“Machines Don’t Cause Risk, People Do!”

Posted May 26th, 2010 by

A few weeks back I read an article on an apparent shift in emphasis in government security… OMB outlines shift on FISMA” take a moment to give it a read. I’ll wait….

That was followed by NASA’s “bold move” to change the way they manage risk

Once again the over-emphasis and outright demagoguery on “compliance,” “FISMA reports,” “paper exercises,” and similar concepts that occupy our security geek thoughts have not given way to enlightenment. (At least “compliancy” wasn’t mentioned…) I was saddened by a return to the “FISMA BAD” school of thought so often espoused by the luminaries at SANS. Now NASA has leapt from the heights… At the risk of bashing Alan Paller yet again, I am often turned off by the approach of “being able to know the status of every machine at every minute, ” – as if machines by themselves cause bad security… It’s way too tactical (incorrect IMHO) and too easy to make that claim.

Hence the title of this rant – Machines don’t cause risk, people do!

The “people” I’m talking about are everyone from your agency director, down to the lowliest sysadmin… The problem? They may not be properly educated or lack the necessary skills for their position – another (excellent) point brought forth in the first article. Most importantly, even the most seasoned security veteran operating without a strategic vision within a comprehensive security program (trained people, budget, organizational will, technology and procedures) based upon the FISMA framework will be doomed to failure. Likewise, having all the “toys” in the world means nothing without a skilled labor force to operate them and analyze their output. (“He who dies with the most toys is still dead.”) Organizations and agency heads that do not develop and support a comprehensive security program that incorporates the NIST Risk Management Framework as well as the other facets listed above will FAIL. This is nothing new or revolutionary, except I don’t think we’ve really *done* FISMA yet. As I and others have said many times, it’s not about the paper, or the cost per page – it’s about the repeatable processes — and knowledgeable people — behind what the paper describes.

I also note the somewhat disingenuous mention of the risk management program at the State Department in the second article… As if that were all State was doing! What needs to be noted here is that State has approached security in the proper way, IMHO — from a Strategic, or Enterprise level. They have not thrown out the figurative baby with the bath water by dumping everything else in their security program in favor of the risk scoring system or some other bright, shiny object. I know first-hand from having worked with many elements in the diplomatic security hierarchy at State – these folks get it. They didn’t get to the current level of goodness in the program by decrying (dare I say whining about?) “paper.” They made the organizational commitment to providing contract vehicles for system owners to use to develop their security plans and document risk in Plans of Action and Milestones (POA&Ms). Then they provided the money to get it done. Is the State program a total “paragon of virtue?” Probably not, but the bottom line is that it’s an effective program.

Mammoth Strategy, Same as Last Year

Mammoth Strategy, Same as Last Year image by HikingArtist.com.

Desiring to know everything about everything may seem to some to be a worthy goal, but may be beyond many organization’s budgets. *Everything* is a point in time snapshot, no matter how many snapshots you take or how frequently you take them. Continuous, repeatable security processes followed by knowledgeable, responsible practitioners are what government needs. But you cannot develop these processes without starting from a larger, enterprise view. Successful organizations follow this–dare I say it–axiom whether discussing security governance, or system administration.

Government agencies need to concentrate on developing agency-wide security strategies that encompass, but do not concentrate on solely, what patch is on what machine, and what firewall has which policy. Likewise, system POA&Ms need to concentrate on higher-level strategic issues that affect agencies — things like changes to identity management schemes that will make working from home more practical and less risky for a larger percentage of the workforce. Or perhaps a dashboard system that provides the status of system authorization for the agency at-a-glance. “Burying your head in a foxhole” —becoming too tactical — is akin to burying it in the sand, or like getting lost in a bunch of trees that look like a forest. When organizations behave this way, everything becomes a threat, therefore they spray their resource firepower on the “threat of the day, or hour.”

