Security is an imperfect art. It’s also an imperfect science. Whether it involves experimenting with certain tweaks or implementing proven standards and prescriptive advice, figuring out how to manage a security program is as complex as navigating any other business function.
According to the Pareto Principle, security professionals should focus on the 20 percent of security issues that cause 80 percent of their problems. There’s quite a bit that makes up the 20 percent, but the bulk of security issues simply come down to software patching.
Cybercriminals go where the gold is. They take the path of least resistance to manipulate users, access networks through endpoint systems, and gain control of information assets and related business resources. The mere act of updating common software on endpoints, workstations, servers, database systems, applications and network infrastructure devices can provide tremendous payoffs in terms of preventing security incidents and minimizing business risks. Still, it seems that no one has figured out how to do it.
Study after study has shown that enterprises struggle to keep up with software patching. I see it in my own work as well. Any given security assessment uncovers this predictable yet gaping hole. Running vulnerability scans of internal network systems with user authentication is a real eye-opener. Java updates dating back as many as 10 years are often missing. Four-year-old Adobe Acrobat, Reader and Flash updates are also extremely common. Even Windows updates going back six to 12 months are fairly typical.
Sometimes, patches on Windows servers date back even further. And there’s always an excuse for why they haven’t been addressed. There’s not enough time. There’s not enough money. Sure, everyone struggles with those things. Still, businesses often have other excuses, such as, “We can’t patch because our vendors no longer support the software,” or, “Unfortunately we cannot take that system offline to patch it — it’s just too critical.” Really!? In most cases, these are flimsy excuses.
Widespread Patching Problems
In business, if something is not working, we generally stop doing it. This could be a marketing strategy, a customer service process or even something sales-related. If it’s not working — or not working well — it tends to get resolved. For some reason, this is not happening with patch management. Security teams often have half-baked approaches to patching just servers or just workstations, but what about all those other systems, including those shadow IT systems that you don’t even know about? Internet of Things (IoT) devices make things even more complex.
I’m convinced that unless and until you get your arms around proper system maintenance, which includes resolving known security weaknesses based on software patches, you’ll continue to struggle with incidents and breaches. Many people believe they have to continually chase down the latest and greatest security technologies to fix their problems. However, well-run information security programs are merely those in which IT and security professionals execute the basics, such as periodic and consistent software patching.
The Patch of Least Resistance
Security is about balance — facilitating user productivity and business processes while minimizing information risks. It sounds easy on paper, but it can be difficult in reality. Still, there are quick wins that we have all known about for years, regardless of any resource limitations.
Stop claiming that everything is reasonably secure in your environments when it’s not. Security professionals stand to gain enormous payoffs from effective software patching. It’s a matter of choice, and a matter of putting it into practice and moving forward. Fix this gap in your security program or forever hold your peace.
Independent Information Security Consultant
Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, writer, and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle Logic, LLC. With over 29 years of experienc...