If you’re a server admin and many of the terms or concepts in this article are new to you, don’t feel bad; when I first got into cybersecurity, I was in the exact same position. At the beginning of my career, I had no idea just how much I didn’t know. Even now, some companies underestimate how much training, knowledge, and experience server admins need to prevent data breaches. Things just keep floating along fine… until they don’t.
A server admin must avoid a lot of pitfalls, but I’m positive the following info will increase your cybersecurity awareness. My goal is to spare you from a catastrophic data breach that’ll negatively affect your company’s bottom line, and your career.
Avoid Placing a Server into the Wrong Security Classification
Smart companies have a corporate-wide policy that establishes different cybersecurity classifications for their servers and focus on the highest-priority servers. It makes no sense to guard every server with the same level of intensity, because diluting resources would weaken the security of the truly important servers. With that being said, when server admins build a server, they must place it in the correct security classification from Day One. Hackers will seek out servers that contain data they can sell, especially ones containing confidential records, or those exposed to the Internet. Over 30,000 websites are hacked per day, and that’s enough justification for server admins to ensure they’ve placed their server into the correct security classification right from the start.
Never Miss Applying a Security Patch by the Due Date
Hackers will take advantage of vulnerable servers, it’s their bread and butter, so never miss applying a security patch to your servers. I’ve popped up in bed out of a deep sleep because I dreamed I’d missed applying a patch to one of my servers. That’s how critical it is. The Equifax data breach of September 2017 resulted in the theft of 147 million customer records and is the perfect example of a missed security patch. Someone at Equifax failed to follow the proper patch procedures, and 147 million customers like me paid the price. An unpatched server is blood in the water for a hacker; breaching the network doesn’t guarantee a payoff, but finding a server with missing security patches means they’ve Hit the Hackpot.
Never Miss an IP Scan Due Date
The job of an up-to-date IP scanner is to reveal security exposures, and if you fail to run them on a server during the allotted time period, there’s a good chance you’ll have a security vulnerability on your hands. Without an accurate IP scan you’re flying blind, and that’s when data breaches or audit failures will happen because you’ve missed applying a patch.
Failure to Harden a Server, or on the Flip Side, Don’t Overharden a Server
To keep hackers out, a server must be hardened. This process entails ensuring system files have the correct settings, user accounts have only enough privileges to do the required work, vulnerability scans are run as required, patches are applied, unnecessary software is removed, default settings with security flaws for the operating system and applications are remediated, and anything that can allow a possible data breach must be neutralized. Unfortunately, overhardening a server can result in employees being unable to access the server. This is the result of a combination of internal errors; removing the security team from the Administrators group on Windows servers, commenting them out of the sudoers file on Linux servers, not allowing logins from remote, disabling direct access to the server via a serial cable, etc. External threats by hackers are made with bad intent, whereas accidental overhardening is done by inexperienced employees, but either way, the corporate bottom line takes a financial hit.
Adding Users Without Management Approval
Adding user accounts to a server without management approval is indicative of a breakdown in the change control process. If accounts are added and there isn’t an approved change control request to validate them, that’s a sure audit failure, or a crack by which a hacker can gain entry to breach the server. The change control process will serve you well, don’t shortcut it.
Unnecessarily Grant Administrator or Root Privileges to an Account
Close scrutiny is called for whenever an administrator account is created, or whenever a regular user is jumped up to an admin equivalent, because whoever owns the account has just been crowned royalty on that server. Not paying attention, nonchalance, work overload, or shortcutting the change control process will contribute to this problem. When a user account is given unnecessary admin rights and there’s a data breach, cybersecurity forensics auditors will find it as quickly as a dog finds a fire hydrant.
Accidental Deletion of a Volume
This is the kind of error that makes server admins wish they could roll back time, or crawl into a hole. I’ve literally stood there with my finger poised over the enter key, mind racing, just to make sure, for the fifth time, I’m making the correct changes before I actually move ahead and do it. I admit dealing with large amounts of important data made me nervous, but I never had to say “my bad” for making a mistake that cost my company money.
Server admins must pay attention to the failure or success of their backups. It’s something that’s so basic, yet so easy to overlook. If a volume is erased by a hacker and can’t be restored to the latest amount of work, then that’s a corporate nightmare. If data is accidentally deleted and it can’t be restored from backup, the users will go nuts, even if they’re the ones who did it, lol!
