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Ten Practical Security Steps

Without good backups, there is no way to recover a lost or damaged system whether the damage is caused by an intruder, hardware failure or an act of nature. If system configuration is well documented (unlikely at any site that doesn't make good backups) you can rebuild systems but you can't get lost data back without backups.

Good passwords and firewalls keep the unwanted off systems. Turning off services also keeps the unwanted out. Proper access restrictions limit those on the systems to that which they need. Theoretically, if you did a perfect job with passwords, turned off all unneeded services, kept running services up-to-date and properly set file access rights, you could get along without a firewall. As a practical matter, getting one firewall right is a lot easier than getting many hosts right. It's unlikely that either a firewall or network services will be set up perfectly. Doing both well provides redundancy on most systems and greatly reduces the likelihood that there are open holes to vulnerable or unneeded services that an intruder can find with network scanning tools.

Not sharing files over the Internet is an especially important case of getting the firewall rules right. Exposing your shared file systems to the Internet creates the potential for your data to be taken or destroyed without an intruder even needing a user name or password and opens your systems to other compromises. A password may be all that prevents a remote connection attempt. Since shared drives are being discussed, the passwords will by definition be shared within your organization and thus likely to be neither private or difficult.

Denying direct remote administrative access and limiting use of the privilege escalation tools (su, sudo) to those authorized to use the administrative account(s) removes the general user population with their typically weak passwords from the easy privilege escalation attacks. Automated checking of key system files for unexpected changes helps to keep you confident that the systems you think are reasonably secure, are in fact so. Finding unexpected changes warns you that you may have an intruder on your system(s). Either one of the other steps hasn't been done right or a calculated risk you've taken has been exploited.

Applying security updates to your reasonably secure systems keeps them reasonably secure. Last, not putting unneeded files on your systems makes most of these other tasks much easier.

There is much more that can be done. If you want to claim that your systems are very secure, there is much more that needs to be done. These additional steps are likely to be time and or money intensive and may involve a significant ongoing time commitment. Some of the key ones are network based intrusion detection. Open source solutions will be initially labor intensive and commercial solutions both labor and financially intensive. Both will require an ongoing time commitment. There are numerous system logs that can and should be audited but this can be a major ongoing time consumer. Host based intrusion detection should be extended to include processes as well as file monitoring. Servers can be comprehensively hardened where the steps discussed here are just the first limited moves in the required direction. This might include TCP wrappers to add one more layer of protection around certain networked resources. Running firewall software on each host or workstation adds even more protection but is very labor intensive. Any techniques that restrict local machines ability to communicate with each other will improve security at the cost of flexibility; replacing temporarily down systems will be much more difficult.

The foregoing apply additional security to ordinary systems. There are additional levels of security that can be applied such as adopting Kerberos or public key infrastructure techniques. File systems can be encrypted. "Trusted" operating systems can replace the standard versions. I'm sure the list goes on and on but these are all beyond my areas of knowledge.

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