Monday, 14 January 2013

Myth #6: We have good physical security

We have good physical security implemented by guards, guns and gates. All systems are in secure server rooms, located at secure sites, and since the bad guys can’t get to them, they can’t attack them.

This myth presupposes good firewalls, so let’s assume that attack from outside is too difficult. Do organisations really have as good physical security as they believe, and does this keep them safe?

Physical security is implemented by combining three different techniques:

(1) deterrence – making the risks too high to attack in the first place (guns);

(2) prevention – making it too hard or too expensive to attack (gates);

(3) response – having a capability to detect or capture the attacker even if successful (guards).

It does seem plausible that if an organisation gets all of these right, that physical security will protect them. The problem is that they never get them right, and physical access is almost always the easiest way to attack.

If a bad guy really wants to attack an organisation, none of the deterrence mechanisms matter, they’ve already decided to attack. Strike one.

The only prevention mechanism that has any chance of success is complete exclusion of all non-employees from a site. If visitors are let in, prevention has been bypassed. If there are any contracts with any third-party services at all, the only thing that has been done is to require an attacker to buy a second-hand contractor logo shirt from a charity shop. Network level security inside an organisation is usually very poor, and the attacker has just bypassed the firewall. Strike two.

A competent attacker who is determined to physically attack is going to rely on both looking like they should be there, and the normal human nature not to question strangers. The attacker won’t be stopped even in organisations with a name badge requirement and posters everywhere saying challenge strangers. And a simple disguise will make CCTV useless. Strike three.

Put bluntly: deterrence doesn’t work; prevention doesn’t work; and response doesn’t notice. It’s even worse than that, because the belief that organisations have good physical security when they really don’t, makes them blind to physical attack. This is especially true in branch offices.

Physical security underpins everything else, but it isn’t enough by itself, and that is why this myth is busted.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer