child and adult iris scans

Blurred future for iris recognition?

The use of iris recognition to ensure security is a familiar concept, and is already used by some federal agencies. Pressured by Congress, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has been developing the necessary standards to enable it to be deployed throughout government.

But there’s a snag. Unlike with fingerprints, which have been used in identity and forensic investigations for decades and are well understood, iris recognition isn’t. Even though the uniqueness of the iris was noted at the same time as that of the fingerprint back in the late 1800s, the technology to exploit the iris has only been developed recently. People are still grappling with some of the fundamental definitions.

One of the question is how long the various iris templates used in biometrics databases are valid, because (so some people insist) the iris changes as people age. That’s not a minor problem. If it’s true, then a significant number of those inaccurate templates could exist at any one time, potentially throwing out false red flags that could cause security chaos.

That particular debate seems to be coming to a head. University and NIST researchers have recently been playing ping pong in an academic argument over this aging effect. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame, for example, produced a study questioning the value of current iris templates. NIST, which runs the Iris Exchange (IREX) as a support for iris-based applications, countered with its own study that downplayed those results. The Notre Dame researchers then came back with their own counter, basically saying NIST had screwed up the methodology it used.

This isn’t the only potential problem with iris recognition. Security researchers have also identified ways that bad guys could essentially copy the digital code for iris scans and reproduce them at will, essentially eliminating that biometric from the identity profile of any affected individual.

It’s not clear if any of this will affect the rollout of iris scanning systems, and the claim for iris recognition as one of the basic biometric supports of future security systems, along with fingerprint, voice and face recognition. Based on the previous assumption of iris recognition as a rock-solid science, agencies have already planned for its extensive use.

The Defense Department has been using iris scans for over a decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places to detect terrorists, and it plans to use it for physical access to facilities in combination with Common Access Cards. The FBI wants to use iris recognition in its Next Generation Identification System, the eventual replacement for its famed Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. And Congress has been pushing NIST to come up with the necessary standards for other government uses of iris recognition, chiding officials in committee hearings about not living up to earlier promises.

Other governments around the world aren’t waiting. India has already enrolled hundreds of millions in a national identity system that includes iris recognition. Mexico began using iris scans on ID cards several years ago, and Argentina is also using it in its national identity system.

There are other incentives brewing, not least the use of iris recognition in mobile systems. Apple is reportedly looking at adding iris scans in future systems to the fingerprint identification it already uses, while Samsung on the Android side of things is rumored to also be interested. Since more and more government IT seems to be driven by consumer innovations, that could also accelerate the use of iris recognition in government apps.

However, if there are problems with iris recognition, what would that mean for security? No security technology is foolproof but, based on that “rock-solid” assumption, iris recognition is perceived to be as close to it as you can come. If there really are major flaws that can be exploited, then agencies will be building security systems with unexpected holes in them.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Mar 14, 2014 at 9:43 AM4 comments


Alarm clock in front of Windows XP desktop screen

Is XP running your critical systems?

After 12 years of dominating the market for Windows operating systems, more recent Windows versions finally are beginning to replace the popular and venerable XP. But a surprising number of critical systems are still running this workhorse OS in the government enterprise and will need to be protected after Microsoft ends support in April.

Upgrading to Windows 7 or 8 would seem to be the logical solution, but as is so often the case with legacy IT, it’s more complicated than that.

“There are some people who don’t have an option to change,” said John Stubbs, director of software channels for Unisys. Many times the OS is running in automation and process control systems that run business and mission-critical systems, both in private sector and government enterprises. “We were surprised by the percentage of XP devices that are still controlling those types of activities,” Stubbs said.

Pinpointing the number of devices running a particular operating system is difficult, but large-scale trends indicate that XP is not disappearing any time soon.

A 2013 study by software vendor Softchoice found XP running on 58 percent of a sample of 500,000 devices across 7,200 enterprises, down from 68 percent the year before. Most of the difference was made up by the adoption of Windows 7, with only a small uptake of Windows 8. The enterprises surveyed were private sector, but given government’s usual rate of upgrade to new technology, there is no reason to believe that agencies are ahead of this curve, Stubbs said.

The prevalence of XP in critical systems is likely to be higher than throughout the enterprise in general because once critical systems are up and running they often are left alone until they break, and upgrading them can be expensive.

Critical control systems are certified for operating in government as a whole, and a $1,000 XP machine might be running a $1 million system. Upgrading that controller could require a recertification and upgrading of the entire system, which means the software tends to be left in place for as long as possible.

This is fine as long as the OS does not have to work with new apps and protocols, but eventually it exposes the system to increased risk if it no longer is being supported and patched by the vendor.

Not surprisingly, Unisys says it has a solution for that, its Stealth suite of software. Stealth “hides” protected devices by ignoring traffic that is not from an approved Stealth source, so that devices cannot be reached by attackers. The need to isolate and hide vulnerable XP devices is opening a new market for the Stealth suite. Microsoft is also offering an expensive custom support service for XP, and there are third party subscription services that block exploits of unpatched XP vulnerabilities.

These are not permanent fixes for XP, but they can help buy time to upgrade critical systems with an operating system that has more of a future.

Posted by William Jackson on Mar 07, 2014 at 9:46 AM1 comments


protest

NSA-bashing bills could hamstring cybersecurity info sharing

The raft of stories inspired by the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA eavesdropping has done major damage to America’s international relations and stirred up no little ruckus in the United States about illegal wiretapping and government overreach. So far, however, it’s not caused any irreparable splits between government and the IT industry. Big concerns, yes, but no concrete effects yet.

That could change, in a hurry. Bills introduced recently at the state level, if they become law, could bar many technology companies from doing business not only with the NSA, but also with state and local government entities. Even worse, any companies that subcontracted with companies doing business with the NSA or its partners could be affected. These bills also  threaten the sharing of information between industry and government that is crucial to U.S. cybersecurity, one of the nation’s top technology priorities.

California is probably the most important state so far to propose one of these bills, given that it’s the center of the U.S. high-tech industry, and so many of the companies there have some tie-in to civilian and military agencies. Ted Lieu, a Democratic state senator, and Republican Senator Joel Anderson, introduced Senate Bill 828 on Jan. 6 seeking  to throttle the NSA’s activities there.

In a statement the same day , Lieu said that “state-funded public resources should not be going toward aiding the NSA or any other federal agency from indiscriminate spying on its own citizens and gathering electronic or metadata that that violates the Fourth Amendment.” 

Other states that have so far introduced similar bills include Washington, Arizona, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Vermont. 

It’s not so much the fact that the bills have been introduced that has raised flags but that the language they use is so potentially far reaching. The California bill, for example, would “ban state agencies, officials and corporations providing services to the state from giving any material support, participation or assistance to any federal agency to collect electronic or metadata of any person, unless there has been a warrant issued that specifically describes the person, place and thing to be searched or seized,” according to Lieu.

It’s that “material support” bit that is concerning industry. In a letter to Lieu obtained by GCN, the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS), formed late last year by the Information Technology Industry Council, said the legislation could effectively ban companies from doing certain business, prohibit state funds going to companies and prevent the state or political subdivisions from providing incentives for companies to invest in California.

Given the vague language the bill uses you can’t get a firm idea on how far down the pipeline this could reach, according to Carol Henton, ITAPS’ vice president of state, local and education, public sector. The fear is that it will affect subcontractors and others who do business with government contractors, including the likes of counties and school districts, “and that could potentially sweep in oodles of activity.”

That includes such things as information sharing. It’s taken years to build the level of trust that’s needed for the kind of sharing about cybersecurity threats faced by industry and government organizations and that pose dangers for critical infrastructure. Companies and state entities such as law enforcement now regularly share information with the NSA. The bills proposed by California and other states could ban that.

