This is the first in a series of blog posts sharing some stories gleaned from audits over the years (often combined from multiple experiences and with all identifying information removed). The goal is to share experiences and approaches to help new auditors get into the mindset of SAFETAG
One of the most common questions we get about the SAFETAG framework is whether one has to do everything in it for it to “count” as an assessment based on SAFETAG. The answer is absolutely not.
In describing SAFETAG, I often poke fun at the inevitable result of traditional “penetration tests” against an organization. These tests try every handle, press every button, and push on every closed door of an organization’s digital (and often physical) security to map out every possible vulnerability, resulting in incredibly detailed and overwhelming reports. For many organizations, this report may not even include a clear way to prioritize how to tackle it beyond a gazillion “high” priority issues and countless “medium” and below things to also ponder.
The secret follow-up punchline however, is that SAFETAG itself is, well, an overwhelming, detailed, 300+ page behemoth itself, and will continue to grow.
Choose your own SAFETAG Adventure: Try out the “TRI” model
We are working to make working with SAFETAG feel as flexible as it was built to be. It has always been a modular, “choose-your-own-adventure” style approach to working closely with organizations to assess the risks they face, and the best path for addressing their top priorities. One important way we are doing this is by adding metadata into each activity to help auditors build a comprehensive audit plan (follow the metadata branch at https://github.com/SAFETAG/SAFETAG/tree/metadata and the issue at https://github.com/SAFETAG/SAFETAG/issues/334! Initially, we are focusing on the time each activity takes, specific skills it requires, and what “type” of activity it is.
In SAFETAG, the various activities we suggest to learn about an organization tend to fall in three broad approaches: Technical, Research, and Interpersonal. It is tempting to focus on the style of approach you as the auditor are most comfortable with - people with backgrounds in digital security training tend towards the interpersonal, people with pentesting backgrounds the technical. However, by using a combination of these, you get a clearer understanding of not only the organization’s setup and infrastructure, but how decisions are made, how policies are enforced (or not), and where there are opportunities for organizational change.
The Dropbox Effect
An illustrative story from my own auditing experience is what I call the “dropbox effect”. This story, with small changes, has come out of … many audits I’ve been a part of. It starts during the initial scoping and interviewing stage (Interpersonal!), where management and/or any technical staff will say something to the effect that the organization has made a decision to not use dropbox (or google drive, etc.), so no one is using it. Digging through provided policy documents (Research!), there may even be a section on correct storage and backup / filesharing for the organization which specifically bans dropbox. Once you start scanning networks (Technical!) and talking 1:1 with end users (Interpersonal again!) as you sit with them and look at their desktop systems (Technical again!) – a different picture emerges. Dropbox is everywhere.
So, research and initial interpersonal approaches lead you to expect that staff members are not using dropbox. Additional activities (in this case, mostly technical) reveal the exact opposite. The combination of this work will reveal the why. Perhaps the communications lead needs to regularly send very large files to a print shop, and dropbox works where email doesn’t and SBs are unsafe. Perhaps people are using it to sync family or pet photos from their home account to have as a screensaver. Perhaps some people simply never uninstalled it after the policy change, but aren’t actively using it. Any or all of these can provide a hint towards what a recommendation to resolve this difference between the organization’s policies and its actual practices. Based on the specific risks and priorities of the organization, it may be relaxing the “dropbox ban” and improving information controls and entry/exit policies instead, or actually enforcing it but finding workable, policy-compliant solutions for these specific cases.
Does the TRI concept make sense? Sound even more confusing? Let us know on the issue queue or at [email protected]
SAFETAG Fellows and partners gathered for a 3-day workshop to expand the guidance that the SAFETAG framework has for auditors to respond to advanced threats - organizations receiving phishing emails or with active malware in their systems. This will all be included in a release going live later today. Thanks to all the contributions and support from the fellows in creating this!
Responding to Advanced Threats Method
In advance of the workshop, Dlshad Othman put together a new SAFETAG method for advanced threat response paired with an analysis activity. At the workshop, we expanded this into a full-on triage approach for responding to attacks, paired with “hooks” across the framework to better identify signs of active attacks. This collection of changes makes heavy use of the activity “variant” approach to combine very similar or parallel approaches in one single activity.
