The scope of all the following arguments is for equipment owned by the school, or equipment approved to use at school. This post is not promoting policies for personal devices used solely at home, nor is this post addressing devices that may be used for entertainment or non-academic purposes.
Ransomware, in its most basic form, is self-explanatory. Data is captured, encrypted, and held for ransom until a fee is paid. The two most common forms of ransomware delivery are through email and websites.~ https://insights.sei.cmu.edu/sei_blog/2017/05/ransomware-best-practices-for-prevention-and-response.html
Ransomware is scary. Ransomware, once it begins to propagate, becomes more about survival and mitigation and less about prevention.
I have thought about how to advise K12 schools around the world how to prepare for ransomware. I have concluded that there are only two approaches everyone can follow: Reduce or Completely Remove Windows and Create Very Inconvenient Backups of Data.
Reduce or Completely Remove Windows
I decided to compile known types of ransomware. I stopped at 106 identified types. Here is a graph, and link to the sources, that demonstrate what operating systems are vulnerable:
If you want to do the math:
- 106 Ransomware programs
- 100 Target Windows Operating Systems
- 93%-94% of Targets are Windows Operating Systems
- Using Windows is Riskier than Using other Systems
“Riskier” is a little weak in this case. It is very likely that Windows users will be a target, it is very unlikely that Apple and Chromebook users will be a target.
If the goal is to live in a relatively peaceful ransomware free environment, then the majority of end-users need to be using Apple or Chrome-based devices (Linux varieties are also an option for a subset of users).
There are tools for Windows that help defend and protect against ransomware. However, nothing is better than not being attacked at all.
Create Very Inconvenient Backups of Data
Every time I ask an IT director or IT manager about backups, they claim they are 100% compliant and 100% able to deal with any problems. I have never believed my planning was close to 100%, nor have I ever believed I could restore 100% of all data. I would say, at my best, I am 60%-70% certain that I can restore 80%-90% of data.
Data. Not operating systems and settings. Data. Not the software that was installed. Just all the data consisting of but not limited to documents, databases, movies, music, pictures, special configuration files, scripts and code, and the inclusive content of all websites.
There is only one question a person needs to ask to confirm if backups are safe from ransomware: “Can the backup be accessed right now if we need it?”.
If the answer is ‘Yes’, then backups are going to be vulnerable.
There should be at least two layers of backups. Layer one can be data that is backed-up and accessible on the network, in the cloud, and/or from normal workstations. Meaning, someone can sit down and create or restore a laptop, database, etc by following a workflow at their desk.
Layer two backups are inconvenient. These backups are stored outside of the normal network. These backups are scheduled and not even accessible by network administrators without taking extra steps. These backups require some level of multifactor authentication or even a physical lock and key.
Layer two backups also need to be tested at least monthly (this is only recommended for K12 schools most businesses need to test more frequently; school districts would need to test very often and on a predetermined schedule).
Tests need to include:
- Data restoration
- Data access and use
- A scan for malware, ransomware, etc
- An iterative process to consistently reduce the size of backups
- An archival process to store data that will most likely never be needed, but is legally required to store
- Imagination. Because you never know where you will be and what the situation will be when you need to access these backups
A very low tech approach to a layer two back-up could include someone taking an external drive to the data source, moving the data manually, and then locking the drive in a safe. Do not overthink this, just start doing it and keep improving the process. If you can access these backups from your workstation, then those backups are vulnerable by definition.
If ransomware happens, and the data cannot be decrypted, this layer two data would be safe as it would be offline. Layer one backups may stay secure, but layer two backups will be secure unless you are victim of very bad timing.
The cybersecurity industry is rapidly developing better protocols for handling ransomware. Staying educated and studying cases is not only essential, but it should also be scheduled into the cycle of work at least once every 6-8 weeks.
The data above could change. An uptick in ransomware for Chrome or Apple of even 1% is enough to review internal processes and procedures. Until then though, get the number of Windows OS users down and make better backups.
Start Your Research Here
Ransomware: Best Practices for Prevention and Response
Cybersecurity Part 2 will be featured in the Tie Magazine. After it is released, I will post the article on the blog.
I have been following a few online threads where schools are considering contracting penetration testers. For those who may not know, penetration testing (pentesting) is a security assessment, an analysis, and progression of simulated attacks on an application (web, mobile, or API) or network to check its security posture. The objective is to penetrate the application or networksecurity defenses by looking for vulnerabilities. These are usuallyweaknesses or flaws that an attacker could exploit to impact confidentiality, integrity, or availability. This goal is the same whether performing application pentesting or network pentesting. ~ https://cobalt.io/pentest
As a consultant, I am not opposed to K12 schools using consultants. However, I have seen some red flags out there from pentesting consultants. I want to highlight those issues, and also provide a method for K12 schools to get started on this process in an easy and low-cost manner.
