Intelligent security and other unsolved mysteries targeted at RSA

This year's RSA Conference focuses on the volatile mix of exploits and human error that puts a premium on the ability to analyze large amounts of data.

SAN FRANCISCO — Top-of-mind security concerns at this year’s RSA Conference have been narrowed to two areas: Technology and the people using it.

A volatile mix of sophisticated exploits and human frailty have made the last year an eventful one in cybersecurity, said Hugh Thompson, program committee chair for the conference being held this week. Breaches at RSA itself, the CIA, several of the Energy Department’s national laboratories and other high-profile targets have made headlines, and are creating a demand for tools to gather and analyze security intelligence.

“If you look at the attacks of 2011, the beginning of the story in each case was some social vector that was used to get in,” Thompson said.


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“There has been a broad shift in social interaction,” with an increased amount of online communication in place of face-to-face meetings, and a wealth of personal information that can be mined online, said Ari Juels, director of RSA Labs, and a member of the conference advisory board. “That’s something that is being actively exploited.”

But Juels added that social engineering should not distract from the technical issues: In every breach, no matter what the vector used, some form of malware was introduced to exploit vulnerabilities in the system.

The conference features a baker’s dozen of keynotes and 15 concurrent tracks of presentations over four days, with more than 350 companies exhibiting their wares and making announcements on the show floor, so there is no single theme that dominates the entire conference. But Art Coviello, executive chairman of RSA, the Security Division of EMC, said managing security data rather than point products is a common concern today.

“You are going to hear a lot about the automation of security and intelligent security,” Coviello said.

This trend moves IT security into the realm of Big Data, another big computing trend, said John Madelin, director of services for Verizon Business’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division. “The two words of 2012 are ‘Big Data’,” he said.

In security, hackers increasingly will need to be able to mine large data sets to extract useful information, and defenders will have to do the same thing to spot threats.

Making use of data about vulnerabilities, threats and current activities on global networks requires the ability to gather, identify and analyze information on a large scale automatically, and this is still an emerging area of technology.

“It’s still fairly young,” said Todd Inskeep, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. There are applications that can do some of this, “but that ability still faces challenges.”

The first challenge is to simply gather the relevant data, which is difficult because of restraints on, or reluctance toward, sharing data between organizations. This can be overcome, at least in part, by making better use of information organizations already have, Juels said.

“There is ample scope for more effective mining of internal data sets,” without sharing, he said.

But mining is hindered by messy, nonstandard data that resists analysis, he said. This first step in intelligent security is to make data useful by standardizing it so that relevant information can be identified and anomalies can be spotted.

A related issue gaining attention is identity management. The task of identifying users of data and resources is not a new one, but the challenges and the need to do it are growing with the proliferation of devices that can be used to access resources.

“Mobile security comes back to user identity, seeing the user behind the device,” Madelin said. Reliable user authentication is possible, but making it scalable, affordable and user-friendly remains a challenge. “It’s still an unsolved mystery.”

One attempt to solve that mystery is the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, an effort by the government to stimulate development of a trusted identity ecosystem with a selection of standardized, voluntary technologies that can be adopted as needed.

But the answer probably will not come soon, Juels said. This “technical basis for trust” might still be 10 years out, he said.

 

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