A Stable InfoSec Program?

Posted June 17th, 2010 by

If it wasn’t frustrating dealing with the huge conflict-of-interest that follows the Government’s InfoSec pocketbook, it would be absolutely hilarious to watch the myriad interactions between all the competing interests at work, all with their grand plan on how to “fix” something that, in their opinion, is grossly broken.  Not that their idea is any better or will be executed better, it’s that it’s something new and gives them soundbites.

I’ll even admit to having my own opinions from time to time, although I’m not in it for the filthy lucre, just trying to help.  =)

stable foundashun 4 my infosec program? lots of "it depends"

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Posted in IKANHAZFIZMA | 1 Comment »

Senate Homeland Security Hearings and the Lieberman-Carper-Collins Bill

Posted June 16th, 2010 by

Fun things happened yesterday.  In case you hid under a rock, the Intertubes were rocking yesterday with the thudding of fingera on keyboard as I live-tweeted the Senate Homeland Committee’s hearing on “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset: Comprehensive Legislation for the 21st Century”.  And oh yeah, there’s a revised version of S.3474 that includes some of the concepts in S.773.  Short version is that the cybersecurity bills are going through the sausage factory known as Capitol Hill and the results are starting to look plausible.

You can go watch the video and read the written testimonies here.  This is mandatory if you’re working with FISMA, critical infrastructure, or large-scale incident response.  I do have to warn you, there are some antics afoot:

  • Senator Collins goes all FUD on us.
  • Senator McCain grills Phil Reitinger if DHS can actually execute a cybersecurity mission.
  • Alan Paller gets all animated and opens up boxes of paperwork.  I am not amused.

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Posted in FISMA, Public Policy, Risk Management | 2 Comments »

A Funnier Thing Happened on the WAY to Capitol Hill

Posted June 15th, 2010 by

Since I never get to see Vlad the Impaler enough in real life I was pleased to see his recent blog post, “Machines Don’t Cause Risk, People Do!”. It reminded me of fact that security professionals must have so-called people skills as well as a keen insight into the dynamics and group psychology of organizations in order to be effective.

As is true for technological solutions, security controls and security policy must also be subject to the concepts and process found in life-cycle methodologies. As security professionals we must be constantly aware of these cycles as in some cases this means that controls and policies can outlive their usefulness. In other cases it means that security policies, concepts, and policies can evolve or mutate until they are no longer viable or meaningful.

It is the later phenomena that that caught my attention recently. But, first let me set the stage…

A Tragic History

Back in 1983 the American people were made aware of the concept of a truck bomb in a dramatic and tragic fashion. In late October of that year, truck bombers attacked the compounds housing U.S. and French peacekeepers in Lebanon. The loss of life was shocking.

In the aftermath of this tragedy there was a great deal of political finger pointing. Notably, security professionals had expressed concerns about the vulnerability of the deployment and had made several recommendations to improve the security of the facility. Some of the recommendations were followed, others that would have greatly mitigated the against the damage and loss of life in the subsequent attack were not implemented. In addition, security professionals were also asked to rise above all of the politics and examine the situation from a, “lessons-learned” perspective and develop generally applicable counter-measures. One obvious and immediate response was the introduction of the bollards or jersey barriers around public and government buildings. While experts agreed that this wasn’t a complete solution to the problem of the vehicular bomb, it was and still is seen as a useful and essential tool.

Two criticisms to the use of these physical barriers were quickly voiced. The first criticism focused on the aesthetics of these barriers. Critics correctly pointed out that the barriers that were initially introduced were ugly and made public building buildings and spaces protected by these barriers take on an unfriendly fortress-like appearance. After a time the response to this was the introduction of barriers that were masqueraded as sculpture, large planter boxes and even seats or benches.

The second criticism focused on the fact that many public building and spaces were constructed in such a fashion such that it was difficult, expensive, and in some cases even impossible to effectively employ these barriers. A common problem noted was that building was often constructed with little or no “set-back” between the building and streets. This meant that there is no meaningful way in which to erect barriers at a sufficient distance from the building in question to afford it any meaningful protection.

Within the limits of always constrained budgets, the Federal government began erecting vehicular barriers all over the country and even overseas. The government also began a program that developed a risk and vulnerability assessment or classification of all Federal facilities and buildings.

History Repeats Itself With a New Twist

Ten years later, the US was horrified again by the bombing of Federal Building in Oklahoma City. While the bombing and loss of life was a terrible tragedy in the truest sense of the word, the similarities of this incident to the 1983 incident made it all that much more painful. The fact that the Oklahoma City tragedy took place domestically and resulted from entirely domestic terrorist plotters made the situation even more sobering.

Even worse, because the above mentioned security assessment classified the Oklahoma City Federal Building as being a relatively low risk facility. There were two significant consequences to this security assessment/classification. The first was that the use of extensive anti-vehicle barriers or bollards were seen as being unnecessary. The second was that the building was seen as safe enough that a day care facility was approved for the building. This decision added an additional element of heartbreak to the general feeling of horror and grief in response to the bombing.

