RisknCompliance Blog

Thoughts On Delivering Meaningful Outcomes in Security and Privacy

Tag: Assessment (page 1 of 2)

Is your auditor or consultant anything like the OPM OIG?

The OPM breach has been deservedly in the news for over a month now.   Much has been written and said about it across the mainstream media and the internet1.

I want to focus here on a topic that hasn’t necessarily been discussed in public,  perhaps not at all – Could the OIG (and their audit reports) have done more or different than what they did,  year after year of issuing the reports? Specifically,  how could these audit reports have driven some urgently needed attention to the higher risks and perhaps helped prevent the breach?

Let us look at the latest  OIG’s Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) audit report issued in November 2014 (pdf) as a case in point. The report runs over 60 pages and looks to have been a reasonably good effort in meeting its objective of covering the general state of compliance with FISMA.  However,   I am not sure the report is any useful for “real world”  risk management purposes at an agency that had known organizational constraints in availability of appropriate security people or resources;  an agency that should have had some urgency in implementing certain safeguards on at least the one or two critical system(s) for the nature and quantity of sensitive information they had.

We have talked about this problem before, advising caution against “fixation” with compliance or controls frameworks and not focusing on priority risk management needs. In the case of this particular report,  the OIG should have discussed the risks as well (and not just the findings or gaps) and provided some actionable prioritization for accomplishing quick-wins in risk mitigation. For example,  recommendation #21 on page 25 could have called out the need for urgency in implementing multi-factor authentication (or appropriate compensating controls) for the one or two “high risk” system(s) that had upwards of 20 million sensitive records that we now know were breached.

I also believe providing a list of findings in the Executive Summary (on page 2) was a wasted opportunity. Instead of providing a list of compliance or controls gaps,  the summary should have included specific call-to-action statements by articulating the higher risks and providing actionable recommendations for what the OPM could have done over the following months in a prioritized fashion.


Here then are my recommended takeaways:

1. If you are an auditor performing an audit or a consultant performing a security assessment,  you might want to emphasize “real” risks,  as opposed to compliance or controls gaps that may be merely academic in many cases. Recognize that evaluation and articulation of risks require a more complete understanding of the business, technology and regulatory circumstances as compared to what you might need to know if you were merely writing gaps against certain controls or compliance requirements.

2. Consider the organizational realities or constraints and think about creative options for risk management. Always recommend feasible quick-wins in risk mitigation and actionable prioritization of longer term tasks.

3. Do not hesitate to bring in or engage with specialists if you aren’t sure you can evaluate or articulate risks and recommend mitigation tasks well enough. Engage with relevant stakeholders that would be responsible for risk mitigation to make sure they are realistically able to implement your recommendations, at least the ones that you recommend for implementation before your next audit or assessment.

In closing, I would strongly emphasize a focus on meaningful risk management outcomes, not just producing reports or deliverables. A great looking deliverable that doesn’t convey the relative levels of real risks and the urgency of mitigating certain higher risks is not going to serve any meaningful purpose.

References for additional reading

1.  At the time of this writing,  I found these two links to be useful reading for substantive information on the OPM breach.

Information about OPM Cybersecurity Incidents

“EPIC” fail—how OPM hackers tapped the mother lode of espionage data

2.  You may also be interested in a quick read of our recommendations for agile approaches to security/privacy/compliance risk assessments or management.  A pdf of our slide deck will be emailed to you after a quick registration here.

This is how the #AnthemHack could have been stopped, perhaps

It has been just over a week since the #AnthemHack was made public.

Over this period, the main stream media and many of the bloggers and commentators,  as usual,  have been all over it.  Many have resorted to some not-so-well-thought-out (at least in my opinion as well as a couple of others1 ) statements such as “encryption” could have prevented it. Some have even faulted HIPAA for not mandating encryption of data-at-rest2.

Amidst all this, I believe there has been some good reporting as well, albeit very few. I am going to point to a couple of articles by Steve Ragan at CSOOnline.com here and here.

I provide an analysis here of perhaps how Anthem could have detected and stopped the breach before the data was exfiltrated. This is based on the assumption that the information published in Steve Ragan’s articles is accurate.

Let’s start with some known information then:

  1. “Anthem, based on data posted to LinkedIn and job listings, uses TeraData for data warehousing, which is a robust platform that’s able to work with a number of enterprise applications”. Quoted from here.
  2. “According to a memo from Anthem to its clients, the earliest signs of questionable database activity date back to December 10, 2014”. Quoted from here.
  3. “On January 27, 2015, an Anthem associate, a database administrator, discovered suspicious activity – a database query running using the associate’s logon information. He had not initiated the query and immediately stopped the query and alerted Anthem’s Information Security department. It was also discovered the logon information for additional database administrators had been compromised.” Quoted from the same article as above.

I went over to the Teradata site to download their Security Administration guide of Release 13 of Teradata Database (download link). I downloaded the guide for an older version from November 2009. I am assuming Anthem is using Release 13 or later and so, isn’t missing the features I am looking at.

