and
  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) current year exam completion.

With the widespread adoption of CSA best practices, we see an opportunity and need for a repository of qualified and trusted cloud security experts. Securing the cloud continues to be our top priority, and the CSA-CP will help achieve this.

New Security Research – the Software-Defined Perimeter for the Cloud

February 13, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Jason Garbis, Vice President of Products, Cryptzone

On behalf of the Cloud Security Alliance, I’m pleased to announce the publication of our newest security research from the Software Defined Perimeter (SDP) Working Group, exploring how the SDP can be applied to Infrastructure-as-a-Service environments. Thanks to all the people who commented and contributed to this research over the past 10 months, especially Puneet Thapliyal from Trusted Passage.

Cloud adoption has soared over the past few years, and yet recent surveys indicate that security is still a concern. In one Cloud Security Alliance survey, over 67% of respondents indicated that an inability to enforce corporate security standards represents a barrier to cloud adoption, while 61% noted that compliance concerns pose a barrier.

It’s quickly becoming widely understood that SDP is the preferred new way to securely deploy services. Leading analyst firms are recommending that public-facing services be protected with a new security approach, and are talking about SDP as a strong alternative to traditional network security solutions.

Enterprises have recognized that SDP can address their concerns about adopting cloud, but the Software-Defined Perimeter approach is still relatively unknown to many (here is a quick primer on SDP if you need a refresh). Security architects and IT leaders are eager to learn more about how to best design and deploy SDP-based systems.

As a vendor that offers an SDP solution, and as a leader of the SDP Working Group, we’re happy to share our knowledge and experience. This is why we’ve spent the time and effort, in partnership with other SDP practitioners, to create this new security research outlining how Software-Defined Perimeter applies to IaaS environments.

Security for IaaS is particularly interesting, because it’s a responsibility that’s shared between enterprises and cloud providers, and because IaaS has different (and in some ways more challenging) user access and security requirements than traditional on-premises systems. Our new research focuses on how SDP can be applied to Infrastructure-as-a-Service environments, and explores the following use cases:

  • Secure Access by Developers into IaaS Environment
  • Secure Business User Access to Internal Corporate Application Services
  • Secure Admin Access To Public Facing Services
  • Updating User Access When New Server Instances Are Created
  • Hardware Management Plane Access for Service Provider
  • Controlling Access Across Multiple Enterprise Accounts

This research is now available here – and we look forward to getting your feedback. Please join the SDP Working Group to collaborate.

Finally, now that this research has been published, we’re just beginning work to outline more architectures and new applications of the protocol in version 2 of the SDP specification. Please join us if you’re interesting in contributing or learning more about that project as well.

3-2-1, Takeoff. The STARWatch Cloud Security Management Application Has Launched

February 13, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Daniele Catteddu, Chief Technology Officer, Cloud Security Alliance

Compliance, assurance and vendor management are becoming more and more complex and resource-intensive issues, so we created STARWatch, a Software as a Service (SaaS) application designed to provide organizations a centralized way to manage and maintain the integrity of the vendor review and assessment process. Today, we’re excited to announce its official launch. Even more exciting is that we are emerging from Beta with more than 250 active licenses activated.

STARWatch delivers the content of the CSA’s de facto standards Cloud Control Matrix (CCM) and CSA’s Consensus Assessments Initiative Questionnaire v3.0.1 (CAIQ) in a database format, enabling users to manage compliance of cloud services with CSA best practices. It was designed to provide cloud users, providers, auditors and security providers with assurance and compliance on-demand. Additionally, it provides users the ability to:

  • manage all cloud service providers and their own private clouds to assure a consistent security baseline is maintained;
  • build and maintain a CSA Security Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR) entry and provide customers with rapid responses to their compliance questions;
  • perform audits and assessments of cloud services/provider security;
  • have a clear reference between CCM controls and the corresponding controls in other industry standards;
  • leverage the STARWatch solution database format and technical specifications for integration within an organization’s cloud environment; and
  • enabling sharing and peer reviewing of cloud services security assessments.

