Data Protection Software

RSA Breach, World Backup Day and the use of Encryption

By Tony Pearson posted Thu March 31, 2011 06:37 PM


Originally posted by: TonyPearson

Normally, when EMC fails, it is worth a giggle. Companies are run by humans, and nobody is perfect. However, their latest one, failing to defend their RSA SecurID two-factor website, is no laughing matter. Breaches like this undermine the trust needed for business and commerce to be done with Information Technology, so it affects the entire IT industry.

(FTC Disclosure: I do not work or have any financial investments in either EMC nor ENC Security Systems. Neither EMC nor ENC Security Systems paid me to mention them on this blog. Their mention in this blog is not an endorsement of either company or their products. Information about EMC was based solely on publicly available information made available by EMC and others. My friends at ENC Security Systems provided me an evaluation license for their latest software release so that I could confirm the use cases posed in this post.)

Of course, EMC did the right thing by making this breach public in an [Open Letter to RSA Customers]. While this may affect their revenues, as clients question whether they should do business with EMC, or affect their stock price, as investors question whether they should invest in EMC, they were very clear and public that the breach occurred. As far as I know, none of the executives of the RSA security division have stepped down. The disclosure of the breach was the right thing to do, and required by law from the [US Securities Exchange Commission]. This law was created to prevent companies from trying to hide breaches that expose external client information.

The breach does not affect RSA public/private key pairs used by IBM and most every other large company. Rather, this breach was targeted to RSA SecurID two-factor authentication. I explained two-factor authentication in my blog post [Day 5 Grid, SOA and Cloud Computing - System x KVM solutions], but basically it is an added level of security, requiring something you know (your password) with something you have (such as a magnetic card or key fob). Both are required to gain access to the system.

Breaches happen. Recently, [Hackers found vulnerabilities in the website]. Last month, fellow blogger Chuck Hollis from EMC had a blog post on [Understanding Advanced Persistent Threats (APT)] in the week leading up to their RSA Conference. It was precisely an APT that hit RSA, so the irony of this breach was not lost on the blogosphere. Perhaps Chuck's blog post gave hackers the idea to do this, like saying "I hope terrorists don't bomb this building that hold all of our chemical weapons..." or "I hope bank robbers don't rob this repository where we keep all the cash..."

(The sinister counter-theory, that EMC staged this breach as a marketing stunt to undermine trust in hybrid or public cloud offerings, such as those offered by IBM, Amazon or, offers an interesting twist. While computer breaches in general are fodder for [Luddites] to argue we should not use computers at all, this particular breach could be used by EMC salesmen to encourage their customers to choose private cloud over hybrid cloud or public cloud deployments.  Given all the extra work that RSA SecurID customers have to now do to harden their environments, that would be in bad taste.)

Over on Mashable, Simon Crosby argues [Why the Cloud Is Actually the Safest Place for Your Data]. I am sure we have not heard the last of the implications of this RSA breach. For now, I have two recommendations for you.

Validate Backup Methodology

Today, March 31, is World Backup Day. This is because many viruses are triggered to operate on April 1. Just like checking the batteries in your smoke alarms every year, you should ensure that your backup methodology remains valid.

Back in 2008, I was a volunteer for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, and built an XS server to be used for Uruguay. I shipped [this baby off to school] to be the central server that all the student and teacher laptops connected to. It was the gateway to the Internet, as well as the [repository for the blogs of each student]. The blogs were accessible to the public, so that parents could read what their students were writing.

Unfortunately, this public access resulted in my little XS server being attacked by hackers, with IP addresses in Russia and China. Why anyone from either of those two countries wanted to ruin the hopes and dreams of small school children in Uruguay was beyond me. Fortunately, I had planned for remote administration. Backups were taken by me weekly to a second drive that was only mounted when I was dialed in to take the backup. The rest of the time, it was offline, so as not to be written to by hackers.

I also shipped along with the server a bootable DVD that contained a modified version of [System Rescue CD], scripts to start up SSHD daemon, and pre-populated for use with public/private RSA keys for me and eight other administrators located in various countries. To effect repairs, the local operator would reboot to the DVD, and then I could login via "ssh" and restore the operating system, programs and data. Sadly, this meant that the students might have lost some of their most recent blog posts since the last backup.

Please consider reviewing your own backup strategies. If your security were compromised, data was corrupted or lost, would you be able to recover from your backups?

Use Encryption where Appropriate

If you plan to travel this Summer, you may want to consider encryption to protect yourself. ENC Security Systems has just released their latest [Encrypt Stick] which is a USB memory stick pre-loaded with software that provides three features:

  1. Encryption for your files
  2. A secure web browser for accessing sensitive websites
  3. Secure password manager
Hotel Lobby

Many hotels now offer computers for use by the guests. These are typically running some flavor of Windows operating system. Encrypt Stick comes with an EXE file that you can run to browse the web securely, and have access to your encrypted files and passwords, leaving no trace on the hotel lobby computer.

Friends and Family

What if you are visiting friends and family, and they have a Mac instead? No problem, as Encrypt Stick has a DMG file to use on Mac OS X operating system. While you may not be worried about your siblings hacking into your bank account, you may not want them necessarily seeing what sites you visited.

Airport Lounge

I have been to several airport lounges now that use Linux for their public computers. Makes sense to me, as there are fewer viruses for Linux, and updating Linux is relatively straightforward. However, Encrypt Stick does not support Linux. For my Linux-knowledgeable readers, you can build your own with [Unetbootin] bootable USB memory stick to launch your favorite Linux browser in memory on whatever system you are using. The [Gparted Magic] utility rescue tool includes [TrueCrypt] to encrypt your files. Lastly, you can use [MyPasswordSafe] to hold all of your passwords securely.

Several clients have asked if any of the IBM data-at-rest encrypted disks or tapes are affected by this breach. IBM uses AES encryption for the actual disk and tape media, but we do use RSA keys to encrypt the generated keys used on the TS1120 and TS1130 drives. However, these were not affected by the RSA SecurID breach, and your tapes are safely protected.

Advanced Persistent Threats, viruses and other malware are no laughing matter. If you are concerned about security, contact IBM to help you assess your current environment and help you plan a robust protection strategy.

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1 comment



Fri April 01, 2011 07:38 PM

Originally posted by: TonyPearson

Great minds think alike! Lauren Whitehouse from ESG writes about World Backup Day here: