Note to Government: Learn What RSS Means

Posted September 30th, 2008 by

Let’s talk process flow rants here for a second.

Every couple of weeks, OMB issues a new memorandum setting policy for the executive branch.  They release the memo to the agency heads who then respond–a policy-based syn/ack/fin loop if you will.

All the memos are set up on the OMB website at this url.

Notice something missing?  Where is the RSS feed?  Seriously, if you want somebody other than just the agency heads to be informed of all your newest issues, you need to make it subscribable either via email or RSS feed.  There are tons of people who would subscribe, and it makes your job that much easier.

This rant was brought to you by the letters R and S.  =)

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Posted in Rants | 3 Comments »

Workin’ for the ‘Counters: an Analysis of my Love-Hate Relationship with the CPAs

Posted September 30th, 2008 by

No big surprise by now, I work for an accounting firm.  Oh, what’s that?  Oh yes, that’s right, it’s a consulting firm with a high percentage of accountants, including a plethora of CPAs.  “Accounting firm” is so 1950s-ish. =)

It’s my secret theory (well, not so much of a secret now, just between the Internet and me) that the primary problem we have in information security is that as a field we have borrowed heavily from public accounting.  The only problem is that public accounting is different from what we do.

Goals for public accounting run something like this:

  • Eliminate fraud through oversight
  • Protect the company’s money from rogue agents
  • Protect the shareholders of public companies
  • Ensure accountability of actions

Accounting for Mere Mortals Such as Security Folk

Accounting for Non-Accountants photo by happyeclair.

As a result of their goals, accountants have an interesting set of values:

  • Signatures are sacred
  • Separation of duties is sacrosanct
  • Auditing is designed to act as a deterrent to fraud
  • “Professional Skepticism” is a much-valued trait
  • Zero-Defects is a good condition

In other words, accountants live in a panopticon of tranparency, the concept being that through oversight and transparency, people will not become evildoers and those that do will be caught.  Pretty simple idea, makes me think about IDS in an entirely new light.

Words that accountants use that mean something entirely different from the way you or I use them:

  • Fraud, Waste, and Abuse: They’re talking about spending money, I’m usually talking about people doing something ethically wrong.
  • Investigation: They’re looking at the numbers to see how a particular number was created.  Me, I bring the nice people with guns when I do an investigation.
  • Incident: Their version is what I would call an event.  When I call something an incident, we’re headed towards an investigation.
  • Security test and evaluation: To them, it’s a compliance audit.  To me, it’s determining the frequency that the system will fail and if we have a way to fix it once it does.  Remember this, it’s a critical difference.
  • Control: I think their version has something to do with having oversight and separation of duties.  Me, when I see this word, I think “countermeasure to a specific threat and vulnerability”.
  • Audit: An activity designed to prove that fraud has not happened.  Usually we don’t use the word unless we absolutely have to.
  • Technical: They’re talking about the highly-detailed accounting rules.  I’m talking about if you know how to build your own server and OS using lumps of raw silicon and a soldering iron.
  • Checklist: They’re talking about a sacred list that condenses all the rules into an easily-auditable format.  Me, I’m thinking that a checklist is something that will fail because my threats and their capabilities don’t fit into nice little lists.
  • Forensics: Their version is what I would call “research to find out where the money went to” and involves looking at a bunch of numbers.  My version has something to do with logs, memory dumps, and hard drive images.
  • Risk Management: This has something to do with higher interest rates for high-risk loans.  For me, it’s looking for countermeasures and knowing what things to skimp on even though the catalog of controls says you have to have it.

In short, pretty much anything they could say about our line of work has a different meaning.  This is why I believe it’s a problem if we adopt too much of their methodology and management models because they are doing similar activities to what security people do, only for different purposes.

In order to understand the mentality that we’re working with, let’s give you a couple of scenarios:

After-Work Optional Training Session: The accountants not only make you put your name on the attendance roster but you have to sign it as well.  Are they worried that you’re committing fraud by showing up at training that you were not supposed to, so they need some sort of signature nonrepudiation to prove that you were there?  No!  They just make you sign it because they believe in the power of the signature and that’s just how they do things, no matter how trivial.

The Role of Security: To an accountant, the role of security in an organization is to reduce fraud by “hack-proof” configurations and monitoring.  This is a problem in that since security is economics, we’re somehow subordinate to the finance people.

