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Undermining the Boss

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During the browser wars of the late 90's, I worked for a company that believed that security had to consist of something you have and something you know. As an example, you must have a valid site certificate, and know your login and password. If all three are valid, you get in. Limiting retry attempts would preclude automated hack attempts. The security (mainframe) team officially deemed this good enough to thwart any threat that might come from outside our firewall.

The Murder of Julius Caesar

As people moved away from working on mainframes to working on PCs, it became more difficult to get current site certificates to every user every three months (security team mandate). The security team decreed that e/snail-mail was not considered secure enough, so a representative of our company had to fly to every client company, go to every user PC and insert a disk to install the latest site certificate. Every three months. Ad infinitum.

You might imagine that this quickly became a rather significant expense for the business (and you'd be right), so they asked our department to come up with something less costly.

After a month of designing, our crack engineers came up with something that would cost several million dollars and take more than a year to build. I tried, but failed to stifle a chuckle. I told them that I could do it for $1500 (software license) and about two days of work. Naturally, this caused a wave of laughter, but the boss+1 in charge asked me to explain.

I said that we could put an old PC running a web server outside the firewall and manually dump all the site certificate installer programs on it. Then we could give the help desk a simple web page to create a DB entry that would allow our users to go to that PC, load the single available page to enter the unique code provided by the help desk, and get back a link to download a self-installing program to install the site certificate.

To preempt the inevitable concerns, I pointed out that while I had some knowledge of how to secure PCs and databases, that I was not by any means an expert, but that our Security Analysts (SAs) and DBAs were. We could have the SA's strip out all but the most necessary services, and clamp down the firewall rules to only let it access a dedicated DB on an internal machine on a specific port. The DBA's could lock down the dedicated DB with a single table to only allow read access from the web page; to pass in the magic phrase and optionally spit back a link to download the file.

Of course, everyone complained that the PC in-the-wild would be subject to hacking.

Since I believe in hoping for the best but planning for the worst, I suggested that we look at the worst possible case. I take out a full page ad in Hacker's Weekly saying "Free site certificates on exposed PC at IP a.b.c.d. They can be used at http://www.OurCompany.com. Enjoy!" After all, it can't get worse than that, right? So Mr. Hacker goes to the page and downloads the site certificate installation programs for every user and then goes to our website. What's the first thing he faces? Something he has and something he knows. He has the certificates, but doesn't know any login/passwords. Since the security people have already blessed this as "Good Enough", we should be safe.

After much discussion, everyone agreed that this made sense, but that they (reasonably) wanted to verify it. It was agreed that the SA's and DBA's had the needed expertise to strip and lock down the PC, firewall and DB. I took an old PC out of one of the closets, did a fresh install, put on the latest web server and relevant software, and then installed the few things we needed. Then I handed it to the SA's and told them to strip it and lock it down. I created a tiny DB with a single table and two stored procedures; one for the help desk to add a new time-limited entry for a user and the other to check to see if an unexpired entry existed and return a link to the installer on the exposed PC. Then I handed it to the DBA's and told them to restrict it so the table could only be accessed via the two stored procs, and to only allow the Help desk to call the proc that created the time limited entry for the user, and the external IP to call the proc to query the table. Since all of our users already had credentials to call the help desk, this was only a minimal additional cost.

We threw a couple of test certificate installers on it and put it outside the firewall. After I tested the "good" paths, I had the SA's and DBA's try to hack around their restrictions. When they couldn't, it was deemed safe and loaded up with all the certificates. I wrote up a very short how-to manual and had it installed in production.

This reduced the certificate installations to one trip per quarter to our data center.

The user was pleased at having saved millions of dollars on an ongoing basis.

I found out later that I inadvertently pissed off the boss+1 because he was planning on hiring more people for this project and I negated the need for him to expand his empire.

Whoops.

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