A Thoughtful Response

In the aftermath of this terrible act the Federal government develop a rather extensive set of building specification that were required in all new construction. When implemented, these specifications greatly increase a building ability to resist a similar attack. Moreover, this risk-based specification focuses considerable attention on reducing the risks to the people in the building. For example, protective films are required for all windows, thus reducing the risks from flying fragmented glass.

Because of the extended thought that went into this specification, many of the technologies and approached embraced in the specification are also available as affordable retrofits to existing building. This is especially useful in the case of leased building or office space.

Having had an opportunity to work with these codes and specification, my impression is that there is a good deal of sound thinking behind these measures. Moreover, these specifications are constantly reviewed and updated taking into account the latest threats and the technical developments.

Security Meets the Street

A few weeks ago I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington D.C. I was a beautiful day and I was just a few blocks from the White House. I was a little surprised when I saw one of bollards that I mentioned earlier. The bollard itself isn’t all that surprising; they are a pretty common site around the nations’ capital. The fact that this particular barrier was masquerading as a planter box for a small tree was also not all that unusual. However, the barrier was damaged.. At a casual glace a damaged bollard also isn’t all that unusual a sight either. But, with a quick glance at this bollard something in the back of my mind whispered that there was something odd about this barrier. I looked at the damaged area and noticed that the bollard was filled with Styrofoam. That seemed odd enough to catch my attention and motivated me to investigate a bit further.

The first thing I did was to take a quick snap-shot of the bollard (see below). I can’t say it’s likely that I will ever will a Pulitzer Prize for photo journalism, but if you examine my snapshot closely you can clearly identify the Styrofoam grains in the damaged section photographed. I also had a bit of luck. Just as I was looking at the barrier one the incredibility efficient and effective D.C. Parking Enforcement Offices just happened by plying their trade. I asked them I they were aware of what happened to the barrier in question. I was in luck; the officer was an eye-witness to a minor fender bender in which the bollard was damaged. I pointed out the foam filling and asked if what the point of the foam was. She informed me that the barriers had to be moved all the time. Older planter boxes were constructed from solid poured cement or aggregate but, they were heavy and difficult to move. So, in response to this problem, they introduced the “improved” lighter weight barriers. I pointed out that it didn’t seem to be very durable and therefore didn’t seem to be a very effective barrier to a vehicle driven by a determined individual. She laughed and shared with me they were so fragile that the crews that moved them often damaged or destroyed them just by moving them.

Concrete and Styrofoam

Styrofoam in Concrete Barrier photo by Ian.

I guess at that point my incredulous look was obvious on my face and the officer responded to my unasked question by say, “I just write tickets; have a nice day!”


Perhaps I’m over-reacting to what I saw and heard. However, this seems to be a good example of how an essential security control can be compromised for reasons completely unrelated to security. In this case, it isn’t clear what the role of the security professionals involved in this process was. They could have fought the weakening of this security control to the limits of their ability. It is also possible that the warning of the security-types were lost in the shuffle between the various Federal and city jurisdictions involved in this situation. Convenience and practicality are often the enemy of security policy and security implementation. On the surface of it, this seems to be a good case study making that point.

This is perhaps an example of one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of the responsibilities of the security community — especially for security leaders. We must hold the line and do the right thing. We will never be thanked for it. And, we constantly risk having our jobs or reputations put at risk for doing the right thing and fighting the good fight. But, it is important to remember that the consequences of ignoring this responsibility are even larger and potentially graver that job security. I know that Vlad is a hard-nosed security professional who will not compromise. If he is over-ruled, and that happens, he still sleeps well at night.

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Posted in Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 2 Comments »

A New Take on Continuous Controls Monitoring

Posted June 10th, 2010 by

Some days I feel like all this “continuous monitoring” talk around the beltway is just really a codeword for “buy our junk”, much like the old standby “defense in depth”, only instead of firewalls and IDS, it’s desktop and server configuration management.  Even better that it works for both products and services.  The BSOFH in me likes having a phrase like “Near Real-Time Continuous Compliance Monitoring” which can mean anything from “tying thermite grenades to the racks in case of being captured” to “I think I’ll make a ham sandwich for lunch and charge you for the privilege”.

Anyway, our IKANHAZFIZMA lolcats have finally found a control worth monitoring:  the world’s supply of overstuffed cheeseburgers.  This continuous monitoring thing is serious business, just like the Internets.

kontinuus monitoring i kan get behind!

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Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

When the News Breaks, We Fix it…

Posted June 8th, 2010 by

Rybolov’s note:  Vlad’s on a rant, at times like this it’s best sit back, read, and laugh at his curmudgeonly and snark-filled sense of humor.

So there I am having a beer at my favorite brew pub Dogfish Head Alehouse, in Fairfax, when my phone vibrates to this ditty…. I couldn’t get past the “breaking news.”

From: <The SANS Institute>

Sent: Friday, May 28, 2010 4:05 PM


Subject: SANS NewsBites Vol. 12 Num. 42 : House attaches FISMA corrections to Defense Authorization Bill for rapid action

* PGP Signed by an unmatched address: 5/28/2010 at 2:52:21 PM

Breaking News: US House of Representatives attaches new FISMA rewrite to Defense Authorization Bill. The press hasn’t picked it up yet, but NextGov.Com will have a story in a few minutes. This puts one more nail in the coffin of the Federal CISOs and security contractors who think they can go on ignoring OMB and go on wasting money on out of date report writing contracts.