Let’s look at the world of the typical security practitioner:

  • The guidance that security professionals have is very contradictory, missing, or non-relevant.
  • Really what we do comes down to risk management, which means that sometimes it makes more sense to break the rules (even though there is a rule that says break the rules, which should freak your brain out by now if you’re an accountant).
  • We have a constantly changing environment that rules cannot keep up with.

Now this whole blog post, although rambling on about accountants, is aimed at getting a message across.  In the US Federal Government, we use a process called certification and accreditation (C&A).  The certification part is pretty easy to understand–it’s like compliance, do you have it and does it work.  CPAs will readily understand that as a controls assessment.  That’s very much a transferable concept.

But in accreditation, you give the risks to a senior manager/executive and they accept the risks associated with operating the system.  The CPA’s zero-defects world comes through and they lie on the ground doing the cockroach.  Their skills aren’t transferable when dealing with risk management, only compliance with a set of rules.

Once again, the problem with security in Government is that it’s cultural.

And don’t get me wrong, I like accountants and they do what I do not have neither the skills nor the desire to do.  I just think that there aren’t as many transferable skills between our jobs as there might seem on the surface.

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Posted in Odds-n-Sods, Rants | 4 Comments »

SCAP in Lulz

Posted September 25th, 2008 by

Since it’s SCAP week here inside the beltway, I thought that it would be a fitting theme for today’s IKANHAZFIZMA.

funny pictures

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Posted in IKANHAZFIZMA | 2 Comments »

Comments on SCAP 2008

Posted September 24th, 2008 by

I just got back from the SCAP 2008 conference at NIST HQ, and this is a collection of my thoughts in a somewhat random order:

Presention slides are available at the NVD website

I blogged about SCAP a year ago, and started pushing it in conversations with security managers that I came across.  Really, if you’re managing security of anything and you don’t know what SCAP is, you need to get smart on it really fast, if for no other reason than that you will be pitched it by vendors sporting new certifications.

Introduction to SCAP:  SCAP is a collection of XML schemas/standards that allow technical security information to be exchanged between tools.  It consists of the following standards:

  • Common Platform Enumeration (CPE): A standard to describe a specific hardware, OS, and software configuration.  Asset information, it’s fairly humdrum, but it makes the rest of SCAP possible–think target enumeration and you’re pretty close.
  • Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE): A definition of publicly-known vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  Should be familiar to most security researches and patch monkies.
  • Common Configuration Enumeration (CCE): Basically, like CVE but specific to misconfigurations.
  • Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS): A standard for determining the characteristics and impact of security vulnerabilities.  Hmmm, sounds suspiciously like standardization of what is a high, medium, and low criticality vulnerability.
  • Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language (OVAL):  Actually, 3 schemas to describe the inventory of a computer, the configuration on that computer, and a report of what vulnerabilites were found on that computer.
  • Extensible Configuration Checklist Description Format (XCCDF): A data set that describes checks for vulnerabilities, benchmarks, or misconfigurations.  Sounds like the updates to your favorite vulnerability scanning tool because it is.

Hall of Standards inside NIST HQ photo by ME!!!

What’s the big deal with SCAP: SCAP allows data exchanges between tools.  So, for example, you can take a technical policy compliance tool, load up the official Government hardening policy in XCCDF for, say, Windows 2003, run a compliance scan, export the data in OVAL, and load the results into a final application that can help your CISO keep track of all the vulnerabilities.  Basically, imagine that you’re DoD and have 1.5 million desktops–how do you manage all of the technical information on those without having tools that can import and export from each other?

And then there was the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC): OMB and Karen Evans handed SCAP its first trial-by-fire.  FDCC is a configuration standard that is to be rolled out to every Government desktop.  According to responses received by OMB from the departments in the executive branch (see, Karen, I WAS paying attention =)   ), there are roughly 3.5 Million desktops inside the Government.  The only way to manage these desktops is through automation, and SCAP is providing that.

He sings, he dances, that Tony Sager is a great guy: So he’s presented at Black Hat, now SCAP 2008 (.pdf caveat).  Basically, while the NSA has a great red-team (think pen-test) capability, they had a major change of heart and realized, like the rest of the security world (*cough*Ranum*cough*), that while attacking is fun, it isn’t very productive at defending your systems–there is much more work to be done for the defenders, and we need more clueful people doing that.

