Microsoft Security Initiatives in SP1 and SP2 – nothing but a complex toy?
By Dennis Lundtoft Thomsen
I recently read Kevin Day’s book “Inside a Security Mind” – not because I pretend or intend to be a security guru but because I’m aware of the fact that we as a industry need to change focus in terms of security.
Working as a Solution Architect and Managing Consultant I’ve been pushing security focus to my customers for a long time – both in term of technology itself and more importantly around the processes involved in implementing and supporting technology – and it’s quite frankly at times an uphill process. The comment from Kevin Day’s book that triggered me to write this article was –
“.. a security device, no matter how expensive or complex, is nothing more than a toy if it does not function within a greater security framework.”
I principally agree with this statement as it relates directly to some of the solutions I have seen at customers and in terms of XP SP2 it reminds me of one of the first customer comments I heard about the Windows XP SP2 firewall – “Very fine – but how do we disable it?”. From a short-sighted manageability point of view, I understand the comment, but from a security Point of View the possibility of implementing a managed firewall is an opportunity that I personally would not let go.
The same applies to the security initiatives in Windows Server 2003 SP1. The Windows Server Post-Setup Security Updates (PSSU) that works as a firewall blocking all incoming traffic during OS installation until all required security updates has been installed and the person installing the server presses “Finish” in the wizard that pops up after logon. PSSU is luckily on by default in slipstreamed Windows 2003 SP1 installations. Furthermore the Security Configuration Wizard and its 50+ role-based configurations allows us to create templates/roles for all servers in a organization – allowing us to take a role-based approach towards the security configuration on servers. Using the “scwcmd transform” command takes SCW to the next step by converting our templates to group policies that now can be linked to our OU structure and further enhancing the roll-out of our security policies to servers that are domain members (Be aware though that IIS settings aren’t deployable through group polices and therefore NOT part of the transformation).
One of the main advantages of the enhancements in both service packs is that when properly implemented they are a good start towards the “principle of least privilege”; in terms of OS hardening almost everything incoming is blocked by default – except the settings/roles you have defined as allowed.
This article is not meant to be a review of all the security enhancements in SP1/SP2 but I feel the need to comment that I’m not saying SCW or the firewall in SP2 are perfect. An important feature missing in the firewall is outgoing connections – including which applications are allowed to initiate these (Although I recognize the fact that it would be hard to implement and manage in a corporate environment) another is the many different tools used for security configuration. Furthermore, I think it’s disappointing that Microsoft didn’t have the nerve to enable the firewall by default in a slipstreamed Windows Server 2003 SP1 installation (Although I’m sure they had good reasons for this) – so that “everything” was blocked by default and you had to use SCW to open the server for the necessary applications/usages. Last but not least I’m painfully aware of the work required to actually making these technologies work in an existing production environment (But I personally think it’s worth the effort).
Back to the point that relates to one of the Ten Immutable Laws of Security “Technology is not a panacea” and Kevin’s point about expensive/complex toys. If the full functionality of the Service packs isn’t implemented in your organization or if they are implemented in a environment where the proper processes around security isn’t in place or where simple things as password protected screensavers are disabled (as I’ve seen in our of my enterprise clients, due to a Managing Director that was annoyed with having to unlock Windows when returning to his desk) and/or the rest of the organization isn’t security aware – then whatever security initiatives Microsoft makes it’s almost a dead end game.
I do believe however that the enhancements in SP1/SP2 are much more than toys and that you and I can use it to make a difference – they are way better than the current situation where machines are often attacked during installation or before they are fully patched – and I do believe that if we all try to influence the people around, below and/or above us that we can help to raise the security bar and awareness in our respective companies and in the industry (Just to be clear – I don’t think its Kevin’s point either that we should give up on security if all processes/systems aren’t in place 😉
So come on – let’s join forces and go and test and design the firewall for our XP clients and role-based security based on GPO and SCW for all our servers (Btw. don’t use it with SBS 2003 and do try this Google search for other known issues).