Managing The Risk


On 12th May 2017 a ransom ware attack hit many organisations around the world, some notably large ones such as the NHS and Telefonica, and their operations were hit severely. I pity the IT staff who would have had to work through the night and weekend to restore services.

It definitely could have been prevented or in the very least, reduced to a handful of devices rather than the majority. It appears that those running Windows XP, which went end of life in 2015, were particularly vulnerable as they no longer receive updates and patches. I do have to wonder why so many machines were hit when there are so many easy things a business can do to reduce risk.

Patch It

There’s a reason that vendors produce security updates and these days the delivery and installation is automated. Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) downloads the updates and deploys them from a central location on the network. Use it and take action on Critical and High Priority patches quickly. The bad guys are really good at exploiting vulnerabilities so the quicker you patch the quicker you’ve removed the vulnerability. Remember, it’s not just your Windows devices that need patching.  Everything including network equipment, switches and firewalls, etc need to be patched.

Make sure anti-virus, spam filters and web filters are updated regularly.

Look For Your Own Vulnerabilities

Use a tool such as Nessus to scan your network for vulnerabilities.  It will look for holes in your network, tell you where they are and suggest a way of securing the vulnerability.  It will even look for default passwords or misconfiguration. Run a regular scan and attack the vulnerabilities by priority with the Critical ones first.

Remove Legacy Systems If You Can

If you don’t need to run Windows XP then get rid of it and prevent it from happening.

What If You Can’t Get Rid of Legacy Systems?

There are a large amount of organisations that have legacy systems such as specific business software or manufacturing equipment that are dependent on old operating systems.  It’s either really costly to replace these systems or simply a replacement that works on a later operating system doesn’t exist. This is where you need to manage risk.

This requires you to really understand your IT estate, what you’re using on them and why you can’t move away from legacy operating systems.

Block the Internet

Viruses typically arrive via the internet. They’ll arrive by email or through a download on a webpage.  Usually they are dependent on the internet to perform their job so if you stop the old Windows XP systems reaching the internet the ransom ware can’t check in with the remote server.

Also, remove email from the Windows XP device and reduce it’s day to day usage to just that of the legacy system. Email can sit on newer devices.

Segregate The Network

Split the network up by using VLANs (virtual Local Area Network). This is a great way of controlling the flow of data across the network and prevent one part of it from talking to another.  For example, you don’t want the highest risk PC’s, such as those in the offices talking to the internet or email, having the ability to talk directly to the Windows XP computers that drive your very expensive manufacturing equipment.  Whilst it’s an inconvenience if your office employees can’t use the internet or email for a day or so, imagine the cost to a business if it can’t use its manufacturing equipment to make stuff.

Put all your servers on their own VLANs and stop the ability for them to talk directly to the internet. Create air gaps between key systems so that if a virus or a worm does infect your network they can’t jump across to legacy equipment as there’s no connectivity.

Lock Down Files

You should be doing this however lock down all your files to only those that need access to it.  You don’t want someone in your warehouse downloading ransom ware and then encrypting all your HR or Finance files because they can connect to them via a mapped drive.  The ransom ware takes the files and then changes the state of the file by encrypting it because the user that has introduced the virus has access.  No access then no ability to change the state.

Also, make sure that all key files are stored and backed up on a central server.  No data of any worth should be kept on a local PC. You need to be prepared to lose the data on the computer.

Take Regular Back Ups

I’m still amazed at how businesses do not invest wisely in back up technology.  Back up your data and ensure that access is restricted by a VLAN.  If an office worker can directly access your back ups on the network then the ransom ware worm they’ve just introduced on the network can as well.

Education, Education, Education

To quote a former Prime Minister…education is key.  Educate your users regularly on the risks to the business and how to spot a fake email and the opening of attachments.

Prepare For Infection

Resign yourself that you will be hit so prepare for the day.  Run through scenarios with staff and assign people to tasks that they will perform in the event of a disaster.

It’s Happened, I’ve Been Hit By Ransom Ware

Bugger. Don’t despair though as, if you’ve followed the good practices above then you’ve reduced the risk massively.  Only a small portion of your network has been infected and your legacy systems are happily ticking along.

