Jumping on the blockchain bandwagon

Jumping on the blockchain bandwagon

It’s always a bit of a push and an invitation to hype to declare “the year of” anything.  That being said, 2017 could well be the year blockchain takes off.  

Given that the cryptographic ledger technology behind the Bitcoin digital currency already has been widely touted as a new way of solving a multitude of cybersecurity issues, one could say blockchain has already been hyped. But it’s also gained firm adherents in some areas of government.

The Department of Health and Human Services is certainly one supporter. Last year HHS issued a series of public challenges for ideas about how blockchain could be used to address privacy, security and scalability challenges in managing electronic health records. It announced the 15 winners in September, with several chosen for presentations at the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT’s Blockchain & Healthcare Workshop.

It will consolidate that interest next month when the HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology sponsors the Blockchain in Healthcare Code-A-Thon, apparently the first-ever blockchain hackathon hosted by a government entity. The Washington, D.C.-based Chamber of Digital Commerce will be a co-host, and results of the hackathon will be announced at its March 14-15 D.C. Blockchain Summit.

The fact that HHS has put its name behind a cybersecurity hackathon, where contestants compete to produce real and actual solutions to problems, indicates a real intent to deploy. HHS here is signaling its intention to go ahead and use blockchain for its needs.

Other government agencies have also realized the importance of blockchain technology. The U.S. Postal Service, for one, believes blockchain could disrupt many of the industries it services, and so is worthy of closer study. The technology also seen as potentially having a major transformative impact on cities.

IBM surveyed some 200 government organizations around the world about blockchain and found fully nine in 10 plan to invest in blockchain technology for projects such as financial transaction, asset and contract  management. Around 14 percent -- a group IBM labels as the trailblazers in this area -- plan to have blockchain in production and “at scale” in 2017.

“These findings reveal that blockchain adoption is accelerating faster than originally anticipated,” the IBM report said, “with government executives identifying key areas and benefits to explore.”

Blockchain might be ramping up quickly, but there are still plenty of people on the sidelines, at least according to a Deloitte Consulting survey that found that around 40 percent of those industry executives it questioned still have little or no knowledge of blockchain. Of those that do, however, more than a quarter list it as one of their top five priorities for 2017, and over half believe they’ll be less competitive if they don’t adopt the technology.

Another mark of how far blockchain fever has spread comes in an article by the World Economic Forum explaining what blockchain is, its history and how it might be of advantage to the Forum’s global business, government and industry audience. The WEF believes blockchain could be the technology that “helps globalization work for everybody.” In January this year, it formally announced the formation of its Global Futures Council on Blockchain.

So activities galore, but does this translate into a real interest to adopt and exploit blockchain for real-world security problems?

It’s not a silver bullet by any means. For one thing, there are still many questions about the security of blockchains themselves, at least as they are now being used. But the technology offers too tempting an answer for a range of pressing problems for it to be held back very long, as the Department of Homeland Security indicated last year in a solicitation for the use of blockchain in identity management solutions.

So, while calling 2017 “the year of blockchain” might be pushing it, this seems to be the year when blockchain hype dissipates and it becomes a major, if still early-stage, cybersecurity tool.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Feb 13, 2017 at 1:12 PM0 comments


The cyber curse of ‘interesting times’ (Photo by Elena11/ShutterStock)

The cyber curse of ‘interesting times’

This year was always shaping up to be a critical one for cybersecurity, with both government and industry finally starting to come to grips with what’s needed to counteract the rising tide of attacks. Potential election meddling aside, there have been more than enough problems unearthed over the past few years to satiate the security mill.

While that mill grinds slowly, some of the things that are already in development have produced promising results. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework, for example, was first published in early 2014 and has quickly gained support in both the private and public sectors as a solid approach to managing security risks.

NIST published its first draft update to the framework a few weeks ago, updating and expanding definitions of terms and introducing the concept of identity proofing as a way of measuring the strength and validity of an individual’s online presence.

Measurements “will be critical to ensure that cybersecurity receives proper consideration in a larger enterprise risk management discussion,” NIST’s Cybersecurity Framework Program Manager Matt Barrett said.

Along with NIST and other government efforts, like the Department of Homeland Security’s research programs, broad-based industry bodies such as the National Cyber Security Alliance are trying to spread the message about what’s needed for good security.

The incoming Trump administration has thrown a fair amount of dust into the air about cybersecurity, however. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been pegged as the new president’s cybersecurity adviser, based on his chairing global security practices at the Greenberg Traurig law firm and as the CEO of his own international security consulting firm.

