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Auditors Just Don’t Understand Security

Part of my new role as the Information Security Program Owner at NI is taking care of our regulatory compliance concerns which means I spend quite a bit of time dealing with auditors. Now auditors are nice people and I want to preface what I'll say next by saying that I think auditors do perform a great service to companies. I'm sure that most of them are hard-workers and understand compliance requirements probably better than I do, but they just don't understand security.

As a case in point, we're in the middle of our annual audit by one of those "Big Four" audit firms which I won't name here to protect the innocent. I sent an email checking in with our auditors to make sure that they had everything they needed before we went into our four-day holiday weekend. They said that they had received everything they needed except for documentation on "privileged users from the current OS and Database environments" as well as "evidence of current password settings from the application servers, OS, and Database". We go through a round of translation from Auditorese to Techie and figure out that they want exports of some specific user, profile, role, and privilege tables from the database and copies of /etc/passwd, /etc/shadow, and /etc group from the servers.

So we obtain the requested documentation and I shoot them back an email message to find out their proposed method for transferring the files. Secure FTP? No. PGP encryption? Nope. Their response back was astonishing:

How large do you think they'll be? Email should be fine.

Seriously? These are the guys that we're paying to verify that we're properly protecting our systems and they're suggesting that sending our usernames and password hashes via cleartext email is an appropriate method of file transfer. I respond back:

I'm not really concerned about the size of the files, but rather, the data that they contain. Sending files containing the users, groups, and password hashes for our financial systems via cleartext is probably not a good plan considering the point of this process is protecting that data.

And they respond with:

Whatever you'd like Josh. As long as you have the files as of today, we're good.

So now I'm convinced that auditors (or at least these auditors) view security as nothing more than a checklist. The people telling me what I need to do in order to protect my systems really have no clue about the fundamentals of security. If it's not on their checklist, then it must not be of importance. In this particular situation it may be easier or more convenient to send the documents via email, but any security professional worth their salt would tell you that's not secure nor appropriate for that data. Either our auditors hold themselves to a very different standard than the rest of us security professionals or they just don't understand security unless it's on a checklist.