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Secure Design Principles

  • March 23, 2007
  • By Neil Daswani, Christoph Kern, & Anita Kesavan
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Don't Forget Containment and Recovery

Some organizations go overboard on deploying too many prevention and detection measures, and do not focus adequately enough on containment or recovery. For example, some organizations will deploy a firewall and IDS, but will not have appropriate measures in place to deal with security alerts generated by them.

Preventive techniques may not be perfect, and may fail at preventing some malicious acts from taking place. On the Internet, malicious traffic needs to be treated as a fact of life, instead of as an error or exceptional condition. It may take some time to identify and/or detect malicious traffic before the connections with malicious sources can be dropped. In the interim, you need to contain damage that can impact the normal operation of the network.

To highlight the importance of attack containment techniques, consider an analogy between defenses of a distributed computer system and national security defenses. On the morning of September 11, 2001, at the time that the first hijacked airplane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, our nation's preventive defense mechanisms had already failed. The FBI, CIA, NSA, and INS had failed to identify and/or detain the terrorists who had entered the country and had been training to fly commercial airliners. The hijackers were let through the airport security checkpoints and were allowed to board. When the first airplane hit the tower, the hijackers were already in control of two other planes in the air.

After the first airplane hit the north tower, it was, in fact, unclear as to whether what had just happened was an accident, or whether it was an attack. Indeed, it would take the authorities some time to detect exactly what was going on. And, of course, regardless of whether the incident that had just occurred was an attack, it would take quite some time to recover from the situation, to the extent that such incidents can be recovered from. Immediately after the crash of the first airplane, and while the authorities were in the process of detecting exactly what was going on, efforts were focused on containing the effects of the incident, by saving as many lives as possible. Such containment techniques-whether they be protocols that emergency response teams should follow, the activation of additional secure radio frequencies and communication channels for use by authorities to coordinate life-saving efforts, or possible procedures for emergency scrambling of jet fighters-need to be designed, practiced, tested, and put in place well ahead of any such incident.

In a distributed system, it is also important that once malicious parties have breached the preventive mechanisms, and while the existence, locations, and identities of the malicious actors are in the process of being detected, attack containment techniques be used to minimize the impact of the attack while detection and recovery procedures are executing.

Password Security Example

To consider an example from the world of password security, system administrators can attempt to prevent password-guessing attacks against their web site by requiring users to choose strong passwords. To help detect password-guessing attacks, web server logs can be monitored for a large number of failed logins coming from one or more IP addresses, and mark those IP addresses as suspicious. However, doing that is not enough. It is still likely that the attacker may stumble upon a significant number of valid username and password combinations, and it is important to reduce the number of accounts that get compromised during an attack. One option might be to deny all logins from the suspicious IP addresses to contain the attack, or require an additional check to see if the client presents the web server with a cookie that was provided upon last successful login.

Still, the attacker may obtain a few valid usernames and passwords, especially if the attacker has access to many IP addresses-but the goal of containment is to lower the impact of the attack, not prevent it entirely. Finally, to recover from the attack, you could monitor account activity for the usernames for which there were successful logins from the suspicious IP addresses, and deny any transactions that look suspicious, such as monetary transfers to addresses outside the country. The web site may also have to file an insurance claim to financially recover from any successful fraud that the attacker was able to conduct, and purchase credit monitoring services for customers whose accounts were compromised.


An idea related to defense-in-depth is called diversity-in-defense. Diversity-in-defense is about using multiple heterogeneous systems that do the same thing.

One example of using diversity-in-defense is the use of multiple operating systems within a corporation to mitigate the impact of viruses. For example, one could back up data (say, e-mail) on machines that use different operating systems. If a virus attacks Microsoft Outlook, which only works on Windows platforms, it will be able to corrupt all the computers in a corporation that are running Microsoft Windows. However, it is unlikely that the same virus will be able to attack redundant copies of information stored on machines running a different operating system, such as Linux. Using a variety of operating systems protects the entire corporation against attacks on a particular operating system.

Diversity-in-defense does come at a cost, though. By using more than one OS, the IT staff may come under the burden of having to be experts with more than one technology, and will also have to monitor and apply software patches to multiple technologies. The IT staff must keep such trade-offs in mind and weigh the extra security that diversity-in-defense might provide against the extra complexity and effort it requires. You can read more about the pros and cons of diversity-in-defense in Dan Geer and Dave Aucsmith's position paper entitled "Monopoly Considered Harmful."

Securing the Weakest Link

A system is only as strong as its weakest link. The weakest link is the part of a system that is the most vulnerable, susceptible, or easiest to attack. In this section, we will discuss some prototypical weak links that may exist in systems.

Weak Passwords

One example of a weak link is something that we mentioned earlier-users having weak passwords. Studies going back to 1979 show that people typically choose weak passwords-for example, in Morris and Thompson's "Password Security: A Case History" (Morris and Thompson 1979), they found that about one-third of their users chose a password that could be found in the dictionary. If an attacker interested in compromising some account in the system tries logging in with a variety of different common usernames and passwords, using words from various dictionaries, he will eventually hit the jackpot with one of them.


Another weak link in the corporate security plan is people. In fact, in our previous example of weak passwords, an employee who chooses a password that is simply her name in reverse could be considered a weak link. Even if an employee chooses a good password, she might get conned by a phone call from the company's "system administrator" asking her for the password. Usually, the bigger the company, the more likely that these types of people-based attacks will work-the larger the company, the more often employees may need to trust people that they don't know in the regular course of their day.

And what about the programmers themselves? No amount of software security techniques will help you if your programmers are malicious! Movies such as Superman III and Office Space have featured programmers who wrote code that transferred "unnoticed" fractions of cents from banking transactions into their own bank accounts. Malicious programmers can also put back doors into their programs, which can give them control of the system after it is deployed-sometimes such programmers even bill such back doors as "features." Processes can be put in place in which programmers are required to review each other's code prior to incorporating it into a software system, but the problem then usually boils down to how many programmers need to collude to build such surprises into software.

In summary, people often end up being the weak link in many systems. Unfortunately, it is hard to eliminate people because your business typically depends on them! To help deal with such people-related threats, a company should create a culture in which their employees enjoy what they do, believe in the goals of the company, are well compensated, and do not have too many incentives to defraud the company. Even then, it may be in a company's best interest to distribute information on a need-to-know basis, and have employees go through criminal background and other checks upon hire.

Implementation Vulnerabilities

Even a correctly designed piece of software typically has lots of bugs in the implementation of that design. Some of those bugs are likely to lead to exploitable security vulnerabilities. Even though an application might use encryption to protect data, it is often possible for an attacker to get access to the protected data not by attacking the encryption function or cracking the encryption key, but by finding bugs in how the software uses (or rather misuses) the encryption function.

Another common example of implementation vulnerability involves the inadvertent mixing of control and data. Attackers can send input data to a program that gets interpreted as a command, which allows them to take control of the program.

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