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Bit9 hack casts spotlight on security industry practices

By confessing that its mistakes led to security breaches at three customers, Bit9 has sparked debate over whether the industry is ready to block hackers that see vendors as the door to other companies.

Bit9 disclosed last week that cybercriminals stole digital code-signing certificates from its computers and then used them to drop malware in the systems of three unidentified customers. The vendor acknowledged that the theft occurred on computers that it had failed to protect with its own product, which allows only software on a whitelist to run.

The hack is troublesome because cybercriminals are increasingly attacking vendors in order to steal technology that can be used to penetrate their customers' systems. Vendors whose computers have been breached over the last few years include RSA, Symantec, DigiNotar, Verisign and Comodo.

Bit9 revealed in a blog post on Saturday that the attackers were using the vendor as a way in to its customers. "We can only speculate, but we believe the attack on us was part of a larger campaign against a particular and narrow set of companies," wrote Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer for Bit9.

Customers should not expect vendors to be anymore prepared to fend off attackers than most corporations. "Security vendors are no different than their customers and suffer from the same challenges: dealing with the threat landscape, and not having enough time/staffing/resources to accomplish all objectives," said Rick Holland, an analyst at Forrester Research.

In fact, most security vendors are much smaller than enterprises and often have fewer resources available for security operations, Holland said. "Startups have even more challenges as investments in R&D, marketing and sales trump technology investments."

Overall, vendors are more focused on implementing best practices in regards to security than their customers, experts say.

"Ultimately vendors of security need to be even more secure than the people that their technologies are protecting," said Charles Kolodgy, and analyst at IDC. "Most security vendors understand this and I do believe they are better prepared to protect their intellectual property, but mistakes happen so those need to continue to be reduced."

[Also see: White House takes small step toward sharing cyberattack data]

A certainty is no organization can be 100% protected against a security breach, and everyone is struggling to secure their systems against attackers who are constantly developing new tactics and technology.

"It's the art of war," said Gartner analyst Lawrence Pingree.

To better serve customers, vendors need to have procedures in place to handle quickly the consequences of the inevitable hack, Pingree said.

Scott Crawford, analyst for Enterprise Management Associates, said customers need to question their vendors about their security practices. "The focus in the security industry has been pretty similar to the rest of the technology vendor world, which is primarily on getting products out," Crawford said.

Vendors should be drilled on how well they understand the impact a breach would have on customers, Crawford said. Other discussions should include their secure development practices.

"Do they treat their products the same way that someone designing products for aerospace, defense and the military would?" he said.

Experts agree that the security industry as a whole could benefit from sharing more information about malware and attacks. Currently, there are competing data-sharing frameworks sponsored by government groups, security vendors and the information technology industry, Holland said. Leading groups include OpenIOC, MITRE, and IODEF.

"If I were optimistic in the federal government's ability to understand the issues as well as execute, I'd welcome legislation in this area," Holland said.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.


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