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Can government's cyber defense withstand a market-driven offense?

Cybersecurity more and more resembles nothing less than old-fashioned warcraft, with both sides confident in the weaponry they have and in their ability to either penetrate or defend borders. As the threat of cyberconflicts ratchets up, the two modes of warfare seem at times to be getting chillingly similar.

The latest expression of confidence came from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who on March 28 spoke to an audience at the National Security Agency headquarters to mark the retirement of Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of both the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command.

The Pentagon is well on its way to building a modern cyberforce, he said, which will be 6,000 strong by 2016.

The force will improve the U.S. ability to “deter aggression in cyberspace, deny adversaries their objectives,” and defend the country from cyberattacks. At the same time, however, he pointed out the “proliferation of destructive malware” that is being used to constantly, and aggressively, probe and disrupt networks.

More confidence shone through in a recent report that surveyed IT and security professionals in both the military and civilian agencies. Nearly all of them, some 94 percent, rated their own agency’s cybersecurity readiness as either good or excellent, saying they feel they have the right tools, processes and policies in place.

(Well, OK the survey also found 9 percent of the respondents were unsure if there even were cyberthreats that affected their agency).

Perhaps of most interest, though, was what kinds of threats they considered the most serious. Insider threats, which until relatively recently were seen as the greatest, have fallen behind those from “external hacking,” even in the age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

In fact, of the six top threats, insiders come in fifth, behind external hacking, malware, social engineering and SPAM, and just ahead of distributed denial of service.

Where do the bad guys come out in all of this? It’s no secret they’ve become much more sophisticated in their ability to get on the inside of networks, but a report from the RAND Corp., Markets for Cybercrime Tools and Stolen Data, shows also just how professionalized and extensive their ability has become.

The black and gray markets for hacking tools and services, and for the ill-gotten gains they produce, are expanding and growing in complexity, the RAND report said. What was once a varied landscape of discrete, ad hoc networks of individuals motivated by little more than ego and notoriety, it said, “has emerged as a playground of financially driven, highly organized, and sophisticated groups.”

Adding to the complexity for government defenders are the rapidly emerging and highly secretive markets for zero-day vulnerabilities, RAND said, which are available in both licit and illicit markets.

The potential impact of these market-driven tools was seen in the 2013 attack on Target stores, which were confirmed earlier this year. The malware used for that was a tailored version of the “BlackPOS” malware, which according to writer Brian Krebs was available on the black market for the low, low price of $1,800 to $2,300.

Of course, Target seems to have screwed up in so many ways in its own security. A report from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation lays it  out in excruciating detail.

Nevertheless, it all makes a point. The business of creating malware and other tools to attack US networks and infrastructure now really is a business, with all of the profit-based energy and innovation that brings with it. Add the even more focused abilities of nation states, and the threat industry is vibrant.

Hagel and others are confident that government has the ability to withstand it. Are they right?

Posted by Brian Robinson on Mar 31, 2014 at 12:12 PM


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