What to do about that old chestnut, intrusion protection

Who moved the network security cheese? The short answer is the users, writes Dale Meyerrose, a former associate director and CIO for the Director of National Intelligence, now with Harris. Users have more capable and agile IT at home than in the office and have come to expect information on demand and greater mobility.

Dale Meyerrose was the first Intelligence Community chief information officer and information sharing executive. He is a retired U.S. Air Force major general, and is currently the vice president and general manager of cyber initiatives for Harris Corp.

For years, those of us who built and ran networks spent most of our security cycles worrying about not becoming the next poster child for a network intrusion. We built layers of detection aimed at penetration alerts so that we could oust the culprit and repair the vulnerability that permitted the breach. This approach spawned much of our current computer security industry and network-centered thinking. Further, many information technology professionals and users became intimately familiar with military-adapted security buzz terms, such as layered security, information assurance, computer network defense, demilitarized zones and so on.

However, I submit that network intrusion detection, as a security centerpiece, is fast becoming an “old chestnut” in the emerging cyberspace world.

The concept of intrusion detection encompasses underlying territorial premises that are well embedded in traditional computer security thinking. Foremost is the notion that a network satisfies most if not all of the data and information needs of an organization. Second, only authorized network members have legitimate roles in developing and sharing information, knowledge and intellectual property. Finally, such an approach usually assumes that the workforce predominantly uses the network from the controlled workplace environment.

Those presumptions might no longer pose the compelling security parameters that dominate the network security and intrusion detection landscape.

So who moved the network security cheese?

The short answer is the user, who, within the past decade, imposed two new demands on the office. First, information on demand created new expectations for the  availability of open-source information. The Web browser and data search engines, while not new, soared in importance. Second, the social networking phenomena meant that workers often had more capable and agile information technology at home than they had in the office. In turn, they became dissatisfied with the limitations of the organizational network.

The effect has been threefold. The workforce demanded better access to information through the Web to better do their jobs. Cell phones that became more computer, navigation aid, recorder and camera than voice transmitter brought an expectation of mobility for employees. Finally, organizations discovered the value of outsourcing capabilities and costs beyond traditional network boundaries. Thus, many users and significant organizational functions now operate in cyberspace — outside the protective womb of intrusion detection.

So how do we safely navigate this borderless cyber environment?

I don’t advocate abandoning existing network protection methodologies overnight. Doing so would create chaos, as many existing architectures contain inherent dependencies that would collapse without some basic network infrastructure security. And building a higher wall of protection or digging a deeper or wider security moat are really only placebos or padlocks — providing security in appearance only.

I believe the answer lies in designing data-centric protection, role-based access and hosted-service architectures as fast as possible. In modern vernacular, build trust in the cloud.

I recognize that trust and cloud lack common definitions and understanding among our technical and operational communities. However, cyberspace is the virtual domain that, in its totality, brings different underlying foundations than network thinking — even if the terminology might look the same.

Our challenge is to think in terms of the information needs of users, customers and partners versus just their information security requirements. To use the analogy of a car, almost no one talks about seat belts, air bags or collapsible bumpers as individual entities, even though these are mandatory safety devices. Yet many talk about cyber and network security as if it were a concept separate from the larger entity of information sharing and computing.

An old chestnut is a phrase from a 19th-century melodrama that refers to a joke or phrase that is repeated so many times that it becomes well known, if not worn out. Perhaps that’s where we are with intrusion detection in the modern era of cyberspace.

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