Posts Tagged 'Hackers'

October 23, 2012

Tips from the Abuse Department: Know Spam. Stop Spam.

As an abuse administrator, I'm surrounded by spam on a daily basis. When someone sends an abuse-related complaint to our abuse@softlayer.com contact address, it gets added to our ticket queue, and our Abuse SLayers take time to investigate and follow up with the customers whose servers violate our acceptable use policy. The majority of those abuse-related submissions are reporting spam coming from our network, and in my interaction with customers, I've noticed that spam (and the source of spam) is widely misunderstood.

Most spam tickets we create on customer accounts pinpoint spam sent from a compromised or exploited server. Our direct customer didn't send the phishing email, malware distribution, pharmacy advertisement or pornographic spam, but that activity came from their account. While they're accountable for the abusive behavior coming from their server, in many cases, they don't know that there's a problem until we post an abuse ticket on their account. These servers are targeted and compromised by common techniques and exploits that could have been easily avoided, but they aren't very well known outside the world of abuse.

To protect yourself from a spammer, you need to think like a spammer. You need to understand how someone might try to exploit your environment so that you can prevent them from doing so. As you're looking at ways to secure your server proactively, make sure you target these five exploits in particular:

1. User Auth Login

This is by far the most common exploit to used to send spam. This method involves a person or script using the credentials of a user to send spam through a domain's mail server. The majority of these incidences are caused by malware on a client PC that obtains the login and password for a domain user and uses that information to log on and send mail from the client PC through the server. Often, these spam messages are sent through a botnet command structure.

When an account is compromised, simply changing the password for the compromised user on the server usually won't stop the abuse. We see quite a few accounts that continue to send spam after an initial abuse ticket results in a password change. Most servers that are sending spam with this method are found to only be sending a small amount of spam at any given time to avoid detection. The low volume of spam that is being sent per server is made up for by the fact that there are thousands of servers being used for the same spamming campaigns.

In order to stop the User Auth Login exploit, a customer needs to clean all of the malicious software (malware) from their environments. To prevent future User Auth Login compromises, users should be made aware of the potential dangers of untrusted software, and if they believe their machines are infected, they need to know what to do.

2. Tell-a-friend Exploitation

The User Auth Login technique is the most common method employed by spammers, but the "tell-a-friend" script exploitation isn't far behind when it comes to volume of affected servers. This spamming method find websites that use scripts to invite users to refer friends to a page or product. Spammers will use the 'Your Message' field in one of these scripts to input their own content and links, and they'll push the actual page referral link to the bottom of the message. When these site scripts aren't secure, the spammer will use them to send hundreds or thousands of messages.

To avoid having your website fall victim to this type of spam, be very wary of any widget or script you add. If you need to add Facebook, Twitter and email "share" functionality to your site, make sure you incorporate a tell-a-friend script that does not allow for customizable messages or does not accept input of more than one email address. Also, users won't need the "cc" or "bcc" fields, so you can be sure those are axed as well. If you can't find a good "share" script that you're comfortable with from a security perspective, it might be a good idea to remove that functionality to avoid exploitation.

3. Uploaded Mailers

Spam sent via an uploaded third party mailer can sometimes prove difficult for admins to locate. An uploaded third party mailer could be capable of creating it's own outbound SMTP connection, and that would allow a program to bypass the existing MTA on the server and render any legitimate mail logs useless for investigation. Another challenge is that a php mailer can be uploaded to a location within a user's web content, and that mailer is run by the user 'nobody' (the default Apache user).

We strongly suggest configuring your server to have the mail headers show the script's user (that's not the Apache default user) and the location the script is running from on the server. Many times, these kinds of mailers are maliciously uploaded after a user's FTP password is been compromised, so be sure your FTP login information is secure.

4. Software Exploits

The "software exploits" category casts a huge shadow. Every piece of software on a server — from mail servers, content management systems and control panels to the operating system itself — can be targeted by hackers. They probe servers to find security vulnerabilities and weak coding, and when they find a vulnerability, they take control.

The hacker who found the software vulnerability might not actually take advantage of the exploit immediately. That user may sell access to other entities for their use, and that use often ends up being spam. In addition to having strong firewall rules and access restrictions, you should update and maintain the current stable versions of all software on your servers.