The majority of the work can be found in the new “Responding to Advanced Threats” method and its related activities, detailed below.
It is important to underline that this is focused on identifying malicious activity and doing the minimal possible analysis to responsibly triage it. Deeper analysis of the specifics may happen during the report-writing phase, but it is important to not be easily derailed from completing the SAFETAG audit process. This drives home the importance of having an agreed-upon incident response plan with the organization to determine how they would prefer to respond if something that is potentially serious occurs.
New and Updated Activities
Identifying and Analyzing Suspicious Activities
Malware is a common tactic to target organizations, Malwares like RAT (Remote Access Trojan) can provide an attacker with a back-door access to a targeted machine which enables the attacker to steal information, record audio and video and run commands on the infected machine. This component provides an overview for analyzing different types of suspicious emails, files, active processes, and network traffic.
This component briefs the tools and procedures required to acquire the image (live or dead, depending on the situation) and securely handle data from a device (laptop, desktop, HDD, memory stick, USB stick, etc.) that is needed to later perform a malware analysis or forensic evidence process.
This component describes how to perform an analysis on captured evidence (e.g. hard drive image or memory dump) without altering the evidence. Any alteration, or even an environment or situation that creates the possibility of alteration, could lead to rejection of the evidence in a court of law or to malware analysis failures.
In most cases, reach out for help, there are multiple organizations which coordinate and can support malware analysis targeting NGOs. The Digital First Aid Kit has a list of organizations and in most cases secure contact details to seek support in doing advanced analysis. The Rapid Response Network, a project of CiviCERT is a consortia of these organizations who may be able to help. Citizen Lab is also well known for their analysis and research.
Technical Context Research
An important cornerstone in working with high-risk organizations is having an expansive understanding of their potential adversaries and their capabilities. This has long been guidance in SAFETAG, and at the workshop we pushed out a more structured approach to tackle this research based on Internews’ internal digital country risk assessment methodology.
Changes to Incident Response
Since its inception, SAFETAG has had a section instructing auditors to create an agreed-upon incident response plan with the organization. During the Advanced Threats workshop, we expanded on this in parallel with the overall “triage” approach.
Changes to the Interview activity and creation of a High-Risk Interview activity
For the pre-audit interview process, we have improved the formatting of the overall section and added more questions to help identify potential attacks, and added a specific “Guiding Questions for High-Risk Organisations” to dive deeper where the auditor and/or organization already suspects they are under active attack. This additional interview activity is to identify if there are any indicators that the organization may have already been attacked and/or compromised, or if someone they know has faced advanced threats. It should help identify what threats / threat actors they are dealing with, and their intent. This will help the auditor prioritize work with the organisation during the audit and follow up and understand whether the auditor has the expertise to address or understand the threat or if outside expertise is needed.
Changes to Network Scanning and Traffic Analysis
We have added some guidance to help auditors judge whether open ports and network traffic is out of the ordinary for office environments. Naturally, every office set up is different, and this will rely on the auditor conducting on-site research and analysis. These changes are in the Network Scanning and Traffic Analysis activities.
Thanks to some feedback, we’ve updated the contribution guide at CONTRIBUTING.md with clearer, step-by-step guides, a reminder to post an issue to the issue queue first, and - most usefully - templates to use to get started crafting new SAFETAG methods and activities. Those can be found in the templates folder.
Internews is launching a funding pool to diversify and scale SAFETAG across the broader human rights and digital security community. Internews is seeking to fund 10-12 individuals or teams embedded in organizations to customize SAFETAG to meet their needs, conduct SAFETAG-based assessments integrating these customizations, and share these approaches back with the SAFETAG community. Grant amounts are expected to vary based on local costs and scope, but the average grant is expected to be $25,000 USD and approximately 4 months in duration.
Winning applications must support at least two SAFETAG-based assessments of at-risk organizations working with vulnerable or marginalized communities. These assessments should be in parallel with the creation and documentation of customized approaches – new activities which work better for the applicant’s region/community/specific threats and/or a “playlist” of existing (and custom-created or modified) SAFETAG activities which best work for this community. Grantees will be expected to responsibly share the non-identifying context research (e.g. high-level country risk assessments) within the SAFETAG community and to coordinate on peer-training events to share their approach. Following each assessment, the grantee will help the recipient organization develop risk mitigation plans to address weaknesses, and either provide direct support through existing organizational programming or connect the organization to external services, goods, or funding support as needed to address their security vulnerabilities.