Database logging can be challenging sometimes and depending on the features available in your database, the logging configurations can generate a lot of noise. This in turn, may make it difficult to detect events of interest. I wanted to make sure there weren’t such issues in this case.

It turns out TeraData is fairly good in its logging capabilities. Based on the highlighted content, it appears one should be able to configure log generation specifically for a DBA performing a SELECT query on a table containing sensitive data.




There should not ordinarily be a reason for a DBA to query for sensitive data so this should have been identified as a high risk alert use-case by their Logging and Monitoring program.

I am assuming Anthem also has a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solution that they use for security event monitoring. Even a garden variety SIEM solution should be able to collect these logs and raise an immediate alert considering the “high risk” nature of a DBA trying to query for sensitive data.

This alert should have gone to someone that is accountable or responsible for security incident response. It appears that didn’t happen. This is symptomatic of a lack of “ownership” and “accountability” culture, in my view. For a case of this nature, I strongly recommend the IT owner (e.g. Manager or Director of the Database Team) being on point to receive such alerts involving sensitive data. Your Security Operations folks may not necessarily know the context of the query and therefore the high risk nature of it. I talked about this in a guest post last month. See the last dot point in this post.

As quoted at #3 above, it appears one of the DBAs discovered someone using his/her credentials and running that query. You certainly don’t want to leave it to the DBA to monitor his own actions. If this was a malicious DBA, we might be talking about a major breach caused by an insider and not a Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actor as the Anthem breach appears to be.  But then, I digress.

If the high risk anomalous DBA activity had been discovered immediately through the alert and if appropriate incident response steps had been initiated, it is possible that Anthem may have been able to stop the breach before the APT actor took the data out of the Anthem network.AnthemHack Tweet

So, if we come to think of it, some simple steps of due diligence in establishing security and governance practices might have helped avoid a lot of pain to Anthem not to mention a lifetime of hurt to the people and families impacted by the breach.

Here then are some take-aways if you would like to review your security program and want to make some changes:

  1. You may not need that shiny object. As explained above, an average SIEM solution can raise such an alert. We certainly don’t need that ‘big data” “analytics” solution costing 100s of thousands or millions of dollars.
  2. Clarity in objectives3. Define your needs and use cases before you ever think of a tool or technology. Even if we had a fancy technology, it would be no use if we didn’t identify the high risk use-case for monitoring the DBA activity and implement an alert for it.
  3. Process definition and speed of incident response. People and process aspects are just as important (if not more than) as the technology itself. Unfortunately, we have too many instances of expensive technologies not being effective because we didn’t design and implement the associated people/process workflows for security monitoring and timely incident response.
  4. Ownership and accountability. I talked about this topic last month with a fair amount of detail and examples. While our Security Operations teams have their job to do in specific cases, I believe that the IT leadership must be “accountable” for security of the data collected, received, processed, stored or transmitted by their respective systems. In the absence of such an accountability and ownership culture, our security monitoring and response programs will likely not be effective.
  5. Focus on quick wins. If we look at our environments with inquisitive eyes and ears, most of us will likely identify quick wins for risk reduction. By quick wins, I am referring to actions for reducing higher risk levels that we can accomplish in weeks rather than months, without deploying a lot of resources. Not all of our risk management action plans have to necessarily be driven by formal projects. In the context of this Anthem example, it should be a quick win to implement an alert and have the database manager begin to watch for these alerts.
  6. Don’t accept pedestrian risk assessments and management. If you go back and look at your last risk assessment involving a sensitive database for example, what risks were identified? What were the recommendations? Were these recommendations actionable or some “template” statements? Did the recommendations identify quick-win risk reduction opportunities? Did you follow through to implement the quick wins? In other words, the quality of a risk assessment must be solely determined by the risk reduction opportunities that you were able to identify and the outcomes you were able to accomplish within a reasonable period of time. The quality of paper deliverables, methodology etc. are not nearly as important, not to say that they don’t matter.
  7. Stay away from heavy weight security frameworks. We talked about this last year. I’ll probably have more to say about it in another post. Using #AnthemHack as an example, I plan to illustrate how a particular leading security framework wouldn’t be very helpful. In fact, I believe that using heavy weight security frameworks can be detrimental to most security programs. They take a lot of time and precious resources not to mention the focus away from accomplishing risk reduction outcomes that truly matter.
  8. Effective governance and leadership. Last but not the least, the need for leadership and governance should come as no surprise. None of the previous items on this list can be truly accomplished without an emphasis on governance and leadership starting right at the board level and across the executive leadership.

I hope the analysis and recommendations are useful to you.

Remember, while the techniques employed by APT actors may be advanced and persistent, the vulnerabilities they exploit are often there only because we didn’t do some basic things right or perhaps we made it too hard and complicated on ourselves to do it right.