Vendors are jumping on the bandwagon with both feet: The amount of uptake from the vulnerability and policy compliance vendors is amazing.  I would give numbers of how many are certified, but I literally get a new announcement in my news reader ever week or so.  For vendors, being certified means that you can sell your product to the Government, not being certified means that you get to sit on the bench watching everybody else have all the fun.  The GSA SAIR Smart-Buy Blanket Purchase Agreement sweetens the deal immensely by having your product easily purchasable in massive quantities by the Government.

Where are the rest of the standards: Yes, FDCC is great, but where are the rest of the hardening standards in cute importable XML files, ready to be snarfed into my SCAP-compliant tool?  Truth be told, this is one problem with SCAP right now because everybody has been focusing on FDCC and hasn’t had time yet to look at the other platforms.  Key word is “yet” because it’s happening real soon now, and it’s fairly trivial to convert the already-existing DISA STIGs or CIS Benchmarks into XCCDF.  In fact, Sun was blindsided by somebody who had made some SCAP schemas for their products and they had no idea that anybody was working on it–new content gets added practically daily because of the open-source nature of SCAP.

Changing Government role: This is going to be controversial.  With NVD/CVE, the government became the authoritative source for vulnerabilities.  So far that’s worked pretty well.  With the rest of SCAP, the Government changes roles to be a provider of content and configurations.  If NIST is smart, they’ll stay out of this because they prefer to be in the R&D business and not the operations side of things.  Look for DHS to pick up the role of being a definitions provider.  Government has to be careful here because they could in some instances be competing with companies that sell SCAP-like feed services.  Not a happy spot for either side of the fence.

More information security trickle-down effect: A repeated theme at SCAP 2008 is that the public sector is interested in what Big SCAP can do for them.  The vendors are using SCAP certification as a differentiator for the time being, but expect to see SCAP for security management standards like PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and SOX–to be honest here, though, most of the vendors in this space cut their teeth on these standards, it’s just a matter of legwork to be able to export in SCAP schemas.  Woot, we all win thanks to the magic that is the Government flexing its IT budget dollars!

OS and Applications vendors: these guys are feeling the squeeze of standardization.  On one hand, the smart vendors (Oracle, Microsoft, Sun, Cisco) have people already working with DISA/NSA to help produce the configuration guides, they just have to sit back and let somebody turn the guides into SCAP content.  Some of the applications vendors still haven’t figured out that their software is about to be made obsolete in the Government market because they don’t have the knowledge base to self-certify with FDCC and later OS standards.  With a 3-year lead time required for some of the desktop applications before a feature request (make my junk work with FDCC) makes it into a product release, there had better be some cluebat work going on in the application vendor community.  Adobe, I’m talking to you and Lifecycle ES–if you need help, just call me.

But how about system integrators: Well, for the time being, system integrators have almost a free ride–they just have to deal with FDCC.  There are some of them that have some cool solutions built on the capabilities of SCAP, but for the most part I haven’t seen much movement except for people who do some R&D.  Unfortunately for system integrators, the Federal Acquisition Regulation now requires that anything you sell to the Government be configured IAW the NIST checklists program.  And just how do you think the NIST checklists program will be implemented?  I’ll take SCAP for $5Bazillion, Alex.  Smart sytem integrators will at least keep an eye on SCAP before it blindsides them 6 months from now.

Technical compliance tools are destined to be a commodity: For the longest time, the vulnerability assessment vendors made their reputation by having the best vulnerability signatures.  In order to get true compatibility across products, standardized SCAP feeds means that the pure-play security tools are going to have less things to differentiate themselves from all the other tools and they fall into a commodity market centered on the accuracy of their checks with reduced false positives and negatives.  While it may seem like a joyride for the time being (hey, we just got our ticket to sell to the Gubmint by being SCAP-certified), that will soon turn into frustration as the business model changes and the margins get smaller.  Smart vendors will figure out ways to differentiate themselves and will survive, the others will not.

Which leads me to this: Why is it that SCAP only applies to security tools?  I mean, seriously, guys like BigFix and NetIQ have crossover from technical policy compliance to network management systems–CPE in particular.  What we need is a similar effort applied to network and data center tools.  And don’t point me at SNMP, I’m talking rich data.  =)  On a positive note, expect some of the security pure-play tools to be bought up and incorporated into enterprise suites if they aren’t already.

