Amanda Berlin on defensive security fundamentals

The O’Reilly Security Podcast: How to approach asset management, improve user education, and strengthen your organization’s defensive security with limited time and resources.

By Courtney Allen
June 21, 2017
Core focus. Core focus. (source:

In this episode, I talk with Amanda Berlin, security architect at Hurricane Labs. We discuss how to assess and develop defensive security policies when you’re new to the task, how to approach core security fundamentals like asset management, and generally how you can successfully improve your organization’s defensive security with limited time and resources.

Here are some highlights:

Learn faster. Dig deeper. See farther.

Join the O'Reilly online learning platform. Get a free trial today and find answers on the fly, or master something new and useful.

Learn more

The value of ongoing asset management

Whether you’re one person or you have a large security team, asset management is always a pain point. It’s exceedingly rare to see an organization correctly implementing asset management. In an ideal situation, you know where all of the devices are coming into your network. You have alerts set to sound if a new Mac address shows up. You want to know and be alerted if something plugs in or connects to your wireless network that you’ve never seen before, or haven’t approved. You should never look at asset management as a box to check; it’s an ongoing process. Collaborate with your purchasing department—as they purchase PCs and distribute them, you should be tracking asset management at each step. And follow the same process when your organization gets rid of equipment. All laptops and servers eventually die; be sure to record those changes as well. This is important from a security perspective and also may save on software licensing so you’re not paying for licenses for computers you no longer have.

Budget-friendly user education

A lot of people have computer-based phishing education once a year; it gets lumped in with things like learning how to use a fire extinguisher. That never sticks. People will click straight through the training, retake the test until they get the passing grade, and quickly forget about it. Instead, you need a repetitive process with multiple levels. The first step is to search the web to find email addresses in your system that are readily available on the web. Those should be your first targets because they are the most likely to be attacked by bots and other automatic phishing programs. Then move on to people in finance, database administrators, and other individuals with significant power within the organization. Send them a couple sentences of plain text and an internal link from a Gmail address to see if they give up their username and password. I have found that, before training, 60% to 80% of the employees targeted will click on the link.

You should see clear progress over multiple levels of this training. Keep extensive metrics on the percent of people who clicked the emailed link, and the percent of people who gave their passwords, both before and after training. And be careful not to only identify “wrong behavior.” Place emphasis on educating staff about whom to contact if something seems weird and then provide positive reinforcement when they report suspicious activity quickly and effectively. Empowering your staff in this way provides quick, effective, and budget-friendly reporting.

Preparation is key for incident response

Incident response plans can be as simple or as complex as fits your organization’s needs. For some organizations, an incident response plan may be to shut everything off and call a third party for help. If you decide to go with a third party incident response plan, you should have that contract in place beforehand. If you wait until you’re in need of services immediately, you’ve no time or space for negotiating fees or comparing providers. You’ll also be facing an emergency situation and lose time by providing background on your systems to the third party. Putting a plan in place in advance, no matter how simple, will be cost effective, save time, and allow you to recover from an incident more efficiently and effectively.

Other organizations may be able to manage a full-blown investigation internally, depending on the severity. Some places are advanced enough that they can reverse malware independently. Many places aren’t. Regardless, you must know where to draw the line on stopping your incident response internally and getting someone external to come in and help. Once again, determining where that line is for your organization ahead of time is key. You don’t want to have to make that decision in the middle of an incident.

Post topics: O'Reilly Security Podcast