Writing for Security: Action Items that Provoke Change

quillMost people don’t realize it, but the success of what you write will probably be measured by how actionable it is. I’ve read hundreds of security assessments and forensic reports that go into a perfect level of detail, only to find that they fall short of delivering what every report needs: something actionable.

Imagine watching a great movie. They’ve done a wonderful job developing complex characters, the plot engagingly builds, and you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. Right as the climax is happening and the story is coming to it’s pivotal point…the credit start rolling. It’s over. Although you might have enjoyed the couple of hours you invested up unto that point, you’re going to walk away with a bad taste in your mouth because you were robbed of a satisfactory conclusion. We all know movies like this, and usually chalk it up to lazy writing. This is exactly what you’re doing when you write without providing something actionable.

Whether you’re writing a security assessment report or an incident response report, your purpose isn’t merely to inform, it’s also to persuade. It isn’t enough that someone knows there is a vulnerability on their network. They have to be persuaded to implement controls that mitigate the risk of that vulnerability. It doesn’t matter if your forensic report does a good job explaining how an attacker got in. It has to persuade the reader to implement the necessary process changes or install the right tools to prevent it from happening again.

There are plenty of techniques you can use to be persuasive when you write, but before you do that you must identify what you want the reader to do. These are your action items, and the ability to identify them is what makes you an expert. Plenty of people can find vulnerabilities or find evidence of an attacker, but if you can’t identify actions to mitigate the risk associated with those findings then you’re report isn’t useful.

Identifying action items is all about mitigating risk. You should give the reader advice that prevents bad guys from doing some thing, or detects when they do it. You should always do both when possible.

Prevention Action Items

Prevention is as simple as making changes that keep bad things from happening. If you can give your reader steps they can take that prevent an attacker from doing something, that’s usually a win.

In reporting, I like to conceptualize change in terms of how difficult it is to accomplish. After all, it’s a lot harder to persuade someone to make a change if it’s going to be insanely difficult. Part of good writing is being honest with your readers, so it helps if to identify the level of effort required with a requested change. If it’s going to be easy you should make that clear so the reader is compelled to do it quickly. If it’s going to be difficult, be up front about and break it into steps. Your readers will appreciate this and will trust you more.

Changes will typically be categorized in terms of people, process, and technology.

  • People: Changing mindsets, providing training, hiring new staff, replace existing staff.
  • Process: Changing the way human or tech-centric things are done, adding new processes.
  • Technology: Configuration changes, additional software, new technology.

In most case, technology changes will be the easiest and people changes will be the hardest. It’s easy to manipulate systems, but it’s very difficult to acquire new people or change the way existing people think. The latter requires a lot more political and financial capital. This hierarchy of difficulty is how you should approach identifying prevention actions in your report. You should also report them in order of easiest to hardest within each individual finding.

In a lot of cases, some changes might touch all three areas. For example, building a security operations team requires hiring new people, building new processes, and implementing new technology. These massive changes should be saved for last and you should provide plenty of ancillary resources for the reader, as they will often involve topics that need to be covered in much larger depth.

When you are ready to start identifying action items, it’s helpful to ask yourself these three questions, filling in the blanks with the pertinent details from the finding you’re addressing:

  1. Are there any changes that can be made to prevent an attacker from __________?
  2. Is there anything new that can be done to prevent an attacker from __________?
  3. Is there anything that should be stopped in order to prevent an attacker from __________?

Let’s look at some examples of common findings and their action items. Notice that some action items combine categories, and some categories aren’t present.

 

Security Assessment: Web Server – Utilizing Plaintext Authentication

  • Technology: Change authentication method

 

Security Assessment: Local Windows Admin Account – No Password Rotation

  • Technology: Purchase password management software
  • Process: Institute manual change process

 

Incident Report: Attacker Guessed VPN Password

  • Technology: Institute lockout after three failed authentication attempts. Enforce stronger password requirements and more frequent rotation.
  • Technology + Process: Implement two-factor authentication.
  • People: Train users to use passwords that can’t be easily guessed

 

Incident Report: Workstation Compromised Because User Clinked Phishing Link

  • Technology: Install an e-mail threat protection appliance.
  • Process: Force users to use non-admin accounts and escalate privileges when administrative actions are needed.
  • People: Provide phishing awareness training to users.

 

Incident Report: Attacker Moved Laterally with Ease Due to Flat Network

  • Technology: Architect network for better segmentation.

 

These are just examples, but you can see where we started with technology and moved towards people. In most cases, the technology solution is going to be the easiest to implement in terms of labor hours. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a technology solution is always the best, but it is a step in the right direction. You want to give the reader the easy wins so they are more compelled to keep working towards to bigger wins. The first step is the hardest to take.

Detection Action Items

Detective controls are designed to detect when bad things happen. The vast majority of reports you’ve read probably don’t include them, which is a shame. Whenever you are making preventive recommendations, you should also make detective recommendations. There are a few reasons why:

  • Many organizations won’t be able to implement protective changes in a timely manner, or at all due to political or budgeting restraints.
  • Prevention eventually fails, and a key tenant of security is having multiple layers of controls.
  • The findings you’ve identified may have already been exploited, and an ability to retroactively detect this can help uncover a breach.

If you’re a consultant, writing detection action items can be difficult because there are a wide array of detection technologies. It’s hard to tailor detection content exclusively for a single customer without an intimate knowledge of their detection strategy. As a place to start, consider asking your client about their detection strategy and relevant technologies so that you can tailor your recommendations to them. This can be a part of the initial scoping call.

If you’re findings are related to your own network, or you’re writing a blog post, it’s a lot easier provide detection action items based on the precise technologies your using, or at a minimum prevailing open source standards. You can start with these questions:

  1. Are there any network-based indicators that can be used for detection?
  2. Are there any network-based behaviors that can be used for detection?
  3. Are there any host-based indicators that can be used for detection?
  4. Are there any host-based behaviors that can be used for detection?

This isn’t all encompassing, but in a lot of cases you will be able to derive some type of host or network based indicators or behaviors. An indicator can be something simple like a list of MD5’s or domain names, and will usually be representative of known evil. A behavior is usually more complex and will indicate a behavior that is normally legitimate, but could be the results of an attackers actions in some cases. This might be an action like a user account being added to an administrative group, or the use of the command “ping -n 1”. Both normal activities, but something that might not be done too often and worth of investigation in relation to the identified activity as it relates to the attacker or breach you’re describing.

In all of these cases, recommendations towards specific technologies are what will differentiate you. Don’t just give someone a list of domain names, also give them a Snort or Suricata rule that will detect them, including relevant context and information links. Don’t just give someone malware characteristics, give them the YARA rule to search for it. You might think that’s time consuming, and you’re right. Don’t be lazy! If you truly want to promote change and you expect your reader to go the extra mile, you’re writing has to do it as well. Something as small as creating a 10 line bash script to detect something will endear your reader/client to you forever, and will show your hands-on expertise.

More on Writing

If the things you write require the user to take action, you’re going to have to work harder to get them to do it. Just because you’ve written a very clear and informative statement on what a problem is and how to fix it doesn’t necessarily mean someone will take the action you want. The easier you can make this for people, the more they will be likely to actually pursue your recommendations. Going the extra mile in your writing will be rewarded with actions. If you can outline some prevention and detection action items, you’ll be writing content that will get people moving.

If you’re interested in learning more about my personal systems for better technical writing, I’ll be releasing more articles in that area soon, as well as a couple of videos. You can subscribe to the mailing list below to get access to that content first, along with a few exclusives that won’t be on the site.

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