IT security: It's time to change the game - and here's how

After several major security breaches, is there's another way to do things?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

We do IT differently these days, with users bringing their own devices into our networks, with our apps in the cloud, and our users wirelessly connected — from anywhere at any time. But we still do security the same old ways, with firewalls the mediaeval fortresses guarding the gates around our walled city datacentres.

So how can we rethink the ways we protect our changing IT world? We've already started to understand that what's most important is the data and information we use, not the software, nor even our PCs and smartphones. We've started to encrypt data, at rest and in motion, and we're also ensuring our users and apps work with the least possible set of privileges.

But, as the news headlines show, it's not enough. With millions of us having to replace credit cards and deal with the fallout from recent major data losses, the failings of current security practices have been put in sharp relief. It's time to do something different, to move from detecting attacks and clearing up after them, to preventing those attacks in the first place.

In the shadow of those high-profile intrusions, I spent some time with Palo Alto Networks, to try to understand how the security company is going beyond the traditional firewall, and coming up with an alternate way of looking at security.

Detecting malware is a complex piece of the puzzle. It's no longer a matter of looking for malware signatures — for one thing, malware authors have long been able to create software that changes from download to download, and the targeted malware used by state actors and sophisticated cyber criminals is often designed to penetrate a specific network.

New malware that's never been analysed won't be blocked by conventional tools: someone must have been infected and lost data for that malware to be found, analysed and its signature added to the daily download of signature files. And while in many cases that someone is a honeypot system on some vendor's network, there's still a chance that that someone is you, and that it's your data that's been lost.

The risk may be small, but it's still a risk: and the higher profile you are, the higher the risk. Home PCs might well be safe with a traditional signature-based approach, but that's an approach that's risky for businesses running cloud services, or hosting APIs for their apps.

What's really important is understanding just how malware works. It turns out that while malware apps differ, the attack paths and methods they use are identical. To monitoring software, a buffer overflow or a SQL injection looks the same; so instead of protecting the operating systems of modern network endpoints, we need to monitor the applications and services they're using, looking for the signatures of attacks, and blocking those attack paths rather than the malware. That's the approach taken by Israeli security company Cyvera, recently bought by Palo Alto.

By analysing the attack patterns of thousands of pieces of malware, Cyvera has been able to identify fewer than thirty actual attacks. It's then able to sit between your applications and those attacks, monitor for suspicious activity, and then block and report the code that's trying to penetrate your network.

If malware can't attack, no matter what the underlying code might be, we're starting to focus on prevention, rather than detection. That's an important distinction, as it's an approach that, if implemented at an OS-level, would mean that Microsoft wouldn't have had to issue a patch for IE in Windows XP, as it would have been protected automatically.

Changing the way we think about protecting our networks from malware changes the game. It lets us focus on understanding the software engineering implications of malware, and allows us to harden the areas of our OSes and software that need hardening by using those common attack patterns as part of our software test procedures. However we shouldn't become complacent.

Just because malware uses a set of common attack patterns doesn't mean that they're the only possible attack patterns: it's just that they're the easiest or most effective routes into someone's network. There are always going to be other ways in; just harder and more expensive. However, by continuing to analyse attack signatures it will still always be easier to prevent attacks than to detect malware and then remediate its effects.

These are tools that can be used alongside next generation firewalls, monitoring for unusual network traffic and unknown applications. Bringing the two together turns security into a proactive, rather than reactive, technology, one that's much more in tune with modern IT and the rapid changes in how we work. They're also techniques that don't need to be associated with physical hardware, and can be implemented as part of the software control plane of a software defined network, or even as virtual machines in a virtualised infrastructure — as Palo Alto Networks is doing in conjunction with VMware.

It's a brave new world out there, and it's good to see that the security industry is thinking about how it needs to react, taking advantage of the same new tools and techniques we're using in our private, hybrid, and public clouds. Now it's up to us to think about how we can move to preventing attacks on our infrastructure, and keeping that vital data right where it belongs.

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