Cybersecurity professionals have had a field day over this appointment, both because of what they see as President-elect Donald Trump’s perceived “suboptimal clarity” on cybersecurity issues and Giuliani’s own apparent failings. His site was reportedly running off a five-year old, vulnerability-ridden version of Joomla that could be easily penetrated. As of Jan. 18, the Giuliani site was offline.

Giuliani has already said that Trump will use his “bully pulpit” as president to educate the public on the dangers of cybersecurity and that Giuliani himself will convene a group of experts and business leaders from across the various industries most concerned about security in order to, if nothing else, “get really close” to solving the problem of cybersecurity.

Obvious things apart -- there is no single cybersecurity problem, it’s a complex mélange, etc. -- if the Trump administration decides to quickly insert policy statements into the current mix of government and industry cooperation, it’s likely to cause more problems than it solves. Though it’s still far from perfect, the partnership has taken years of deliberation and trust building to get to where it is now. Anything that disturbs that runs a huge risk of disruption.

However, along the lines of not wanting to seem wholly negative, CyberEye offers up the following few simple but effective things the Giuliani team might want to contemplate:

Make sure people pick decent, reasonably lengthy, multicharacter passwords to get into their emails and other online sites. That shouldn’t be rocket science, but a recent survey of 10 million hacked accounts by security vendor Keeper showed how laughable the situation is. The most popular password? 123456, favored by 17 percent of the accounts surveyed. The 10th most popular? 987654321.

Make two-factor authentication, at the very least, mandatory in all the places that it can be done. It’s certainly not a perfect solution, but it’s easy and cheap to implement and has been shown to substantially cut the risk of being hacked. (The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, last year created an open source solution that other agencies can adopt.)

Increase online users’ sophistication about social engineering and the dangers of clicking on links or attachments in email. That’s by far the most common way that attackers get into networks and email accounts. And follow up any initial training to make sure those lessons have been learned. As the Clinton campaign found out, it only takes one successful phishing attack to create a whole mess of problems.

Do all of that and, along with using the usual hardware defenses and tools such as firewalls, 80-90 percent of the attempted hacks on organizations could be shut down, which could then let IT managers  focus on recovery from the successful ones, which is now the real name of the game. Bad guys will get in if they really want to, so it’s become a matter of limiting the damage and recovering as fast as possible from incursions.

But it’s a new administration and a new Congress, all of whom have their own ideas and intentions when it comes to cybersecurity. If nothing else, it will be interesting times.

Then again, the ancient Chinese had a curse for just that.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jan 18, 2017 at 11:54 AM0 comments


Are states ill-equipped to manage cybersecurity?

Are states ill-equipped to manage cybersecurity?

While the focus on cybersecurity and cybercrime in government has lately been focused on the federal side, much of the risk lives at the state and local level. That’s where the bad guys can find much of the personal information that makes cybercrime so lucrative, and where disruptive hacks can cause the most havoc.

At the end of 2015, the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy looked at cybersecurity in eight of the most populous states. While it noted that the states had begun to grapple with the issues, and several had made substantial progress, it concluded that “no state is cyber ready.”

More recently, the 2016 Deloitte-NASCIO Cybersecurity Study found that awareness of cybersecurity had finally begun to rise to the top of states’ executive branches. But the security professionals themselves were still struggling with “stubbornly persistent” issues.

Ironically, the study pointed out, the newer systems that states have been introducing to foster innovations in service delivery to better serve constituents -- technology that has been pushed as a critical need -- have only served to increase cyber risks. Securing sufficient resources -- both funding and talent -- also remained one of the top challenges.

The new-technology problem is one that could bedevil organizations for a long time. The legacy systems slated for replacement have their own problems when it comes to cybersecurity, such as old and hard-to-update operating systems, but the new technology introduces quite a bit of complexity into the equation.

It’s that complexity that long-time players in the cybersecurity field worry will continue to threaten organizations. Ron Ross, a fellow at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, thinks there are too many bases – the software, firmware and hardware that runs all of the critical infrastructure and technology we rely on today -- for cybersecurity professionals to realistically cover right now.

While many of the broad-ranging reports have some element of hope to them, at the operational level,  things don’t look so rosy. The state of Oregon, for instance, recently conducted an audit of 13 state agencies’ plans for information security and concluded that, overall, “planning efforts were often perfunctory, security staffing was generally insufficient, and critical security functions were not always performed.”

In particular, it said the Office of the State Chief Information Officer had “not yet provided state agencies with sufficient and appropriate information technology security standards and oversight.” It also didn’t have processes in place to ensure that agencies comply with statewide security standards or regulations imposed by federal requirements.

“These weaknesses continued because the state abandoned initial security plans, did not assign security roles and responsibilities, or provide sufficient security staff,” the report said. Even while the governor and CIO have taken first steps to fix the problems, “the solutions will take time, resources and cooperation from state agencies.”