Don’t pay the ransom and restore your workstations and data. Make it easier on yourself by using various technologies and methods such as virtualisation or online back ups. Make it quicker to restore desktop PC’s using images rather than reinstalling all over again.

Learn from it

If anything, this latest attack will sharpen the mind of board rooms to the issue of cyber security. This is a good thing as it’s not going away and has the ability to severely disrupt availability and integrity of data and more importantly, the reputation of a business.

Photo Credit: The Register


Securing your assets……

And I don’t mean a bra or tight fitting under crackers..
When I think of assets I normally think of stuff I can touch so with regards my personal IT that’ll be the iPad, Samsung phone, laptop and desktop PC but the reality is that it’s actually more than that. What about your data? Your music or 15 years or digital photos of the dogs or the kids growing up? What about all your personal correspondence? What about your online identity or bank account?

In previous blogs I’ve talked about using multiple passwords and 2 Factor Authentication to protect the confidentiality of your data. Confidentiality forms part of the triangle in information security. You don’t want people who don’t need access to your data gaining access. The other two sides of the triangle are integrity and availability. Integrity means that you don’t want someone changing it or corrupting it, for example ransomware encrypting your data. Availability means that it’s always there when you need it and you can gain access to. In terms of the ransomware attack it’s there but unavailable to use.

Have A Different Approach Depending On What You’re Securing

There are many many layers to securing your data so you need to think about the risk and the impact. This then allows you to consider what the best approach is and whether you want to spend a lot or live with the risk.

For example, losing your hard drive on your PC would have a high impact to the availability of your data. You may lose it completely or it may become corrupt thereby affecting the integrity. The risk is probably low to medium if it’s a typical desktop however if you’re using a laptop without a solid state hard drive then it’s a lot higher. I’ve lost count over the years on the amount of laptops that have been damaged purely because they are mobile devices.

Backing up your data doesn’t need to be expensive. You need to consider a 3-2-1 approach; 3 copies of the data, 2 which are local and one that is off site in case the house burns down etc. My approach is this:

  • I have a laptop and a desktop PC. The desktop PC has a second hard drive in it that hosts the majority of my personal data. This means that if the C drive is corrupt then I’m not going to lose the data. Also, my laptop hard drive is encrypted so if that’s stolen then the bloke selling it for £50 in the pub is selling a brick.
  • I use Google Drive and pay a couple of dollars a month for 100 GB of data. This synchronises with the desktop and about 80 GB of my photos sit quite happily in the cloud. They are accessible by all my devices and if my hard drive dies, my memories are still there. In addition, all my CD’s that I collected over the years that were burned to the hard drive of my computer now reside in Google Play
  • I have a 1TB NAS (network attached storage) device that my hard drive synchronises to. This includes all my music and photos. So, with the 3-2-1 approach I have the original copy on the hard drive, a copy on the NAS and another in Google Drive. Google Drive also comes with the ability of rolling a copy back within 30 days so if the original is corrupted and synchronised to the cloud then I can revert back to a decent copy.

So, I’m not too bothered if I lose my photos or music on my hard drive as they’re in the cloud. It’s a low impact as I can download them again.  The high impact bit is the operating system and all my programs that I’ve installed over time. It would take a complete age to restore it all to a working level. I’m not even sure whether I still have all the media or settings to get me back up and running.

With this in mind, another approach I’ve taken is to take a snapshot of my PC at a point in time. I’ve used Acronis True Image to take a copy of the whole hard drive and have stored it on my NAS box. This means that if I need to restore to a new hard drive it restores a lot quicker than re-installing and copying everything back.

Don’t Be Held To Ransom!

Ransomware is one on the increase. This is where you’re infected by a virus that encrypts all of your documents and makes them inaccessible to you. The attackers will demand that you hand over some cash to get the encryption key.

First thing first, don’t hand over cash. Walk away from it. If you can, restore the state of the PC using system restore. If not, delete the encrypted files and clean up the PC using anti-malware software and restore your data either from another local copy (in my case the NAS box) or your cloud service (Google Drive).

I’ll cover more on ransomware in a future blog.