CONSIDERATIONS IN COMPUTER SUPPORT AND OPERATIONS
management and administration staff generally perform support
and operations tasks although sometimes users do. Larger systems
may have full-time operators, system programmers, and support
staff performing these tasks. Smaller systems may have a part-time
Computer support and
operations refers to everything done to run a computer system.
This includes both system administration and tasks external to the
system that support its operation (e.g., maintaining documentation).
It does not include system planning or design. The support and operation
of any computer system, from a three-person local area network to
a worldwide application serving thousands of users, is critical
to maintaining the security of a system. Support and operations
are routine activities that enable computer systems to function
correctly. These include fixing software or hardware problems, loading
and maintaining software, and helping users resolve problems.
The failure to consider
security as part of the support and operations of computer systems
is, for many organizations, their Achilles heel. Computer security
system literature includes many examples of how organizations undermined
their often expensive security measures because of poor documentation,
old user accounts, conflicting software, or poor control of maintenance
accounts. Also, an organization's policies and procedures often
fail to address many of these important issues.
The important security
considerations within some of the major categories of support and
primary goal of computer support and operations is the continued
and correct operation of a computer system. One of the goals
of computer security is the availability and integrity of systems.
These goals are very closely linked.
Some special considerations
are noted for larger or smaller systems.101
This chapter addresses
the support and operations activities directly related to security.
Every control discussed in this handbook relies, in one way or another,
on computer system support and operations. This chapter, however,
focuses on areas not covered in other chapters. For example,
operations personnel normally create user accounts on the system.
This topic is covered in the Identification and Authentication chapter,
so it is not discussed here. Similarly, the input from support and
operations staff to the security awareness and training program
is covered in the Security Awareness, Training, and Education chapter.
14.1 User Support
In many organizations,
user support takes place through a Help Desk. Help Desks can support
an entire organization, a subunit, a specific system, or a combination
of these. For smaller systems, the system administrator normally
provides direct user support. Experienced users provide informal
user support on most systems.
support should be closely linked to the organization's incident
handling capability. In many cases, the same personnel perform
An important security
consideration for user support personnel is being able to recognize
which problems (brought to their attention by users) are security-related.
For example, users' inability to log onto a computer system may
result from the disabling of their accounts due to too many failed
access attempts. This could indicate the presence of hackers trying
to guess users' passwords.
In general, system support
and operations staff need to be able to identify security problems,
respond appropriately, and inform appropriate individuals. A wide
range of possible security problems exist. Some will be internal
to custom applications, while others apply to off-the-shelf products.
Additionally, problems can be software- or hardware-based.
systems are especially susceptible to viruses, while networks
are particularly susceptible to hacker attacks, which can be
targeted at multiple systems. System support personnel should
be able to recognize attacks and know how to respond.
The more responsive and
knowledgeable system support and operation staff personnel are,
the less user support will be provided informally. The support other
users provide is important, but they may not be aware of the "whole
14.2 Software Support
Software is the heart
of an organization's computer operations, whatever the size and
complexity of the system. Therefore, it is essential that software
function correctly and be protected from corruption. There are many
elements of software support.
One is controlling
what software is used on a system. If users or systems personnel
can load and execute any software on a system, the system is more
vulnerable to viruses, to unexpected software interactions, and
to software that may subvert or bypass security controls. One method
of controlling software is to inspect or test software before it
is loaded (e.g., to determine compatibility with custom applications
or identify other unforeseen interactions). This can apply to new
software packages, to upgrades, to off-the-shelf products, or to
custom software, as deemed appropriate. In addition to controlling
the loading and execution of new software, organizations should
also give care to the configuration and use of powerful system utilities.
System utilities can compromise the integrity of operating systems
and logical access controls.
take advantage of the weak software controls in personal computers.
Also, there are powerful utilities available for PCs that can
restore deleted files, find hidden files, and interface directly
with PC hardware, bypassing the operating system. Some organizations
use personal computers without floppy drives in order to have
better control over the system.
are several widely available utilities that look for security
problems in both networks and the systems attached to them.
Some utilities look for and try to exploit security vulnerabilities.
(This type of software is further discussed in Chapter 9.)
A second element in software
support can be to ensure that software has not been modified
without proper authorization. This involves the protection of
software and backup copies. This can be done with a combination
of logical and physical access controls.
Many organizations also
include a program to ensure that software is properly licensed,
as required. For example, an organization may audit systems for
illegal copies of copyrighted software. This problem is primarily
associated with PCs and LANs, but can apply to any type of system.
14.3 Configuration Management
Closely related to software
support is configuration management -- the process of keeping track
of changes to the system and, if needed, approving them.2
Configuration management normally addresses hardware, software,
networking, and other changes; it can be formal or informal. The
primary security goal of configuration management is ensuring that
changes to the system do not unintentionally or unknowingly diminish
security. Some of the methods discussed under software support,
such as inspecting and testing software changes, can be used. Chapter
9 discusses other methods.
networked systems, configuration management should include external
connections. Is the computer system connected? To what other
systems? In turn, to what systems are these systems and organizations
Note that the security
goal is to know what changes occur, not to prevent security from
being changed. There may be circumstances when security will be
reduced. However, the decrease in security should be the result
of a decision based on all appropriate factors.
