Risks and Considerations for IT: A Pandemic

What can IT do to prepare?

We all know the stats of the Coronavirus, although they are changing by the minute. We know what to do personally and for our families but what about for our Company?

Many customers do have Business Continuity Plans or Enterprise Risk management plans, but do they include plans for a Pandemic such as this?

A few things to consider:

  1. Remote access for employees. Can employees continue their normal work from home? Phones for customer calls? Do you have enough licenses to support large numbers of SSL VPN connections?
  2. Customer & vendor meetings. Many companies have started to stop all onsite meetings to protect their employees. This is where collaboration software is king. Do you have enough licenses for GoToMeetings, Zoom, or others?
  3. Communications plans. (Pre and Post Pandemic) Is there effective means to communicate with employees should the business (or schools) require to close its doors? Email, mobile phones, Teams, etc?
  4. Insurance. Many corporate insurances plans (Business interruption clauses) have Pandemic inclusions…. does yours? Maybe dust it off and know your coverage.
  5. Travel Insurance. Even if your company has not issued a stop on travel many other companies have. Can existing travel plans be changed without forfeiture or fees?

Just a few things to think about for your best practice preparedness plans.

Microsoft Secure Score. If you’re an IT administrator or security professional in an organization that uses Office 365, then you’ve no doubt used the tool or at least heard the term. It started as Office 365 Secure Score, but it was renamed in April 2018 to reflect a wider range of elements being scored.

What does it do? The tool looks at configurable settings and actions primarily within your Office 365 and Azure AD environment, and awards points for selections that meet best practices. In their words, “From a centralized dashboard you can monitor and improve the security for your Microsoft 365 identities, data, apps, devices, and infrastructure.”

But what doesn’t Microsoft Secure Score do? Microsoft is very good at telling you the great things its products can do, so I won’t repeat them here. The concept is sound, and I applaud them for giving users a tool that prioritizes secure configurations. They have come a long way from having auditing turned off by default in their products, e.g., Server 2000. I will point out why Microsoft Secure Score isn’t enough when it comes to understanding and testing the security of your Microsoft 365 environment.

Reason number 1:  The fox shouldn’t guard the hen house.

I am a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), and as such, I’ve spent a good portion of my life performing audits and assessments. A key independence rule CPAs abide by is:  an auditor must not audit his or her own work. Microsoft isn’t exactly independent when scoring its own product’s settings and capabilities. The financial motivation exists for Microsoft to setup a scoring system that makes users feel good about using Microsoft products.  Interoperability and performance will always be a higher priority than security.

This fact is furthered by the scoring system setup, which unlocks higher point opportunities with higher priced subscriptions. For example, Microsoft Cloud App Security and Azure Advanced Threat Protection are unlocked with E5 licenses, or as a $5.50 per user per month add on to an existing E3 license. This can be as much as a 70% price increase. If you want more chances to raise your overall score and have a higher score ceiling, spend more money…a very beneficial side-effect for Microsoft.

Also, remember that Secure Score is reflective of a Microsoft opinion and their subjective value for security controls they believe are important. This differs from widely accepted standards from organizations like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) or CIS (Center for Internet Security) which are vendor neutral and have been refined, improved, and evolved over time.

Reason number 2:  No two environments are alike.

First let me say that Secure Score can be dented and bent to fit different environments. Scoring for certain areas can be manually entered if you have a third-party solution for a control. It will be incumbent on the person checking those controls to match what Secure Score is asking for. This is an all-or-nothing proposition as indicated within Secure Score, “Marking as resolved through third-party indicates that you have completed this action in a non-Microsoft app, and will give you the full point value of this action.

This is a key area where the Secure Score blanket fails to keep all areas of the entity covered and warm. There are bound to be components and configuration requirements that don’t quite fit what Secure Score evaluates or how it is scored. Think of the myriad of application combinations to handle Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Mobile Device Management (MDM), Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), Data Loss Prevention (DLP), and Multifactor Authentication (MFA) just to name a few.  An independent assessment of the environment that references best practice hardening guides for specific products comprising the solution is the only way to complete a proper evaluation.

Reason number 3:  Security is a journey, and a scorecard makes it a destination.

