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Patches are security low-hanging fruit — but there’s too much of it

Apply patches. Apply updates. Those are considered to be among the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit for IT cybersecurity. When commercial products release patches, download and install the code right away. When open-source projects disclose a vulnerability, do the appropriate update as soon as you can, everyone says.

A problem is that there are so many patches and updates. They’re found in everything from device firmware to operating systems, to back-end server software to mobile apps. To be able to even discover all the patches is a huge effort. You have to know:

  • All the hardware and software in your organization — so you can scan the vendors’ websites or emails for update notices. This may include the data center, the main office, remote offices, and employees homes. Oh, and rogue software installed without knowledge of IT.
  • The versions of all the hardware and software instances — you can tell which updates apply to you, and which don’t. Sometimes there may be an old version somewhere that’s never been patched.
  • The dependencies. Installing a new operating system may break some software. Installing a new version of a database may require changes on a web application server.
  • The location of each of those instances — so you can know which ones need patching. Sometimes this can be done remotely, but other times may require a truck roll.
  • The administrator access links, usernames and password — hopefully, those are not set to “admin/admin.” The downside of changing default admin passwords is that you have to remember the new ones. Sure, sometimes you can make changes with, say, any Active Director user account with the proper privileges. That won’t help you, though, with most firmware or mobile devices.

The above steps are just for discovery. The real challenge is to actually install the patch, which often (but not always) requires taking the hardware, software, or service offline for minutes or hours. This requires scheduling. And inconvenience. Even if you have patch-management tools (and there are many available), too many low-hanging fruit can be overlooked.

As Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said in October at his keynote at OpenWorld 2017,

Our data centers are enormously complicated. There are lots of servers and storage and operating systems, virtual machines, containers and databases, data stores, file systems. And there are thousands of them, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of them. It’s hard for people to locate all these things and patch them. They have to be aware there’s a vulnerability. It’s got to be an automated process.

You can’t wait for a downtime window, where you say, “Oh, I can’t take the system down. I know I’ve got to patch this, but we have scheduled downtime middle of next month.” Well, that’s wrong thinking and that’s kind of lack of priority for security.

All that said, patching and updating must be a priority. Dr. Ron Layton, Deputy Assistant Director of the U.S. Secret Service, said at the NetEvents Global Press Summit, September 2017:

Most successful hacks and breaches – most of them – were because low-level controls were not in place. That’s it. That’s it. Patch management. It’s the low-level stuff that will get you to the extent that the bad guys will say, I’m not going to go here. I’m going to go somewhere else. That’s it.

Read more in my essay, “Too many low-hanging patches and updates to easily manage.”

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