And it’s not a straight one-to-one sharing. The NSA shares information back and forth with agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the military. Would companies also be prohibited from doing business with those government agencies, since under the wording of the legislation that could well be construed as giving “material help” to the NSA? And since the legislation also forbids public universities in the state from being research facilities for the NSA, or acting as a recruiting grounds for it, would that also affect agencies that work with the NSA?

It’s unclear yet how far all of this will go. There are already indications that, given the fears expressed by ITAPS and other industry bodies, California lawmakers are already having second thoughts about pushing ahead with their legislation. Other states aren’t so reticent. An Arizona state senate committee voted out its version of the legislation on Feb. 24 , and it now moves to the full Senate for a vote.

And it seems unlikely this will go away any time soon. The legislation that’s already proposed is apparently based mainly on a template developed by Off Now, a coalition of national and state groups that’s aimed at “nullifying” NSA activities, and it seems to be gaining support from across the political spectrum. As California showed, the bills have some bipartisan support. 

Given that we are moving into what will be contentious mid-term elections, and then will go straight into the buildup for an even more contentious 2016 presidential election, something that’s as popular now as NSA bashing will be an attractive target at least until then. 

What that means for critical government IT and cybersecurity efforts still has to be worked out.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Feb 28, 2014 at 10:50 AM1 comments


Google Glass

The next security perimeter? You're wearing it.

The idea of wearable technology is not new to government. In the military, the concept of using hands-free technology to integrate soldiers in the field into mobile ad hoc networks is part of the Defense Department’s vision of network-centric warfare. But what happens when unmanaged personal or wearable devices are brought into the workplace to connect with the enterprise network?

The result is another layer of security concerns for agencies that still are struggling with the challenges presented by the bring-your-own-device movement.

Some of the challenges presented by products such as Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass are not new. In many ways, “it’s just an alternative form factor,” said Paul Christman, Dell Software’s vice president of public sector. “They are fairly consumer oriented, and they tend to be fairly low tech,” mostly acting as sensors to gather data such as location and health metrics.

The challenge with these devices is not only to secure the data they gather and the connections they use but also to decide who owns and controls the data. 

Joggers who wear a fitness monitor might assume the data is theirs; but odds are they are sharing it with someone else, whether they know it or not. As devices become more sophisticated and are used to access data at work, they will have to be managed and the data they access secured.

Progress is being made in addressing the workplace security challenge in traditional BYOD, often by compartmentalizing the devices to create separate personal and work partitions. Typically, the user cedes a degree of control over the personal device so that workplace IT administrators can enforce policy in the partitioned workspace.

“The same model can apply” in wearable technology, Christman said. “But how do you compartmentalize Google Glass?”

Technologically, the challenge is not that great. Based on their experience with laptops and smartphones, IT pros can port existing security tools to the new form factors as the devices become sophisticated enough to accept them. The real hurdle is making the decision to do so and doing it early enough that administrators do not find themselves in an endless loop of catch-up as the new technology comes online.

Fortunately, the call for security is going out early. “There are a lot of people sounding the alarm from the get-go,” Christman said. “Geolocation data is getting a lot of attention now. That’s one of the things that needs to be addressed first.” The security of local wireless connection protocols used by small devices, such as Bluetooth and near field communication, also needs to be addressed.

And along with the technology fixes there will have to be “polite rules of society” for when and where we use technology and when it’s time to take the glasses off, Christman said. Rules such as “turn the camera off in the locker room” are probably a good idea.

The social and legal niceties of mobile devices are no trivial matters. A man was shot to death in Florida last month in an apparent argument over texting in a movie theater, and a California woman was ticketed late last year for driving with Google Glass. The charge against the woman was dismissed in January, but the questions about liability and legality remain unanswered.

Posted by William Jackson on Feb 21, 2014 at 12:31 PM1 comments