The Worst Network Security Horror Stories - InformationWeek

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12/19/2005
09:29 AM
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The Worst Network Security Horror Stories

Think you've had security problems? You ain't heard nothing yet. We asked the pros to tell us some of the worst disasters they've faced. Here's what they told us.

While the company's vulnerability is particularly horrific because it showed a blatant ignorance of the basic principle of network security, some problems are ghosts in the machine. Some are mundane, like the apocryphal web-based company benefits system that is secured by secure sockets layer (SSL), but allows users to click the browser "back" button to see what had been entered in previous forms.

While that kind of bad code can have catastrophic consequences to the bottom line, Peltier notes that, in this age of "networked everything," ill-considered products and network configurations can lead to profoundly disturbing situations. One of the scariest situations he has confronted, involving a petrochemical company's catalytic equipment, could have been a disaster of truly horrific proportions.

The catalyst featured a network link to the manufacturer to permit periodic monitoring and maintenance. While this was certainly a boon to the company – which could count on an extended warranty and periodic upkeep --- the network connection itself was a potential problem that, fortunately, never materialized. "The manufacturer would come in over the network over an unauthenticated telnet system," Peltier recalls. "That's wide open, and you're not just dealing with a security issue if someone decides to change the equipment's operating temperature. This could have been a bomb!"

Ultimately, the bottom line is that, when dealing with their networks, organizations have to know everything. The testing of new systems and equipment is key, but so too is the attitude toward knowledge. Peltier says that the truly knowledgeable network administrator is the person who keeps asking questions. "The moral is that, if you don't know, ask," he says. "And if you don't know what questions to ask, ask someone who does. No one has all the answers, and there's nothing worse than fake knowledge. Ignorance about your systems will jump up and bite you."

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