Home > DBA, Interviews, Oracle, Security > Be Very Afraid: An interview with the CTO of database security at McAfee

Be Very Afraid: An interview with the CTO of database security at McAfee


Security should be on everybody’s mind after the revelations of Chrome’s password insanity and the claim that cloud computing companies may lose as much as $35 billion dollars because of the intelligence-gathering activities of our government. According to Slavik Markovich, the CTO of database security at McAfee, stupidity is the usual reason for security holes and our operating assumption should be that all our online actions are being recorded and monitored by a host of phantom listeners. They know that I published this blog post and they know that you have read it. They know everything about you and me.

Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black-mustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. … Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.1984 by George Orwell

As published in the 105th issue of the NoCOUG Journal (February 2013)

Slavik Markovich is vice president and chief technology officer for Database Security at McAfee and has over 20 years of experience in infrastructure, security, and software development. Slavik co-founded Sentrigo, a developer of leading database security technology that was acquired by McAfee in April 2011. Prior to co-founding Sentrigo, Slavik served as VP R&D and chief architect at db@net, a leading IT architecture consultancy. Slavik has contributed to open-source projects, is a regular speaker at industry conferences, and is the creator of several open-source projects like FuzzOr (an Oracle fuzzer) and YAOPC (Yet Another Oracle Password Cracker). Slavik also regularly blogs about database security at www.slaviks-blog.com.

Is my financial and medical information safe from the bad guys? After watching Die Hard 4, I’m not so sure, because it seems that bad guys can access, change, or erase anybody’s information with a few keystrokes.

Although life is not a movie, and the situation is not quite as bad as Die Hard 4, it is not that good either. You can read about breaches with varying degrees of severity every week. While the “bad guys” require a bit more than a few keystrokes to access/change information, they have very sophisticated tools at their service. World-spanning global botnets, automated hacking tools, a flourishing underground market, and a strong financial incentive all motivate the “bad guys” to continue breaking into systems.

On the flipside, there have been many significant changes and improvements to the applicable regulations associated with protection of PHI and ePHI healthcare information. In addition, the enhanced enforcement of HIPAA, and the newer HITECH, regulations has increased the visibility of—and, arguably, attention to—affected organizations complying with these regulatory mandates. SOX, GLBA, and other financial regulations are intended to address the integrity and authenticity of financial records. So, the organizations keeping your records are forced to think about security.

I would also add that it isn’t always “the bad guys” that cause data compromise—sometimes it’s caused accidentally, either by human, or system(s), error. To summarize, if you are being targeted, I’d say that there is a pretty good chance that the hackers will succeed in compromising your details. On the other hand, your liability is limited, at least on the financial front.

Why is information security so poor in general? Is it because administrators and users—me included—are clueless about information security, or is it because the operating systems, databases, networks, languages, and protocols are inherently vulnerable, which makes our task much harder than it really ought to be?

Indeed, there is a big awareness issue when it comes to security. Users, developers, and administrators generally lack deep understanding of security and, as everybody knows, security is only as strong as your weakest link. The “bad guy” just needs one successful try on a single attack vector, while the security protections need to cover all bases, all the time. It’s an asymmetric game where currently the “bad guys” have the advantage.

When specifically talking about “database security,” the reality is that the overall risk posture for these systems, and the often highly sensitive and/or business-critical information they contain, is most often grossly underestimated by the respective organizations. A comparison can be made to what the famous 1930s bank robber Willie Sutton was often quoted as saying, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” The “bad guys” often target these databases, and the valuable data assets they contain, because they know that’s where they can get the biggest bang for their buck (i.e., the highest return for their exploit efforts).

Also, the associated risk to them of being caught and subsequently penalized is very often quite low combined with the associated payoff (return) being quite high. So from an ROI perspective, their motivating rationale is abundantly clear.

Finally, if you were indeed “clueless” about security, you probably wouldn’t be asking these types of targeted questions.

The analogy is that certain cars are the favorites of car thieves because they are so easy to break into. Why are salted password hashes not the default? Why are buffer overflows permitted? Why was it so easy for China to divert all Internet traffic through its servers for 20 minutes in April 2010? Why is Windows so prone to viruses? Is it a conspiracy?

