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There was a recent rash of car break-ins at the gym. Not an epidemic by any stretch, probably 4 or 5, but still...

My gym used to allow you to hang your keys from a peg board at the front desk. This way you could come to the gym dressed to work out, lock your valuables in your car, and not have anything to worry about. Ignorance is bliss.

The problem was that anyone who wanted to could go pick up your car keys, click the unlock button and find your car. Once there, they could rummage through your stuff and then walk back in and finish their workout as if nothing had happened. The people doing this were a little smatter then the average thief and would swipe some but not all of your cash leaving everything else in place. Most thieves would steal the whole car and be busted more quickly. The victims were unaware that anything had happened for several days.

Fortunately, once the victims realized what had happened, the gym was still able to pull security tapes and find out who was misbehaving. All of the bad guys were busted, and everyone can now breathe a sigh of relieve. It is once again safe to go to the gym.

Except there was still a fundamental problem. Putting your keys on a peg board by the front door is just asking for bad things to happen. One person got busted exploiting this security flaw. Others can still be exploiting it. In fact, others may well have been exploiting it and simply never got caught. How long would it take you to realize that $10 was missing from your wallet, if everything else was there? How would you even know when it went missing? Would you go to the front desk and even bother to ask them to review security tapes if you were only missing a small amount. Once highlighted, it is easy to see how commonly such vulnerability may have been exploited.

So the gym did the very reasonable precaution of removing the peg board.

To me the most shocking part of this story is the resulting uproar from gym members losing the convenient key peg. How dare they remove the trusted peg board? How can I work out now, I have to carry my keys from machine to machine? How can I enjoy my workout with this added inconvenience?

This all happened a couple of weeks ago, and some people are still complaining.

In light of the recent high profile hacking, there are a couple of parallels that can be drawn. Many web sites are riddled with vulnerabilities are crazy and easily exploitable as leaving your car keys by the front door while you work out. No one ever considered thanking the people who were swiping these keys for pointing out the vulnerability. Without a hesitation, they had their gym memberships revoked and are awaiting prosecution. The gym did recognize the vulnerability for what it is, and closed up that attack vector.

What can we learn from this?

Monitoring and logging will not prevent a crime but they will allow us to identify that a crime took place and may help track down who did it.

Once we find a security weakness, we need to eliminate it. We may never identify and eliminate all security weaknesses, but we cannot allow well known vulnerabilities to persist in our system.

In our case, we are not likely to meet resistance from end users. We are more likely to meet resistance from stake holders, product owners, keeper of schedules and budgets. We may meet resistance from integration partners, co workers, and third party vendors. Regardless of the source, we will see resistance, but the weakness needs to be dealt with.

There is no need to glorify a cracker for bringing to light a security weakness. Regardless of their claimed motives, they are not heroes. There is also no point in wasting time defending weaknesses once they are identified. Deal with the weakness and move on.

In may be embarrassing to find security weaknesses in our systems, but it is even more embarrassing to continue ignoring them. Even if it is unpopular, we need to seek out security weaknesses and eliminate them when we find them. has put together the Common Weakness Enumeration which lists out common weaknesses. The site navigation takes a little getting used to, but there is a treasure trove here. Here is the detail page for SQL Injection. It clearly states how this can be exploited, in case anyone doubts that the weakness should be taken seriously, and more importantly how to mitigate the risk.

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2011 10:05 AM | Back to top

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