Don’t get me wrong, I like scores and grades. CPA’s generally like to measure and quantify things. Secure Score quantifies security, gives you trends over time on your score, and even allows you to measure your score against others based on a global average, industry average, and similar seat count average.

What I don’t like is how the scores can be manipulated, or how they can be construed. If the O365 administrator wants to improve their percentage of points achieved, the simplest way is to select “ignore” for the scoring areas that they have earned 0 points. Per Secure Score documentation, “Once you ignore an improvement action, it will no longer count toward the total Secure score points you have available.” Lower the denominator, keep the numerator, and poof! We are more secure. Or are we?

Executives looking at a scorecard may also be satisfied once it has reached a certain percentage of the total available. A project which will move the Secure Score from 650 out of 807 points to 710 out of 807 points appears to make the company about 8% more secure to a non-security decision maker handling the company budget. That project may not make the cut. In reality, any scoring shortage could represent a critical configuration issue that puts information assets at risk. That point may get lost if the focus is score.

Reason number 4:  A by-product of automated security is a false sense of it.

We hear stories all the time about breach activities that were being reported by automated logging systems, except no one was looking at the logs. IT management puts a tool in place and checks a box that implies the organization is secure in that area. Secure Score is ripe for this. Several improvement actions that will increase your score involve reviewing reports. When a link for a report is clicked, Secure Score assumes the report was reviewed and awards points. To keep the points, the link must be clicked within specific time intervals from within the Secure Score user interface, but this process does not record what was reviewed, or any notes or actions resulting from the review. There is no substitute for the actual review process and confirming that the review is happening.


Also consider an environment made up of multiple applications from different vendors where automated security evaluations, like Secure Score, are put in place. Each application that makes up the system interacts with other applications, potentially creating security control blind spots. For example, an email system that hands-off outbound email to a 3rd party DLP solution. Are there security holes in the process that transfers data in and out of the DLP application? Identifying those weaknesses requires a wholistic view, measured against current accepted best practices, that just isn’t offered by Secure Score or any other automated solution.

In conclusion, I think Secure Score has a place in monitoring and evaluating an organization’s information security posture. Microsoft is taking recommendations from its user base and is working to improve Secure Score’s results and widen its coverage. It is a barometer of an information security environment that could produce important information when properly utilized.  

The bottom line though is that it is just one tool. It cannot replace a diligent information security program; or at a higher level, an information security management system. Independent assessment and review of controls, policies, procedures, and the people managing the environment work in tandem to assure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of an organizations information assets.  Consider the diversity of an organizations landscape:

These areas are all interdependent, yet all have their own unique traits and ways to be assessed and secured.  No one measurement tool is enough.

By Jeffrey T. Lemmermann, CPA, CISA, CITP, CEH - Information Assurance Consultant

Are you using a framework to establish your information security program? If not, I get it; it’s complicated. On a second thought, have you lost your mind?

I’ve been there. A number of years ago, while taking up a resolution to better document and organize a network that was developing rapidly, I began researching frameworks, mainly ISO and NIST.  How many pages? What??? That is just the description book; there is an implementation novel as well?

If you are starting from scratch, there is a knowledge barrier that appears to be very steep. Once you see it, you undoubtedly ask yourself, “is it worth the climb?”  Then, the next time you get on an airplane, ask yourself, “are pre-flight checklists worth the effort?”

A pre-flight checklist exists to ensure that all the requirements for a safe flight are in place before the plane leaves the ground. A pretty sound idea, since after it leaves the ground, it’s kind of too late.

I am squarely on the side that it is worth it and can make the case that all corporate IT breaches could have been avoided, or at the very least minimized, with a properly selected and implemented framework. Why? Because mature frameworks will contain controls, situations, and steps that you cannot think of on your own. They are designed to help prepare for the obvious and the unforeseen.