A second security goal
of configuration management is ensuring that changes to the system
are reflected in other documentation, such as the contingency plan.
If the change is major, it may be necessary to reanalyze some or
all of the security of the system. This is discussed in Chapter
of smaller systems are often responsible for their own backups.
However, in reality they do not always perform backups regularly.
Some organizations, therefore, task support personnel with making
backups periodically for smaller systems, either automatically
(through server software) or manually (by visiting each machine).
Support and operations
personnel and sometimes users back up software and data. This function
is critical to contingency planning. Frequency of backups will depend
upon how often data changes and how important those changes are.
Program managers should be consulted to determine what backup schedule
is appropriate. Also, as a safety measure, it is useful to test
that backup copies are actually usable. Finally, backups should
be stored securely, as appropriate (discussed below).
14.5 Media Controls
Media controls include
a variety of measures to provide physical and environmental protection
and accountability for tapes, diskettes, printouts, and other media.
From a security perspective, media controls should be designed to
prevent the loss of confidentiality, integrity, or availability
of information, including data or software, when stored outside
the system. This can include storage of information before it is
input to the system and after it is output.
The extent of media control
depends upon many factors, including the type of data, the quantity
of media, and the nature of the user environment. Physical and environmental
protection is used to prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing
the media. It also protects against such factors as heat, cold,
or harmful magnetic fields. When necessary, logging the use of individual
media (e.g., a tape cartridge) provides detailed accountability
-- to hold authorized people responsible for their actions.
Controlling media may
require some form of physical labeling. The labels can be used to
identify media with special handling instructions, to locate needed
information, or to log media (e.g., with serial/control numbers
or bar codes) to support accountability. Identification is often
by colored labels on diskettes or tapes or banner pages on printouts.
markings for media could include: Privacy Act Information, Company
Proprietary, or Joe's Backup Tape. In each case, the individuals
handling the media must know the applicable handling instructions.
For example, at the Acme Patent Research Firm, proprietary information
may not leave the building except under the care of a security
officer. Also, Joe's Backup Tape should be easy to find in case
something happens to Joe's system.
If labeling is used for
special handling instructions, it is critical that people be appropriately
trained. The marking of PC input and output is generally the responsibility
of the user, not the system support staff. Marking backup
diskettes can help prevent them from being accidentally overwritten.
The logging of media
is used to support accountability. Logs can include control numbers
(or other tracking data), the times and dates of transfers, names
and signatures of individuals involved, and other relevant information.
Periodic spot checks or audits may be conducted to determine that
no controlled items have been lost and that all are in the custody
of individuals named in control logs. Automated media tracking systems
may be helpful for maintaining inventories of tape and disk libraries.
14.5.3 Integrity Verification
When electronically stored
information is read into a computer system, it may be necessary
to determine whether it has been read correctly or subject to any
modification. The integrity of electronic information can be verified
using error detection and correction or, if intentional modifications
are a threat, cryptographic-based technologies. (See Chapter 19.)
14.5.4 Physical Access
Media can be stolen,
destroyed, replaced with a look-alike copy, or lost. Physical access
controls, which can limit these problems, include locked doors,
desks, file cabinets, or safes.
If the media requires
protection at all times, it may be necessary to actually output
data to the media in a secure location (e.g., printing to a printer
in a locked room instead of to a general-purpose printer in a common
Physical protection of
media should be extended to backup copies stored offsite. They generally
should be accorded an equivalent level of protection to media containing
the same information stored onsite. (Equivalent protection does
not mean that the security measures need to be exactly the same.
The controls at the off-site location are quite likely to be different
from the controls at the regular site.) Physical access is discussed
in Chapter 15.
Magnetic media, such
as diskettes or magnetic tape, require environmental protection,
since they are sensitive to temperature, liquids, magnetism, smoke,
and dust. Other media (e.g., paper and optical storage) may have
different sensitivities to environmental factors.
Media control may be
transferred both within the organization and to outside elements.
Possibilities for securing such transmittal include sealed and marked
envelopes, authorized messenger or courier, or U.S. certified or
people throw away old diskettes, believing that erasing the
files on the diskette has made the data un-retrievable. In reality,
however, erasing a file simply removes the pointer to that file.
The pointer tells the computer where the file is physically
stored. Without this pointer, the files will not appear on a
directory listing. This does not mean that the file was
removed. Commonly available utility programs can often retrieve
information that is presumed deleted.
When media is disposed
of, it may be important to ensure that information is not improperly
disclosed. This applies both to media that is external to
a computer system (such as a diskette) and to media inside
a computer system, such as a hard disk. The process of removing
information from media is called sanitization.
