Section 1.4. Defenses

This is the shortest section in this chapter, not because it isn't important, but because the rest of the book concerns specific tools and techniques for defending against the attacks we've discussed. The whole point of threat analysis is to determine what level of defenses are called for against the various things to which your systems seem vulnerable.

There are three general means of mitigating risk. A risk, as we've said, is a particular combination of assets, vulnerabilities, and attackers. Defenses, therefore, can be categorized as means of the following:

  • Reducing an asset's value to attackers

  • Mitigating specific vulnerabilities

  • Neutralizing or preventing attacks

1.4.1 Asset Devaluation

Reducing an asset's value may seem like an unlikely goal, but the key is to reduce that asset's value to attackers, not to its rightful owners and users. The best example of this is encryption: all of the attacks described in the examples earlier in this chapter (against poor ABC Corp.'s besieged email system) would be made largely irrelevant by proper use of email encryption software.

If stolen email is effectively encrypted (i.e., using well-implemented cryptographic software and strong keys and pass phrases), it can't be read by thieves. If it's digitally signed (also a function of email encryption software), it can't be tampered with either, regardless of whether it's encrypted. (More precisely, it can't be tampered with without the recipient's knowledge.) A "physical world" example of asset devaluation is dye bombs: a bank robber who opens a bag of money only to see himself and his loot sprayed with permanent dye will have some difficulty spending that money.

1.4.2 Vulnerability Mitigation

Another strategy to defend information assets is to eliminate or mitigate vulnerabilities. Software patches are a good example of this: every single sendmail bug over the years has resulted in its developers' distributing a patch that addresses that particular bug.

An even better example of mitigating software vulnerabilities is "defensive coding": by running your source code through filters that parse, for example, for improper bounds checking, you can help insure that your software isn't vulnerable to buffer-overflow attacks. This is far more useful than releasing the code without such checking and simply waiting for the bug reports to trickle in.

In short, vulnerability mitigation is simply another form of quality assurance. By fixing things that are poorly designed or simply broken, you improve security.

1.4.3 Attack Mitigation

In addition to asset devaluation and vulnerability fixing, another approach is to focus on attacks and attackers. For better or worse, this is the approach that tends to get the most attention, in the form of firewalls and virus scanners. Firewalls and virus scanners exist to stymie attackers. No firewall yet designed has any intelligence about specific vulnerabilities of the hosts it protects or of the value of data on those hosts, and nor does any virus scanner. Their sole function is to minimize the number of attacks (in the case of firewalls, network-based attacks; with virus-scanners, hostile-code-based attacks) that succeed in reaching their intended targets.

Access control mechanisms, such as username/password schemes, authentication tokens, and smart cards, also fall into this category, since their purpose is to distinguish between trusted and untrusted users (i.e., potential attackers). Note, however, that authentication mechanisms can also be used to mitigate specific vulnerabilities (e.g., using SecurID tokens to add a layer of authentication to a web application with inadequate access controls).