My motto is “always choose stupidity over conspiracy.” It goes back to the issue of lack of awareness. Developers that are not constantly trained on security will introduce security issues like buffer overflows or passwords stored in clear text or encrypted instead of hashed with a salt, etc. Some protocols were not designed with security in mind, which makes them susceptible to manipulation. Some targets are definitely softer than others.

At an absolute minimum, measures should be taken to harden the respective systems, as per the individual vendors’ guidelines and instructions. Unnecessary system services and processes should be disabled to reduce the attack surface, appropriate access control mechanisms should be properly configured, critical system patching should be done on a regular basis, etc.

But, unfortunately, these minimal security measures are often insufficient to address the rapidly expanding threat landscape. System visibility, in as near real time as possible, is required. Automated user process monitoring, vulnerability assessment, event correlation, and accompanying security policy notifications/alerting for these systems needs to be provided.

Is the cloud safe? Is SaaS safe?

I do not believe that the cloud or the SaaS model is inherently more or less safe—it is just a different kind of safe. Depending on the organizations’ risk appetite, they can be provided with the appropriate safeguards and controls to make implementation of private and public cloud-based services correspondingly “safe.” Technological controls, as well as organizational and administrative controls, need to be tailored for these types of deployments.

It’s also critical that the database security model be extensible and scalable to accommodate virtual and cloud-based environments.

Do we need better laws or should we trust the “enlightened self-interest” of industry? Enlightened self-interest—the mantra of Fed chairman Alan Greenspan—didn’t prevent the financial collapse Will it prevent the digital equivalent of Pearl Harbor?

“Enlightened self-interest,” by itself, is usually insufficient. At least it has been proven to be up to now. On the other hand, over-regulation would not be a good alternative, either. There has to be a happy medium—where government and private industry work together to promote a more secure environment for commercial transactions to occur, and where consumers’ privacy is also protected. But, unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

If not laws, how about some standards? Why aren’t there templates for hardened operating systems, databases, and networks? Or are there?

There are numerous standards for applying security controls to these systems, including Center for Internet Security (CIS), which includes “hardening” benchmarks for a variety of different systems and devices, as well as the NIST 800 Series Special Publications that offer a very large set of documents addressing applicable policies, procedures, and guidelines for information security. In addition, most of the more significant IT product vendors provide specific hardening guidelines and instructions pertaining to their various products.

The problem is how to consistently measure and make sure that your systems do not deviate from the gold standard you set. Unfortunately, systems tend to deteriorate with use—parameters are changed, new credentials and permissions are introduced, etc. An organization without a consistent, proven way to scan systems is going to have issues no matter how close it follows the standards. A recent scan we did with a large enterprise discovered over 15,000 weak passwords in their databases. In theory, they followed very strict federal policies.

Who will guard the guards themselves? As an administrator, I have unlimited access to sensitive information. How can my employer protect itself from me?

There’s a fundamental tenet in information security called “principle of least privilege,” which basically says that a user should be given the necessary authorization to access the information they need to perform their tasks/job—but no more than that level of privileged access. In addition, there’s another concept called “separation (or “segregation”) of duties,” which states that there should be more than one person required to complete a particular task, in order to help prevent potential error or fraud.

In the context of databases, this translates to not allowing users and administrators to have more access than is required for them to do their jobs—and for DBAs, that the DB administrative tasks will be monitored in real time and supervised by a different team, usually the information security team. A security framework that enforces these database access control policies is critical, because the inconvenient fact is, many compromises of DBs involve privileged access by trusted insiders.

While there is a much higher probability that someone who is not a DBA would try to breach the database, the DBA is in a much better position to succeed should he or she really want to do that.

If risk is the arithmetical product of the probability of an incident happening and the potential damage that incident could cause, then due to the latter factor, DBAs as well as other highly skilled insiders with access privileges pose a significant risk.

In 2007, Computerworld and other sources reported that a senior DBA at a subsidiary of Fidelity National Information Services Inc. sold 8.5 million records, including bank account and credit card details, to a data broker. An external hacker would find it very difficult to achieve this kind of scale without insider cooperation.

It is important, for security as much as for regulatory compliance reasons, to monitor and audit DBA activity. In fact, this should be done for all users who access the database. DBAs are the first to understand this. If you work in a bank vault, you know there are CCTV cameras on you. You want those cameras on you. DBAs are in a similar situation, and they understand this requirement completely.

