mobile security (Boiko Y/

The road to derived mobile credentials

The effort to provide government workers who use mobile devices with personal identity verification credentials is picking up momentum, with programs in both the civilian and military sectors starting to deliver on earlier promises.

Solutions for mobile users are long overdue. As the swing away from the desktop and onto the mobile device became obvious some years ago, government agencies found themselves without any clear direction to take when it came to security. Providing the level of security that comes with smart cards, which workers can use to authenticate their system and network access using card readers on the desktop, is not easy with mobile devices.

That spurred various programs to try and take those smart card credentials and convert them for use for mobile devices, which is where the term “derived” comes from. It’s not been easy, and both the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Defense Information Systems Agency have been working for several years to come up with answers.

NIST, for example, released guidelines for derived PIV credentials nearly two years ago, basically an update to Special Publication 800-157, which describes ways to implement credentials on mobile devices. More recently, the Derived PIV Credentials Project  from NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) will build on SP 800-157 and describe practice guides that agencies can use to start implementing a derived credential program.

On the military side, DISA earlier this year implemented Purebred as a way for Defense Department public-key infrastructure subscribers to use their common access cards to generate derived credentials on their mobile devices. A three-year, phased program designed to overcome specific DOD issues with PKI mobile provisioning, Purebred is currently available for iOS, Android and BlackBerry phones and tablets.

How derived credentials might be created in the future is not clear, however, since the DOD a year ago said it would eliminate CACs in favor of a new, multifactor authentication system as early as 2018.

Sean Frazier, chief technical evangelist for mobile security firm MobileIron, said the NCCoE practice guides will help to accelerate agencies’ use of derived PIV credentials. It’s not just a technology problem, he said, and the guides “will also provide guidance for workflows for enrollment and credential lifecycle management.”

The practice guides work in conjunction with a reference architecture “to assist agencies in being able to get to see how to get to the top of the mountain,” Frazier said. “Otherwise, PIV-D is rather daunting.”

MobileIron, along with its technology partner Entrust Datacard, was recently chosen by NIST to provide a derived credential solution for the NCCoE program. Last year, the two companies announced their first derived credential product after a two-year development process. Frazier said at the time that civilian agencies would likely be the first users of the product, though it also recently announced its derived credential solution would integrate with Purebred.

As well as providing better security for mobile devices, the government is also hoping that the use of derived credentials will help to open up a broader use of devices across all agencies.

With the influx of younger workers into government, bring-your-own-device issues have become a major thorn in the side of agency security professionals. They hope use of derived credentials will provide a level of security that can free up the use of BYOD, which most agencies now view as a desirable goal.

This article was changed May 1 to correct the name of the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Apr 28, 2017 at 7:01 AM0 comments

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