end user

Security meets the enemy, and it's the users

It is no shock to learn that end users and IT security people often do not see eye to eye. If the security shop had its way, everything would be locked down, and there would be no end users. Users see security as an impediment to doing their jobs. And a recent survey indicates that the divide between users and defenders could be undermining federal cybersecurity.

The survey — of 100 federal security professionals and 100 end users in agencies — was conducted by MeriTalk in August and contains a few telling data points:

  • 31 percent of end users admit to regularly circumventing what they see as unreasonable security restrictions.
  • Security people estimate that 49 percent of agency breaches are caused primarily by a lack of user compliance.
  • User frustration equals security risks. The greatest pain points for users — Web surfing and downloading files — produce the most agency breaches.

The sample size isn’t large, but the survey claims a margin of error of less than 10 percent and a 95 percent level of confidence.

The results are not surprising, said Tom Ruff, public sector vice president at Akamai Technologies, which commissioned the study. It confirms a disconnect that has long existed. Ensuring a user-friendly experience ranked last among the priorities of security professionals, and that probably is as it should be, Ruff said. “At the end of the day the cyber team has got to protect the agency’s mission. That’s job one.”

But with 50 percent of the threat coming from insiders, either intentionally or accidentally, bridging the gap between users and defenders is becoming more important to the security of government networks and systems.

This is not a new idea. Government cybersecurity policy has been moving toward a closer integration of security with IT operations in an effort to provide better real-time visibility into the activity and status of systems. This is, in part, what the focus on continuous monitoring is all about. But the integration also could help move the security shop closer to the users, giving it a better view of just what it is the users are trying to do, what their pain points are and why they are responsible for so many breaches.

It is not a one-way street, of course. The users are going to have to learn to accommodate security when necessary. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be, and some inconveniences are legitimate trade-offs for improved security.

Awareness training is supposed to be a part of agency cybersecurity programs, and lack of awareness does not seem to be the root of the problem. According to the MeriTalk/Akamai survey, 95 percent of users believe that cybersecurity is an absolute necessity. As long as users understand the reason for a specific policy or process, they probably will accept it.

“The more transparent the security policy is, the easier it will be to address the divide,” Ruff said.

Bridging the divide at a time when challenges are growing faster than budgets and everyone is struggling to make ends meet is not easy. But if agencies can find time to focus on this challenge it could be a cost-effective way to help improve security.

Posted by William Jackson on Oct 25, 2013 at 1:22 PM9 comments


bomb

Is the shutdown promoting a false sense of cybersecurity?

We’re approaching the end of the second week of the federal shutdown and so far there have been no cyber crises. This is the point in the movie where the hero says, “It’s quiet out there. Almost too quiet.”

We should not assume that because we haven’t seen major actions against our IT systems that nothing is happening. If we have learned anything from experience it is that the breaches we don’t see are far worse than the ones we do, and there’s no reason to believe that stealthy intrusions are less likely now that staff, funding and other resources have been cut to the bone.

The United States is the number one target in an ongoing global cyber cold war and that is not going to stop because Congress will not pass a budget.

“It is wishful thinking that in the current environment we are not going to be targeted and that a few people can manage all of that infrastructure,” said Vijay Basani, CEO of EiQ Networks, which provides security intelligence tools and services to the government.

Since Oct. 1, shuttered websites have been sending the wrong message to our enemies and our friends about our commitment to cybersecurity. A particular concern: Online versions of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity guidance are unavailable and NIST’s work on a cybersecurity framework for critical infrastructure, due Oct. 10, has been halted, unfinished.

Yet our IT systems have not disappeared. Patching and monitoring cannot get the same level of attention as during normal operations and dealing with cybersecurity as a crisis rather than a process is bad policy and bad security.

Essential crews remain at work, but the morale of IT and security professionals still on the job without pay cannot be very good and the prospect of hiring qualified professionals in the future becomes bleaker by the day. What competent worker would choose to go to work for a dysfunctional government that won’t pay its bills as long as there are jobs in the private sector?

Basani warned that the impact of gridlock began even before the shutdown. The sequester cut into budgets before the end of the fiscal year, when  many  procurements and acquisitions are done. And contracts that were in place by the end of the year cannot be implemented, so upgrades and replacement of systems, components and security tools are  delayed. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department’s Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program, which was to be spurred by the award of 17 blanket purchase agreements in August, has been essentially put on hold until government can get back to business.

In short, as Basani said, “as much as politicians talk about cybersecurity, I don’t think they really understand the implications of the shutdown on cybersecurity.”

The best we can hope for is that those in charge learn from this experience and realize that cybersecurity should be outside the scope of political spitting matches.

The worst we can fear is that nothing is learned because there is no obvious cyber Armageddon and we do not see the cancer working its way through out systems.

