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Comment: Security Secrets Your IT Administrators Don't Want You to Know

20 January 2011
Philip Lieberman

Philip Lieberman, CEO of Lieberman Software and well-known cybersecurity expert, gives insight into what's lacking in most organizations' identity management, password, access and auditing policies.

As valued members of your organization, IT administrators work every day to keep your infrastructure up and available. But in today’s rush to contain operational costs, your IT administrators could be taking more shortcuts than you’d expect. And perhaps no aspect of IT suffers more from cutting corners than security.

Here are five facts about IT security that your administrators probably don't want executives and employees to know.

Most Passwords Never Change

Sure, regulations may call for frequent password changes on all accounts in your infrastructure. Even though your IT administrators may be tasked to change passwords on a regular basis, your organization probably lacks the automation to reliably change what could be thousands of the passwords that matter most.

Sensitive accounts such as administrator logins, embedded application-to-application passwords, and privileged service accounts often keep the same passwords for years because IT staff may not have the tools to track and change them. And, because systems and applications often crash when IT personnel attempt to change interdependent credentials, many of your organization’s most privileged logins can go unchanged for extended periods of time.

Ad-hoc change processes and handwritten scripts might succeed in updating the passwords of some types of privileged accounts, but unless your organization has invested in privileged identity management software, you can bet that many of the passwords that grant access to your organization’s most sensitive information are never changed. This means that access to this data will continue to spread over time.

Too Many Individuals Have Too Much Access

Regardless of your written policies, highly privileged account passwords are almost certainly known to large numbers of IT staff. For the sake of convenience, chances are these logins have been shared with individuals outside of IT.

As a result contractors, service providers, application programers, and even end users are likely able to gain privileged access using credentials that may never change. Unless you’ve got technology in place to track privileged logins, delegate access, and change these powerful credentials after each time they’re used, then you’ll never know who now has access.

Your CEO’s Data Isn’t Private

With all the recent headlines about corporate and government data leaks, you might still be surprised to know how many individuals have access to the files on your executive’s computers, and to the data resident in the applications that senior managers use every day. Anyone with knowledge of the right credentials can gain anonymous access to read, copy and alter data.

In many cases these credentials are known not only to senior IT managers, but also to IT rank and file and others. It’s more than likely that your $12-per-hour help desk workers have access to more sensitive data than does your CFO. And your subcontractors located around the world? It’s likely that they can access the CEO's account, too.

IT Auditors Can Be Misled

If your administrators know about security gaps or failed policies that your IT auditors haven’t discovered, then they’ll likely try to take the knowledge to their graves. IT staff have limited time to complete higher-visibility projects that influence performance ratings and paychecks, so in most cases you can forget about them fixing any security holes that your auditors fail to notice.

Security Often Takes a Back Seat

Is your IT administrators’ pay structure tied to security? No? Then they’re probably not as proactive as you might expect when it comes to securing your network. Most IT administrators won’t tell you about the security vulnerabilities they discover in the course of their jobs because they’re not paid to fight losing battles to gain resources necessary to close each security gap.

Because pay packages are rarely tied to safeguarding your network, your IT administrator is also probably not taking the initiative to update his or her technical skills when it comes to security. As a result, even when budgets allow for purchases of new security technologies, your staff may have no clue how to effectively use these new tools.

Bring IT Into Balance by Enforcing Accountability

Fundamentally, the security of each organization hinges on how well IT balances convenience with controls and accountability. All too often IT is given free reign to operate under its own rules when it comes to security and resists working under the same types of controls that apply to others in the organization.

Those organizations that work to bring IT into balance – introducing accountability through segregation of duties and adequate auditing controls while providing sufficient resources and incentives to provide proactive security – will come out ahead.


Philip Lieberman is an outspoken and highly regarded industry influencer who is quoted by national, business and trade press on US cybersecurity as well as specific technology issues, including cloud computing and security in the cloud. A highly accomplished software engineer by training, he has over 30 years of experience. Lieberman has published numerous books in the field of computer science, has taught at UCLA, and has been the author of many computer science courses. He has a BA in physics from San Francisco State University. Lieberman also shares IT security news and views as chief blogger at Identity Week.

This article is featured in:
Data Loss  •  Identity and Access Management

 

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