Experts craft blueprint for paradigm shift in cybersecurity

Cybersecurity summit issues 'game-changing' proposals to make nation's cyber infrastructure more reliable

Fed up with incremental improvements to cybersecurity that seem to always leave us one step behind the bad guys, a gathering of technical and academic experts has produced a set of what it calls “game-changing” proposals for securing our information infrastructure.

“The inadequacy of today’s cyberspace mechanisms to support the core values underpinning our way of life has become a national problem,” according to the National Cyber Leap Year Summit 2009 report issued this week.

By improving hardware security, removing financial incentives for the bad guys and creating more adaptive attack surfaces, we could shift the advantage in favor of the good guys, the experts concluded.

The experts met last month in Arlington, Va., to cap off the Leap-Ahead Initiative launched last year by the multiagency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program and the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A request for information generated 238 responses, which were whittled down to five basic concepts for making quantum leaps in security rather than incremental progress.

Rather than continuing to beat their heads against a wall, the summit focused instead on ways to avoid having to solve intractable problems.

“If you are playing a game you cannot win, change the game,” the report stated.

The paths chosen appear to be technologies and business cases that already are on the horizon and could promote real change. They are:

  • Basing trust decisions on verified assertions (digital provenance).
  • Attacks should only work once if at all (moving-target defense).
  • Knowing when we have been had (hardware-enabled trust).
  • Moving from forensics to real-time diagnosis (nature-inspired cyber health).
  • Crime does not pay (Cyber economics).

The report outlines the basic approaches behind these concepts.

Digital provenance

This is a set of technologies, incentives, and policies that provide a level of attribution to users and resources accessible via the Internet to allow trust decisions to be based on verified identity assertions. Identity is a unique reference to a distinct (possibly composite) entity. It is a recursive concept based on the context; any attribute of an entity may be considered an identity. Provenance of an object is the set of identities, labels and events associated with the object.

The proposal envisions an end state in which digital provenance enables identification, authentication and reputation for entities with appropriate granularity at many layers of the protocol hierarchy. For example, networked entities would authenticate the origin and integrity of communications traffic. It would enable users to identify and authenticate the origins of data objects. This mitigates spoofing, phishing, denial-of-service and impersonation attacks.

Moving-target defense

Moving target strategies employ architectures in which system attributes are automatically changed in ways to make the system attack surface area appear unpredictable to attackers. These strategies are beneficial at both the level of individual, high-value systems as well as large, national scale systems that may employ them collectively. They make it much harder for attackers to identify vulnerabilities in targets and prevent them from repeating the attack on the same system or other similar systems.

Hardware-enabled trust

This envisions that within 10 years it will be technologically feasible to:

  • Build a computer that will not execute malware, just as the human body can harbor certain viruses without ill effects.
  • Build hardware that is itself more trustworthy.
  • Be able to determine, by technical means, whether to trust a device, a software package or a network based on dynamically acquired trust information rooted in hardware and user-defined security policies.
  • Build a computer that functions even under attack, through built-in resiliency that guarantees critical services in the face of compromise.

Nature-inspired cyber health

There are many natural systems that are more complex than our cyber systems but are robust, resilient and effective. One example is the biological immune system organisms use to defend against invaders. Such systems function in distributed, complex and ever-changing environments, even when subject to continuous attacks. They exhibit a wealth of interesting mechanisms that could be the inspiration for many new methods for securing cyber systems.

The similarities between the problems faced in cybersecurity and those faced by biological systems have sparked research to analyze how biological immunology concepts can be applied to cybersecurity. Immuno-computing or Artificial Immune Systems emerged in the 1990s as a new computational intelligence field. As long ago as 1996, an attempt was made to define the equivalent of the biological “self” for a computer system. This led to a novel approach to anomaly and intrusion detection, which has spawned a new paradigm in cybersecurity research. Ongoing research into the analogy between cybersecurity and immunology continues to result in useful ideas.

Cyber economics

This is based on the idea that information security problems are, fundamentally, issues of misaligned incentives and misallocated resources. They are economic problems that require economic rather than merely technical solutions. Four economic strategies were identified for research and policy efforts:

  • Mitigate incomplete and asymmetric information barriers that hamper efficient security decision-making at the individual and organizational levels.
  • Leverage incentives and impose or redistribute liabilities to promote secure behavior and decision-making among stakeholders.
  • Promote legal, technical, and social changes that reduce attackers’ revenues or increase their costs, thus lowering the overall profitability (and attractiveness) of cyber crime.
  • Ensure that proposed changes are enforceable with market mechanisms.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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