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CYA for System Administrators
Pages: 1, 2

Know your company's policies

Even if you have a complete job description, it's a good idea to have a good understanding of your company policies about information security. Most large companies (and many startups) have such a policy, and it's usually quite detailed in terms of how information must be secured (especially for customer data like credit card information and the company's confidential documents) and what kind of firewall must be used to connect to outside networks and what kind of traffic (protocols) may transit such firewalls.



If your job description includes (or you think it should include) the responsibility to enforce password safety or the ability to look for unauthorized activities or services on your network, it's important that you check the official policies to make sure you are not going to cross one of those management lines that create legal problems. If your company doesn't have any policies in this area it doesn't mean you're off the hook and can do what you want. In the legal maze of corporate law it often is the case (especially when things get to court) that much like a well-run firewall, "that which is not explicitly permitted is denied." It's not a good idea to test the waters by doing something just because the corporate handbook doesn't explicitly state that you can't.

A better strategy is to help your management craft a well thought out policy for your company so that there is no ambiguity in what can and cannot be done on your firm's networks and systems. In doing so you will save yourself, and those who follow you, a lot of pain and suffering.

Know your limitations

"A man's got to know his limitations" is a classic line that every Clint Eastwood fan knows by heart. In the world of system administration it's a good phrase to memorize. In reality there are situations where either:

  • it's not possible to get your management to give you a clearly spelled-out job description, or
  • your company may just not have any policies (or interest in creating any), or
  • worst of all, both.

In such a case it's a good idea to know your limitations and use very conservative judgment on how far to go when your are securing your machines, looking for bad passwords, or even using network tools to fix problems. If the political situation is touchy make sure you get something in writing from a manager (the higher-ranking the better) authorizing your actions so that you can point to it if anyone makes an issue of what you are doing.

Additionally, security work should be something that you receive authorization and indemnity for from the highest level of the company for which you are consulting. I never do security work on the authorization of a mid-level manager. Having a letter of authorization from the executive office as well as the firm's corporate counsel can keep you out of the kind of hot water that can cook your goose.

If you are a consultant, all of the points mentioned here apply to you "times 100." Consultants are easy scapegoats when sacrifices are needed on company altars. Having explicitly spelled out contracts are essential to both ensuring that you know what you are supposed to be doing, as well as providing boundaries that both you and your client will be reluctant to cross.

Liability Insurance

Most major insurance companies offer some form of liability insurance to professional consultants.

The IEEE and other professional organizations also offer liability insurance to their members.

Consultants should also carry liability insurance on the order of US$1 million to $2 million, to ensure that an angry client does not financially devastate them. If you are (as I am) a security consultant, you should carry even more insurance ($5-10 million) since your work, especially in network intrusion tests and related security analysis, can cause unintended system disruptions of the client's systems and such interruptions, even though not caused maliciously, can incite some corporate lawyer to go after you -- even if you have permission for whatever tests or analyses you are performing.

Systems management can be intellectually challenging, but with the litigious climate we live in these days, we must make sure that we operate within well defined boundaries. The fallout from failing to respect those boundaries can be quite expensive both personally, financially and professionally.

David HM Spector is President & CEO of Really Fast Systems, LLC, an infrastructure consulting and product development company based in New York

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