Finding a Good Pentester
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a list of (x,y,z). I need an office to work from. I need to interview…
What is wrong here?
Here is how this should go
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a contract protecting me if I break into one or more of your services. I need a contact person to send my findings to. I need a timeline.
A pentester’s job is to find the weaknesses and to find a way to access your organization. If you provide access, not only is the job easier, but they could simply report an issue that is unlikely to occur. I witnessed a similar scenario where a firm was asking for the keys to break into the car.
There may be a point where you want a pentester to become a student and see what a student can do with the access provided. There may be a point where you want them to test spaces used by the public during events. If you provide and manage laptops, a good pentester will need one of the school’s laptops.
These are reasonable requests. Asking the school to literally give them a roadmap and set of targets is not reasonable.
Doing Your Own Testing
I have a list of standards schools should work towards to be secure. Some these do not always connect well to third party services, public-facing websites, etc.
Over the last few months, I have developed a checklist for pentesting K12 school websites and resources.
|Subscription and Services Discovery||Can your subscriptions and services be easily discovered?|
|Files Exposed to the Public||Are there files publicly available that supposed to be private?|
|Calendars Exposed to the Public||Is calendar data that should be private, private?|
|Staff and/or Student Email Harvesting||Can your staff and/or student PII be used to create a database for phishing and spamming?|
|Portals and SIS||Are your portals and SIS properly secured and difficult to brute force attack?|
|Websites and Social Media||Are websites and social media properly secured; is the media being used legally and correctly?|
|Cloud Services||Have cloud services been properly secured?|
|Third-Party Sharing||Is anyone sharing your content and do they have permission?|
|FTP, SSH, and Telnet||Are any of these protocols a threat to your school via publically accessible information?|
|Email Blacklist||Is your email domain blacklisted?|
|Email Header Check||Is there any data in your header that could be anonymous or lead to blacklisting?|
|Email Catch-All for Non Existent Emails||Is your email set up to catch any email that does not exist and alert someone?|
|SMTP Relay||Is your email system running services that would allow an attacker to use your email for a criminal act; send an email on someone’s behalf?|
|4xx and 5xx Error Check||Do the 4xx and 5xx pages on your public-facing services configured properly and supportive of trusted users?|
|HTML Forms||Are any HTML Forms vulnerable to low-level URL based attacks? (Will also review CAPTCHA.)|
I score these on a scale of 1-5 and document the issues/results. The next level is researching the solutions to correct the problems. Keep in mind, many solutions are in policies and procedures. This means issues need to be articulated for school leaders, teachers, students, and parents.
In other words, avoid jargon and lingo.
Doing as much due diligence as possible before contracting someone will not only save time and money, but it will also help to further educate the community.
If you do not know what is actually dangerous, then everything could be sold as dangerous.
I have noticed an uptick recently in schools moving resources, money and time, to address cybersecurity concerns. The motivation for addressing security issues is genuine, but the approach and implementations I am reading about are less than effective.
Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts to address what schools should do to improve cybersecurity. Nearly every suggestion will require a change in process or culture, but not any significant financial investment.
Even if you’ve got all the bells and whistles when it comes to securing your data center, your cloud deployments, your building’s physical security, and you’ve invested in defensive technologies, have the right security policies and processes in place and measure their effectiveness and continuously improve, still a crafty social engineer can weasel his way right through (or around).
Social engineering is the art of exploiting human psychology, rather than technical hacking techniques, to gain access to buildings, systems or data. ~ https://www.csoonline.com/article/2124681/what-is-social-engineering.html
Physical access to any space is the holy grail. Hacking begins with collecting information, watching people, finding the weak links within the organization, and studying how systems and people work.
Having an open friendly campuses means exposing information systems to a variety of threats that exist outside the network controls.
Allowing students, teachers, and staff to freely move around campus with few limitations or consequences, creates multiple opportunities for data to be collected on areas of the campus that generally are part of the plant or backend operations. These areas are designed for small teams of workers to keep the campus running, and these areas allow access to systems that control things like water, gas, electricity, etc. The plans and operational guides for these areas are not public, but people taking a regular stroll through these spaces eventually collect enough information to execute an exploit.
Maybe the exploit is simply students finding a way to sneak off-campus, but when one group creates a loophole, another group has the opportunity to use it. Social engineering practitioners are looking for loopholes and they are looking to mix with trusted groups of people. Their access begins with a bad policy or the improper enforcement of a policy.
It is far easier to use social engineering tactics to attack a school’s data and assets than to try and exploit the network externally. Not only is it easier, it is less risky. Generally, school policy is granting a person physical access, and therefore they are not trespassing. Whereas any attempt to breach the network would be a crime.
Before worrying about the network, the cameras, and the technology as a whole, it is imperative to reduce physical access and to design policies that balance community with access.
