LOLCATS and the 60-Day Cybersecurity Review

Posted May 28th, 2009 by

Ooh ooh, the review is supposed to be announced tomorrow!

funny pictures

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Blow-By-Blow on S.773–The Cybersecurity Act of 2009–Part 1

Posted April 14th, 2009 by

Rybolov Note: this is such a long blog post that I’m breaking it down into parts.  Go read the bill hereGo read part two hereGo read part three here. Go read part four hereGo read part 5 here. =)

So the Library of Congress finally got S.773 up on  For those of you who have been hiding under a rock, this is the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 and is a bill introduced by Senators Rockefeller and Snowe and, depending on your political slant, will allow us to “sock it to the hackers and send them to a federal pound-you-in-the-***-prison” or “vastly erode our civil liberties”.

A little bit of pre-reading is in order:

Timing: Now let’s talk about the timing of this bill.  There is the 60-day Cybersecurity Review that is supposed to be coming out Real Soon Now (TM).  This bill is an attempt by Congress to head it off at the pass.

Rumor mill says that not only will the Cybersecurity Review be unveiled at RSA (possible, but strange) and that it won’t bring anything new to the debate (more possibly, but then again, nothing’s really new, we’ve known about this stuff for at least a decade).

Overall Comments:

This bill is big.  It really is an omnibus Cybersecurity Act and has just about everything you could want and more.  There’s a fun way of doing things in the Government, and it goes something like this: ask for 300% of what you need so that you will end up with 80%.  And I see this bill is taking this approach to heart.

Pennsylvania Ave – Old Post Office to the Capitol at Night photo by wyntuition.

And now for the good, bad, and ugly:

SEC. 2. FINDINGS. This section is primarily a summary of testimony that has been delivered over the past couple of years.  It really serves as justification for the rest of the bill.  It is a little bit on the FUD side of things (as in “omigod, they put ‘Cyber-Katrina‘ in a piece of legislation”), but overall it’s pretty balanced and what you would expect for a bill.  Bottom line here is that we depend on our data and the networks that carry it.  Even if you don’t believe in Cyberwar (I don’t really believe in Cyberwar unles it’s just one facet of combined arms warfare), you can probably agree that the costs of insecurity on a macroeconomic scale need to be looked at and defended against, and our dependency on the data and networks is only going to increase.

No self-respecting security practitioner will like this section, but politicians will eat it up.  Relax, guys, you’re not the intended audience.

Verdict: Might as well keep this in there, it’s plot development without any requirements.

SEC. 3. CYBERSECURITY ADVISORY PANEL. This section creates a Cybersecurity Advisory Panel made up of Federal Government, private sector, academia, and state and local government.  This is pretty typical so far.  The interesting thing to me is “(7) whether societal and civil liberty concerns are adequately addressed”… in other words, are we balancing security with citizens’, corporations’, and states’ rights?  More to come on this further down in the bill.

Verdict: Will bring a minimal cost in Government terms.  I’m very hesitant to create new committees.  But yeah, this can stay.

SEC. 4. REAL-TIME CYBERSECURITY DASHBOARD. This section is very interesting to me.  On one hand, it’s what we do at the enterprise level for most companies.  On the other hand, this is specific to the Commerce Department –“Federal Government information systems and networks managed by the Department of Commerce.”  The first reading of this is the internal networks that are internal to Commerce, but then why is this not handed down to all agencies?  I puzzled on this and did some research until I remembered that Commerce, through NTIA, runs DNS, and Section 8 contains a review of the DNS contracts.

Verdict: I think this section needs a little bit of rewording so that the scope is clearer, but sure, a dashboard is pretty benign, it’s the implied tasks to make a dashboard function (ie, proper management of IT resources and IT security) that are going to be the hard parts.  Rescope the dashboard and explicitly say what kind of information it needs to address and who should receive it.