Throughout this entire process, the grantee will have ongoing access and mentoring from Internews’ SAFETAG team and access to the combination of skills and implementation expertise of the entire fellowship pool. Internews will work to “match-make” grantees working on similar or related challenges for peer-training opportunities.
Preference will be towards individuals embedded in organizations working in the human rights and digital security space. Individuals may also apply, but the funding mechanism may be different. Winning applications will demonstrate continued post-funding usage of and contribution to SAFETAG as a community project.
Applications are due November 17 and will be evaluated by Internews’ SAFETAG team, the SAFETAG Community Advisory Board, and in consultation with SAFETAG funders according to the criteria (and regulations) in the submission form. If funds permit a second round will be opened in 2018.
Please submit your applications via this Google Form
If you would prefer to submit this information via PGP, please send to [email protected] and [email protected], encrypting to these keys: http://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=vindex&search=0xB46A01C3270C17F1 and http://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=get&search=0x6316FC03DF318F76 .
Seamus Tuohy of Prudent Innovation has completed an in-depth decision tree program for auditors/assessors to answer questions and builds a detailed, plain language agreement for you to use in your engagements. It’s built in Python on Debian/Ubuntu, and available in the SAFETAG community github.
It allows auditors to provide custom fee schedules and has specific call-outs for parts of the agreement which are the most critical to have local legal advice on. Given that SAFETAG auditors operate in legal jurisdictions all over the world and in a variety of languages, the template text will focused on clarity and conciseness instead of legalese. By clearly articulating the scope and intent of the each component lawyers in different regions will be able to evaluate and update the language to support their legal code. The repository comes with an example plain language template. It includes a “base” outline template and a fine-grained template file that extends this base. By editing the base template a assessor can add/remove large sections of the agreement without searching through the fine-grained template for the text they wish to remove, which also customizes the interactive agreement process, enabling auditors to quickly re-generate new agreements with small modifications.
The project’s README file includes both an installation guide as well as usage and advance customization documentation.
Please test it out and send in feedback via the issue queue, as this will be replacing the existing “draft engagement agreement” currently in SAFETAG.
As more and more contributors are helping build SAFETAG, we realized that the existing guidance on the structure had fallen out of line with the current setup, and how the SAFETAG content is getting mapped into the Content as Code framework.
We have now updated and combined our disparate documentation on the structure of SAFETAG in light of recent feedback and (in the ongoing effort to polish the repository) have uploaded it as a CONTRIBUTING.md file
Finally, there’s an updated release (ironically not including the above documents yet) which rolls up the changes from the recent write-sprint.
An ongoing interest in the SAFETAG community has been how to use the SAFETAG framework in situations where the auditor cannot travel to the organization at all, or cannot travel to remote or multiple office locations – what can be done remotely, what can be done with help, and what gaps remain that must be accommodated? Thanks to coordination and co-funding with multiple organizations, a SAFETAG peer-training and content sprint answered these questions with new approaches and adaptations to support a variety of remote-only SAFETAG assessment work.
Content created from this training and content sprint is included with summaries below and has been compiled into an updated SAFETAG release. The content sprint approach taken with this event took advantage of the existing expertise and experience of the attendees to co-create new approaches as a peer training approach. This has the exciting add-on benefit of supporting community-sourced contributions on the SAFETAG github repository, which can be seen via the github commit and pull history
Operational Security (expanded from Physical Security)
The thought process for dealing with “remote” audits - as well as the multiple scenarios they would be most likely - also led to improved clarity on the future of the “Physical Security” module for SAFETAG. It has been transformed into an “Operational Security” section to also include activities to determine staff traveling, working remotely or from home, and the security impacts of multiple offices, especially in situations where the auditor can only assess a subset of an organization’s offices.
The organizational security methodology is focused on how to mitigate against threats that occur because of the arrangement of digital assets in the physical world – how secure are the devices at an organization’s office, where and how staff travel with organizational devices, and whether staff work outside of the office (e.g. in remote offices, at their homes, while traveling, or at cafes). Further, is organizational information accessed from personal devices, and how are those devices secured?
