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Hardening Microsoft Windows – STIGS, Baselines, and Compliance
Windows hardening should be considered more of a prerequisite than an endpoint. But if you fall under any of the IT security compliance laws it is a very important prerequisite. As we say on our banner “It's not enough to be secure, you have to prove you're secure.”™ No Longer Supported
Windows hardening is basically locking down and securing the operating system. It involves removing unwanted services, configuring remaining services to operate with the least privilege necessary, disabling legacy support that isn't used, removing unused user accounts, enforcing a certain password complexity, closing unused open network ports, patching all known vulnerabilities, etc. All good stuff. If you fall under any of the various IT security compliance laws then hardening also involves a large degree of consistency and documentation.

Everyone knows Windows isn't very secure out of the box. It could be made far more secure with very little effort on Microsoft's part, these hardening steps are hardly secret. But Microsoft chose to make the operating system as backwards compatible and as user friendly as possible. Some people disagree with that approach but it is the reality that we live with and it is our job is to secure it. Luckily there is a wealth of information out there on how to harden Windows, maybe too much information. How does one know what is good advice and what is witchcraft? Below we'll review several sources of information and products used to scan for vulnerabilities and to verify compliance.

Everyone seems to be an expert in securing Windows. Advice ranges from simply installing a good antivirus program, all the way up to running everything through separate virtual machines and using a new fresh image after every use. But if you work for a U.S. Federal agency, bank, a health care provider or any organization that is covered by IT security compliance laws you know this issue is much more complicated. Even if your company or organization is not covered by compliance law having written baseline hardening requirements is a very good idea. It can help you prove you've taken prudent steps in protecting your customer and employee personal data should there be a compromise of such information.

“Compliance” (see definitions) was created to form a baseline level of security for everyone covered by that particular compliance law. But this baseline is geared more towards outcome than procedures. The law may specify that all personal data be encrypted but it does not say what product to use or the steps necessary to make sure it is done correctly. The law may specify that you have policies, procedures, and guidelines to address those issues but normally doesn't specify exactly how to obtain that goal. Those “hardening” steps are why Security Technical Implementation Guides (STIGS) are very important to providing a baseline level of security that compliance requires. Here are but a few laws that require IT security compliance measures: HIPAA - health industry, Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) – publicly traded companies, Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) – banking, securityies, and insurance companies, Cardholder Information Security Program (CISP) – requirements established by the credit card companies to ensure the security of cardholder information, Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) – U.S. Federal Government agencies. Each of these laws have some measure of IT security compliance measures that require written hardening procedures, reporting, and auditing. See links below for additional information.

If you work for a large corporation or a government agency they may have already established your Windows hardening procedures. But even many government agencies are still working on establishing their policies or rolling them out as mandated procedures. If your organization is still working on your hardening baselines you need not reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of policies, procedures, and guidelines that you can use as your starting point. Many of these are free, those that aren't free are well worth the cost when you consider the amount of time saved. Compliance law is complicated and the bureaucratic nature of it doesn't come naturally to most IT types (or hardly anyone else for that matter).

“The best practices for network security in 2007” – by Gary S. Miliefsky, writing for ComputerWorld
  1. Roll out corporate security policies
  2. Deliver corporate security awareness and training
  3. Run frequent information security self-assessments
  4. Perform regulatory compliance self-assessments
  5. Deploy corporate-wide encryption
  6. Value, protect, track and manage all corporate assets
  7. Test business continuity and disaster recovery planning

See the link above for a complete explanation of each of the 7 points. A must read if you are setting up your own corporate security plan.

If you're looking to develop or update your own Windows hardening STIG (or security baseline) the following list would be a great place to start.
  • DISA - DOD's Defense Information Systems Agency - The largest, and perhaps the best, collection of free STIGS, hardening instructions, checklists, whitepapers, tools, scripts, policies, and other guidelines. A great starting point for any new security program. The “Windows Gold” disk (CD ISO) is now on version 2 (as of January 2007) and was developed “to assist system administrators in securing systems and applications in accordance with the guidance found in the DISA Security Technical Implementation Guides, checklists and applicable Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks.” It covers Windows 2000 (Pro, Member Server, and Domain Controller), Windows XP, Windows 2003 (member server and Domain Controller), IIS 5, IIS 6, Microsoft Office, Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, and several antivirus products. Because this was developed by the military (for non-classified systems) the hardening is pretty tight and might break a production server or an important workstation application. It is best to use their templates on non-production machines for testing and remove those settings that cause problems before applying them to production computers. Be sure to document what you remove, add your own mitigation, and get management to accept any residual risk. Doing so will make that particular security baseline near audit proof. An excellent resource. Note: Areas marked as “PKI” or “.gov / .mil” are not open to the public.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) - Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Based off of NSA guidelines, see below. Hardening documents, security checklists, and STIG resources. They also have a “Gold Standard” .inf security template available for download. Though not as up to date as the DISA Gold Standard above it did go through a thorough vetting process among various government agencies. Not as likely to break things but should still be tested first on non-production machines.
  • The Center for Internet Security (CIS) – License fees apply. A “non-profit enterprise whose mission is to help organizations reduce the risk of business and e-commerce disruptions resulting from inadequate technical security controls.” “The practical CIS Benchmarks support available high level standards that deal with the "Why, Who, When, and Where" aspects of IT security by detailing "How" to secure an ever widening array of workstations, servers, network devices, and software applications in terms of technology specific controls.” They have free tools available to help you determine how your systems currently measure up to their industry standard security baselines. If you don't have written benchmarks in place the CIS STIGS are probably what the auditors will judge you by. If you do have your own benchmarks they better measure up to these or have good documentation as to why they don't. Again, if you use these STIGS document any variations, the reason for the variance, mitigation taken, and get management acceptance. This lets auditors know you are following industry standards and that management approved any changes (and residual risk).
  • National Security Agency (NSA) – Central Security Service. “NSA has developed and distributed configuration guidance for a wide variety of software from open source to proprietary software. The objective of the configuration guidance program is to provide NSA's customers with the best possible security options in the most widely used products.” The NIST STIGS use these are starting points. You'll find more STIGS here than at NIST but not as many as at DISA.
  • Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (CobiT) – Think of this as your big umbrella that is above everything else that you do. “COBIT is an IT governance framework and supporting toolset that allows managers to bridge the gap between control requirements, technical issues and business risks. COBIT enables clear policy development and good practice for IT control throughout organizations.” “COBIT has become the integrator for IT best practices and the umbrella framework for IT governance because it is harmonized with other standards and continuously kept up to date.” COBIT is international in scope and can be applied in any environment.
  • Policy and Guidance – Links to various IT Security related policies. A very good starting point for researching IT security regulations that apply to U.S. military and civilian agencies.
  • SearchCIO.com Compliance definitions and acronyms.