5. WordPress Exploits

WordPress exploits would technically fall under the "Software Exploits" category, but I'm breaking it out into its own category simply due to the volume of spam issues that are the result of exploiting this particular piece of software. The first step to protecting against spam being sent through this source is to make sure you have the latest version of WordPress installed. With that done, be sure to research the latest security plugins for that version and install any that are applicable to your environment.

These five techniques are not the only ones used by spammers to take advantage of your environment, but they are some of the most common. To protect yourself from becoming a source of spam, make your servers a more difficult target to exploit. To stop spam, you need to know spam. Now that you know spam, it's time to stop it. Ask questions, test your environment regularly and watch your logs for any unexplained usage.

-Andrew

October 16, 2012

An Introduction to Risk Management

Whether you're managing a SaaS solution for thousands of large clients around the world or you're running a small mail server for a few mom-and-pop businesses in your neighborhood, you're providing IT service for a fee — and your customers expect you to deliver. It's easy to get caught up in focusing your attention and energy on day-to-day operations, and in doing so, you might neglect some of the looming risks that threaten the continuity of your business. You need to prioritize risk assessment and management.

Just reading that you need to invest in "Risk Management" probably makes you shudder. Admittedly, when a business owner has to start quantifying and qualifying potential areas of business risk, the process can seem daunting and full of questions ... "What kinds of risks should I be concerned with?" "Once I find a potential risk, should I mitigate it? Avoid it? Accept it?" "How much do I need to spend on risk management?"

When it comes to risk management in hosting, the biggest topics are information security, backups and disaster recovery. While those general topics are common, each business's needs will differ greatly in each area. Because risk management isn't a very "cookie-cutter" process, it's intimidating. It's important to understand that protecting your business from risks isn't a destination ... it's a journey, and whatever you do, you'll be better off than you were before you did it.

Because there's not a "100% Complete" moment in the process of risk management, some people think it's futile — a gross waste of time and resources. History would suggest that risk management can save companies millions of dollars, and that's just when you look at failures. You don't see headlines when businesses effectively protect themselves from attempted hacks or when sites automatically fail over to a new server after a hardware failure.

It's unfortunate how often confidential customer data is unintentionally released by employees or breached by malicious attackers. Especially because those instances are often so easily preventable. When you understand the potential risks of your business's confidential data in the hands of the wrong people (whether malicious attackers or careless employees), you'll usually take action to avoid quantifiable losses like monetary fines and unquantifiable ones like the loss of your reputation.

More and more, regulations are being put in place to holding companies accountable for protecting their sensitive information. In the healthcare industry businesses have to meet the strict Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations. Sites that accept credit card payments online are required to operate in Payment Card Industry (PCI) Compliance. Data centers will spend hours (and hours and hours) achieving and maintaining their SSAE 16 certification. These rules and requirements are not arbitrarily designed to be restrictive (though they can feel that way sometimes) ... They are based on best practices to ultimately protect businesses in those industries from risks that are common throughout the respective industry.

Over the coming months, I'll discuss ways that you as a SoftLayer customer can mitigate and manage your risk. We'll talk about security and backup plans that will incrementally protect your business and your customers. While we won't get to the destination of 100% risk-mitigated operations, we'll get you walking down the path of continuous risk assessment, identification and mitigation.

Stay tuned!

-Matthew

April 18, 2012

Dome9: Tech Partner Spotlight

This guest blog comes to us from Dave Meizlik, Dome9 VP of marketing and business development. Dome9 is a featured member of the SoftLayer Technology Partners Marketplace. With Dome9, you get secure, on-demand access to all your servers by automating and centralizing firewall management and making your servers virtually invisible to hackers.

Three Tips to Securing Your Cloud Servers

By now everyone knows that security is the number one concern among cloud adopters. But lesser known is why and what to do to mitigate some of the security risks ... I hope to shed a little light on those points in this blog post, so let's get to it.

One of the greatest threats to cloud servers is unsecured access. Administrators leave ports (like RDP and SSH) open so they can connect to and manage their machines ... After all, they can't just walk down the hall to gain access to them like with an on-premise network. The trouble with this practice is that it leaves these and other service ports open to attack from hackers who need only guess the credentials or exploit a vulnerability in the application or OS. Many admins don't think about this because for years they've had a hardened perimeter around their data center. In the cloud, however, the perimeter collapses down to each individual server, and so too must your security.