References for additional reading

1 Why even strong crypto wouldn’t protect SSNs exposed in Anthem breach , Steven M. Bellovin


Even if Anthem Had Encrypted, It Probably Wouldn’t Have Helped, Rich Mogull



2 I like the fact that the HIPAA Security Rule is not prescriptive, except… , Kamal Govindaswamy



3 Security Analytics Lessons Learned — and Ignored!, Anton Chuvakin


Patient Portals – Make or Break

Like many other Health IT initiatives today, the primary driver for patient portals is regulatory in nature. Specifically, it is the Meaningful Use requirements related to view,  download or transmit and secure messaging. However, the biggest long term benefit of the portals might be what they can do for patient engagement and as a result, to the providers’ business in the increasingly competitive and complex healthcare marketplace in the United States.

The objective of this post is to discuss the security aspects of patient portals, specifically, why the current practices in implementing these portals could pose a big problem for many providers. More importantly, we’ll discuss specific recommendations for due diligence actions that the providers should take immediately as well as in the longer term.

Before we get to discuss the security aspects, I think it is important to “set the stage” by discussing some background on patient portals. Accordingly, this post covers the following areas in the indicated sequence:

1. What are patient portals and what features do they (or could) provide?

2. Importance of patient engagement and the role of patient portals in patient engagement

3. The problem with the current state in Health IT and hence the risks that the portals bring

4. Why relying on regulations or vendors is a recipe for certain failure?

5. What can/should we do (right now and in the future) –  Our recommendations

1. What are Patient Portals and what features do they (or could) provide?

I would draw on information from the ONC site for this section. Here is the pertinent content, to quote from the ONC site:

A patient portal is a secure online website that gives patients convenient 24-hour access to personal health information from anywhere with an Internet connection. Using a secure username and password, patients can view health information such as:

• Recent doctor visits

• Discharge summaries

• Medications

• Immunizations

• Allergies

• Lab results

Some patient portals also allow patients to:

• Exchange secure e-mail with their health care teams

• Request prescription refills

• Schedule non-urgent appointments

• Check benefits and coverage

• Update contact information

• Make payments

• Download and complete forms

• View educational materials

The bottom-line is that patient portals provide means for patients to access or post sensitive health or payment information. In the future, their use could expand further to include integration with mobile health applications (mHealth) and wearables. Last week’s news from EPIC should provide a sense for things to come.

2. Importance of patient engagement and the role of patient portals in patient engagement

As we said above, the primary driver for patient portals so far has been the Meaningful Use requirements related to view,  download or transmit and secure messaging. However, the biggest long term benefit of the portals might be what they can do for patient engagement and becoming a key business enabler for providers.

The portals are indeed a leading way for providers to engage with patients, as can be seen in this graphic from the 2014 Healthcare IT Priorities published by InformationWeek1.


Effective patient engagement of course can bring tremendous business benefits, efficiencies and competitive edge to providers.

From a patient’s perspective, the portals can offer a easier method for interacting with their providers which in turn has its own benefits for patients. To quote from the recently released HIMSS report titled “The State of Patient Engagement and Health IT”2

A patient’s greater engagement in health care contributes to improved health outcomes, and information technologies can support engagement.

In essence, the importance of patient portals as a strategic business and technology solution for healthcare providers doesn’t need too much emphasis.

3. The problem with the current state in Health IT and hence the risks that the portals bring

In my view, the below quote from the cover page of the 2014 Healthcare IT Priorities Report published by InformationWeek1 pretty much sums it up for this section.

Regulatory requirements have gone from high priority to the only priority for healthcare IT.

We all know what happens when security or privacy programs are built and operated purely to meet regulatory or compliance objectives. It is a shaky ground at best. We talked about it in one of our blog posts last year when we called for a change in tone and approaches to healthcare security and privacy.

4. Why relying on regulators or vendors is a recipe for certain failure of your security program?

It is probably safe to say that security in design and implementation is perhaps not the uppermost concern that HealthIT vendors have (certainly not the patient portal vendors in my opinion) today. To make it easy for them, we have lackluster security/privacy requirements in the regulation for certifying Electronic Health Records.

Consider the security and privacy requirements (yellow in this pdf) that vendors have to meet in order to obtain EHR certification today. You will see that the certification criteria are nearly not enough to assure the products are indeed secure enough before the vendors can start selling them to providers. And then, the administration or enforcement of the EHR certification program has been lacking as well in the past.

If you consider a risk relevant set of controls such as the Critical Security Controls for Effective Cyber Defense, you will see that the certification criteria are missing the following key requirements in order to be effective in today’s security threat landscape:

· Vulnerability assessments and remediation

· Application Security Testing (Including Static and Dynamic Testing)

· Security training for developers

· Penetration tests and remediation

· Strong Authentication

Think about using these applications to run your patient portals!

If you are a diligent provider, you will want to make sure that the vendor has met the above requirements even though the certification criteria do not include them. The reality though may be different. In my experience, providers often do not perform all the necessary due diligence before purchasing the products.