Books at Amazon.com:
  • FISMA and generic Policy Books at Amazon.com. There aren't many books out that apply specifically to FISMA, but there are a lot that cover the general principals of writing policies, procedures, and guidelines that are required under FISMA. Having a few of these on your shelf certainly won't hurt.
  • HIPAA, SOX, GLBA, CISP, etc. – Books at Amazon.com. Several books are available that cover the civilian compliance regulations. You should not rely simply on what you find researching on the internet. Also don't trust everything your hired experts say, the people you're working with may not be as knowledgeable as they claim. Remember there is a lot of money to be made right now bringing companies in to compliance, make sure you ask the right questions.


In addition to “compliance” there is real hardening (which should actually fit in to your compliance security plans). Here are some tools that you can use to check test the security posture of your networked PCs.

  • Nessus – Nessus is owned by Tenable Network Security and is free for anyone to use (including government and commercial). Nessus has been what other vulnerability scanners are judged by for many years and it is still one of the best products out there. Though the product weighs in at 168 megs and contains over 13,500 files it can still be installed and used to scan just one computer. Or use it to scan your entire enterprise if you so wish. The product scales very well and the more hardware you throw at it the faster the scans will complete. Nessus is relatively easy to use but like any scanner interpreting the results, weeding out the false positives, and fixing the issues it finds require IT experience. An amazing product considering the price. Tenable makes their money from training, support, and add-on products. Their “Tenable Security Center” “provides proactive, asset-based security risk management. It unifies the process of asset discovery, vulnerability detection, event management and compliance reporting for small and large enterprises.” In regards to Nessus you will not find a better or more comprehensive free vulnerability scanning product anywhere.
  • Belarc Advisor - The Belarc Advisor “builds a detailed profile of your installed software and hardware, missing Microsoft hotfixes, anti-virus status, CIS (Center for Internet Security) benchmarks, and displays the results in your Web browser.” Free for personal use. Commercial, government, and non-profit organizations should look at their other products which include many more features for managing security on multiple computers.
  • Secunia's Software Inspector – Basic online application vulnerability scanner. Not really in the same category as the other products listed here but it is free and serves an important purpose. Many of the 3rd party applications loaded on PC's need to be patched and can be overlooked by network based scanners if the scanner doesn't have administrator access to those computers. There are certainly more capable products on the market for doing this but they come with a big learning curve and a higher price.
  • Retina Network Security Scanner – by eEye Digital Security. “eEye's integrated suite of vulnerability management solutions enable organizations to manage the entire lifecycle of security threats: before, during, and after attacks. Working in conjunction with popular tools such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems, eEye's products include: Retina® Network Security Scanner, Blink® Professional, REM™ Security Management Console, Iris® Network Traffic Analyzer, and SecureIIS™ Web Server Protection.” eEye's Retina scanner is used widely in the industry even if sometimes people don't know they're using it. eEye often releases a single audit version that scans the network for PC's vulnerable to one particular threat. e.g. Retina MS06-040 NetApi32 Scanner. You can find a complete list of their free single audit scanners here. Eeye is also responsible for the Zero-Day Tracker that appears on the left side of this page. A well respected company that has made a lot of news for discovering new vulnerabilities and releasing free single audit scanners. Be sure to take a close look at all of their products when evaluating what your company will use.
  • StillSecure® VAM™ - “vulnerability management platform identifies, tracks, and manages the repair of network vulnerabilities across the enterprise.” Goes well beyond detecting host vulnerabilities, VAM is a complete vulnerability management system with a database backend for tracking, assigning, and documenting fixes / mitigation steps. VAM does a very good job of detecting vulnerabilities but might be overkill for a small organization. VAM's main claim to fame is its work flow features for repairing and documenting mitigation steps, which are very important under compliance laws.
  • GFI LANguard Network Security Scanner – GFI has several security products including vulnerabilty scanners / management, patch management products, email security products, etc. “GFI LANguard Network Security Scanner (N.S.S.) checks your network for all potential methods that a hacker might use to attack it. By analyzing the operating system and the applications running on your network, GFI LANguard N.S.S. identifies possible security holes.”
  • IBM Internet Security Systems - “provides security products and services that preemptively protect enterprise organizations against Internet threats.” ISS has a broad spectrum of security products, including: IPS, IDS, Anomaly Detection Systems (ADS), vulnerability management, security management systems, etc. ISS has been around since 1994 and is well regarded in the industry. It was purchased by IBM in October of 2006 (for $1.3 Billion) and is quickly reshaping its self as the enterprise-wide solution provider to beat.



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