Three techniques are
commonly used for media sanitization: overwriting, degaussing, and
destruction. Overwriting is an effective method for clearing
data from magnetic media. As the name implies, overwriting uses
a program to write (1s, 0s, or a combination) onto the media. Common
practice is to overwrite the media three times. Overwriting should
not be confused with merely deleting the pointer to a file (which
typically happens when a delete command is used). Overwriting
requires that the media be in working order. Degaussing is
a method to magnetically erase data from magnetic media. Two types
of degausser exist: strong permanent magnets and electric degaussers.
The final method of sanitization is destruction of the media by
shredding or burning.
Documentation of all
aspects of computer support and operations is important to ensure
continuity and consistency. Formalizing operational practices and
procedures with sufficient detail helps to eliminate security lapses
and oversights, gives new personnel sufficiently detailed instructions,
and provides a quality assurance function to help ensure that operations
will be performed correctly and efficiently.
The security of a system
also needs to be documented. This includes many types of documentation,
such as security plans, contingency plans, risk analyses, and security
policies and procedures. Much of this information, particularly
risk and threat analyses, has to be protected against unauthorized
disclosure. Security documentation also needs to be both current
and accessible. Accessibility should take special factors into account
(such as the need to find the contingency plan during a disaster).
should be designed to fulfill the needs of the different types of
people who use it. For this reason, many organizations separate
documentation into policy and procedures. A security
procedures manual should be written to inform various system
users how to do their jobs securely. A security procedures manual
for systems operations and support staff may address a wide variety
of technical and operational concerns in considerable detail.
System maintenance requires
either physical or logical access to the system. Support and operations
staff, hardware or software vendors, or third-party service providers
may maintain a system. Maintenance may be performed on site, or
it may be necessary to move equipment to a repair site. Maintenance
may also be performed remotely via communications connections. If
someone who does not normally have access to the system performs
maintenance, then a security vulnerability is introduced.
In some circumstances,
it may be necessary to take additional precautions, such as conducting
background investigations of service personnel. Supervision of maintenance
personnel may prevent some problems, such as "snooping around"
the physical area. However, once someone has access to the system,
it is very difficult for supervision to prevent damage done through
the maintenance process.
of the most common methods hackers use to break into systems
is through maintenance accounts that still have factory-set
or easily guessed passwords.
Many computer systems
provide maintenance accounts. These special log-in accounts
are normally preconfigured at the factory with pre-set, widely known
passwords. It is critical to change these passwords or otherwise
disable the accounts until they are needed. Procedures should
be developed to ensure that only authorized maintenance personnel
can use these accounts. If the account is to be used remotely, authentication
of the maintenance provider can be performed using call-back confirmation.
This helps ensure that remote diagnostic activities actually originate
from an established phone number at the vendor's site. Other techniques
can also help, including encryption and decryption of diagnostic
communications; strong identification and authentication techniques,
such as tokens; and remote disconnect verification.
Larger systems may have
diagnostic ports. In addition, manufacturers of larger systems
and third-party providers may offer more diagnostic and support
services. It is critical to ensure that these ports are only used
by authorized personnel and cannot be accessed by hackers.
There are support and
operations components in most of the controls discussed in this
support and operations staff have special access to the system. Some
organizations conduct background checks on individuals filling these
positions to screen out possibly untrustworthy individuals.
Support and operations may include an organization's incident handling
staff. Even if they are separate organizations, they need to work
together to recognize and respond to incidents.
Support and operations normally provides technical input to contingency
planning and carries out the activities of making backups, updating
documentation, and practicing responding to contingencies.
Training, and Education. Support and operations staff should be
trained in security procedures and should be aware of the importance
of security. In addition, they provide technical expertise needed
to teach users how to secure their systems.
Physical and Environmental.
Support and operations staff often controls the immediate physical
area around the computer system.
The technical controls are installed, maintained, and used by support
and operations staff. They create the user accounts, add users to
access control lists, review audit logs for unusual activity, control
bulk encryption over telecommunications links, and perform the countless
operational tasks needed to use technical controls effectively. In
addition, support and operations staff provides needed input to the
selection of controls based on their knowledge of system capabilities
and operational constraints.
and operations staff ensures that changes to a system do not introduce
security vulnerabilities by using assurance methods to evaluate or
test the changes and their effect on the system. Operational assurance
is normally performed by support and operations staff.
14.9 Cost Considerations
The cost of ensuring adequate
security in day-to-day support and operations is largely dependent
upon the size and characteristics of the operating environment and
the nature of the processing being performed. If sufficient support
personnel are already available, it is important that they be trained
in the security aspects of their assigned jobs; it is usually not
necessary to hire additional support and operations security specialists.
Training, both initial and ongoing, is a cost of successfully incorporating
security measures into support and operations activities.
Another cost is that associated
with creating and updating documentation to ensure that security concerns
are appropriately reflected in support and operations policies, procedures,
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In general, larger systems include mainframes, large minicomputers,
and WANs. Smaller systems include PCs and LANs.
102. This chapter only addresses configuration
management during the operational phase. Configuration management
can have extremely important security consequences during the development
phase of a system.