SEC. 5. STATE AND REGIONAL CYBERSECURITY ENHANCEMENT PROGRAM. This section calls for Regional Cybersecurity Centers, something along the lines of what we call “Centers of Excellence” in the private sector.  This section is interesting to me, mostly because of how vague it seemed the first time I read it, but the more times I look at it, I go “yeah, that’s actually a good idea”.  What this section tries to do is to bridge the gap between the standards world that is NIST and the people outside of the beltway–the “end-users” of the security frameworks, standards, tools, methodologies, what-the-heck-ever-you-want-to-call-them.  Another interesting thing about this is that while the proponent department is Commerce, NIST is part of Commerce, so it’s not as left-field as you might think.

Verdict: While I think this section is going to take a long time to come to fruition (5+ years before any impact is seen), I see that Regional Cybersecurity Centers, if properly funded and executed, can have a very significant impact on the rest of the country.  It needs to happen, only I don’t know what the cost is going to be, and that’s the part that scares me.

SEC. 6. NIST STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT AND COMPLIANCE. This is good.  Basically this section provides a mandate for NIST to develop a series of standards.  Some of these have been sitting around for some time in various incarnations, I doubt that anyone would disagree that these need to be done.

  1. CYBERSECURITY METRICS RESEARCH:  Good stuff.  Yes, this needs help.  NIST are the people to do this kind of research.
  2. SECURITY CONTROLS:  Already existing in SP 800-53.  Depending on interpretation, this changes the scope and language of the catalog of controls to non-Federal IT systems, or possibly a fork of the controls catalog.
  3. SOFTWARE SECURITY:  I guess if it’s in a law, it has come of age.  This is one of the things that NIST has wanted to do for some time but they haven’t had the manpower to get involved in this space.
  4. SOFTWARE CONFIGURATION SPECIFICATION LANGUAGE: Part of SCAP.  The standard is there, it just needs to be extended to various pieces of software.
  5. STANDARD SOFTWARE CONFIGURATION:  This is the NIST configuration checklist program ala SP 800-70.  I think NIST ran short on manpower for this also and resorted back to pointing at the DISA STIGS and FDCC.  This so needs further development into a uniform set of standards and then, here’s the key, rolled back upstream to the software vendors so they ship their product pre-configured.

Now for the “gotchas”:

(d) COMPLIANCE ENFORCEMENT- The Director shall–

(1) enforce compliance with the standards developed by the Institute under this section by software manufacturers, distributors, and vendors; and

(2) shall require each Federal agency, and each operator of an information system or network designated by the President as a critical infrastructure information system or network, periodically to demonstrate compliance with the standards established under this section.

This section basically does 2 things:

  • Mandates compliancy for vendors and distributors with the NIST standards listed above.  Suprised this hasn’t been talked about elsewhere.  This clause suffers from scope problems because if you interpret it BSOFH-stylie, you can take it to mean that anybody who sells a product, regardless of who’s buying, has to sell a securely-configured version.  IE, I can’t sell XP to blue-haired grandmothers unless I have something like an FDCC variant installed on it.  I mostly agree with this in the security sense but it’s a serious culture shift in the practical sense.
  • Mandates an auditing scheme for Federal agencies and critical infrastructure.  Everybody’s talked about this, saying that since designation of critical infrastructure is not defined, this is left at the discretion of the Executive Branch.  This isn’t as wild-west as the bill’s opponents want it to seem, there is a ton of groundwork layed out in HSPD-7.  But yeah, HSPD-7 is an executive directive and can be changed “at the whim” of the President.  And yes, this is auditing by Commerce, which has some issues in that Commerce is not equipped to deal with IT security auditing.  More on this in a later post.

Verdict: The standard part is already happening today, this section just codifies it and justify’s NIST’s research.  Don’t task Commerce with enforcement of NIST standards, it leads down all sorts of inappropriate roads.

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Cyber Security coming to a boil

Posted March 16th, 2009 by

During his campaign, then candidate Obama promised he would, “make cyber-security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I’ll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a national cyber-adviser, who will report directly to me.” Since Obama was elected there has been a great deal of speculation as to what real-life changes in direction and policy that promise would bring.

