Just like in a classic horror story, the biggest threats to many networks?especially in retail?today are those that few are noticing. As good horror writers know, the scary looking guy in the back is not the real threat. The best monster is the mild-mannered pleasant young woman in the front now, the one that no one suspects and is therefore given free reign.
Last year, Sharp was trying to awaken IT to the risky world of the network equivalent of the mild-manner harmless character: networked faxes, copiers, scanners and printers.
Their argument was compelling. Just a few years ago, it would have been ludicrous to put a firewall around a printer or copier. But as those devices have been beefed up with RAM, more sophisticated CPUs and?most critically?full 2-way IP access, they suddenly have emerged as huge vulnerabilities.
The second most dangerous risk is that someone will access the large number of stored documents or will trick the computer into sending documents it receives to a bogus IP address?a rather easy bit of corporate espionage.
The much bigger threat, though, is that someone can use that networked device to get into the LAN and, once inside, have the run of the place. Few servers today aggressively authenticate LAN printers or scanners.
I bring this all up because of a frighteningly similar pattern surrounding Point of Sale (POS) systems.
Last week, anti-virus vendor McAfee announced an anti-virus package for POS systems. Anti-virus for POS? How could a limited-function POS pick up a virus? It takes credit card info, sends a tiny message requesting authorization and brings that authorization code back.
The file size is far too tiny to house much of a virus?or worm, trojan horse, spyware or almost anything else?and the communication is so simplistic as to provide few means of tricking the system. Few POS verification efforts get distracted and start surfing unknown Web sites, opening e-mail attachments or FTPing audio files.
Cynicism aside, I wondered if I was falling into the same trap of the IT managers who didn't bother protecting printers because they never used to have to do that.
Larry McAnallen, the director of McAfee's mobile business development efforts, had no problem confirming that anti-virus POS problems do not exist today, but that misses the point. The smart security move is putting the safeguards in place before the threats arrive. And they will soon arrive in POS, he said.
Referring to the POS manufacturer that requested the anti-virus package (VeriFone), he said, "Oh, I think they're going to find that there aren't a whole lot of threats out there today that are going to scare their customers. This is absolutely a proactive and pre-emptive approach. Anything connected to the Internet can be breached."
In last week's column about the launch of Oracle retail and SAP's acquisition of Triversity, Triversity CEO Dave Thomas made a passionate case for the POS taking on a dramatically more centralized and sophisticated role in retail networks.
The POS, he says, has become light years more than just a faster more computerized version of an electronic cash register. It's now the heart of almost everything that is strategic in retail IT operations. Those things include loyalty, CRM, loss prevention, centralized returns, gift cards and even Web integration/multi-channel activities all falling under into the POS jurisdiction.
"There are quite a few new solutions through the combination, with complex order management driving that right down to the store level," Thomas said. "We're bringing multi-channel CRM into the retail store space."
For a security-focused CIO, those very accurate predictions should be setting off loud alarm bells. The POS sophistication boost will happen slowly, bit by bit, just as it did for printers. At what precise point does it cross the line from secure to dangerous?
And what kind of protection makes sense? Anti-virus? Firewall? Sophisticated intrusion detection? Does the nature of the upcoming POS require a new kind of protection, appropriate for its new capabilities?
McAfee's McAnallen said it's not just POS. Smartphones are pushing the RAM, transmission speed and storage capabilities of cellphones/PDAs. And yet he predicts that barely one percent of those corporate devices are protected with anything?anti-virus, firewall or anything else. McAfee itself doesn't even offer protection for one of the most popular PDA brands: Palm.
And PDAs regularly synch into desktops, laptops, giving them a clear line of site into the server. If PDAs aren't getting corporate IT frightened enough to act, what chance do POS and networked printers have?
Wireless is adding even more wrinkles to this. This week, contactless payment vendor Vivotech will tout what it says will be an end-to-end platform to support near field communications (NFC), including smartphone point-and-purchase capabilities.
Whether or not NFC efforts will take hold in the U.S. as strongly as they have in Europe and Asia is an open issue, but the retailers who are even experimenting with such efforts must look super-seriously at security. Nothing is more dangerous than an experimental piece of technology that few deployers fully understand.
Fred Vignes is the IS Director for the Atlanta Fulton County Zoo, which is one of the nation's top zoos and boasts about 700,000 visitors a year. Vignes rides herd on about two-dozen POS units bringing in about $12.5 million a year from the ticketing entrance, the gift shop and food service stations.
Vignes has no extra money in his budget, but he dedicated a chunk of it to protecting his POS systems. In his world, wild animals are somewhat trustworthy, humans much less so and computers far below that.
Part of his fear is that he's been using wireless communications for some of those POS units. "As you can imagine, a zoo is fairly fixed in its infrastructure and I needed the flexibility," Vignes said.
Vignes has slapped an Internet Security Systems (ISS) Proventia M30 integrated security appliance in front of his POS units, just in case.
"The ticketing is already connected to other integral pieces of my network. Somebody comes to the gate that is a member, I have to (query) the membership data in another place," Vignes said. "They have a barcode that says they are George, which I have to verify against my contact manager database. It touches all manner of stuff."
He said the growing integration of these units is indeed cause for concern and he doesn't see any evidence of vendors?let alone his fellow IT execs?taking it seriously.
"Potential viruses on these devices is a thing that I think, well, I'm more cognizant and more conscious of it than the bloody vendors," he said. "These POS terminals are now glued into our (IT) bloodstream. I have absolutely been worried about that because of the wave of what's next. Everyone one (of the POSes) will soon be doing this. You better be worried about it. It's going to get worse and worse."
Vignes makes a passionate argument that it is only the POS vendors?and their software partners?who can address this issue, but the first move has to be from the IT community insisting on action.
"Until the user community demands it, it will not be on the vendors' list of priorities," he said. "Rules change, opportunities change and vulnerabilities change."
Now there's an IT executive who makes a lot of sense. Why do I have the feeling that he'd have an easier time convincing his caged tigers to take action on this than most of his fellow users?