What DBAs should not accept are solutions that hinder or interfere with the DBA’s daily tasks—DBAs are primarily concerned with running databases efficiently. Any solution that jeopardizes this primary objective is counter-productive and doomed to fail anyway, because DBAs and other staff will find ways to circumvent it.

What DBAs should not accept are solutions that hinder or interfere with the DBA’s daily tasks—DBAs are primarily concerned with running databases efficiently. Any solution that jeopardizes this primary objective is counter-productive and doomed to fail anyway, because DBAs and other staff will find ways to circumvent it.

At the risk of getting lynched by Journal readers, I have to ask your opinion about certification. Information Technology is the only profession whose practitioners are not subject to licensing and certification requirements. Can we really call ourselves “professionals” if we are not subject to any rules? Doesn’t the cost-benefit analysis favor licensing and certification? Even plumbers and manicurists in the state of California are subject to licensing and certification requirements but not IT professionals. Do you advocate security certification?

Well—while there’s certainly value in conducting user security awareness training and in promoting and achieving professional security certification, there are some issues. Like who would the accrediting body be? Who exactly needs to be certified? Will there be different levels of certification? Will each OS, DB, network device, application, etc., require its own distinct cert? It can quickly get very complicated.

But a shorter answer could be yes—I advocate security certifications.

In the novel 1984, George Orwell imagined that a device called a “telescreen” would allow “Big Brother” to listen to everything you said. The reality in 2013 is much worse since so much is digital, including my every message, phone call, and commercial transaction, and the cell phone is everybody’s personal electronic monitoring bracelet. What steps should we take to protect ourselves in this brave new digital world?

One possible answer might depend on how much security an individual is willing to trade for a potential reduction of features and functionality. For example, when “location services” are enabled on your phone, a variety of enhanced proximity-based services are then available, like several kinds of mapping services, driving directions and conditions, identification of nearby retail outlets, restaurants, gas stations, etc.

In addition, you can also locate your phone if it gets lost, wipe it of its contents, and/or have emergency services find you to provide help. But you also potentially get location-based advertisements, and there’s the specter of the device and application vendors (browser and service providers, too) aggregating and mining your various voice/data transmission location(s), for their own commercial purposes. The ongoing “privacy vs. commerce” battles involved in the “Do Not Track” discussions are good examples of these often-conflicting forces.

My personal assumption is that anything I publish on any network (text message, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is public, no matter what settings it is published with. If I want to keep something private, I encrypt it. But, I’m willing to make privacy sacrifices in the name of convenience. I do use GPS; I do use Facebook and LinkedIn, etc.

Thank you for spending so much time with us today. Would you like to tell Journal readers a little about today’s McAfee? What are your current products? What is in the pipeline?

Well, I’m glad you asked. The McAfee Database Security solution comprises a core set of three products that serve to scan, monitor, and secure databases:

  • McAfee Vulnerability Manager for Databases, which automatically discovers databases on the network, detects sensitive information in them, determines if the latest patches have been applied, and performs more than 4,700 vulnerability checks.
  • McAfee Database Activity Monitoring, which provides automatic, non-intrusive, and real-time protection for heterogeneous database environments on your network with a set of preconfigured security defenses, and also provides the ability to easily create custom security policies based on configurable, and very granular, controls. In addition, it has the capability to deliver virtual patching updates on a regular basis to protect from known vulnerabilities.
  • McAfee Virtual Patching for Databases (vPatch), which protects unpatched databases from known vulnerabilities and all database servers from zero-day attacks based on common threat vectors, without having to take the database offline to patch it. Additionally, vPatch has been accepted as a “compensating control” in compliance audits.

The McAfee Database Security solution is also tightly integrated with McAfee’s centralized security management platform, ePolicy Orchestrator (ePO), which consolidates enterprise-wide security visibility and control across a wide variety of heterogeneous systems, networks, data, and compliance solutions.

At McAfee, we do not believe in a silver bullet product approach. No security measure can protect against all attacks or threats. However, McAfee’s Security Connected framework enables integration of multiple products, services, and partnerships for centralized, efficient, and effective security and risk management. ▲

As published in the 105th issue of the NoCOUG Journal (February 2013)

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Categories: DBA, Interviews, Oracle, Security
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