And then, when providers implement these products and attest to Meaningful Use, they are expected to do a security risk analysis (see the green highlighted requirement in the pdf). In my experience again, risk analysis is not performed in all cases. Of those that perform them, many are not really risk assessments.

The bottom-line? … Many providers take huge risks in going live with their patient portals that are neither secure nor compliant (Not compliant because they didn’t perform a true risk analysis and mitigate the risks appropriately).

If you look again (in 1 above) at the types of information patient portals handle, it is not far-fetched to say that many providers may have security breaches waiting to happen. It is even possible that some have already been breached but they don’t know yet.

Considering that patient portals are often gateways to the more lucrative (from a hacker’s standpoint) EHR systems, intruders may be taking their time to escalate their privileges and move laterally to other systems once they have a foothold in the patient portals. Considering that detecting intrusions is very often the achilles heel of even the most well-funded and sophisticated organizations,  it should be a cause for concern at many providers.

5. What can/should we do (right now and in the future) –  Our recommendations

It is time to talk about what really matters and some tangible next steps …

What can or must we do immediately and in the future?

Below are our recommendations for immediate action:

a) If you didn’t do the due diligence during procurement of your patient portal product, you may want to ask the vendor for the following:

· Application security testing (static and dynamic) and remediation reports of the product version you are using

· Penetration testing results and remediation status

· If the portal doesn’t provide risk based strong (or adaptive) authentication for patient and provider access, you may insist on the vendor committing to include that as a feature in the next release.

b) If you didn’t perform a true security risk analysis (assessment), please perform one immediately. Watch out for the pitfalls as you plan and perform the risk assessment. Make sure the risk assessment includes (among other things) running your own vulnerability scans and penetration tests both at network and application layers.

c) Make sure you have a prioritized plan to mitigate the discovered risks and of course, follow through and execute the plan in a timely manner.

Once you get through the immediate action steps above, we recommend the below action items to be included in your security program for the longer term:

a) Implement appropriate due diligence security measures in your procurement process or vendor management program.

b) Have your patient portal vendor provide you the detailed test results of the security requirements (highlighted yellow in the attachment) from the EHR certifying body. You may like to start here (Excel download from ONC) for information on the current certification status of your patient portal vendors and the requirements they are certified for.

c) Ask the vendor for application security (static and dynamic) and pen test results for every release.

d) Segment the patient portal appropriately from the rest of your environment (also a foundational prerequisite for PCI DSS scope reduction if you are processing payments with credit/debit cards).

e) Perform your own external/internal pen tests every year and scans every quarter (Note : If you are processing payments with your payment portal,  the portal is likely in scope for PCI DSS. PCI DSS requires you to do this anyway).

f) Conduct security risk assessments every year or upon a major change (This also happens to be a compliance requirement from three different regulations that will apply to the patient portal –  HIPAA Security Rule, Meaningful Use and PCI DSS, if processing payments using credit/debit cards).

g) If you use any open source modules either by yourself or within the vendor product,  make sure to apply timely patches on them as they are released.

h) Make sure all open source binaries are security tested before they are used to begin with.

i) If the vendor can’t provide support for strong authentication,  look at your own options for proving risk based authentication to consumers. In the meanwhile, review your password (including password creation, reset steps etc.) to make sure they are not too burdensome on consumers and yet are secure enough.

j) Another recommended option is to allow users to authenticate using an external identity (e.g. Google, Facebook etc. using OpenID Connect or similar mechanisms) which may actually be preferable from the user’s standpoint as they don’t have to remember a separate log-in credential for access to the portal. Just make sure to strongly recommend that they use 2 step verification that almost all of these social media sites provide today.

k) Implement robust logging and monitoring in the patient portal environment (Hint : Logging and Monitoring is not necessarily about implementing just a “fancy” technology solution. There is more to it that we’ll cover in a future post)

In summary, there is just too much at stake for providers and patients alike to let the status quo of security in patient portals continue the way it is. We recommend all providers take priority action considering the lasting and serious business consequences that could result from a potential breach.

As always, we welcome your thoughts, comments or critique. Please post them below.


1 2014 Healthcare IT Priorities published by InformationWeek
2 The State of Patient Engagement and Health IT(pdf download)

 Recommended further reading

Patient engagement – The holy grail of meaningful use
Patient portal mandate triggers anxiety
MU Stage 2 sparks patient portal market

Hello PCI SSC… Can we rethink?

This is a detailed follow-up to the quick post I wrote the Friday before the Labor Day weekend,  based on my read at the time of the PCI SSC’s Special Interest Group paper on “Best practices for maintaining PCI DSS compliance”1 published just the day before.

The best practices guidance is by and large a good one though nothing of what is discussed is necessarily new or ground breaking. The bottom line of what the paper discusses is the reality of what any person or organization with electronic information of some value (and who doesn’t today?) needs to do… which is that there is no substitute for constant and appropriate security vigilance in today’s digital world.