Consider the Target breach from 2013. This was a breach that started with a 3rd party contractor and ultimately led to the compromise of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of 70 million customers along with data for 40 million credit and debit cards. There are many accounts of what happened during this event, but I’m going to draw a basic chain of events from the most widely accepted descriptions for our scenario:

  1. 3rd Party fell victim to malware attack and had their vendor credentials compromised.
  2. Credentials used to access Target’s hosted vendor site and find web application vulnerability.
  3. Exploit allowed attackers to upload tools to key systems on Target’s network.
  4. New credentials with administrator level access were created within the network.
  5. Databases identified that contained PII. Data copied to extraction point.
  6. Install malware on key systems to scan memory and capture credit card information.
  7. Credit card information copied to extraction point. Data extracted via FTP

For this breach, let’s look at NIST 800-53, an extremely deep and complete framework, consisting of 18 control families. It is divided into Low, Moderate, and High implementations based on the system impact level. We will assume “Low” for this analysis, which contains 115 controls to be considered (see https://nvd.nist.gov/800-53/Rev4/impact/low). Here are a few of the controls that are directly applicable to each of the steps in the breach:

  1. PS-7: THIRD-PARTY PERSONNEL SECURITY; RA-3: RISK ASSESSMENT
  2. AC-17: REMOTE ACCESS; RA-5: VULNERABILITY SCANNING
  3. AC-3: ACCESS ENFORCEMENT; CM-7: LEAST FUNCTIONALITY; SI-4: INFORMATION SYSTEM MONITORING
  4. AC-2: ACCOUNT MANAGEMENT; IA-2: IDENTIFICATION AND AUTHENTICATION (ORGANIZATIONAL USERS)
  5. AU-6: AUDIT REVIEW, ANALYSIS, AND REPORTING; SE-1: INVENTORY OF PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE INFORMATION
  6. CM-5: ACCESS RESTRICTIONS FOR CHANGE; SI-16: MEMORY PROTECTION,  
  7. SC-7: BOUNDARY PROTECTION; SC-8: TRANSMISSION CONFIDENTIALITY AND INTEGRITY

Note that I said “a few of the controls…” The above is just a quick sampling of controls that would have prevented, or at least, minimized the damage done in the breach. Other controls would also come into play, as some controls address documentation, some address enterprise level controls, some application level controls. The key is, they work together and rely on each other.

Here is an example:

SC-7 is documented this way on the nist.gov website –

SC-7 BOUNDARY PROTECTION

Control Description

The information system:
a. Monitors and controls communications at the external boundary of the system and at key internal boundaries within the system;
b. Implements subnetworks for publicly accessible system components that are [Selection: physically; logically] separated from internal organizational networks; and
c. Connects to external networks or information systems only through managed interfaces consisting of boundary protection devices arranged in accordance with an organizational security architecture.

Related to: AC-4AC-17CA-3CM-7CP-8IR-4RA-3SC-5SC-13

CM-7 is in the “Related to:” section, which shows controls that are reliant in either one direction or both directions. Here is CM-7 -

CM-7 LEAST FUNCTIONALITY

Control Description

The organization:
a. Configures the information system to provide only essential capabilities; and
b. Prohibits or restricts the use of the following functions, ports, protocols, and/or services:

Related to: AC-6CM-2RA-5SA-5SC-7

Each control has related controls, which is why proper implementation of the entire framework is essential to maximizing the benefits.

So how do you start? Pick your idiom: It’s like writing a novel, eating an elephant, mailing a jeep home, drinking a half barrel of beer. You do it one page, one bite, a few parts, or one glass at a time.

Which framework should you select? Statistically, according to Tenable’s Trends in Security Framework Adoption Survey (https://www.tenable.com/whitepapers/trends-in-security-framework-adoption) released in 2018, 84% of organizations in the US leverage a security framework in their organization, with the top 4 being:

  1. PCI DSS (47%)
  2. ISO 27001/27002 (35%)
  3. CIS Critical Security Controls (32%)
  4. NIST Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Security (29%)

Look first to your organization and/or your customers. If you are in manufacturing, and have adopted ISO for your manufacturing standards, then the ISO 27000 series (specifically ISO/IEC 27001:2013) probably makes sense. If your organization will be relying on credit card processing, then the PCI DSS framework may be mandatory. If your client base includes governmental entities, then NIST will be a requirement.

So, consider this your crash warning indicator light. It is blinking, and you should probably do something about it!

“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are. “

-Chauncey Depew

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