Not Schedule a Patch for the Maintenance Window
Slightly different from completely missing a patch date, not scheduling a patch to be applied during the maintenance window can result in not meeting the metrics of a Service Level Agreement by the team managing the server. Missed SLA metrics will cause financial penalties to be triggered against the server management team, and money is taken out of their departmental budget to compensate.
Sharing of Accounts and Passwords, Specifically the Admin Accounts
It’s a major corporate no-no to share user accounts and passwords, specifically the admin accounts. After a data breach, a cybersecurity forensics team can’t easily pinpoint which employee was hacked if the account is shared. The same applies to an internal error that results in loss of productivity, such as data loss. Say five team members share an admin account and know the password, and there’s a breach; suddenly they’re all under the microscope. The solution: Company policy must be that there are no shared accounts or passwords, period. For server admins, a single employee is to be assigned to the account, while others on the team will be members of the administrator group, or can elevate the privileges of their accounts as needed. Only the employee assigned to the administrator or root account can know the password, but the manager will have the password on file in case of emergency.
Failing to Open a Problem Management Record After Clearing a Hung Server with a Reboot
Rebooting a hung server without logging a problem record is absolutely useless, because there’s no record of how many times it’s occurred or under what circumstances, which is invaluable when diagnosing intermittent problems. Without running diagnostics, it’s impossible to know if the issue is hardware or software related. A server that hangs up for unknown reasons is like a car you have trouble starting; the problem isn’t going to magically disappear, it’s only going to get worse over time.
Closing a Change Control Request with Few Details
Adding “Done” or “Completed” in the work description doesn’t help months down the road if problems come up, and server admins should detail what they’ve done as well as possible. Imagine if cops filled out a robbery report and all they added was “Money’s Gone”? It won’t fly for them, and won’t fly for server admins trying to remember what they did months later, when memories have faded, or a forensics team has questions because they need to understand why a data breach occurred.
Failure to Maintain Server Documentation
Server admins are guaranteeing themselves nothing but trouble if they don’t maintain the required documentation for their server. On one hand if a server is breached, they’re leaving the cybersecurity forensics team a tough task when they try to backtrack and figure out why it happened. On the other hand, if the server gets picked for an internal audit, they’re toast.
Don’t Underestimate Hackers and Social Engineers
It’s easy to underestimate the sneakiness of hackers and social engineers until a data breach has occurred. It’s far more difficult to build something than it is to burn it down, and hackers are arsonists; all they need is a match and gasoline to get the fire going. A cybersecurity expert has to master a vast number of security techniques, while a hacker will do just fine as a one-trick pony. Hackers will target non-technical people in a company utilizing spear phishing attacks to gain the access they need, and then lock down corporate records for ransom demands, or steal intellectual property and other confidential information. They’re tricky. Server admins should never become complacent and allow these bums to get the best of them. The optimal way to do this is by utilizing your complete cybersecurity training skillset; following the policies, processes, and procedures of your company; and always being vigilant.
To sum it up, friends, a successful server admin is someone who understands cybersecurity is a marathon, not a sprint. Today may be a victory for you, but tomorrow is another day, and just like with any other job, you’ve got to show up with a positive attitude. Otherwise, it’s a grind, and hackers will take advantage of any lapse in concentration. Stay focused, stay upbeat, remember the no-no’s I’ve discussed, and I have no doubt you’ll have a long and wonderful cybersecurity career!
Johnny Young, aka JohnE Upgrade, is a 35-year veteran of the cybersecurity industry. He’s recognized as one of the top corporate cybersecurity experts in America, and is a much sought after thought leader in the field today. Johnny’s career has been devoted to neutralizing hackers globally for Fortune 500 corporations, by preventing data breaches before they can happen.
Johnny Young (aka JohnE Upgrade) is a 35-year veteran of the cybersecurity industry with a storied career helping blue chip companies avoid data breaches and the devastating financial and consumer trust losses that come with them. He recently launched CyberD TV, a video streaming service dedicated to cybersecurity training for the general public. He lives with his antihacker team, which consists of Scarlett the Cyber Bird and Elf the Wonder Dog.