CSA STARWatch is free to CSA corporate members. Non-members may purchase licenses starting at $3,000 annually for an Expert license and $5,000 annually for Enterprise licenses. Learn more about CSA STARWatch.

STARWatch is part of the larger CSA STAR program, the industry’s most powerful program for security assurance in the cloud, which encompasses the key principles of transparency, rigorous auditing and harmonization of standards, with continuous monitoring. Currently there are 230 Cloud Service Providers in the STAR program, which includes STAR Self-Assessment, STAR Certification, STAR Attestation and C-STAR Assessment.

On Data Privacy Day, Keep Your Data Safe by Identifying the Threats

January 30, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Rick Orloff, Chief Security Officer, Code42

Saturday, January 28th was Data Privacy Day. We’re proud champions of the National Cyber Security Alliance’s focused effort on protecting privacy and safeguarding data. But at Code42, we know that one day isn’t enough. We dedicate an entire month each year to reaffirm our critical role in keeping our customers’ data safe.

This year, we initiated an annual Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) training program at Code42 and trained staff on the eight common bodies of knowledge defined by (ICS)2 to earn the coveted credential. We embedded a new tool in our email system for Code42 employees to report phishing attempts. And, we hosted a panel discussion with representatives from the FBI and Secret Service to learn more about how they combat cybercrime.

But we’re not here to talk about what we did to keep our data safe. We’re here to talk about what you can do to protect yours. The first step in any cybersecurity strategy: situational awareness.

Your Employees Are Being Targeted: Part One
Your end users, and their devices, represent a very large mobile attack surface. IT and InfoSec professionals spend far too much time cleaning up issues caused by employees who fall for phishing emails, click corrupt links, or engage in careless online behavior. These unintentional “user mistakes” are one of the biggest threats today, causing around 25 percent of data exfiltration events.

Why do users make so many mistakes? To put it simply, most don’t care. They believe that if IT is doing its job, no threats will reach them and they have nothing to worry about. They believe that if they have an error in judgment, or do something foolish, IT will always come to the rescue. They actively ignore security policies and find creative workarounds for security measures they view as an inconvenience.

Your Employees Are Being Targeted: Part Two
It’s one thing for your employees to make mistakes. It’s another for them to deliberately remove data from your organization. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens quite often, and it’s part of the reason why 78% of security professionals say insiders are the biggest contributors to data misappropriation.

With your company’s IP making up 80% of its value, the potential damage from malicious insider threat is enormous. To help spot vulnerabilities, look for “Shadow IT,” the tools and solutions your employees use without explicit organizational approval that often pose measurable risks. Many tools that are unapproved by your IT department also place the data they’re accessing at risk and often there’s no overall management of these tools.

The Solution: Backup and Real-time Recovery
I have often said that there are only two types of networks in this world, those that have been breached and those that are being attacked. The fact is, security breaches occur to varying degrees of severity at all Fortune 500 companies. If a breach results in being denied access to your data, the C-Suite expects IT to get them back up and running. What they are just now learning is that this can be accomplished in mere minutes, or hours without overwhelming support staff! The solution to protecting your company from inside threats, ransomware, or any other cybersecurity issue is real-time recovery on the endpoints.

This is what the FBI has been urging businesses to do for years: regularly back up data and verify the integrity of those backups. It’s equally important to ensure that backed-up files aren’t susceptible to ransomware’s ability to infect multiple sources and backups. Consider these key points:

  1. When endpoints are infected by ransomware, real-time recovery can roll back clean versions of every file, including system files.
  2. While other solutions such as File Sync and Share (FSS) programs can import ransomware to its mirror mate (as they are designed to do), enterprise endpoint recovery solutions can roll back all files to earlier dates (versions) and restore them.
  3. When a device gets stolen or damaged for whatever reason, or when an employee leaves with valuable company data, real-time recovery can roll back each and every file on the device. This keeps the business operational and provides options relative to how they want to deal with the departed employee.

