June 2, 2016

Security, Our Responsibility as Good Stewards of User’s Information

A little over a week ago, it was announced that approximately 117M username and passwords from a 2012 LinkedIn breach were being offered for sale on the internet. In direct reaction to this latest breach, the Microsoft Active Directory team will no longer allow you to use terrible passwords. I actually didn’t realize it, but up until this announcement, Microsoft was still allowing users to use passwords such as ‘12345’ and ‘password’. This made me think, what is our responsibility as system administrators, engineers, architects, and programmers? In other words, how do we become good stewards of our client’s information?

To answer this question, we must first identify some of the basic challenges we face. First and foremost, on its own, the password is archaic, antiquated, and generally insecure. However, until someone develops an alternative to the password, it is here to stay. Now, some of you are screaming at me right now, suggesting plenty of alternatives to the username and password combination. To date, all alternatives to the password require the user to invest in some new piece of hardware, require upgrades and/or changes to the current infrastructure, or require significant training before it can be implemented. Until we find a solution that can check those boxes, the password will remain.

Our second major challenge is a lack of security awareness and education on the part of the end-user. Most user receive some form of computer user agreement when they first start a job. Generally, this agreement tells them how they may use their computer and may give them some security tidbits. At best, this user may receive quarterly corporate training that they day dream through. The accountant doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of computer security, networks, and so forth. When John, our accountant, chooses ‘password1234’ he doesn’t realize that his insecure password allows an enterprising attacking to make his way to a main server in our network, elevate his privileges and steal design documents for the company’s newest prototype.

So, what makes us good stewards of our user’s information? Education is the first step towards being a good data steward, technologies are ever evolving. It is important as a subject matter expert (SME) in your technology that you are continuing your education, keeping up with best practices and staying apprised of the security landscape.

Certifications are another excellent way to make sure security is at the forefront of our projects. Take a look at CompTIA Security+, Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP), and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). These are only a few, countless others exist and no one is the be-all and end-all in the security world. However, what these certifications do provide you is a framework for security concepts and mindset to implement them.

Keep in mind, security incidents are going to happen! Enterprising attackers are looking for new vectors to attack you and your projects every day. Transparency is key in the event of an attack or data breach. The use of third party reporting sites, such as Troy Hunt’s, Have I Been Pwned, can help show your users you are serious about safeguarding their data. Keeping your users informed and letting them know what has been done to mitigate the situation is often the difference between losing your user base and keeping them long after an incident has occurred.

Overall, being a good steward of your user’s information requires us to begin to take a security minded approach to everything we do. Security should no longer be an afterthought, it should be built into our projects from the ground up. While not every incident can be avoided, with proper planning and a security minded approach we help mitigate these attacks and keep our user’s data protected.

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