That said,  I am not sure this guidance (or anything else PCI SSC has done so far with PCI DSS including the new version 3 taking effect at the end of the year) is going to result in the change we need… the change in how PCI organizations are able to prevent or at least able to detect and contain the damage caused by security breaches in their cardholder data environments (CDEs). After all, we have had more PCI breaches (both in number and scale) over the past year than at any other time since PCI DSS has been in effect.

One is then naturally forced to question why or how does PCI SSC expect a different result if  PCI DSS itself hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years. I believe a famous person no less than Albert Einstein had something to say about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.AE

If you have had anything to do with the PCI DSS over the last several years, you are probably very familiar with the criticism it has received from time to time.  For the record, I think PCI DSS has been a good thing for the industry and it isn’t too hard to recognize that security in PCI could be much worse without the DSS.

At the same time, it is also not hard to see that PCI DSS hasn’t fundamentally changed in its philosophy and approach since its inception in 2006 while the security threat environment itself has evolved drastically both in its nature and scale over this period.

The objective of this post is to offer some suggestions for how to make PCI DSS more effective and meaningful for the amount of money and overheads that merchants and service providers are having to spend on it year after year.

Suggestion #1 : Call for Requirement Zero

I am glad the best practices guidance1 highlights the need for a risk based PCI DSS program. It is also pertinent to note that risk assessment is included as a milestone 1 item in the Prioritized Approach tool2 though I doubt many organizations use the suggested prioritization.

In my opinion however, you are not emphasizing the need for a risk based program if your risk assessment requirement is buried inconspicuously under requirement #12 of the 12 requirements (12.2 to be specific). If we are to direct merchants and service providers to execute a risk based PCI DSS program, I believe the best way to do it is by  making risk assessment the very first thing that they do soon after identifying and finalizing the CDE they want to live with.

As such, I recommend introducing a new Requirement Zero to include the following :

  • Identify the current CDE and try to reduce the CDE footprint to the extent possible
  • Update the inventory of system components in the CDE (Current requirement 2.4)
  • Prepare CDE Network diagram (Current requirement 1.1.2) and CHD flow diagram (Current requirement 1.1.3). I consider this to be a critical step. After all, we can only safeguard something valuable if we know it exists. We also talked about how the HIPAA Security Rule could use this requirement in a different post.
  • Conduct a Risk Assessment (Current requirement 12.2)

Performing a risk assessment right at the beginning will provide the means for organizations to evaluate how far they need to go with implementing each of the 200+ requirements. In many cases, they may have to go well over the letter of certain requirements and truly address the intent and spirit of the requirements in order to reduce the estimated risk to acceptable levels.

Performing the risk assessment will also (hopefully) force organizations to consider the current and evolving threats and mitigate the risks posed by these threats. Without the risk assessment being performed upfront, one will naturally fall into the template security mindset we discussed here. As discussed in the post, template approaches are likely to drive a security program to failure down the road (or at least make it ineffective).

Suggestion #2 : Discontinue all (requirements) or nothing approach

A true risk management program must mean that the organizations should have a choice not to implement a control if they can clearly articulate the risk associated with not implementing it is truly low.

I think PCI DSS has a fundamental contradiction in its philosophy of pushing a all-or-nothing regulation while advocating a risk based approach at the same time. In an ideal world where organizations have limitless resources and time at their disposal, they could perhaps fully meet every one of the 200+ requirements while also addressing the present and evolving risks. As we know however, the real world is far from ideal in that the organizations are almost always faced with constraints all around and certainly with the amount of resources and time available at their disposal.

Making this change (from all or nothing approach) of course will mean a foundational change in PCI DSS’ philosophy of how the whole program is administered by PCI SSC and the card brands. Regardless, this change is too important to be ignored considering the realities of business challenges and the security landscape.

Suggestion #3 : Compensating controls

As anyone that has dealt with PCI DSS knows, documentation of compensating controls is one of the most onerous aspects of PCI DSS, so much so that you are sometimes better off implementing the original control than having to document and justify the “validity” of the compensating control to your QSA. No wonder then, that a book on PCI DSS compliance actually had a whole chapter on the “art of compensating control”.

The need for compensating controls should be based on the risk to the cardholder data and not on not implementing the requirement itself. This should be a no-brainer if PCI SSC really wants PCI DSS to be risk based.

If the risk associated with not implementing a control is low enough, organizations should have a choice of not implementing a compensating control or at least not implementing it to the extent that the DSS currently expects the organization to.

Suggestion #4 : Reducing compliance burden and fatigue

As is well known, PCI DSS requires substantial annual efforts and related expenses. If the assessments involve Qualified Security Assessors (QSAs), the overheads are much higher than self-assessments. Despite such onerous efforts and overheads, even some of the more prominent retailers and well-funded organizations can’t detect their own breaches.

The reality is that most PCI organizations have limited budgets to spend on security let alone on compliance with PCI DSS. Forcing these organizations to divert much of their security funding to repeated annual compliance efforts simply doesn’t make any business or practical sense, especially considering the big question of whether these annual compliance efforts really help improve the ability of organizations to do better against breaches.