There are many tools on the market that claim to protect your data, and many indeed do a good job. But a sound cybersecurity policy begins within. You can’t protect your data if you don’t understand where it is and the threats you’re up against.

CSA releases Quantum-Safe Security Glossary

January 25, 2017 | Leave a Comment

The Cloud Security Alliance’s Quantum-Safe Security (QSS) Working Group announces their latest release with the Quantum-Safe Security Glossary. The QSS Working Group was formed to address key generation and transmission methods and to help the industry understand quantum-safe methods for protecting networks and data. The working group is focused on long-term data protection amidst a climate of rising cryptanalysis capabilities. As the working group continues to produce documents to address concerns in a quantum world, the opportunity to share terms to provide a starting point to learn more about quantum-safe security.

This glossary is a collective contribution of the QSS Working Group to increase quantum-safe security awareness, and includes a compilation of common terms used in the world of quantum-safe cryptography. The document was created with the working groups input and went through an open peer review for collaboration and completeness. However, quantum-safe cryptography is a very dynamic issue, prone to unpredictable patterns and instability. In anticipation of these characteristics, the QSS Working Group plans to update this document from time to time moving forward. For more information on the Quantum-Safe Security Working Group, please visit

STAR- A Window to the Cloud

January 20, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Raj Samani, Chief Technology Officer/EMEA, Intel Security

We are all going to live in the cloud. Well that is what every study, and forecast tells us. From our clash of clans villages, to our connected cars we can expect all of our data to be hosted in an unmarked data center in a town that we have never heard of. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but the reality is for many of us, we simply have no idea where our data will be stored, and indeed even if we are given the name of a physical location have little insight into the operational procedures, staff vetting, or even physical security employed at the location.  This old chestnut is described as the lack of transparency, but the truth is that cloud service providers do remain transparent so long as you ask the question.

It sounds simple, and indeed by all accounts, major providers have entire teams dedicated to just that, answering questions from potential customers about the security controls deployed on site. Such a process however is incredibly inefficient, and reminds me of how insurance used to work. I remember getting the telephone book, and flicking to the section titled insurance. There, you would phone as many providers as you could answering questions about your car in order to find the most competitive quote. With every call, you felt a small part of your youth just ebbing away as your tolerance for small talk reduced with every quote. In the end you were met with a saving of eleven pounds for three hours work. Of course it was worth it wasn’t it?

In many cases every element of our industry is met with a similar fragmented approach, do you want to get a quote for staff training, well do a google search and contact every training company you have the patience to contact. Differentiating the commoditized offerings such as insurance with price is simple, but deciding which company you want to host all of your corporate data, well that is a different matter.

It is for this reason that the Cloud Security Alliance, and in particular the Security, Trust & Assurance Registry (STAR), is such a valuable resource. This program encompasses key principles of transparency and a validation of the security posture of cloud offerings. The STAR program includes a complimentary registry that documents the security controls provided by popular cloud computing offerings. This publicly accessible registry is designed for users of cloud services to assess their cloud providers, security providers and advisory and assessment services firms in order to make the best procurement decisions. Now in one single place, potential cloud customers can gain insight into the security maturity of multiple providers in a single instance. Recognizing the need for greater transparency, we are pleased to confirm that Intel Security has our McAfee ePolicy Orchestrator Cloud STAR certified and will add others as they come online.

It is not question of whether the cloud will be ubiquitous, but whether we can ensure that the data centers holding every detail of our business or personal life have the appropriate level of protection. The STAR initiative is integral into providing a foundation for anybody considering using such services, but more importantly the CSA has been at the forefront of cloud security.

So if you are considering outsourcing your work, make sure that STAR is your first port of call and consider attending the CSA Summit at RSA this year on February 13, where I will be sharing my thoughts on “Security in the Cloud: Evolution or Revolution?”



People Are Not IP Addresses…So Why Do Security Solutions Think They Are?