Tip #1: Close Service Ports by Default

Instead of leaving ports — from SSH to phpMyAdmin — open and vulnerable to attack, close them by default and open them only when, for whom, and as long as is needed. You can do this manually — just be careful not to lock yourself out of your server — or you can automate the process with Dome9 for free.

Dome9 provides a patent-pending technology called Secure Access Leasing, which enables you to open a port on your server with just one click from within Dome9 Central, our SaaS management console, or as an extension in your browser. With just one click, you get time-based secure access and the ability to empower a third party (e.g., a developer) with access easily and securely.

When your service ports are closed by default, your server is virtually invisible to hackers because the server will not respond to an attacker's port scans or exploits.

Tip #2: Make Your Security as Elastic as Your Cloud

Another key security challenge to cloud security is management. In a traditional enterprise you have a semi-defined perimeter with a firewall and a strong, front-line defense. In the cloud, however, that perimeter collapses down to the individual server and is therefore multiplied by the number of servers you have in your environment. Thus, the number of perimeters and policies you have to manage increases exponentially, adding complexity and cost. Remember, if you can't manage it, you can't secure it.

As you re-architect your infrastructure, take the opportunity to re-architect your security, keeping in mind that you need to be able to scale instantaneously without adding management overhead. To do so, create group-based policies for similar types of services, with role-based controls for users that need access to your cloud servers.

With Dome9, for example, you can create an unlimited number of security groups — umbrella policies applied to one or more servers and for which you can create user-based self-service access. So, for example, you can set one policy for your web servers and another for your SQL database servers, then you can enable your web developers to self-grant access to the web servers while the DBAs have access to the database servers. Neither, however, may be able to access the others' servers, but you — the super admin — can. Any new servers you add on-the-fly as you scale up your infrastructure are automatically paired with your Dome9 account and attached to the relevant security group, so your security is truly elastic.

Tip #3: Make Security Your Responsibility

The last key security challenge is understanding who's responsible for securing your cloud. It's here that there's a lot of debate and folks get confused. According to a recent Ponemon Institute study, IT pros point fingers equally at the cloud provider and cloud user.

When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. It's best to pick up the reigns and be your best champion. Great cloud and hosted providers like SoftLayer are going to provide an abundance of controls — some their own, and some from great security providers such as Dome9 (shameless, I know) — but how you them is up to you.

I liken this to a car: Whoever made your car built it with safety in mind, adding seat belts and air bags and lots of other safeguards to protect you. But if you go speeding down the freeway at 140 MPH without a seatbelt on, you're asking for trouble. When you apply this concept to the cloud, I think it helps us better define where to draw the lines.

At the end of the day, consider all your options and how you can use the tools available to most effectively secure your cloud servers. It's going to be different for just about everyone, since your needs and use cases are all different. But tools like Dome9 let you self-manage your security at the host layer and allow you to apply security controls for how you use a cloud platform (i.e., helping you be a safe driver).

Security is a huge topic, and I didn't even scratch the surface here, but I hope you've learned a few things about how to secure your cloud servers. If the prospect of scaling out security policies across your infrastructure isn't particularly appealing, I invite you to try out Dome9 (for free) to see how easily you can manage automated cloud security on your SoftLayer server. It's quick, easy, and (it's worth repeating a few times...) free:

  1. Create a Dome9 account at https://secure.dome9.com/Account/Register?code=SoftLayer
  2. Add the Dome9 agent to your SoftLayer server
  3. Configure your policy in Dome9 Central, our SaaS management console

SoftLayer customers that sign up for Dome9 enjoy all the capabilities of Dome9 free for 30 days. After that trial period, you can opt to use either our free Lite Cloud, which provides security for an unlimited number of servers, or our Business Cloud for automated cloud security.

-Dave Meizlik, Dome9

This guest blog series highlights companies in SoftLayer's Technology Partners Marketplace.
These Partners have built their businesses on the SoftLayer Platform, and we're excited for them to tell their stories. New Partners will be added to the Marketplace each month, so stay tuned for many more come.
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