I would like to suggest the following changes for reducing compliance burden so that organizations can spend more of their security budgets on initiatives and activities that can truly reduce the risk of breaches:

  • The full scope (of all 200+ requirements or controls) may be in scope for compliance assessments (internal or by QSA) only during the first year of the three year PCI DSS update cycle. Remember that organizations may still choose not to implement certain controls based on the results of the risk assessment (see suggestion #2 above)
  • For the remaining two years, organizations may be required to perform only a risk assessment and implement appropriate changes in their environment to address the increased risk levels. Risk assessments must be performed appropriately and with the right level of due diligence. The assessment must include (among other things) review of certain key information obtained through firewall reviews (requirement 1.1.7), application security testing (requirement 6. 6), access reviews (requirement 7), vulnerability scans (11.2) and penetration tests (11.3).

 Suggestion #5 : Redundant (or less relevant) controls

PCI SSC may look at reviewing the value of certain control requirements considering that newer requirements added in subsequent versions could reduce the usefulness or relevance of those controls or perhaps even make them redundant.

For example, PCI DSS v3 requirement around penetration testing has a considerable change compared to the previous version. If the organization were to perform the penetration tests appropriately, there should not be much need for requirement 2.1 especially the rather elaborate testing procedures highlighted in the figure.


There are several other requirements or controls as well that perhaps fall into the same category of being less useful or even redundant.

Such redundant requirements should help make the case for deprecation or consolidation of certain requirements.  These requirements also help make the case for moving away from the all or nothing approach or philosophy we discussed under #2.

 Suggestion #6 : Reduce Documentation Requirements

PCI DSS in general requires fairly extensive documentation at all levels. We already talked about it when we discussed the topic of compensating controls above.

Documentation is certainly useful and indeed strongly recommended in certain areas especially where it helps with communication and better enforcement of security controls that help in risk reduction.

On the other hand, documentation purely for compliance purposes must be avoidable especially if it doesn’t help improve security safeguards to any appreciable extent.


That was perhaps a longer post than some of us are used to,  especially on a blog. These are the suggestions that I can readily think of. I’ll be keen to hear any other suggestions you may have yourself or perhaps even comments or critique of my thoughts.


1Best Practices for Maintaining PCI DSS Compliance (pdf)  by Special Interest Group, PCI Security Standards Council (SSC)
2PCI DSS Prioritized Approach (xls download)

Security is mostly basics, but talk is cheap

In most cases, better security posture is all about getting a few basics right. And this recent incident related to the breach of a Healthcare.gov server may be further proof of that.

Based on this article from csoonline, it appears the problem may have been that the “development server was poorly configured and used default credentials”.

At the same time, the article says that “the website undergoes quarterly security audits, as well as daily security scans and hacking exercises”. I am guessing then that the development server wasn’t included in the “hacking exercises” which I am assuming are penetration tests performed the way they should be.

Many times, you might be ok not to have your development environment undergo a full pen test especially when you are sure that you have the security basics right,  like not using the default credentials and configuration in this case. However, when you are as “prominent” as Healthcare.gov is for a number of reasons we all know, the elevated risk profile should require that we perform the necessary due diligence at least once upon installation or major change.

Again, we don’t know all the details but based on what is being repIMG_20140906_072450orted, this incident adds to the proof that better security is mostly about basics. However, as we know from experience, basics don’t always mean easy because there is this thing called execution which many organizations are not effective at. As they say, talk is cheap.

Just to be sure, we are not necessarily referring to the need for money or funding (though that may be a problem for some organizations). Healthcare.gov is again a good example in this context because I doubt they have any problem with funding for security. Considering the hiccups they had during the initial months of their launch, I suspect they don’t want to be in the news for anything except to announce good enrollment numbers, let alone a security breach.

Executing the basics in security takes a high standard of professional due diligence by the individuals or teams involved in planning and running the security program. Implementing sophisticated technologies or hiring expensive consultants is not going to be very useful if the foundational aspects are not effective.


Image courtesy : lovethispic.com


  • I used healthcare.gov as an example since the incident was in the news this week. I think they are also a good example to illustrate the fact that the best of funding, technologies or consulting resources can still not assure that you will not have a security breach.
  • Regardless of the breach (which appears not to have been damaging since no personal information was taken), one must note the fact that they probably did a good job in noticing anomalies on a development server. Considering that many organizations can’t detect breaches in time or at all even in their production environments (see our posts here and here), one might think that the healthcare.gov team has probably done a better job. We’ll probably learn more details in the coming days but it appears the circumstances and the consequences weren’t too bad.


Hello PCI SSC…

Hello PCI SSC,

You had me on board until I saw this statement in your guidance1 released yesterday.

“However, using risk as the basis for an organization’s information security program does not permit organizations to avoid or bypass applicable PCI DSS requirements or related compensating controls. In order to achieve compliance with PCI DSS, an organization must meet all applicable PCI DSS requirements.”

I believe we need a change in your “all requirements mandatory” approach. I think it leads to compliance fatigue and misguided spend of already limited security budgets.

I’ll explain in another blog post to come soon.

1Best Practices for Maintaining PCI DSS Compliance (pdf)  by Special Interest Group, PCI Security Standards Council (SSC)


PCI Breaches – Can we at least detect them?

Almost all Payment Card Industry (PCI) breaches over the past year, including the most recent one at Supervalu appear to have the following aspects in common:

1. They involved some compromise of Point of Sale (POS) systems.

2. The compromise and breaches continued for several weeks or months before being detected.

3. The breaches were detected not by the retailer but by some external entity – FBI, the US Secret Service, Payment processor, card brands, issuing bank etc.

4. At the time the breach was disclosed, the retailers appear to have had a passing PCI DSS certification.

Anyone that has a reasonable understanding of the current Information Security landscape should know that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” an organization will get compromised. Given this humbling reality, it only makes sense that we must be able to detect a compromise in a “timely” manner and hopefully contain the magnitude of the breach before it gets much worse.

Let’s consider the following aspects as well:

  1. PCI has one of the more prescriptive regulations in the form of PCI DSS and PA DSS than any other industry. As a case in point, consider the equivalent regulations for Electronic Health Records systems (EHRs) in the United States – the EHR Certification regulation (PA DSS equivalent) requirements highlighted yellow in this document and the Meaningful Use regulation (PCI DSS equivalent) requirements highlighted green. You will see that the PCI regulations are a lot more comprehensive both in breadth and depth.
  1. PCI DSS requires merchants and service providers to validate and document their compliance status every year. For the large retailers that have been in the news for the wrong reasons, this probably meant having a external Qualified Security Assessor (QSA)  performing a on-site security assessment and providing them with a passing Report on Compliance (ROC) every year.
  1. As for logging and monitoring requirements that should help with detection of a potential compromise,  both PCI DSS (Requirement 10)  and PA DSS (Requirement 4) are as detailed as they get in any security framework or regulation I am aware of.
  1. Even if you think requirement #10 can’t help detect POS malware activity, there is PCI DSS requirement 12.2 that requires a security risk assessment to be performed at least once a year. The risk assessment must consider the current threats and vulnerabilities. Given the constant stream of breaches, one would think that the POS malware threats are accounted for in these risk assessments.
  1. These large merchants have been around for a while and are supposed to have been PCI DSS compliant for several years. And so, one would think they have appropriate technologies and processes to at least detect a security compromise that results in the scale of breaches they have had.

So, what do you think may be the reasons why the retailers or the PCI regulations are not effective in at least detecting the breaches? More importantly, what changes would you suggest, both to the regulations and also to how the retailers plan and execute their security programs? Or perhaps even to how the QSAs perform their assessments in providing passing ROCs to the retailers?

I’m keen to hear your thoughts and comments.

That Odd Authentication Dichotomy Needs To Change

By now, it should be clear that we need to consider strong (multi factor) authentication for access to anything of value. In an age and time when most public email services (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc.) provide for strong authentication, it would seem inexplicable to allow access to corporate email or remote access to your organization’s systems with just the basic (user-id: password) authentication.

Think about this… Your personal Hotmail account uses 2 Factor, but your organization’s Office 365 email doesn’t.  I am sure you agree that this odd dichotomy needs to change.

(Note: I am not suggesting the privacy of your personal email is any less important than the security of your corporate email. By dichotomy, I am referring to your organization not being at least as much concerned about their security as you are concerned about your personal privacy)

And, if your organization does find itself in a situation where you have no way but to continue with the basic authentication, some testing and studies of passwords like this one should be considered for making your password policies (truly) stronger. Don’t continue with your password standard established years ago (or based on some arbitrary best practice or external standard)  forcing users to have a complex combination of alphanumeric/symbols, change passwords every 60 days or not allowing them to reuse the last 6 or 24 passwords or something. You may be only making their user experience miserable without making your password security any stronger. Also, don’t forget to take a look at your password hash we talked about here as a case in point.

Beware of Security Best Practices and Controls Frameworks

What could be possibly wrong with “Best Practices” or “Leading Practices” that your favorite security consultant might be talking about? Or for that matter, how could we go wrong if we used the “leading” security standards or controls frameworks?

It is of course useful to have a benchmark of some sort to compare yourself against your peers. The problem comes up (as it so often does) when we start to take these so called best practices and standards for granted. This often drives us to a state of what I like to call as template mindsets and approaches in security. More often than not in my experience, this leads to us making incorrect security decisions because we didn’t consider all the facts and circumstances that may be unique to each of our settings.

Let me explain with an example.

Let us say that you are using a leading security framework such as the HITRUST CSF for healthcare. To take the example of password controls, Control Reference 01.d on Password Management has a fairly restrictive set of password controls even at Level 1, which is HITRUST CSF’s baseline level of controls. Level 1 includes requirements for password length, complexity, uniqueness of the current password as compared to the last certain number of passwords and so on. However, there is no requirement in Level 1 around the standard to be used for hashing passwords. In fact, there is not a single mention of the words “password hash” or “salt” in over 450 pages of the CSF framework even in its latest 2014 version.

