Protecting the end-user

Sometimes security means protecting end-users from themselves

The recent OS X-specific Mac Trojan ignited many hot conversations on various security mailing lists last week. Supposedly, the excitement regarding the Trojan is that it is the first time profit-seeking criminals have paid attention to the OS X platform, versus script kiddies and the hobbyists. Personally, I don't know what the big deal is; Mac-based computers have been host to all the normal types of malware for more than two decades, albeit not as frequently as Microsoft Windows PCs.

[ RogerGrimes's column is now a blog! Get the latest IT security news from the Security Adviser blog. ]

Macs, PCs, and users
When I first started fighting malware writers more than 20 years ago, the only place you could find a PC virus was on a Mac. The first PC virus, Elk Cloner, was written for a Mac. Then DOS became more popular, so the virus writers started writing viruses for DOS. Next, Windows took over, and it's been the primary target of hackers ever since. Linux has its fair share of malware, and as OS X gains market share, malware writers are taking notice. I seriously doubt that the recent Trojan is the first malware attack against OS X by professional criminals.

The recent Mac Trojan waits for a user to visit a Web site promising, er, interesting video content. When the end-user visits the site, it prompts the user to download a needed QuickTime codec, which is really a Trojan program. If the user accepts the download and supplies their root password to install the bogus program, they get owned. The mail list conversations are all over the place, including the normal Mac-is-better-than-Windows-no-it's-not flame wars. How boring.

The one thread I found most interesting was whether or not malware that required end-user interaction and the root password could be counted as an exploit. Several very bright minds said something along the lines of, "If the computer is completely secure, but the end-user stupidly installs this obvious, malicious, crap piece of software, then it's the user's fault, not mine. It's not a security problem!"

Since I've documented that 86 percent of all (Windows) malware requires client-side interaction today, I'm not in that camp. Are we supposed to ignore the largest threat to our computer systems simply because our end-users disregard everything we tell them? Can I let my company get exploited over and over again, but tell my boss my hands are clean and I'm a success because I "secured" their computer systems?

The IM invasion
Most computer environments have an obligation to respond to threats that are caused by end-users unknowingly installing insecure software or using it in an insecure way. An example of this was when instant messaging began to take over the world. I personally didn't see the need or value of IM in my environment. "Heck, e-mail does everything IM can do, and with an audit trail," I said. But my opinion didn't matter.

One by one, end-users began to install instant messaging. I'd uninstall it on one user's workstation only to find it installed on the two PCs beside them. I was fighting a losing battle. I decided to block the IM network port to prevent the clients from connecting to the outside hosting channel servers, and the IM clients morphed to bypass the firewall settings. I went to complain to the company CEO, only to have him request that I install it on his computer. I didn't want to support IM, but eventually I learned that my job is not to decide what end-users or management should be running, but to secure as best as I can what they want to run.

The IM invasion (as I called it) was replaced with a p-to-p push, then music downloads (full of malware), and unauthorized USB keys ("Hey, what are those things?"). Then a major vendor, spending tens of millions of dollars on radio and magazine ads, convinced my end-users that they could not live without GoToMyPC. No need to get the IT staff involved. Firewalls are no problem. Right.

The next invasion(s)
Today's invasions are led by video services, SMS texting, and social-networking sites. Is it a YouTube video or a malware program codec? Like it or not, your current and future employees will be engaging in social-networking sites, such as MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook, Plaxo, and so on, and their cell phone more than they interact with real live human beings. If you have teenage kids, you already know what I mean. But it isn't just kid's play; one large financial entity recently used virtual world Second Life to host an internal company meeting. Hey, did my avatar just pat my boss on the butt?

Various social-networking leaders are even developing APIs that will allow an increased Web 2.0 social-networking experience, social-network-specific applications, and cross-service communications. All of these are great things to hack. And let's not forget VoIP programs (such as Skype), iPods, iPhones, Gphones, or whatever. If you're in IT, you will always have to defend end-users and the organization against themselves.

Once you note that some insecure technology or program is taking over your environment, either spend all your efforts to eradicate it, or accept it. If you have to accept it (because, for example, the CEO just posted his resume to Facebook), work to make it as safe as possible. Here are some tips:

* Start with end-user education.

* If the free program they are downloading is insecure, offer a more secure, "corporate standard" alternative that interfaces with the product they like.

* Use scripts or group policies to secure the product's installation settings.

* Buy or use antimalware products that work with the product you are trying to protect.

* And in the end, if your end-users ignore all your advice and intentionally install potentially malicious programs, that doesn't mean it isn't your problem.

Mobile Security Insider: iOS vs. Android vs. BlackBerry vs. Windows Phone
Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies