Face the facts – your organisation will be breached

Face the facts – your organisation will be breached

It’s simple: cyber-security isn’t working. Too many companies are being breached and governments globally are recognising the need to invest heavily  to protect vital services and infrastructure. When the most fiscally prudent UK Chancellor of the Exchequer in a generation stumps up an additional £1.9bn to combat the cyber-security threat, reality starts to bite – organisations of every size need to do more to safeguard operations.

other problem is that the way in which cyber-terrorists are gaining access to networks has changed. Today, an esti- mated 95% of breaches occur as a result of a user being compromised, usually through a phishing attack.2

Today’s defence-in-depth security models are not completely flawed, but they are, perhaps, naïve. When firewalls are being easily bypassed and it’s tak- ing upwards of six months to detect a breach, the reliance on traditional access control, threat detection and threat pro-

tection is clearly inadequate.1

Announcing a breach is bad enough; no CEO wants to admit to the media that the company has no idea whether a breach is catastrophic or insignificant, or that it has no idea how long the threat lay undetected. Organisations need to add another layer – breach containment. It is only by recognising that a breach has already occurred and containing that breach within a defined and secure seg- ment that an organisation can avoid the damaging system-wide events that are becoming a daily occurrence.

It is time to face up to the futility of breach detection and protection alone. Organisations must make a change to avoid the fate of the enterprises that have recently hit the hacking headlines.

Security agenda

these technologies are not enough.

The defence-in-depth security model that encompasses firewalls and anti-virus, file integrity monitoring and access con- trol is essential – without it, businesses would lose vital sensitive data and essen- tial infrastructure would be compro- mised. However, from the recent events at TalkTalk onwards, it is clear that the model as it stands today is failing.

Yet according to research conducted by the Ponemon Institute on behalf of Arbor Networks, once a data breach occurs, it takes an average of 98 days for financial services companies to detect intrusion on their networks and 197 days in retail. That is upwards of six months for hackers to conduct surveil- lance and steal data undetected. The

“It takes an average of 98 days for financial services companies to detect intrusion on their networks and 197 days in retail”

The lesson for enterprise IT managers is this: your applications are now only as safe as the least secure user or external party to whom you grant access. When an attacker uses authenticated credentials to access the network, a firewall is useless. The assump- tion that a user on an internal network  can be trusted is obsolete. Firewalls cannot block this attack vector because hackers compromise one user and then can move through the enterprise to any sensitive application.

The threat landscape has evolved again   and weaknesses are being laid bare on a near-daily basis. The truth is that while considerable investment in threat detection and threat prevention is essential to deter the vast majority of attempts to compro- mise or hack an organisation’s network,

Time in days to identify and contain attacks in retail and financial services. Source: Ponemon/Arbor  Networks.

The one method that does work against these attacks is application seg- mentation, which applies strict access controls to limit users to only the appli- cations they need to access for their  jobs. That should be applied to users both inside and outside the enterprise, including users on the previously trusted internal networks. Then, if a user is

compromised, the worst that can happen is that the hacker can get access to the small subset of applications that the user can access. It is only once the attacker actually attempts to elevate or escalate that user’s privileges to access sensitive  or critical data that an organisation has

a chance of detecting the threat. Threat detection and protection technologies are clearly failing to deliver a complete cyber-security solution.

A breach will happen

To achieve this breach containment model, companies need to think differ- ently about security architecture design. Breaches are occurring all the time and organisations need to accept that it is more than likely that a breach has either already taken place or is currently under- way within their environment and that this can and will happen without any notification.

With that understanding comes a recognition that the objective is now to contain any breach – whether known or unknown – and minimise any risk of it becoming system-wide. The emphasis

is no longer solely on building walls to keep people out but on containing that breach and minimising the extent of it by building (fire) doors between differ- ent parts of the infrastructure.

After accepted the premise, the chal- lenge is to then understand the best way to break down the infrastructure into manageable segments of risk. For most IT experts the logical approach to creating microsegments would appear to be at the network layer: however, this has massive limitations, not least the proven frailty of the network infrastructure. Every time a change is made to an access control list,

IP address or subnet, there is a real risk of opening the door to bypassing the firewall. Furthermore, in a cloud- and

mobile-enabled environment where net- works are often outside an organisation’s control, it is simply not possible to deploy a robust end-to-end strategy.

Users and applications

Companies need to step back and look at this from a true business perspective

and focus on users and applications. Who needs access to what data? Building on  the existing policies for user access and identity management, organisations can use cryptographic segmentation to ensure that only privileged users have access to privileged applications or information. Each cryptographic domain has its own encryption key, making it impossible for  a hacker to move from one compromised domain or segment into another, there- fore preventing the lateral movement

that leads to many breaches – it is simply not possible to escalate user privileges to access sensitive or critical data.

With this approach, an organisation can narrow the scope of a breach to a small, contained area rather than system- wide and, critically, do so in a way that removes the need to build new security policies into the network infrastructure. Furthermore, as and when a breach is a detected, the segmentation policy means that an organisation has immediate visibility into the extent of the breach

  • enabling targeted rather than system- wide lock-down and a far more confi- dent and measured response to media, shareholders and

New mind-set

This is without doubt a huge mind- set change. While organisations have worked hard on creating robust defence-in-depth security strategies, with security experts globally now recommending a containment policy based on clearly defined infrastructure segments, it is clearly time to make a change. However, those organisations simply opting to impose containment at the network level are failing to rec- ognise the true threat landscape: a reli- ance on network-based controls adds

  • not mitigates – risk. It is simply too easy to bypass these

It is only by following a user- and application-based segmentation approach that an organisation can truly address the heart of the matter: the breach is contained within one specific segment. The hacker cannot bypass the cryptographic key to escalate privileges and gain access to data that is only available to users within a different cryptographic segment. The organisa- tion knows immediately the extent

of the breach and the data, users and applications affected.

This latter point is key: no CEO wants to be in the position of Baroness Dido Harding, the CEO of TalkTalk, who had to admit that the company did not know the extent of the breach or the number of customers whose data had been compromised. An effec- tive breach-containment strategy both minimises the extent of the breach and provides immediate clarity of risk to shareholders and customers.

Adding another layer to an already complex defence-in-depth security strategy may seem onerous but, as George Osborne said when he was UK Chancellor of the Exchequer: “Getting cyber-security right requires new thinking.”

About the author

Paul German is VP EMEA for Certes Networks. He has more than 18 years of experience and was most recently VP/GM EMEA for Sipera Systems, an IT security solutions company sold to Avaya in 2011. In addition, German has broad experience, having held key roles with Cisco, Siemens Network Systems and Lehman Brothers. He holds a Bachelor of Science honours degree from Brunel University, London.


  1. Osborne, ‘Most companies take over six months to detect data breaches’. ZDNet, 19 May 2015. Accessed Aug 2016. www.zdnet. com/article/businesses-take-over-six- months-to-detect-data-breaches/.
  2. ‘2015 Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report’. Accessed Aug 2016. http://news. verizonenterprise.com/2015/04/2015- data-breach-report-info/.


Dangerous skills gap leaves organisations vulnerable

Dangerous skills gap leaves organisations vulnerable

These days, not only are businesses having to contend with increasingly sophis- ticated attacks on data, they are also facing a serious skills gap within the pro- fessions that should be responsible for preventing these attacks. In the security landscape, this role can have a number of job titles – security engineer, security analyst, ethical hacker, penetration tester, security researcher. But they all have one goal – to identify and report on vulnerabilities within security systems.

Stark contrast

White hat hackers stand in stark con- trast to the malicious black hat hackers, who intentionally cause damage to their

A report from PwC found that 90% of large organisations had suffered an infor- mation security breach in 2015.1 What’s more, 69% were attacked by a mali- cious ‘outsider’ in the past year. Clearly, it is no longer simply a matter of ‘if’ a company will suffer a data breach, but ‘when’. The Ponemon Institute’s ‘2016 Cost of a Data Breach’ report found  that on average a data breach will cost  an organisation £2.53m, with most cases still caused by criminal and malicious attacks.2 The enormous financial burden can be attributed to a number of factors, including falling share prices, lawsuit payouts, regulatory fines, damage to reputation and employee layoffs.

The role of white hat hackers

To protect against the serious conse- quences of a data breach, many compa- nies are turning to ethical hackers (or white hat hackers as they’re otherwise known) to help identify vulnerabilities before they become a target for malicious cyber-attacks. On the colour spectrum

of hackers, ‘white hats’ are the ethically minded people who are employed to systematically undertake an attack on an organisation’s infrastructure and informa- tion systems, but only with explicit per- mission. By doing this, they can find and test any weaknesses or areas that mali- cious hackers could potentially exploit.

While identifying vulnerabilities is an

integral part of the white hat hacker’s role, knowing how to defend and protect these weak points is just as important. Therefore, white hat hackers also engage in red-team/blue-team style simulations. This process involves the hackers taking turns to attack and defend an organisa- tion’s information systems and acts as

a means of reviewing both the gaps in security and the ways in which they need to be addressed.


White hat hackers will often hold industry accreditations – for example, the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) cer- tification offered by the EC-Council, or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certification. These courses look at cyber-security in relation to hacking and how security professionals can use this mind-set to understand the weak- nesses within organisations. The OSCP requires students to demonstrate practi- cal penetration-testing skills by getting them to successfully break into working machines in a controlled lab environ- ment. When undertaking the CEH course, students learn about the typical ways to exploit weaknesses, the vulner- abilities and their countermeasures, as well as how to master penetration test- ing, social engineering and footprint- ing. On top of the CEH accreditation, the EC-Council also offers certifica- tions, including Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI), Certified Security Analyst (ECSA) and Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT).

targets through illegal online activities.  It is the difference in motivation that truly sets them apart. Black hat hackers can be broken down into a number of categories – cyber-criminals, cyber-spies, hacktivists and cyber-terrorists – and are driven by varying motivations including bragging rights, money, revenge, valu-

able data, media attention or even just for their own amusement. White hat hack- ers are also tasked with monitoring the activity of black hat hackers and tackling the commoditisation of security vulner- abilities. This entails keeping an eye out for the latest scripts that are being created and sold on the dark web. These scripts are bought, sold and exchanged by ‘script kiddies’, who use the code to break into the information systems of organisations.

Between the white and black hat hackers lies a third colour category – grey hat. These can often be the most dangerous, especially when it comes to trying to recruit ethical hackers to join an organisation’s security team. This is because some ‘grey hats’ are classified as black hat hackers, masquerading as white hat hackers. As such, companies look- ing to hire a white hat hacker should treat any above-average or stand-out job application with suspicion, and be on  the lookout for red flags to indicate the person is acting with malicious intent.  In some cases, job applications are from black hat hackers who have realised a company is vulnerable, and are looking for the opportunity to gain access to the

The average cost of a data breach for UK organisations. Source: Ponemon Institute/IBM.

often turn to a process called ‘bug boun- ty programmes’. These programmes see businesses invite the security community to attempt to hack the organisation’s systems, and then report back on their findings. This process of ‘crowdsourc- ing’ hacking offers security professionals, students and even just simple security enthusiasts the opportunity to ethically hack a company – something which would normally see them being arrested and charged with illegal activity.

While it may seem unorthodox, the bug bounty method of penetration test- ing can be a win-win situation for both the company and the hackers them- selves. The company gets the economic advantage of only having to pay when a

system at a later date by creating ‘time bomb’ backdoors or plant viruses that will exploit the data stored internally.

“Companies looking to hire a white hat hacker should treat any above-average or stand-out job application with suspicion, and be on the lookout for red flags to indicate the person is acting with malicious intent”

One way to ensure that grey hats don’t become part of the security team is to carry out background security  and credit checks during the recruit- ment process, as well as thoroughly researching previous job placements. This means more than just phoning the reference numbers on the resume. Credit checks, while not a failsafe solu- tion, will help identify people with an unusually large amount of money that cannot be accounted for through nor- mal means. This often indicates they have gained this money through illegal activity, such as hacking. Those with poor credit, or multiple court judg-ments (CCJs), could also be susceptible to social engineering or bribery.