Now, if you are a seasoned and skilled security practitioner, you should know that these Level 1 password controls are mostly meaningless if the password hashes are not strong enough and the password hash file was stolen by some means. It is fairly common for hackers to steal password hash files early and often in their hacking campaigns. Reported breaches at Evernote, LinkedIn and Adobe readily come to mind. We learned about what appears to be this fairly unprecedented scale of stolen passwords just yesterday.

So, if you see a consultant using a so called best practice set of controls or one of the security controls frameworks to perform your risk assessment and he/she doesn’t ask a question on password hashes (or some other control or vulnerability that may truly matter), you should know the likely source of the problem. More than likely, they are simply going through the motions by asking you questions from a controls checklist with little sense of understanding or focus around some of the threats and vulnerabilities that may be truly important in your setting or context. And as we know, any assessment without a clear and contextual consideration for the real world threats and vulnerabilities is not really a risk assessment. You may just have spent a good amount of money on the consultant but probably do not have much to show for it in terms of the only metric that matters in an assessment – the number of “real” risks identified and their relative levels of magnitude –  so you can make intelligent risk management decisions.

In closing, let us not allow ourselves to be blindsided by the so called “Best Practices” and Security Controls Frameworks. Meaningful security risk management requires us to look at the threats and vulnerabilities that are often unique to each of our environments and contexts. What may have been considered a best practice somewhere else or a security framework put out by someone may at best be just a reference source to double-check and make sure we didn’t miss anything. They should never be the sole source for our assessments and certainly not the yardstick for our decision making in security.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Important notes and sources for reference

  • I used HITRUST CSF only for an example. The idea discussed in this post would apply to any set of Best Practices or Security Control Frameworks. After all, no set of Best Practices or Security Controls Frameworks and no matter how good their “quality” may be, they can’t keep up with the speed at which today’s security threats are evolving or new vulnerabilities are discovered.
  • If you are interested in learning some really useful information on password hashing and password management, I would strongly recommend this post (Caution: It is not a quick read;  Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to read and absorb the details especially if you are not a experienced security professional)

From A Security Or Compliance StandPoint…

It is probably safe to say that we security professionals hear the phrase in the title of this post rather frequently. For one, I heard it again earlier today from a experienced professional presenting on a webinar… I believe it is a cliche.

I actually think the phrase conveys the view that we do some things for security sake and do certain other things for compliance sake (but not necessarily for “improving the security risk posture” sake). Therein lies the problem in my view. Why should we do certain things for compliance if they don’t necessarily improve the security risk posture? BTW.. I think we shouldn’t do security for security sake either… more on it below.

I don’t think there is any security regulation that requires you to implement a specific control no matter what the risk associated with not implementing the control is. I think we all agree  PCI DSS is perhaps the most prescriptive security regulation there is and even it provides an option for us not to implement a specific control just for compliance sake if we could justify the reason by way of compensating controls . See below.

Note: Only companies that have undertaken a risk analysis and have legitimate technological or documented business constraints can consider the use of compensating controls to achieve compliance. (Source: Requirements and Security Assessment Procedures – PCI DSS version 3.0 (pdf))

I think all this can change if we insist on using the word “Risk” (and meaning it) in all of our security or privacy related conversations.  It can be hard to make the change because understanding and articulating risk is not easy… we know it is certainly much harder than rattling out a security control from a security framework (NIST 800-53, HITRUST CSF, ISO 27002 et al.) or some regulation (PCI DSS, HIPAA Security Rule et al.). It requires one to do a risk analysis and a good risk analysis requires work that can be hard to come by and we need to watch for the pitfalls .

We may be better served to think of non-compliance as an option and non-compliance needs to be treated as just another risk like all other risks that are possibly more serious in nature (risk of loss of patient privacy, intellectual property or identity theft etc.). If we did that, we would be in a position to articulate (or at least be forced to) why implementing a particular  compliance requirement doesn’t make sense because the risk associated with not implementing it is low enough given certain  business/technical factors or compensating controls we may have.

Before I forget …Just like it doesn’t make sense to do compliance for compliance sake, it doesn’t make sense to do security for security sake either. We often see this problem withSecurity Privacy Risk organizations looking to get themselves a “security certification” of some sort such as HITRUST CSF, ISO et al. In the quest to attain a passing certification score, you could find yourself implementing security controls for “security certification” sake.  There are certainly valid reasons why one would want to pursue certification, but one needs to be watchful so we aren’t forced to do security for security sake.

So, let us make a change in how we approach security and compliance by identifying and articulating “the risk” always and everytime …. Perhaps, we can make a start in the direction by not using the cliche in the title of the post. Instead, we might perhaps say something like  “From a security or privacy risk standpoint…”.


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