Yet another millstone (pun intended) piece of legislation passed on a Friday with… a cheerleader?!?!??? Whoa.

This ruined what was turning out to be a decent Friday afternoon for me…

My beef is this — I guess I really don’t understand what motivates someone who vilifies Federal CISOs and security contractors in the same sentence? Does the writer believe that CISOs are in the pocket of contractors? Even I am not that much of a cynic… Which CISO’s are “ignoring OMB?” All of them except NASA? Are all of our Government CISOs so out of touch that they LIKE throwing scarce IT dollars away on “out of date report writing contracts?” (sic.) (Vlad – Are hyphens too costly?)

I could drop to an ad hominem attack against the writer, but that’s pretty much unnecessary and probably too easy. I’ll leave that to others.

Suffice to say that what is motivating this newsbit appears IMHO to be less about doing things the right way, and more about doing things their way while grabbing all the headlines and talking head interviews they possibly can. (See “self-licking Ice Cream Cone” in my last post)

Yeah, I’m a cynic. I’m a security professional. What’s yer point?

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Rants, Risk Management | 3 Comments »

How to Not Let FISMA Become a Paperwork Exercise

Posted June 7th, 2010 by

OK, since everybody seems to think that FISMA is some evil thing that needs reform, this is the version of events on “Planet Rybolov”:

Goals to surviving FISMA, based on all the criticisms I’ve read:

  • Reduce paperwork requirements. Yes, some is needed.  Most is not.
  • Reduce cost. There is much repetition in what we’re doing now, it borders on fraud, waste, and abuse.
  • Increase technical effectiveness. IE, get from the procedural and managerial tasks and get down into the technical parts of security.

“Uphold our Values-Based Compliance Culture photo by kafka4prez.

So now, how do you keep from letting FISMA cripple you or turn into death-by-compliance:

  • Prioritize. 25% of your controls need to not fail 100% of the time.  These are the ones that you test in-depth and more frequently.  Honestly, how often does your risk assessment policy get updated v/s your patch management?  Believe it or not, this is in SP 800-53R3 if you interpret it in the correct context.  More importantly, do not let your auditors dictate your priorities.
  • Use common controls and shared infrastructure. Explicitly tell your system owners and ISSOs what you are providing as the agency CISO and/or the GSS that they are riding on.  As much as I hate meetings, if you own a General Support System (GSS), infrastructure (LAN/WAN, AD Forest, etc), or common controls (agency-wide policy, budget, Security Operations Center, etc), you have a fiduciary, legal, and moral obligation to get together with your constituency (the people who rely on the security you provide) and explain what it is you provide and allow them to tell you what additional support they need.
  • Share Assessment Results. I’m talking about results from service providers with other agencies and systems.  We’re overtesting on the high-level stuff that doesn’t change and not on the detailed stuff that does change.  This is the nature of security assessments in that you start at the top and work your way down into the details, only most assessments don’t get down into the details because they’re busy reworking the top-level stuff over and over again.  Many years ago as a contractor managing infrastructure that multiple agencies used, it was unbelievably hard to get one agency to allow me to share security documents and assessment results with other agencies.  Shared assessment results mean that you can cut through the repetitious nature of what you’re doing and progressively get deeper into the technical, frequently-changing security aspects.
  • Simplify the Paperwork. Yes, you still need to document what you’re doing, but the days of free-text prose and being graded on grammar and punctuation need to be over.  Do the controls section of System Security Plans as a Requirement Traceability Matrix.  More important than that, you need to go by-control by-component.  If you are hiring contractors and their job is to do copypasta directly from NIST documents and change the pronouns and tenses, you’re doing it wrong.  Don’t stand for that in your security policy or anything else that you do.
  • Automate Wherever Possible. Note that the controls that change frequently and that need to not fail usually fit into this group.  It’s one of those “Things that make Rybolov go ‘Hmmmm'”.  Technology and automation provide both the problem and the solution.  Also see my first point up above.
  • Fire 50% of Your Security Staff. Yes, I’m serious.  Those people you didn’t need anyway, primarily because they’re violating all the points I’ve made so far.  More importantly, 25 clueless people can mess things up faster than 5 clueful people can fix them, and that’s a problem for me.  Note that this does not apply to @csoandy, his headcount is A-OK.

The incredible thing to me is that this stuff is already there.  NIST writes “hooks” into their Special Publications to allow the smart people the room to do all these things.

And now the part where I hop up on my soapbox:  reforming FISMA by new legislation will not make any achievements above and beyond what we have today (with the exception of creating a CISO-esque position for the Exective Branch) because of the nature of audit and compliance.  In a public policy sense, the more items you have in legislation, the more the audit burden increases and the amount of repetition increases, and the amount of nonsense controls (ie, AntiVirus for Linux servers) increases.  Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Rants, Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 2 Comments »

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