This also enabled the movement of some odd pieces of the framework inside of this, such as hands off discovery of wifi networks and device beacons/probes (https://github.com/SAFETAG/SAFETAG/pull/289) – transforming an awkward “module” into an activity underneath this module that fits more naturally.
Office Mapping (New)
This activity seeks to identify potential physical vulnerabilities to an organization’s information security practices by documenting the current physical layout of the office and the locations of key assets, as well as potential “external” risks such as nearby/shared office spaces. This can be done in person independently or alongside the “Guided Tour” activity, and can also be done in advance of an assessment or remotely by a willing staff member who knows where these assets are located (often a technical or administrative staff person). This can also be conducted in a multi-office or home-office environment where the auditor is unable to visit every location.
Guided Tour (Adapted to include remote support)
During this component an auditor tours the audit location(s) and flags potential risks related to physical access at that location. This can be done remotely via secure videoconference over a smartphone or tablet that can moved around the office easily. Combining this activity with Office Mapping helps to reduce the awkwardness of taking notes while walking around the office, and if being done remotely, the two separate activities can be used to cross-verify the accuracy of each.
Scavenger Hunt (New)
This activity assists in identifying potential physical security concerns at an organization, particularly when an auditor cannot travel to the office location or cannot visit every office location. The scavenger hunt approach is focused on involving the organization staff members into mapping out potential threats based on the abstraction and the gamification of the physical security mapping process. See the “Risk Hunting” exercise in SaferJourno, page 19, for additional ideas and guidance on conducting this activity.
Remote Local Network Scanning and Device Assessment (Adapted)
This allows the auditor to work remotely to identify the devices on a host’s network, the services that are being used by those devices, and any protections in place, as well as to assess the security of the individual devices on the network.
Remote Facilitation (New)
Suggested approaches and methods to use if in-person facilitation for activities such as process mapping and data assessment is not possible. This may not provide as deep results as in-person facilitation, but should provide adequate level of expansion and verification needed.
We are exploring how to better present the SAFETAG content and enable auditors to explore, build and share audit plans, and contribute back to SAFETAG.
Please fill out this survey and inform the next steps of converting the content of SAFETAG into a more interactive and usable structure:
Based on the work from Berlin and revisions and feedback since, we have an updated and streamlined SAFETAG community governance document!
You can find it, alongside the Code of Conduct in the Code of Conduct file in the github repository, which contains the mission, community standards, and community governance structure.
This makes the code of conduct to better more specific, revised the community standards to reflect that the SAFETAG community is living within the orgsec.community world, and simplified the Advisory Board language to get things rolling sooner. As this becomes a self-sustained consortia, we can expand and codify additional items as necessary.
SAFETAG continues to expand its adoption among groups doing organizational security work. Towards this, we joined with a group of 15 practitioners recently in Prague who are working on all aspects of organizational security, from the audit/assessment piece through to implementation and follow-up support. We all shared experiences, resources and approaches to address our collective challenges by coalescing our understanding of what organizational security is, and how we can grow and hone our practice.
We were all very encouraged and buoyed by the depth and breadth of the collective knowledge to be tapped, and resolved to use this as a launching pad towards a larger knowledge space and a community of practice.
If you are attending the Internet Freedom Festival, we invite you to join the discussion, hear our outline of how to grow as an independent, open, and collaborative community; and if you are interested, to join efforts.
There is an initial session Thursday March 3 Noon-1 focused on building a more collaborative assessment framework based out of SAFETAG, followed up by an all-morning session scheduled for Friday 10–1, March 4. We want to hear from you about the challenges you face implementing organizational security support and your solutions; about your own organizational security systems and practices; and how you could benefit and contribute as an active member of this growing community.
