A basic understanding of computer networks is requisite in order to understand the principles of network security. In this section, we’ll cover some of the foundations of computer networking, then move on to an overview of some popular networks. Following that, we’ll take a more in-depth look at TCP/IP, the network protocol suite that is used to run the Internet and many intranets.
Once we’ve covered this, we’ll go back and discuss some of the threats that managers and administrators of computer networks need to confront, and then some tools that can be used to reduce the exposure to the risks of network computing.
In answering the question What is network security?, your IT partner should explain that network security refers to any activities designed to protect your network. Specifically, these activities protect the usability, reliability, integrity, and safety of your network and data. Effective network security targets a variety of threats and stops them from entering or spreading on your network.
After asking what is network security? , you should ask, what are the threats to my network?
Many network security threats today are spread over the Internet. The most common include:
- Viruses, worms, and Trojan horses
- Spyware and adware
- Zero-day attacks, also called zero-hour attacks
- Hacker attacks
- Denial of service attacks
- Data interception and theft
- Identity theft
How Does Network Security Work?
To understand What is network security?, it helps to understand that no single solution protects you from a variety of threats. You need multiple layers of security. If one fails, others still stand.
Network security is accomplished through hardware and software. The software must be constantly updated and managed to protect you from emerging threats.
A network security system usually consists of many components. Ideally, all components work together, which minimizes maintenance and improves security.
Network security components often include:
- Anti-virus and anti-spyware
- Firewall, to block unauthorized access to your network
- Intrusion prevention systems (IPS), to identify fast-spreading threats, such as zero-day or zero-hour attacks
- Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), to provide secure remote access.
Network security concepts:
Network security starts with authenticating, commonly with a username and a password. Since this requires just one detail authenticating the user name —i.e. the password— this is sometimes termed one-factor authentication. With two-factor authentication, something the user ‘has’ is also used (e.g. a security token or ‘dongle’, an ATM card, or a mobile phone); and with three-factor authentication, something the user ‘is’ is also used (e.g. a fingerprint or retinal scan).
Once authenticated, a firewall enforces access policies such as what services are allowed to be accessed by the network users. Though effective to prevent unauthorized access, this component may fail to check potentially harmful content such as computer worms or Trojans being transmitted over the network. Anti-virus software or an intrusion prevention system (IPS) help detect and inhibit the action of such malware. An anomaly-based intrusion detection system may also monitor the network like wire shark traffic and may be logged for audit purposes and for later high-level analysis.
Security management for networks is different for all kinds of situations. A home or small office may only require basic security while large businesses may require high-maintenance and advanced software and hardware to prevent malicious attacks from hacking and spamming.
Secure Network Devices:
It’s important to remember that the firewall is only one entry point to your network. Modems, if you allow them to answer incoming calls, can provide an easy means for an attacker to sneak around (rather than through) your front door (or, firewall). Just as castles weren’t built with moats only in the front, your network needs to be protected at all of its entry points.
Secure Modems; Dial-Back Systems:If modem access is to be provided, this should be guarded carefully. The terminal server, or network device that provides dial-up access to your network needs to be actively administered, and its logs need to be examined for strange behavior. Its passwords need to be strong — not ones that can be guessed. Accounts that aren’t actively used should be disabled. In short, it’s the easiest way to get into your network from remote: guard it carefully.
A feature that is being built into some routers is the ability to use session encryption between specified routers. Because traffic traveling across the Internet can be seen by people in the middle who have the resources (and time) to snoop around, these are advantageous for providing connectivity between two sites, such that there can be secure routes.
Virtual Private Networks:
Given the ubiquity of the Internet, and the considerable expense in private leased lines, many organizations have been building VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Traditionally, for an organization to provide connectivity between a main office and a satellite one, an expensive data line had to be leased in order to provide direct connectivity between the two offices. Now, a solution that is often more economical is to provide both offices connectivity to the Internet. Then, using the Internet as the medium, the two offices can communicate.
Risk Management: The Game of Security:
It’s very important to understand that in security, one simply cannot say “what’s the best firewall?” There are two extremes: absolute security and absolute access. The closest we can get to an absolutely secure machine is one unplugged from the network, power supply, locked in a safe, and thrown at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, it isn’t terribly useful in this state. A machine with absolute access is extremely convenient to use: it’s simply there, and will do whatever you tell it, without questions, authorization, passwords, or any other mechanism. Unfortunately, this isn’t terribly practical, either: the Internet is a bad neighborhood now, and it isn’t long before some bonehead will tell the computer to do something like self-destruct, after which, it isn’t terribly useful to you.
