Why Security Needs DevOps: OpenSSL and Beyond

Posted by Greg Pollock

On March 18, 2015, system administrators and developers received ominous news: two high severity vulnerabilities in OpenSSL would be announced the next day. Since Heartbleed, OpenSSL had been on a bad streak, and it looked like things were only going to get worse. Operations, development, and security teams braced for impact and then– it wasn't really that bad.

One issue was about the downgrade to export RSA vulnerability and the other was about susceptibility to DoS attacks. The RSA export was a serious problem, but it had been known for months and was just being officially reclassified as high severity. DoS attacks were bad but wouldn't result in data compromise. The "next Heartbleed" turned out to be more like the boy who cried wolf.

Since Heartbleed, vulnerability disclosures have gotten more attention. Sometimes it is well deserved; other times it feels more like media hype. For a larger perspective on the post-Heartbleed security landscape, UpGuard talked to Jonathan Cran and Scott Petry. Jonathan Cran is the VP of Operations at Bugcrowd, a platform for crowd-sourced security. Scott Petry is the founder of Postini and Authentic8, which makes a disposable browser to insulate businesses from their employees' surfing. 

Jonathan Cran pointed to some relatively good news: greater investments in the Linux Core Infrastructure Initiative will start paying down some of the operating system's technical debt. Additionally, the Linux Foundation is paying for a professional audit for the first time and has hired more full time developers to work solely on the kernel.

At the same time, the overall volume of vulnerabilities is only increasing, as Bugcrowd's success suggests. Given the decline of signature based defenses and the unpredictability of new vulnerabilities, Cran's recommendations require infrastructure teams to be flexible. "You need to be able to know what you have, know what vulnerabilities are out there, and quickly make changes," he said. "You need to have systems in place so that once you know what a vulnerability is, you can fix it as soon as possible. That's more about your processes and how you build your infrastructure than about this vulnerability or that one in particular."

Scott Petry painted a less rosy picture of the security landscape. "Will there be more? Oh yeah. Is it going to be OpenSSL? I don't know. Just think about other core utilities– image processing, for example– and you have a list of potential vulnerabilities with the same reach as Heartbleed." (N.B.: this interview was conducted before VENOM, a core vulnerability in many VMs, was disclosed.) Open source software's pace of development and the natural supply/demand have contributed immensely valuable libraries but have also made security testing optional. Like Cran, Petry recommends that infrastructure owners prepare for the unknown unknowns by building flexible, transparent, high quality systems. "Give me visibility, the ability to quickly make changes, and the ability to check that those changes worked." 

Black hats and infrastructure owners remain locked in a red queen's race. Hackers continue to find novel ways to exploit the weak spots in complex systems; Operations teams get better at monitoring and automating their infrastructure. Sadly, the bad guys are currently winning: the Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report finds that the difference between time to infection and time to discovery has increased every year from 2004 to 2014. But perhaps an approach to security that takes into account the complete development and deployment cycle– a DevOps, approach– can turn the tide.

The lesson to be learned from Heartbleed and its offspring is not that OpenSSL or open source software is too dangerous to use. Rather, the conclusion is that new methods of infrastructure management– better visibility into system state, more efficient meands of detecting and eliminating vulnerabiltiies, faster ways to apply uniform changes– are the only way to keep pace with current security threats.

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