This comment has been adapted from a cross-organizational posting which has included the below people and organizations:
- Ali G. Ravi, Confabium - post
- Alix Dunn, the engine room - post
- CC, EngageMedia - post
- Friedhelm Weinberg, HURIDOCS - post
- Jon Camfield, SAFETAG/Internews - post
- Karel Novotný, APC - post
- Kody Leonard, The ISC Project - post
- Kristin Antin, the engine room - post
- Maya Richman, the engine room - post
- Michael Carbone, Access Now - post
- Natasha Msonza, Digital Society of Zimbabwe
- Niels ten Oever, Article 19
- Pablo Zavala, Front Line Defenders
- Peter Steudtner, HIVOS-DIF / pantraining
- Wojtek Bogusz, Front Line Defenders
I’d be willing to wager that you, like me, have been offered “credit monitoring services” more than once in the past few years, because a place you’ve done business with or a past employer was hacked, potentially putting your personal data out on the market.
Corporations and governments, while they are struggling to keep up with hacks, do have resources and teams devoted to the battle. But smaller, much more vulnerable victims of attacks deserve our attention too.
Non-profit organizations around the world are also targeted by cybercrime, and don’t have the benefit of expensive services or personnel monitoring or protecting their systems.
And it’s not as if these small organizations don’t have valuable information — from pre-published research to healthcare data, records of environmental transgressions to election monitoring procedures — development and civil society work around the world collects reams of information that, in the wrong hands, can put an organization or its beneficiaries at risk. Even a lost smartphone or laptop will contain contracts, financial data, and private conversations embedded in the constant steam of emails.
Organizational security can feel like an impossible task, and many security audits or “penetration tests” are expensive and can be too aggressive for most small organizations. Vulnerabilities exist but fixing them are not necessarily high-priority for the organization.
Over the past two years, Internews has developed SAFETAG™ (Security Auditing Framework and Evaluation Template for Advocacy Groups) to address this challenge.
What is SAFETAG?
SAFETAG provides a framework that a digital security expert can use to help organizations identify and prioritize the risks they face and suggest a tightly-focused path to mitigating them. This path to increased safety is designed to be responsive to the actual capacity of an organization. This last element is critical. We have learned that even the best-laid plans will go to waste if the organization is not capable of implementation.
Audits based on the SAFETAG methodology start by working with the organization to explore the information and processes that they consider the most valuable.
For a media or journalism organization, for example, there might be calls and emails between a writer and confidential sources, which then turn into a working draft that is emailed between the author and editors before being sent to a webmaster to be added to the website. Are the phone calls sensitive? Should they be made over an encrypted connection? Where are the emails being stored? Work laptops? Personal smartphones? Email servers hosted by the organization?
The answers to each of these questions help the auditor and the organization think about where vulnerabilities that actually matter to the organization might be hiding. The process mixes interviews, exercises and technical verification and scanning, including documenting what the organization thinks it does versus what it actually does. The goal is to make all the organization’s processes and practices — not just the official ones — safe.
At the end of the day, SAFETAG is like the stone soup parable — the deepest impact comes from the organization taking the time to reflect on the threats they realistically face, the danger this puts them in, and their capacity to reduce these risks over time. The auditor is a catalyst with the resources to make it happen.
Another way that SAFETAG differs from more traditional security audits is that the entire framework is open source and licensed for reuse and re-mixing. Even the trademark on the name “SAFETAG” is meant to encourage organizations to adapt and build on SAFETAG — it requires auditors to avoid calling their work a “SAFETAG audit” but instead use phrases more like “based on SAFETAG.”
SAFETAG continues to evolve — as of today, Internews has trained 13 digital security auditors around the world and performed audits and risk assessments based upon the SAFETAG methodology for 20 at-risk organizations. More exciting than that, however, is organic uptake of the SAFETAG methodology. Other organizations are conducting their own versions of audits based upon SAFETAG.
The entire methodology is open and available on github, with active conversations around the future of the framework visible in the issues queue. “Compiled” versions of SAFETAG are available at https://www.SAFETAG.org .
The future of SAFETAG is to drive — and be driven by — this cross-organizational adoption. Working with this community, Internews is creating a set of practices and a common language that make up the SAFETAG “core activities,” along with with a “plug-in” type approach for advanced SAFETAG topics that auditors can provide to help organizations work through not only digital security risks, but also financial, reputational, or even legal risks.
Interested? We’d love to see you over in our issue queue!
(Image credit: Padlock: Plovdiv, Bulgaria – Rachel Titiriga/CC-BY)