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Web Security, Privacy & Commerce, 2nd Edition by Gene Spafford, Simson Garfinkel

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Risk Analysis and Best Practices

Security is most often viewed as a process that is designed to prevent something from happening. As a result, people often approach computer security by thinking about the risks that they face and then formulating strategies for minimizing or mitigating these risks. One traditional way to approach this problem is with the process of risk analysis , a technique that involves gauging the likelihood of each risk, evaluating the potential for damage that each risk entails, and addressing the risks in some kind of systematic order.

Risk analysis has a long and successful history in the fields of public safety and civil engineering. Consider the construction of a suspension bridge. It’s a relatively straightforward matter to determine how much stress cars, trucks, and weather on a bridge will place on the bridge’s cables. Knowing the anticipated stress, an engineer can compute the chance that the bridge will collapse over the course of its life given certain design and construction choices. Given the bridge’s width, length, height, anticipated traffic, and other factors, an engineer can compute the projected destruction to life, property, and commuting patterns that would result from the bridge’s failure. All of this information can be used to calculate cost-effective design decisions and a reasonable maintenance schedule for the bridge’s owners to follow.

Unfortunately, the application of risk analysis to the field of computer security has been less successful. Risk analysis depends on the ability to gauge the likelihood of each risk, identify the factors that enable those risks, and calculate the potential impact of various choices—figures that are devilishly hard to pin down. How do you calculate the risk that an attacker will be able to obtain system administrator privileges on your web server? Does this risk increase over time, as new security vulnerabilities are discovered, or does it decrease over time, as the vulnerabilities are publicized and corrected? Does a well-maintained system become less secure or more secure over time? And how do you calculate the likely damages of a successful penetration? Unfortunately, few statistical, scientific studies have been performed on these questions. Many people think they know the answers to these questions, but research has shown that people badly estimate risk based on personal experience.

Because of the difficulty inherent in risk analysis, another approach for securing computers has emerged in recent years called best practices , or due care . This approach consists of a series of recommendations, procedures, and policies that are generally accepted within the community of security practitioners to give organizations a reasonable level of overall security and risk mitigation at a reasonable cost. Best practices can be thought of as “rules of thumb” for implementing sound security measures.

The best practices approach is not without its problems. The biggest problem is that there really is no one set of “best practices” that is applicable to all web sites and web users. The best practices for a web site that manages financial information might have similarities to the best practices for a web site that publishes a community newsletter, but the financial web site would likely have additional security measures.

Following best practices does not assure that your system will not suffer a security-related incident. Most best practices require that an organization’s security office monitor the Internet for news of new attacks and download patches from vendors when they are made available. But even if you follow this regimen, an attacker might still be able to use a novel, unpublished attack to compromise your computer system.

The very idea that tens of thousands of organizations could or even should implement the “best” techniques available to secure their computers is problematical. The “best” techniques available are simply not appropriate or cost-effective for all organizations. Many organizations that claim to be following best practices are actually adopting the minimum standards commonly used for securing systems. In practice, most best practices really aren’t.

We recommend a combination of risk analysis and best practices. Starting from a body of best practices, an educated designer should evaluate risks and trade-offs, and pick reasonable solutions for a particular configuration and management. Web servers should be hosted on isolated machines, and configured with an operating system and software providing the minimally-required functionality. The operators should be vigilant for changes, keep up-to-date on patches, and prepare for the unexpected. Doing this well takes a solid understanding of how the Web works, and what happens when it doesn’t work. This is the approach that we will explain in the chapters that follow.

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