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Security: Getting Off the Patch

FEATURE / 04.27.18 / Pete Herzog

Part 1 of 2

Most people are on the patch right now. These patches release a small dose of "security achievement" to last until the next patch is available. That feeling of having done something about security is hard to deny which is why so many people crave it.

Luckily for the patch addicts out there, they’re also a compliance requirement. For those of you who don’t know, a compliance requirement is apparently when a bunch of influential companies can suggest the same bad practice, usually involving some software they sell, which makes it a best practice.

Then, they all donate the time of an employee to help write those best practices into some compliance checklists. Then some money is transferred to Panama. And that, kids, is how a bill becomes a law. I may have missed a step or two but you get the idea.

Anyway, my point is that patches are easy to do, cheap to get, and make people feel good for a little while. But they wear off really quickly, and you’ll need more in no time flat - they're kind of like the information security equivalent of nasal spray.

Is it Any Wonder Why We Call Patches a “Fix”?

Software companies, those patch dealers, love the patch. It gives them a way to change their code after it's already been paid for and put on your machine. This way they can provide new features and fix vulnerabilities or, still under the guise of the security update, address their own internal policy issues by removing content you already had, change their corporate strategic models and direction by removing parts of your application to be re-sold back to you as add-ons, or to better track how their software is being used - which turns their customers into unpaid focus groups.

So, for as much cost and expense as it takes to make a patch to fix problems, the patching process has also allowed the software makers to have a much longer interactive life with customers than most other product makers get. Therefore, the high level of social acceptance patching has achieved has truly been a boon for the software industry that other industries would love to have.

Imagine if the clients of the dental industry sent three requests a day to them to see if they could get a cleaning yet. Or if car owners checked in every 24 hours with their local dealership to see if there's a new model available yet to upgrade to.

So, the patching process is special. Patching forms an unprecedented addictive behavior that has now become part of so many routines that people rarely question its value in their lives. That puts patching alongside caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine as the socially acceptable, short-lived-effect, dependency-building, legal drugs if used in moderation along with a healthy lifestyle - and there's the catch.

We are told patching is good. It feels good. We see it as fixing something which we are told is broken: there's a hole, bad people can take advantage of it, and now they can't. It fixes a definite, specified problem. And it feels good and safe and comfy to take care of problems, like a raccoon washing moldy garbage in a stream before eating it. All good things.

I am not alone in having patch regrets. Yes, many, many, many people have patched or updated parts of a system only to find it got worse. Sometimes you can roll back a patch. Sometimes you only think you can. That’s patch regret.

Furthermore, when patching fails to help us we are reminded by the software makers that it was us who failed and not the patches. Which is unfair because we are told specifically that we need a patch management process to be securek. We are threatened by our security-conscious cyberhygiene-amatic peers that failure to patch is patching to fail. Okay that phrase doesn’t work, but you get the point. If we don’t patch we’re wrong, if we don’t patch according to a patch management process that has us test the patches before production we’re wrong. And if we patch all the right ways we’re still wrong when there’s a breach.

Why Patching is Just Part of the Solution

It’s because patching is just one part of the solution, as the patch-pundits are quick to remind us, that includes antivirus, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, strong authentication, encryption, physical locks, disabling of scripting languages, reduced personal information on social networks, and security awareness training as part of a healthy security lifestyle solution.

I don't know about the rest of the world, but I've seen this before. As a kid, my breakfast cereal of frosted, chocolaty, Super Corn Crispies was also healthy for me as long as it was part of a nutritious breakfast that they showed right on the box which also included fresh-squeezed orange juice, bran toast, turkey bacon, egg-whites, and a multi-vitamin pill.

At some point I realized I wasn't eating the Super Corn Crispies as part of a nutritious breakfast, but I was eating it because I wanted to. And if I stopped eating it, it didn't really take away from my nutritious breakfast. Growing up and being healthier actually meant realizing the difference between what is filling - like three bowls of that cereal - and what feels fulfilling - like an actual nutritious breakfast that is significantly lower in things with a shelf-life of a century.

So what is patching really? In the security industry we are told it is part of defense in depth. We are told that it is a specific deterrent or end to a specific threat. We are reminded it’s part of the security process. We are educated that it is one tactic in a strategy to minimize risk. We are cajoled into thinking it's a measure to maintain operations. And we are informed that it's one of the many, many controls which security appears to have. Although, that last one more than the others is due to the vocabulary problem of the security industry.

Now the security industry gets occasional complaints for seemingly making up their own words. And they have. Additionally, the security industry that has altered many of the definitions of these words, which explains why it's so hard to find two security professionals to agree on some standard definitions.

Although I understand other industries of similar scientific maturity (like the ghost-hunting industry and the bigfoot-hunting industry we see so much on TV these days) have the same problem. Like where else in any other industry besides cybersecurity and ghost-hunting does a firewall not protect against fires? (FYI - in ghost-hunting a firewall protects people against the icy, soul-sucking touch of a Specter. Look it up.)

The security industry commonly states that the patching process is an Administrative Control. We know it is part of a business strategy for software companies; however, for the security professionals and the end-users, I'm not so sure it is. In the security trenches we know patching doesn't help maintain a baseline because it changes it. Yes, patching changes code which changes operations. That's why patching is part of Change Control and is tested on non-critical servers first.

This is a very important point because you design your operations to be a certain way and if you're changing them constantly with patches, how can you be sure of what you have and what it's capable of at any given moment? You can't. So, no wonder we have such a hard time to secure our operations if we are always changing them.

We also know that patching doesn't eliminate or reduce harm on its own. At best it either closes an interactive point or fixes a flaw in an existing operation. Rarely does patching introduce new controls, but it's possible that a particular patch integrates a solution with controls to an existing service like packet filtering, encryption, or input sanitation.

But it's not the patching or the patch which is the control because it itself doesn't interact with the threat. The patch is only a way to add or take away code. It makes a change to how things currently run, just like policies and security awareness training do (also administrative controls) to help achieve a security strategy.

Wait, aren't things that help achieve a strategy called tactics? So it turns out that patching may not actually be an Administrative control? Actually it’s not. It is not and should never be an administrative control. Maybe that’s just another mislabeling issue but it’s a pretty big one if the wrong people are doing it for the wrong reasons.

So, in conclusion of Part 1 of this helpful patching article, just like all the other patching articles that are out there, you should be aware that there’s a whole lot more to patching than fixing a bug or a vulnerability. Yes, there’s so much more going on. And we’ll explore it even further in part 2 until we’ve beaten this topic to death, and then keep beating it until you realize that patch management is not the fun party game you’ve grown to love and respect.

Pete Herzog

About Pete Herzog

Guest Research Contributor at BlackBerry

Pete Herzog knows how to solve very complex security problems. He's the co-founder of the non-profit research organization, the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM). He co-created the OSSTMM, the international standard in security testing and analysis, and Hacker High School, a free cybersecurity curriculum for teens. He's an active security researcher, investigator, and threat analyst, specializing in artificial intelligence (AI), threat analysis, security awareness, and electronic investigation.