QotW #6: When the sysadmin leaves…

2011-08-19 by . 1 comments

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When we talk about security of systems, a lot of focus and attention goes on the external attacker. In fact, we often think of “attacker” as some form of abstract concept, usually “some guy just out causing mischief”. However, the real goal of security is to keep a system running and internal, trusted users, can upset that goal more easily and more completely than any external attacker, especially a systems administrator. These are, after all, the men and women you ask to set up your system and defend it.

So us Security SE members took particular interest when user Toby asked: when the systems admin leaves, what extra precautions should be taken? Toby wanted to know what the best practise was, especially where a sysadmin was entrusted with critical credentials.

A very good question and it did not take long for a reference to Terry Childs to appear, the San Francisco FiberWAN administrator who in response to a disciplinary action, refused to divulge critical passwords to routing equipment. Clearly, no company wants to find themselves locked out of their own network when a sysadmin leaves, whether the split was amicable or not. So what can we do?

Where possible, ensure “super user” privileges can be revoked when the user account is shut down.

From Per Wiklander. The most popular answer by votes so far also makes a lot of sense. The answer itself references the typical Ubuntu setup, where the root password is deliberately unknown to even the installer and users are part of a group of administrators, such that if their account is removed, so is their administrator access. Using this level of granular control you can also downgrade access temporarily, e.g. to allow the systems admin to do non-administrative work prior to leaving.

However, other users soon pointed out a potential flaw in this kind of technical solution – there is no way to prevent someone with administrative access from changing this setup, or adding additional back doors, especially if they set up the box. A further raised point was the need not just to have a corporate policy on installation and maintenance, but also ensure it is followed and regularly checked.

Credential control and review matters – make sure you shut down all the non-centralized accounts too.

Mark Davidson‘s answer focused heavily on the need for properly revoking credentials after an administrator leaves. Specifically, he suggests:

  • Do revoke all credentials belonging to that user.
  • Change any root password/Administrator user password of which they are aware.
  • Access to other services on behalf of the business, like hosting details, should also be altered.
  • Ensure any remote access is properly shut down – including incoming IP addresses.
  • Logging and monitoring access attempts should happen to ensure that any possible intrusions are caught.

Security SE moderator AviD was particularly pleased with the last suggestion and added that it is not just administrator accounts that need to be monitored – good practice suggests monitoring all accounts.

It is not just about passwords – do not forget the physical/social dimension.

this.josh raises a critical point. So far, all suggestions have been technical, but there are many other issues that might present a window of opportunity to a sysadmin with a mind to cause chaos. From the answer itself:

  • Physical access is important too. Don’t just collect badges; ensure that any access to cabinets, server rooms, drawers etc are properly revoked. The company should know who has keys to what and why so that this is easy to check when the sysadmin leaves.
  • Ensure the phone/voicemail system is included in the above checks.
  • If the sysadmin could buy on behalf of the company, ensure that by the time they have left, they no longer have authority to do this. Similarly, ensure any contracts the employee has signed have been reviewed – ideally, just like logging sysadmin activities you are also checking this as they’re signed too.
  • Check critical systems, including update status, to ensure they are still running and haven’t been tampered with.
  • My personal favorite: let people know. As this.josh points out, it is very easy as a former employee knowing all the systems to persuade someone to give you access, or give you information that may give you access. Make sure everyone understands that the individual has left and that any suspicious requests are highlighted or queried and not just granted.

Conclusions

So far, that’s it for answers to the question and no answer has yet to be accepted, so if you think anything is missing, please feel free to sign up and present your own answer.

In summary, there appears to be a set of common issues being raised in the discussion. Firstly: technical measures help, but cannot account for every circumstance. Good corporate policy and planning is needed. A company should know what systems a systems administrator has access to, be they virtual or physical, as well as being able to audit access to these systems both during the employee’s tenure and after they have left. Purchasing mechanisms and other critical business functions such as contracts are just other systems and need exactly the same level of oversight.

I did leave one observation out from one of the three answers above: that it depends on whether the moving on employee is leaving amicably or not. That is certainly a factor as to whether there is likely to be a problem, but a proper process is needed anyway, because the risk to your systems and your business is huge. The difference in this scenario is around closing critical access in a timely manner. In practice this includes:

  • Escorting the employee off the premises
  • Taking their belongings to them once they are off premises
  • Removing all logical access rights before they are allowed to leave

These steps reduce the risk that the employee could trigger malicious code or steal confidential information.

Filed under Business Risk

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