While the Oregon governor’s office and state CIO said they largely agreed with the auditor’s report, they also claimed they were on track to fix many of the problems, tackling the risks according to perceived priorities. In other words, given limited resources, not everything can be fixed at once.

Sound familiar? State governments have been under constant pressure over the past decade or more to modernize their IT systems, improve service delivery to citizens and at the same time cut costs. Along the way, something is bound to break.

The Deloitte-NASCIO report pointed to the evolving complexity of the threat environment as the main challenge for organizations going forward. States “faced with a myriad of priorities and ongoing resource constraints may be hard-pressed to allocate sufficient funding to cybersecurity initiatives, [and] competition for top talent can make it difficult to attract the professionals needed to effectively combat constantly evolving threats.”

However, it said, chief information security officers have one thing in their favor:  State executives are starting to “pay more attention to the issue of cybersecurity.” That’s nice. Let’s hope that resolves into actual, better cybersecurity soon.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Dec 16, 2016 at 11:19 AM0 comments


Get ready for IoT-enabled threats

Get ready for IoT-enabled threats

The recent distributed denial of service attacks that affected large parts of the internet, along with major online outfits such as Twitter and Netflix, was an eye-opener for those who may not have been familiar with this type of threat. It was also a vindication of sorts for the government’s cybersecurity focus.

Despite the obvious dangers posed by criminals and state-sponsored advanced persistent threats (APTs) that trawl government systems for specific data, DDoS attacks are consistently seen as the biggest potential threat. So much so that the Department of Homeland Security has been spending serious money to develop defenses against it.

That attention seems warranted. The October attack again DNS provider Dyn using the Mirai botnet has raised the stakes significantly, at least in technical terms. Up to 100,000 bots were eventually involved, with the attack volume eventually thought to have exceeded 1 terabit/sec .

That’s a huge number, and a DDoS attack at that level will overwhelm most defenses now in place, simply because they can’t keep up with the deluge that’s flooding them. Mean time to failure of any compromised Internet of Things device -- the means of attack targeted by the Mirai botnet --  is just 10 minutes. You can’t just turn devices off and on again as a way of mitigating attacks.

The IoT, in other words, is a potential mother lode for cyber bad guys. It’s seen as having a tremendous potential to wring value out of assets through improved supply chains and logistics operations. It could mean as much as $1.9 trillion dollars in added value, which is a huge attraction for device manufacturers.

Unfortunately, security so far hasn’t kept up with demand. Two years ago, the SANS Institute detailed the vulnerabilities of digital video recorders as internet-connected devices. Revisiting the situation after the Mirai attack, it found not much has changed.

The ways the IoT can be attacked seem to be endless. One organization has described how Philips smart streetlights can be used to spread worms that result in so-called “bricking” attacks that can shut down the lighting in large areas of a city. Think of the havoc such blackouts can cause. Others have shown that even everyday devices such as smart toasters can be hijacked.

It didn’t take long after the Mirai attack for similar threats to surface. Linux/IRCTelnet malware (based on Aidra botnet) apparently has the same roots as Mirai and also borrows from other botnets. It has the same abilities to attack weak telnet credentials, but can also attack systems running much newer protocols such as IPv6. There are also warnings that new attack vectors such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol could be used to launch terabit-scale DDoS attacks.

Just as the original Stuxnet attack was seen as the progenitor of much of the sophisticated APT malware industry that’s been built up over the past few years, it’s all but inevitable that the recent success of Mirai will stimulate similar development of DDoS threats.

To counter that, it’s critical that better and more capable tools are developed. Organizations such as DHS are ahead of the game, and after the recent attacks Congress has been stirred to action. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), co-founder of the Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, asked the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the DHS’s National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center for information on current and future tools that will be needed to bolster IoT security.

DHS is apparently going further by developing a set of strategic principles that will set out security guidelines for connected devices, and calling for manufacturers to integrate more security into their devices. It will be interesting to see how manufacturers react to this, given the tradeoffs behind improving device security and getting devices quickly to market to meet the burgeoning IoT demand.

The chip industry is also getting involved. Much as the Trusted Computing Platform has enabled widespread chip-based security for laptops and other computing devices, so companies such as ARM and Microchip (teaming with Amazon) are looking to provide processor-based security for IoT devices.

All of that will take some time to make its way into the IoT mainstream however. Meanwhile, there are practices organizations can follow now that could lessen the effects of a DDoS attack, such as building up infrastructure resilience and replacing obvious network credentials for devices. The factory default “admin-password,” for example, was just one of the things Mirai looked for.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Nov 08, 2016 at 9:57 AM0 comments