January 18, 2017 | Leave a Comment

By Jason Garbis, Vice President of Products, Cryptzone

Attackers are erasing database contents and replacing them with a note demanding Bitcoin ransom payment for restoration. It also appears that victims who pay are often not getting their data back, and that multiple attackers are overwriting each other’s ransom demands. Seriously, these databases are of course important to their owners, and these attacks are clearly a headache for them. Hopefully they have backups.

Let’s explore this situation a bit more, and then step back for some analysis.

Here’s What We Know

There is no indication of a vulnerability in MongoDB; rather these systems are allowing administrative access from any IP address, and are (mis)configured for either no authentication or default credentials. There are a large number of such systems – Internet service search engines show approximately 100,000 exposed instances, and several independent security researchers have identified over 27,000 instances that have been hijacked as of January 8, a number that’s growing daily.

Putting aside the mistaken configuration that enabled access with no/weak authentication, let’s look at this from a user access and network perspective. At the risk of being too obvious, these systems are Internet-facing either intentionally or unintentionally. If intentional, their admins clearly require remote access, and therefore these systems must expose some network service.

“People are not IP addresses!”
— Jason Garbis, Vice President of Products at Cryptzone

The problem comes down to how access is restricted – and a realization that relying solely on authentication is not enough. Too many systems are either misconfigured (as appears to be the case with these MongoDB) or are subject to vulnerabilities – enterprises need to limit access at a network level. The issue is that network security tools are built around controlling access by IP address, yet the problem we need to solve is how people (identities) access these systems. And people are not IP addresses!

If these databases were unintentionally exposed to the Internet, then no remote access is required – either admins have local system access, or they’re relying on another security mechanism such as being on a LAN or accessing the network through a VPN. Yet, these systems are exposed directly to the Internet, and therefore not likely on an internal corporate network. Looking at the discovered instances on Shodan, it appears that many of them have IP addresses associated with cloud or hosting providers!

This is an interesting pattern. Because cloud network access is managed by IP addresses, users may be simply setting their cloud network security groups to permit access from anyone on the internet – much to their detriment, as this attack shows.

Clearly, misconfiguring a database to not require authentication is a problem, but there are many exploits that exist even in properly secured and properly configured systems. It’s time to realize that the bigger problem is in allowing unauthorized users to have network access to these systems in the first place. Why are there 100,000 instances of MongoDB available for a public scan? I suggest that most of these were not intended for public access.

The ability to access a service on the network is a privilege, and it must be treated as such. The principle of least privilege demands that we prevent unauthorized users from scanning, connecting to, or accessing our services. Following this principle will dramatically reduce the ability of attackers to exploit misconfigurations or vulnerabilities.

But there’s a problem. There is a disconnect between how we need to model users – as people – and our network security systems, which are centered on IP addresses. And, to repeat myself, people are not IP addresses.

Let’s Bring This Together

Organizations need to secure network access in an identity-centric way, and in a way that’s driven by automated policies so that users – who are people – get appropriate access. Network security systems must be able to do this, and allow us to easily limit user access to the minimum necessary.

The good news is that this is achievable today. The Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP) – an open specification published by the Cloud Security Alliance – defines a model where network access is controlled in an identity-centric way. Every user obtains a dynamically adjusted network perimeter that’s individualized based on their specific requirements and entitlements. The Software-Defined Perimeter is well-suited to cloud environments; network services such as MongoDB can be easily protected by SDP network gateways.

With SDP, organizations can easily define policies that control which users get access to these database instances, and prevent all unauthorized users from scanning or accessing these services – even if they’re misconfigured and don’t require authentication. And, because this access is built around users, not IP addresses, authorized users can securely access these systems from anywhere, with strong authentication enforced at the network level.

We’ll never be completely safe in our hyper-connected world, but we’re unnecessarily making things harder for ourselves, as this latest attack shows. We need to take a new, identity-centric approach to network security, and the Software-Defined Perimeter model provides exactly this. Putting this in place will go a long way towards making our systems more secure while keeping our users productive.