An organization shouldn’t worry about patching servers if its perimeter security is non-existent. Developing the larger picture, while letting some bullets strike you, may allow you recognize threats, prioritize them, potentially allowing you to expend minimal resources to solve the largest problem. This approach is the one my organization is following today. It’s a crawl first, then walk, then run approach. It’s enabled management to identify, segregate, and protect critical information and resources while giving decision-makers solid information to make informed, risk-based decisions. We’ll get to the patches, but not until we’ve learned to crawl. Strangely, we don’t spend a lot of time or other organizational resources on “paper drills” — we’re actively performing security tasks, strategic and tactical that follow documented procedures, plans and workflows! Oh yes, there is the issue of scale. Sorry, I think over 250 sites in every country around the world, with over 62 different government customers tops most enterprises, government or otherwise, but then this isn’t about me or my organization’s accomplishments.

In my view, professional security education means providing at least two formal paths for security professionals – the one that SANS instantiates is excellent for administrators – i.e., folks operating on the tactical level. I believe we have these types of security practitioners in numbers. We currently lack sufficient seasoned professionals – inside government – who can approach security strategically, engaging agency management with plans that act both “globally” and “locally.” Folks like these exist in government but they are few. Many live in industry or the contractor space. Not even our intelligence community has a career path for security professionals! Government as a whole lacks a means to build competence in the security discipline. Somehow government agencies need to identify security up-and-comers within government and nurture them. What I’m calling for here is a government-sponsored internal mentorship program – having recognized winners in the security game mentor peers and subordinates.

Until we security practitioners can separate the hype from the facts, and can articulate these facts in terms management can understand and support, we will never get beyond the charlatans, headline grabbers and other “self-licking ice cream cones.” Some might even look upon this new, “bold initiative” by NASA as quitting at a game that’s seen by them as “too hard.” I doubt seriously that they tried to approach the problem using a non-academic, non-research approach. It needed to be said. Perhaps if the organization taking the “bold steps” were one that had succeeded at implementing the NIST guidance, there might be more followers, in greater numbers.

Perhaps it’s too hard because folks are merely staring at their organization’s navel and not looking at the larger picture?

Lastly, security needs to be approached strategically as well as tactically. As Sun Tzu said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Public Policy, Rants, Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 14 Comments »

IKANHAZFIZMA Tackles the Consensus Audit Guidelines

Posted February 26th, 2009 by

CAG Fever… we haz it here at Guerilla-CISO.  So far the konsensus is that CAG works well as a “Best Practices” document but not really as an auditable standard.  We’re thinking that CAG will provide the rope with which our IGs and GAO will hang us.

funny pictures

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Posted in IKANHAZFIZMA | 3 Comments »

Clouds of CAG Confusion

Posted February 26th, 2009 by

Did you know that the US Department of Defense published the Consensus Audit Guidelines?  Yes, it’s true!  At least according to a ZDNet UK article title, “US Dept of Defense lists top 20 security controls“.

There is a haze of confusion settling around the Consensus Audit Guidelines origins.  The text of the CAG press release (pdf) is clear that it is developed by a consortium of federal agencies and private organizations.  It further states CAG is part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies work on CSIS Commission report on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency.  The title of the CAG press release is also equally clear that it is from a “Consortium of US Federal Cybersecurity Experts” which is substantively different than a consortium of federal agencies and private organizations.

The press release relates that CAG was initiated when a team discovered similarities between massive data losses by the US defense industrial base (DIB) and attacks on Federal agencies.  The project then grew as more agencies agreed to become involved.  Following the current public review of CAG the next steps for development are listed as pilot implementations at government agencies, a CIO Council review and an IG review. The clear inference of this origin story and ennumeration of steps is that the project has official Federal backing.

Let’s test that inference.  Click here for a Google search of the entire *.gov hierarchy for “Consensus Audit Guidelines”.  As I write this there is exactly one entry.  From oregon.gov.  A search using usa.gov (which uses live.com) has the same results.  Looking around the various organizations listed as contributors doesn’t yield any official announcements.

So why the confusion in the press?  Why does it appear from the news articles that this is an Federal project?  I wouldn’t speculate.

On a slightly different topic, I’ve been reading through the Consensus Audit Guidelines themselves and enjoying the guidance it provides.  I’ll write up a more complete analysis of it once I have finished my read through.  My initial impression is that CAG controls provide worthwhile recommendations but the framework for implementation needs development.

All Aboard the Astroturfmobile photo by andydr.  Perhaps an explanation is in order….

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Posted in Technical, What Doesn't Work | 7 Comments »

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