Basic Principles to Protect Information Systems

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When trying to achieve the goal of "Maximum Security" or "Maximum Protection" for your IT assets, remember; IPTables, or any firewall for that matter, is just one small component. In other words, any firewall (software, or hardware), is not a magic wand. Merely placing a firewall on your server, or between your users and the internet, does not guarantee that the assets you are trying to protect, are actually protected. There are other areas to pay attention, in parallel to setting up / placing a firewall. The following principles must always be a part of your IT Security Policy, to achieve the goal of "Maximum Security" or "Maximum Protection".

Note: Most people don't pay attention to the fact that it is not only the servers and corporate networks, which are to be protected from the Internet. It is equally important to protect the internet from your servers or the corporate networks. i.e. Make sure that your server, or any of the computers inside your LAN are not compromised, and do not become a slave of a BOTNET to perform any sort of DOS or DDOS attack on other computers, or on Internet in general. "You can be held liable for such damages". Below are the basic rules to follow, resulting in what is known as layered security.

Internet Servers:

  • Install the least amount of packages/software on the servers. This principle is equally valid for the servers placed on the Internet, or the servers placed on your private LAN. The goal should be to only install software which is related to the service offered by this server. For example, in case of a web server serving web pages generated by PHP, on the data stored in a MySQL database, you should install the minimal OS, and Apache Web Server, PHP, and MySQL database software on top of it. It would also be totally useless to have printing software (CUPS), office suite, or multimedia related packages, or desktop/window managers on this server.
  • Each service running on your server is a door to your server's inside. Thus, enable only those services on the servers, which are an absolute must to run. For example, on a web server, you should only enable the web service and the services related to it. Switch off any/all irrelevant services. As you do not expect anyone to print any documents from the web server placed half the world away, there is no sense in having CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) service running on it. This way, there are less doors to lock / less holes to plug.
  • Lock down services which are not needed to be accessed from outside. On a stand alone web server, there might be a MySQL database server running. However, this DB service doesn't need to be accessed from outside. Therefore in this case, lock down the DB service to listen only from the server's local IP address, or the loop back address. Apply the same to other services.
  • Strip down each service to a bare number of modules. For example, if you are authenticating the website visitors against a MySQL database, there is no use to load LDAP, or PostgreSQL modules in your Apache configuration files.
  • Make sure to keep the OS and application software updated. This will ensure that you run your OS and the applications running on top of it with minimum bugs / vulnerabilities. The least the vulnerabilities, the least chance for them to be exploited.
  • Avoid creating users on your server, with access to any sort of command shell.
  • Implement a local iptables firewall on each internet server, in addition to any of the physical firewall already provided/implemented by the service provider, to drop any unwanted traffic such as Ping of Death, Ping floods, etc. This way if your perimeter firewall is compromised, you still have some level of protection available for each server.
  • Try to use SSH 2, or later, for all interactive logon sessions. Never use telnet.
  • Make sure to use key based authentication on SSH. The key must be pass-phrase protected. This is known as two-factor authentication.
  • Disallow/lock direct logon as user root. Always logon directly as a normal/ordinary user. Switch to root, only when there is a need to; and then logout immediately when you are done.

LAN users/Corporate networks:

  • If possible, avoid all Microsoft products on your network. It is not a grudge. Privacy is the major concern. Security wise, it is a fact that most of the time, Microsoft products have serious bugs, vulnerabilities, back doors, and Easter eggs inside them. And they are easily hit by viruses, trojans, malware, spyware, etc. If you take a look at any commercial network, the network administrator is always complaining of the amount of spam being generated from the "inside network". That may lead to an assumption that the network/system admin is not doing his job in the first place. Still, windows systems are always more at risk. If there is a need to use windows systems, make sure that each workstation is protected by a "working"/"good-quality" anti-virus and anti-spam software. Also make sure that each workstation is up to date with the latest updates released by Microsoft. Also, make sure, that the subscriptions of both the OS and the applications on top of it are current. Most of the time, the anti-viruses's subscription is expired, and they stop working. It is also a fact, that the users also choose to ignore the warnings sent by the software, resulting in exploitation of any vulnerabilities in their systems.
  • Linux OS and related Open-Source applications are a better choice, compared to Microsoft. These products have lesser bugs, fixes are available almost immediately, and there is no subscription (most of the time), to get updates. Debian, Fedora, CENTOS, Ubuntu, etc, are all subscription free operating systems, with remarkable security architecture, performance, and ease of use.
  • Make sure, that both Windows and Linux systems on your network, follow some defined security policy. Such as users should not have ability to install any piece of software, without the security administrator's approval. Similarly, the list of software to be run on the corporate network, must be a limited one, allowing only that software to be installed on a computer, which is aligned to the user's job role/job responsibilities.
  • Lock down Floppies, CD/DVD writers and USB ports on the computers. By the way, this is very difficult to implement in today's computing environments.
  • DNS, DHCP services running on the network must be protected against users adding dummy DNS records in the DNS zone. They (users) should also be restricted in acquiring IP addresses for their computers.
  • Any Wireless access points in your network, must use authentication mechanisms, and allow only those computer systems to connect to them, which provide necessary credentials at connection time. You must also use strong (strongest available) encryption to encrypt your wireless traffic.

This is not a definitive list, but should give you a clear idea.

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