Defending Against Social Engineering in a Friendly Manner
Schools are not banks or government facilities. They are generally friendly and trusting environments. Implementing security measures should not create a panic, and should not create a culture a fear. Every measure taken needs to connect to another logical reason that the community can understand. Here are some ways you can reduce the risk of threats through social engineering:
- Let everyone know, they are free to call security and report anyone or anything they see that seems “off.” This means, not punishing people if they misidentify someone. Make the process easy, and make certain security personnel follow through and keep records. Social engineering often requires a few visits to a campus, and studying reports could identify a pattern.
- Lunchtime is always important on a school campus. Set a simple policy for business and operational offices to either rotate their lunchtimes and /or lock their offices. Lunchtime rotation is an excellent countermeasure. It ensures that every day, a few people are always in an office, the offices are open so people can access services, and the schedule of activity is difficult to predict. An example would be the following: Four people work in accounting. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, person 1 and 3 choose to do lunch at 11:30AM; On those days person 2 and 4 choose to do lunch at 12:30 PM. Locking offices for an hour is safe, but it is not going to be as popular as using a rotation.
- Any closet or room containing computer network equipment, phone system equipment, etc. should not be used for storage. Why is this important? Because the moment a room or closet is accessible for storage, the number of people who will be opening the door becomes unpredictable. The equipment in that space would allow easy access to all the data that flows through the school. A common mistake schools make, is to use these network/electrical closets to store cleaning supplies. Cleaners are usually very friendly and trying to help people, as well as maintain safety. So, if I wanted to access the closet and exploit the network, I would create a spill of liquid and wait for the cleaner to get into the closet. I might even distract them long enough to slide a small piece of paper between the lock and door jamb. The cleaner is doing their job, and I have gained access to the space after the cleaner is finished.
- Guests/Parents should have their own network. It goes without saying that allowing anyone aside from students and employees on the academic network is risky. A guest network SSID is highly recommended if the public or parents are allowed to use the WiFi. The more I consider this, the more I believe that a better policy is to simply improve the mobile network reception, and direct people to use their own data. A school can invest in repeaters and other technology to make the mobile signals from various providers strong and robust. Schools can also use services like Kajeet to deploy better mobile access. In many cases, schools qualify for FREE mobile hotspots. Why spend time and resources giving the public and parents access to limited and/or filtered academic networks anyway? Using mobile reduces the chances of a data breach, and virtually eliminates the liability a school would incur.
- Encourage and incentivize teachers to work outside their offices, in higher traffic areas. Teachers know each other, they know parents, and they know students. Teachers also have good instincts for spotting odd behavior. These statements are from anecdotal evidence, but if you have worked at a school for a long enough time, then you realize teachers are truly on the pulse of the organization. Teachers working in school cafes, libraries, etc see and hear more than they would if they are isolated in offices. Setting up conference rooms with glass walls, or creating PD opportunities in more public venues would greatly improve the random and increased presence of teachers on-campus. Remember, the idea is to create unpredictable patterns and to make it more difficult for someone to find a weakness and the confidence to act. The mere presence of staff in public spaces is a deterrent.
- Assume a good Social Engineer can get on-campus with an ID check, and plan accordingly. The core group defending against social engineering would most likely be the security team, operations team, and technology team. They should work together to plan scenarios and action plans. School leadership needs to make certain that those teams are focusing on those individuals who have enough skills to get through the external layer of security. Making assumptions that the camera system, front gate ID check, etc., will somehow prevent access, is going to create a false sense of security. Good social engineering requires imagination and creative thinking. Good defense will require the same.
- Work with parents to test your security and access. Parents want what is best for the school and their children. Parents also have come from a variety of backgrounds. They are a trusted group that will be honest and help measure improvements.
- Educate yourself first, and seek outside advice second. There is a massive amount of information about social engineering. It is worth educating a core group of people on security topics so they can inform practice and direct consultants. Remember, consults will only be useful until they leave. Build your team, and give them the time they need to learn. Much of what people need to know is free, time is the only factor.
I hope this posts stirs the pot and creates some discussion on school campuses. I am placing some resources below, including some very informative and entertaining videos on the subject of social engineering and physical penetration testing.
I am happy to do a live debate on this subject or webinar for anyone interested. Please email me at email@example.com
- DEFCON 19: Steal Everything, Kill Everyone, Cause Total Financial Ruin! (w speaker)- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsVtHqICeKE
- I’ll Let Myself In: Tactics of Physical Pen Testers- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnmcRTnTNC8
- What is Social Engineering: https://www.csoonline.com/article/2124681/what-is-social-engineering.html
- Passwords are Still a Problem: https://www.nextgov.com/cybersecurity/2019/01/why-computer-passwords-are-still-problem-2019/154086/
- Cybersecurity Stats: https://www.varonis.com/blog/cybersecurity-statistics/