Why Your Data Is At Risk
by Randy Nash - @RISK Online - Monday, 20 December 2004.
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Just as switches isolate collision domains for attached hosts and only forward appropriate traffic out a particular port, VLANs provide complete isolation between VLANs. None of the switches within the defined group will bridge any frames—not even broadcast frames—between two VLANs. Thus, communication between VLANs is accomplished through routing, and the traditional security and filtering functions of the router can be used.

Segmentation can be organized in any manner: function, project team, application. This capability is especially useful for isolating network segments for security purposes. For example, you may place application servers on one VLAN and system administrators on another (management-level) VLAN, with access control lists to restrict administrative access to only that VLAN. This setup can be accomplished regardless of physical connections to the network or the fact that some users might be intermingled with other teams.

ARP Attacks

The Ethernet Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) enables systems to find the unique identifier (MAC address) of a destination machine. ARP attacks provide the means to either break or misuse the protocol, with the goal of redirecting traffic from its intended destination. In an ARP attack, the attacker can sniff, intercept, and even modify traffic on a compromised network segment.

The effectiveness of these attacks is limited in two ways:
  • Data on the wire is generally available only in small pieces. It's true that many systems and applications send login/password pairs in clear text (without any encryption). An attack may capture such small bits of data; it may even be possible over time to assemble enough useful information to make identity theft possible. However, the attacker must either be directly connected to the internal network, or have succeeded in compromising an internal system and installing some form of sniffer to gather information. For the effort to be worthwhile to the hacker, many small chunks would need to be captured and then filtered out of the massive volumes of traffic traversing most of today's networks; and then the captured data would have to be reassembled into meaningful information. This is a tremendous task with a potentially very small payoff.
  • Capturing data takes time. The longer the attacker is inside the network, the more likely he or she is to get caught. It's easier to get information at the source, rather than trying to capture and decode thousands of network packets.


Vulnerabilities of Data at Rest

While sniffing data on the wire may yield a big reward, data at rest is the proverbial pot of gold. Most organizations maintain detailed databases of their personnel information, for example, making the large corporation a very tempting target. These databases regularly contain quantities of names, addresses, and even social security numbers for tax purposes. This is all the information that someone needs to steal your identity. Statistics show that identity theft attacks are increasing. More than thirty thousand victims reported ID theft in 2000; in 2003, the Federal Trade Commission received more than half a million complaints.

A major issue in protecting your data repository is the fact that there are so many avenues of attack. Attacks can be launched against the operating system, the database server application, the custom application interface, the client interface, and so on. Application attacks don't have to be directed against the target application, either. Any attack providing system-level access to an attacker is a risk to your data.

Your system is also a potential target for a multitude of computer viruses, worms, and Trojans. Current reports put the number of these types of applications at more than 100,000. Many recent computer worms leave systems vulnerable by covertly installing a backdoor that enables the attacker to enter the system at will.

How Can We Protect Our Data?

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