Log4J: Neutralizing the latest global cybersecurity threat

Logj4: The latest wake-up call for higher education to take cybersecurity seriously.

Every day we see news about cybersecurity attacks, exploits, and hacks to the point that we are relatively immune to what feels like sensationalized news about the latest and most devastating threat no matter how legitimately concerned we should be.

And on December 6th when we were getting ready to go to the office holiday party and a weekend of shopping, the world was read-in on a significant security vulnerability known as LogJ4.

What is Log4J?

Log4J is a widely used open-source Java code library from the Apache Software Foundation used by many servers across the world to record a log of activity and send it to a centralized server. It is integrated into thousands of software applications, services, and systems, and websites from Fortune 100 firms down to small providers.

What is the new vulnerability?

It was discovered that some common versions of Log4J are vulnerable to being forced to execute code via specially crafted URLs (web address) that pass through the logs. This address passes through the system and is used to download and execute code that can provide remote access to the machine or perform other malicious tasks. Having information pass through the logs can be done from a chat, submitting an online form, sending an email that is processed by a system that uses Log4J to log emails, or any other means in which data enters the logs, effectively allowing someone with nefarious intentions to see sensitive user data, install malware and spyware, or even take over machines for nefarious purposes.

How widespread is this?

As noted on Wired.com, Twitter users have experimented with changing their display names to trigger the vulnerability, users in the game Minecraft triggered it through the in-game chat, and an iPhone user changed their device name to trigger the vulnerability (and did notify Apple). Cloud service providers, such as Cloudflare, rolled up temporary fixes for their customers while heavily used systems from companies such as VMWare, Oracle, Adobe, RedHat, and others have worked to update to the latest release of Log4j released by Apache that addresses the remote code execution vulnerability and downgrading the risk to moderate.

What do I need to do?

Your institution’s IT departments and security teams should be assessing their catalog of systems and software that use Apache with Java libraries to determine which systems may be vulnerable. Initial focus should be on public-facing systems, most likely to be ERP and SIS systems used by the institution. They should also be working with those vendors on obtaining patches and scheduling updates to the systems as soon as practical.

In addition, it is important to make sure that faculty, staff and students are aware of the exploit and how it can impact their personal BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) devices such as iPhones and share best practices such as using 2-Factor Authentication and keeping their devices up to date with the latest security patches.

If your IT department and security teams are unsure of a system’s potential vulnerability, they should check with the vendor to validate those systems have the latest security patches. If your institution does not have a security team, check with your managed security services provider. If you do not have a managed security service provider, reach out to Columbia Advisory Group as part of E&I contract CNR01469 to engage our team of experts to ensure your institution adheres to appropriate NIST standards and can manage, detect and respond to Log4j and other threats.

Summary

The Log4J vulnerability has been patched by Apache with the introduction of Log4j 2.17.1, yet the threat is being actively exploited across the globe and still poses one of the largest security threats to date. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that maintains a database of vulnerabilities has listed this at its highest severity classification. Due to the widespread use of the open-source Log4J application by vendors from small software applications to large enterprise systems and cloud services, there is a high-likelihood most organizations will have some risk to mitigate.

While the risk associated with Log4J has concrete solutions, the next cyber exploit will present a danger to your university’s operations.