The skills gap

Though it is clear that penetration test- ing and ethical hacking is an integral part of protecting a company from a data breach, employees with the neces-

sary skills are some of the hardest to come by. The cyber-security market is suffering a severe workforce shortage – worldwide there are approximately two million jobs that are currently vacant. This is leaving companies dangerously exposed to attacks on sensitive data.

The ‘2015 Global Information Security Workforce Study’ from (ISC)2 found that 45% of organisations cited low availability of staff with the neces- sary security skills as a significant busi- ness problem.3 What’s more, a recent study from 451 Research found that the main issues encountered by secu- rity managers were lack of staff exper- tise (34.5%) and inadequate staffing (26.4%). UK research by KPMG also identified that more than half of the  IT and HR executives surveyed would consider employing a hacker to provide information to the internal security teams – the main reason being that the

technical skills needed to prevent cyber- attacks vary substantially from those needed for every day IT security tasks.4 Ultimately in the current security land- scape, where threats are becoming more

advanced and sophisticated, the number of security professionals who can deal with these threats has not kept pace with demand.

What are the alternatives?

The difficulty of finding qualified pen- etration testers means that companies

vulnerability is identified, and the hack- ers have the opportunity to perfect their skills, elevate their reputation and in some cases even find employment.

“The company gets the economic advantage of only having to

pay when a vulnerability is identified and the hackers have the opportunity to perfect their skills, elevate their reputation and in some cases even find employment”

One risk of using the bug bounty method is that if the process is launched too early, the system is likely to be riddled with weaknesses and bugs. Typically, a bug that directly affects privacy or security is given a mini-  mum monetary reward. For example,

Facebook offers a minimum of $500  to hackers for identifying weaknesses.5 Therefore, it is crucial for organisations

to ensure they have already addressed as many vulnerabilities as possible and have built a robust, secure and mature system. The bug bounty approach should be treated as the ultimate step in the secu- rity and quality assurance process, as it effectively invites all and sundry to poke around the operational systems. Failure to build robust systems will result in organisations essentially writing a blank cheque to all involved – or worse, quick- ly finding that operational systems have become non-operational.

The reasons behind the issue

So what is fuelling the lack of skilled security professionals, in particular pen- etration testers and ethical hackers? One reason may be the absence of education about cyber-security as a profession at tertiary institutions. In recent years the UK Government has launched a number of initiatives and is supporting university programmes in an attempt to combat  the information security skills gap. But the market is unlikely to see much of an impact from this until more graduates enter the workforce in years to come.


One particular government strategy that was outlined at the recent Westminster

e-Forum about cyber-security was the for- mation of the new National Cyber Security Centre. This will see a public/private partnership formed with the Government Communications  Headquarters  (GCHQ), which will play a significant role in pro- moting the cyber-security industry and creating a stronger cyber environment for organisations across the EU. Essentially,

it will make it much simpler for the

Positions that organisations think are inadequately filled. Source: (ISC)2  GISWS.

Government to engage with industry on cyber-security related issues.

The industry impact

For security professionals who pos- sess the necessary skills and qualifica- tions, the opportunities are enormous.

According to global professional services consultancy Procorre, nearly 15% of cyber-security professionals earn at least

£100,000 a year.6 In some cases, an

experienced cyber-security expert can earn more than a chief security officer.

As the threat of data breaches contin- ues to grow for business across the globe, the role of penetration testers and ethical hackers is only going to become more important. This is especially true consid- ering that the IT security field is antici- pated to grow 37% by 2022. And while the need for penetration testing may once have resided purely in the domain of government departments, large organ- isations, multi-national corporations and financial institutions, it is now viewed

as an essential data security strategy for companies of all shapes and sizes.