Former FBI cyber cop: Hunt the hacker, not the hack

Shawn Henry, former head of FBI's cyber crime team, says private-sector networks lack adequate defenses and require the same level of intelligence available to government networks.

Traditional notions of network defense have left commercial infrastructure exposed to a growing host of adversaries, and those networks require a higher level of strategic response to protect them, says former FBI cyber cop Shawn Henry.

“I am of the belief that we cannot defend the network successfully,” Henry said. “We need to hunt the adversary on the network,” so that they can be identified and blocked and future intrusions can be prevented.

Henry, who retired last month as executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch, said he is moving to the private sector to provide the kind of cybersecurity intelligence for business that is now available only to government.


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“The .mil and .gov space is protected by the [National Security Agency] and Homeland Security Department, respectively,” Henry said. “There is nobody with the authority to protect .com. Each company is responsible itself for protecting its network.”

As a law enforcement agency, the FBI responds to crimes and pursues criminals, usually becoming involved after the fact, he said. The agency does not monitor networks or assess their security, and it does not block intrusions or clean up a network after the fact. These functions are performed by the private sector, which needs to fill the intelligence void.

Henry has joined the start-up security company CrowdStrike as president of its professional services subsidiary. He said he believes that the company’s approach to security and its as-yet-unseen technology can provide a level of cybersecurity intelligence that has not been available outside of government.

“I was not actively looking for a job,” when he was approached by company founder George Kurtz, Henry said. “I didn’t have a big interest in a start-up company.”

Kurtz, former chief technology officer of McAfee, said the new company will focus not on attacks but on the humans behind them. Distributed points of attack and malware that quickly morphs to avoid detection have overtaxed traditional point protections and signature-based tools. CrowdStrike proposes to look at activity inside the network to identify “fingerprints” of attackers using tried and true techniques. This will not directly prevent an intrusion but will enable a response and eventually raise the bar for future attacks.

Company CTO Dmitri Alperovitch called it a strategic approach rather than a tactical response. The technology that will provide this intelligence is expected to be released later this year.

Henry said in spite of recent high-profile breaches, many network operators are not aware of the seriousness of the threats they are facing.

“I don’t subscribe to the belief that everyone understands it,” he said. Only a limited number of people who have seen classified data available within government fully appreciate the dangers.

But information is classified primarily because of the way it is gathered, and the same information when gathered by the private sector can be made freely available. The problem is that that data is not being gathered, he said. “People are not looking in the right places. They are watching the door and the adversaries are jumping over the wall.”

Attribution — being able to identify the source of an attack — is a challenge in cybersecurity because attacks usually are conducted remotely and the attacker can remain hidden behind multiple layers of technology. This makes timely retaliation difficult if not impossible and reduces the options for deterrence of attacks.

But Henry said better attribution is possible by analysis of the right kinds of information on a compromised network. “It takes time,” he said. “There is no simple fix.”

And it might not identify a specific individual or location. But being able to identify a group or a motive for a breach or the type of information being sought can enable a response that raises the costs and risks for the attacker and can help prevent future attacks.

 

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