UK admins lack skills to spot hackers, says pentest expert

SANS course to address lack of knowledge

Many UK admins lack the skills, resources and time necessary to keep firewalls secure from well-drilled hackers, one of the country's loading penetration testing experts has claimed while launching a new defence training course.

The problems start with expert oversight of the firewall and Intrusion Detection System (IDS) logs, said former head of penetration testing at the Royal Air Airforce, Steve Armstrong, who will lead the new SANS course, 464 Hacker Detection for Systems Administrators.

Of the last 20 incidents his SANS team had been called to look at, 95 percent showed clear evidence of trouble once the logs were studied with care.

"In many cases, it is often an admin who has a 'gut feeling' that calls us in but when we start digging, the full extent of the breach is normally far worse than initially suspected," said Armstrong.

"We go in, look at the logs and can quickly see clear evidence of the problem but there has either been a failure to spot it or not enough resource assigned to look for the evidence."

A year or two ago, Armstrong's assessment would have been seen as the sort of scaremongering designed to generate business for a company offering pricey training course but the atmosphere has recently changed.

With reports of incursions behind the firewalls of even the best-defended companies now routine, companies are taking the issue more seriously. The hackers are simply getting more sophisticated, according to Armstrong, and attacks are seen not simply as possible but as likely.

"The IT vendors keep on telling us how great the tools to spot problems are but they are certainly not foolproof. They can also be circumvented by criminals who know what they are doing," he said.

It's not clear that going on a defence course will always stop attacks getting through the security layer but what it will do is make it easier to spot when something has gone wrong. It is an issue of visibility.

A deeper theme that no course can address, however, is whether conventional perimeter security is enough of a barrier any longer. Firewalls were invented to look at packets, protocols and software ports; today's security is oriented towards protecting data, something such firewalling can't directly defend unless it has had an application filtering layer bolted on.

The 464 course will be on the timetable for SANS 2011 London between 3 and 12 December, a two-day event backed up with four quarterly threat and tool briefings. More information can be found on the SANS website.

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