By Your Command

Morey Haber, Chief Technology Officer
March 1st, 2018

Science fiction fans will get the irony of this blog title. For those who do not remember the 1980’s TV show Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons (artificial robotic lifeforms created by humans) would state, ‘By your command,” after a verbal command by their evil human leader, Baltar. This simple reply was only used for verbal commands, but Cylons being machines, they could have accepted commands in other forms, including what we consider a command line. Since the Cylons would have to obey any and all commands from their human leader, they had a form of privileged access management since he alone could issue any commands. This would make him root (not groot – wrong scifi story, sorry).

In 2005, the popular show was rebooted with a cynical twist. Cylons where genetically engineered humans with traits of both humans and robots, and some did not know their true identities – machine or man. This lead to some great story telling but added a layer to the story of who had privileges to issue commands and who must obey. As the show evolved, it was clear that some Cylons where superior and had root access and others were just disposable worker bees, or standard users. All of which had to submit to “by your command” even though that was never used in the rebooted show.

While some of you may be wondering why a cybersecurity blog would cite a TV show for a blog, the point is very simple. Computers and machines take commands from people and other machines (A2A). Without controls on the privileges executing those commands, everyone is potentially root, and potentially any function from firing weapons to shutting a system down is possible. Gaining privilege access is the goal of every threat actor. In order to execute malware, steal data, or even drop your defenses, privileges are needed to execute the proper commands.

In the rebooted TV show, backdoors where inserted into the human military defense systems to allow a breach and cause outages during a Cylon offensive attack. The same scary scenario is true in our modern world today and even one anti-virus vendor (Kaspersky) has been accused of using their commercial solutions to create these nefarious opportunities on behalf of our enemies. In fact, they have been banned from all United States Government computing systems due to these alleged activities since they represent a privileged backdoor.

At the command line of any operating system, IoT device, ICS system, or SCADA implementation, privileges are a very powerful concept for controlling access to the resource. Unfortunately, many modern devices do not have granularity in controlling explicit commands, scripts, and accompanying switches. Many are all or nothing, and many have nothing at all. There was no technique to natively screen input, “by your command”, until now.

PowerBroker for Networks Controls “By Your Command” on Critical Devices

Let’s introduce PowerBroker for Networks into our Cylon scenario. PowerBroker for Networks is a command line-based privileged access management solution that can control SSH and telnet sessions based on the individual commands, switches and scripts entered as input. It allows real time processing of the commands to determine what should be allowed to execute and what should be denied. It establishes the identity of the user via the initial authentication (including MFA) and then processes policy based on each command to determine if they should execute and what privileges. By your command for each and every command.

For Cylons, the privileged hierarchy could now be established for subordinates or any other machines they interact with. This would allow or deny privileged access to any command line functions. For us humans today, we now have command line control of every command and can decide who can run which ones, from where, when, and the privileges required. This is huge when dealing with IoT, ICS, SCADA, and even operating systems and network infrastructure that have no privileged access or role based access paradigm to begin with.

PowerBroker for Networks adds a layer of security to all of these devices to implement this security model without agents but with the granularity to accomplish the necessary controls for regulatory compliance (application control on nontraditional IT). The only science fiction analogy to this model that I can think of is Gwen on Galaxy Quest. She was the only one with privileges to talk to the computer. Everyone else had to have her relay their commands. The computer would not answer to anyone else. In our real case, PowerBroker for Networks is the only solution that should talk to your devices and privileges to process commands are now controlled, session recorded, monitored, and processed by user to ensure they are appropriate.

PowerBroker for Networks is the first technology to market to perform these functions independently of resource and can work with any SSH or Telnet based device. For those science fiction fans out there, I hope this helps explain the technology and why it is so important to protect resources. If you would like to learn more (or just geek out on sci-fi), please contact us today.

Morey Haber, Chief Technology Officer

With more than 20 years of IT industry experience and author of Privileged Attack Vectors, Mr. Haber joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition. He currently oversees BeyondTrust technology for both vulnerability and privileged access management solutions. In 2004, Mr. Haber joined eEye as the Director of Security Engineering and was responsible for strategic business discussions and vulnerability management architectures in Fortune 500 clients. Prior to eEye, he was a Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. (CA), responsible for new product beta cycles and named customer accounts. Mr. Haber began his career as a Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.