Posted by William Jackson on Oct 11, 2013 at 1:00 PM1 comments


global security

Cybersecurity strategy needs a global approach

Federal efforts to create cybersecurity frameworks for government and for critical private infrastructures have had an impact on international views about cybersecurity, says J. Paul Nicholas, Microsoft’s senior director of global security and diplomacy.

“When I meet with customers in other parts of the world, it always surprises me how much they know about FISMA and FedRAMP,” Nicholas said, referring to the Federal Information Security Management Act and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program.

But there still is no common template for cyber policies, and various international development efforts are progressing separately. In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is creating the Cybersecurity Framework, a set of voluntary security recommendations for critical infrastructure. Across the ocean, the European Commission is creating the Network and Information Security Platform. And as nations develop strategies for securing their cyber environments, there is a risk that unaligned policies could create a fragmented or poorly secured global infrastructure.

Some differences among national policies are inevitable, Nicholas said. “Cybersecurity is going to vary country by country,” because each nation faces a unique set of risks and has its own needs. To help create a common foundation on which policies can work together, Microsoft has produced a whitepaper, “Developing a National Strategy for Cybersecurity.” The paper advises focusing on the basics and building on established best security practices. It advises that any strategy be:

  • Risk-based
  • Outcome focused
  • Prioritized
  • Practicable
  • Respectful of privacy and civil liberties
  • Globally relevant.

Although the Government Accountability Office has rated federal IT security as a high-risk area since 1999, Nicholas, co-author of the Microsoft paper, praised the progress being made in this country to establish a regulatory regime for cybersecurity, including FISMA.

“FISMA has really been a journey,” and important work is being done under it, he said. “Could it be better? Yes. But it is being fine-tuned to improve risk management.”

NIST has come through in providing guidance in its 800-series of reports on IT security, Nicholas said. Although FISMA and the NIST guidance are aimed at the U.S. government, their influence extends well beyond. “There is a framework and mentality that did not exist 10 years ago. FISMA better enables the U.S. government to have a risk dialog with the private sector. They are able to discuss things with a similar set of experiences.”

This is not to say that FISMA, which is far from perfect, is or should be the model for national strategies. The challenge to come up with some kind of functioning global system for securing cyberspace involves as much diplomacy as technology. “It’s about deciding what needs to be done and how to move forward,” Nicholas said.

Posted by William Jackson on Oct 09, 2013 at 11:39 AM4 comments


vice

Government IT pros say a network hack would be worse than ...

Most government IT professionals − by a wide margin − would rather be trapped in an elevator for 24 hours than have their networks hacked, according to a recent survey.

This could explain why cybersecurity is listed as the top area for expanded IT spending in the coming year, with 59 percent saying they expect increased security spending, topping cloud computing by 14 percentage points.

The results from a survey of 400 federal, state and local government officials conducted for Cisco underscore the foundational importance of cybersecurity. Being stuck in an elevator would ruin your day. A breach of your network or data could ruin your career − and 71 percent said they’d rather be stuck in the elevator. If your security does not work, nothing else really matters.

Feds tend to be more conscious of this than those in state and local government. Improving security is the second place technology goal in the overall survey at 22 percent, behind reducing costs (28 percent), but security is tops in the federal sector. Budget constraints are the top threat to IT infrastructure, at 35 percent overall, and cyberattacks come in second, at 17 percent, but attacks are seen as a bigger threat in the federal sector than among state and local organizations. This does not necessarily mean that federal networks are more vulnerable than those in state and local systems, but the U.S. government is a high-profile target for hacktivists, criminals looking for valuable intellectual property and other nations engaged in espionage.

Cybersecurity professionals are in an almost no-win situation. In just about every assessment of security they come up looking bad. If they are graded on compliance with regulations, they are told that they are ignoring real-world security. If they focus on practical security, compliance is likely to slip. And complete security is impossible in a dynamic environment in which the functionality and configuration of hardware and software change on a daily basis. The best they can do is manage an acceptable risk. But no risk looks acceptable after a breach.

The professionals surveyed know that there is no simple answer to improving cybersecurity. Twenty-one percent of them listed better technology as the most effective way to improve security, followed by better enforcement of policies at 18 percent and better employee training at 15 percent. But most of them refused to single out one factor for improvement; 42 percent said that all three were equally important.

One factor not addressed in the survey is stability. It is hard to secure a system while ensuring its operational availability to users when you don’t know from day to day, let alone year to year, what financial and manpower resources are going to be available. The chaotic state of government over the last few years, illustrated most recently by the government shutdown forced by political hostage-taking, erodes IT security along with every other measure of performance. I imagine that if it had been offered as a choice in the survey, a rational Congress would top the wish list for IT professionals.

Posted by William Jackson on Oct 07, 2013 at 11:21 AM2 comments