Side notes:

I love how the many deer (well over 9000 deer on the NIST campus) all have ear tags.  It brings up all sorts of scientific studies ideas.  But apparently the deer are on birth control shots or something….

Former Potomac Forum students:  Whattayaknow, I met some of our former students who are probably reading this right now because I pimped out my blog probably too aggressively.  =)  Hi Shawn, Marc, and Bob!

Old friends:  Wow, I found some of them, too.  Hi Jess, Walid, Chris, and a cast of thousands.

Deer on NIST Gaithersburg Campus photo by Chucka_NC.

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Posted in DISA, FISMA, NIST, Technical, What Works | 2 Comments »

Keeping The Lights On: Cybersecurity Law for the Electric Grid

Posted September 23rd, 2008 by

Ever wondered if your electricity supply was safe from computer attack? Congress wondered that too. So they asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to find out. The answers they received in October of 2007 were not encouraging.

After 9/11 there was concern about the safety of the Bulk Power Supply (BPS). The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection released a report which was explicit about the dangers faced. A frightening example of these dangers was demonstrated by the Aurora vulnerability, essentially a software hack that made a generator crash hard. When faced with this example industry moved to mitigate the problem with some prodding from Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and FERC. The Nuclear Sector, which is regulated by NRC, issued a requirement to address the problem. The Electric Sector was issued a recommendation to address the problem by the Electric Sector Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ES-ISAC). Guess which industry has moved forward with successful mitigation efforts and which has not. FERC reported back on these findings in October of 2007.

Fast forward to now. On September 11th the Bulk Power System Protection Act (BPSPA) of 2008 (PDF link) was put forward by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. In addition to the September 11th hearing on the BPSPA a closed door hearing was expected to be conducted the following week. The goal of this legislation is to expand the emergency power of FERC to regulate cybersecurity for the BPS. The act itself does not appear to be strongly opposed by the energy industry but, as always, the devil is in the details.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant photo by emdot.

The draft legislation is disputed on three major points; whether to include national security threats, disclosure of threat information and a sunset provision.

FERC recommends wording that would make explicit the requirement to address national security threats. This seems an implicit and reasonable expectation that the people of the United States would have of the agency regulating the BPS but the Energy Sector considers this too expansive a role. They argue that it might cause expensive requirements to be issued such as stockpiling fuel.

The disclosure of threat information is a sore point. Here you can understand the pain of the industry in dealing with government intelligence agencies who would like to keep details of a threat spare to preserve the source of that information. Unfortunately the government must preserve their sources while providing enough information for the industry to react.

Both FERC and the Energy Sector agree on the idea of a sunset provision. The sunset provision in this case stipulates that so long as an order is implemented as a standard it should terminate one year after issuance unless renewed by the President or the Secretary of Energy. The issue is whether this sunset will include the orders to address existing problems (such as the Aurora vulnerability) in addition to orders issued for future vulnerabilities. FERC recommends that only future orders should be sunsetted while the Energy Sector recommends both current and future orders should be sunsetted.

One element which is not adequately addressed in this legislation is how FERC will build the capability to assess and manage cybersecurity issues for the BPS. What should be in place is a bipartite separation of duties between FERC and NIST similar to what is in place with the dual OMB/NIST FISMA roles. FERC would oversee the security while NIST would provide technical guidance on what security should be put in place. FERC does not have the experience in security frameworks or in depth expertise in SCADA security which is required for a cybersecurity initiative of this magnitude.

It is worth noting that Energy Policy Act of 2005 (PDF link) established a process through which the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) was authorized to enforce cybersecurity in the Energy Sector. NERC had gone so far as to create Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards to include with their Reliability Standards and had present them to FERC for approval by late 2007.

A review of the NERC CIP standards (CIP-001 through CIP-009) does not inspire confidence in NERC’s cybersecurity capabilities. I will discuss the shortcomings of this guidance in a subsequent post.

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Posted in What Doesn't Work | 3 Comments »

C&A Seminar, October 15th and 16th

Posted September 22nd, 2008 by

The Potomac Forum crew is back at it again with a C&A seminar on the 15th and 16th.  While 2 days isn’t long enough to earn your black belt at C&A-Foo, it is enough so that if you’re a solid program manager or technical lead, you’ll walk out being at least able to understand the core of the process.

As usual, some of the instructors should be familiar to my blog readers.  =)

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Posted in FISMA, Speaking | No Comments »

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