This is no different from our daily lives. We constantly make decisions about what risks we’re willing to accept. When we get in a car and drive to work, there’s a certain risk that we’re taking. It’s possible that something completely out of control will cause us to become part of an accident on the highway. When we get on an airplane, we’re accepting the level of risk involved as the price of convenience. However, most people have a mental picture of what an acceptable risk is, and won’t go beyond that in most circumstances. If I happen to be upstairs at home, and want to leave for work, I’m not going to jump out the window. Yes, it would be more convenient, but the risk of injury outweighs the advantage of convenience.
Every organization needs to decide for itself where between the two extremes of total security and total access they need to be. A policy needs to articulate this, and then define how that will be enforced with practices and such. Everything that is done in the name of security, then, must enforce that policy uniformly.
As we’ve seen in our discussion of the Internet and similar networks, connecting an organization to the Internet provides a two-way flow of traffic. This is clearly undesirable in many organizations, as proprietary information is often displayed freely within a corporate intranet (that is, a TCP/IP network, modeled after the Internet that only works within the organization).
In order to provide some level of separation between an organization’s intranet and the Internet, firewalls have been employed. A firewall is simply a group of components that collectively form a barrier between two networks.
A number of terms specific to firewalls and networking are going to be used throughout this section, so let’s introduce them all together.
A general-purpose computer used to control access between the internal (private) network (intranet) and the Internet (or any other untrusted network). Typically, these are hosts running a flavor of the Unix operating system that has been customized in order to reduce its functionality to only what is necessary in order to support its functions. Many of the general-purpose features have been turned off, and in many cases, completely removed, in order to improve the security of the machine.
A special purpose computer for connecting networks together. Routers also handle certain functions, such as routing, or managing the traffic on the networks they connect.
Access Control List (ACL):
Many routers now have the ability to selectively perform their duties, based on a number of facts about a packet that comes to it. This includes things like origination address, destination address, destination service port, and so on. These can be employed to limit the sorts of packets that are allowed to come in and go out of a given network.
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ):
The DMZ is a critical part of a firewall: it is a network that is neither part of the untrusted network, nor part of the trusted network. But, this is a network that connects the untrusted to the trusted. The importance of a DMZ is tremendous: someone who breaks into your network from the Internet should have to get through several layers in order to successfully do so. Those layers are provided by various components within the DMZ.
This is the process of having one host act in behalf of another. A host that has the ability to fetch documents from the Internet might be configured as a proxy server, and host on the intranet might be configured to be proxy clients. In this situation, when a host on the intranet wishes to fetch the web page, for example, the browser will make a connection to the proxy server, and request the given URL. The proxy server will fetch the document, and return the result to the client. In this way, all hosts on the intranet are able to access resources on the Internet without having the ability to direct talk to the Internet.
Types of Firewalls:
There are three basic types of firewalls, and we’ll consider each of them:
Application Gateways:The first firewalls were application gateways, and are sometimes known as proxy gateways. These are made up of bastion hosts that run special software to act as a proxy server. This software runs at the Application Layer of our old friend the ISO/OSI Reference Model, hence the name. Clients behind the firewall must be proxitized (that is, must know how to use the proxy, and be configured to do so) in order to use Internet services. Traditionally, these have been the most secure, because they don’t allow anything to pass by default, but need to have the programs written and turned on in order to begin passing traffic.
Packet Filtering:Packet filtering is a technique whereby routers have ACLs (Access Control Lists) turned on. By default, a router will pass all traffic sent it, and will do so without any sort of restrictions. Employing ACLs is a method for enforcing your security policy with regard to what sorts of access you allow the outside world to have to your internal network, and vice versa.
There is less overhead in packet filtering than with an application gateway, because the feature of access control is performed at a lower ISO/OSI layer (typically, the transport or session layer). Due to the lower overhead and the fact that packet filtering is done with routers, which are specialized computers optimized for tasks related to networking, a packet filtering gateway is often much faster than its application layer cousins.
In an attempt to marry the security of the application layer gateways with the flexibility and speed of packet filtering, some vendors have created systems that use the principles of both.
In some of these systems, new connections must be authenticated and approved at the application layer. Once this has been done, the remainder of the connection is passed down to the session layer, where packet filters watch the connection to ensure that only packets that are part of an ongoing (already authenticated and approved) conversation are being passed.
Other possibilities include using both packet filtering and application layer proxies. The benefits here include providing a measure of protection against your machines that provide services to the Internet (such as a public web server), as well as provide the security of an application layer gateway to the internal network. Additionally, using this method, an attacker, in order to get to services on the internal network, will have to break through the access router, the bastion host, and the choke router.
Security is a very difficult topic. Everyone has a different idea of what “security” is, and what levels of risk are acceptable. The key for building a secure network is to define what security means to your organization. Once that has been defined, everything that goes on with the network can be evaluated with respect to that policy. Projects and systems can then be broken down into their components, and it becomes much simpler to decide whether what is proposed will conflict with your security policies and practices.