Last month, President Obama appointed Melissa Hathaway to be a Senior Director of the National Security Council. She immediately launched a 60-day review of security of Federal IT systems. As a result of this effort, there is much speculation that at the end of the 60-day review she will be appointed the National Cyber Advisor–the so-called Cyber Security Czar.

Just this week, the Director of the National Cyber Security Center, Rod A. Beckstrom, over at the Department of Homeland Security resigned. The press reports of Beckstrom’s resignation indicate some frustration on Beckstrom’s part. His frustration seems to be primarily aimed at the National Security Agency (NSA). Beckstrom suggests that the NSA has been subverting his efforts to coordinate cyber security efforts across the intelligence community.

A good friend of mine has suggested that the resignation is simply political and an artifact of the transition from one administration to another. He further suggests that this also signals a shift from leadership in cyber security from civilian agencies toward the Intelligence Community taking its turn at leadership. I think he may be right, too. However, I think there is more history here than just a shift in policy from one administration to another.

In my opinion, this isn’t just about politics. There are two drivers for this move. First, congress and the administration recognize that that the on-going assault on government and commercial networks is a national security issue and an economic security and competitiveness issue too. In today’s economic droop people often forget that two of our greatest economic strengths are our accumulated intellectual property and our hard working human capital. Both of these assests are discounted when criminal and national groups successfully attack our nations IT infrastructure. Recognizing this is a good thing, I’m not going to recount the long history of cyber assault on Federal IT systems by international cyber criminals, and “state-sponsored entities.” Facts and figures concerning this on-going assault and the damage associated with it is just a Google search away.

The second driver for a policy shift is that congress and the administration recognize that the FBI, Justice, DHS approach to cyber security is an utter failure. This failed approach sees cyber security as a criminal problem with industry participating in its own defense on a ‘voluntary’ basis. This has led to comical activities such as FBI delegation going to Moscow with hat in hand asking the Russians for help in tracking down successful Cyber Organized Crime groups based in Russia. The fact that these groups may have had strong official or unofficial connections with the Russian government should have given the FBI an indication of the lack of cooperation they would face –- I believe in Law Enforcement circles this is usually called a “clue”. Likewise, FBI delegations to Russia trying to track down Russian Cyber attackers that may have had some direct level of state support were equally unproductive. To be fair, the FBI was placed in an impossible position when they were asked to organize delegations like this.

So that kind of sums up the civilian or “law enforcement” approach toward national cyber security.

That leaves us to consider the much discussed alternative, specifically a shift in policy toward giving the intelligence community leadership in providing cyber national security. There have been attempts in the past to give the Intelligence Community greater responsibility for cyber security, but while the Intelligence Community seemed to have the technical resources to address these responsibilities, they were often confused by the mission and hampered by legislation and culture. By temperament, the Intelligence Community is about collection and analysis of information. Once you start asking them to do something about a situation that they have studied or understand well, you are often asking them to not just change their mission but also act against the very culture that made them successful. To understand a situation, the Intelligence Community works quietly, secretly, and in the shadows. To take action, they have to emerge for the shadows and act very publically. This transition can be difficult and even disastrous. Such transitions can give you the Bay of Pigs, non-judicial detention at Gitmo, and odd-ball assassinations–all sorts of activities that people hate because the actions themselves were not “peer-reviewed” as best security practices.

It’s not that the Intelligence Community is incompetent (well everyone makes mistakes or hides them), it’s just that that transition from intelligence/information collection to public coordination, and policy leadership, with all of the very public meetings, policy reviews, and planning drives the Intelligence Community from a position of strength and expertise to new ground. Unfortunately, another strong element of the culture of the Intelligence Community is that if the President calls, “they haul…” They just can’t bring themselves to say no, even if it’s a bad idea.

That brings us to the question, who should be responsible for cyber security? Well, every government agency wants the mission because of the funding that goes with it. But, it’s not clear who has the right perspective and culture. I suspect that the right answer is to combine the experience, and technical know-how from several agencies and to develop some new capabilities. This means that leadership of the effort has to be unambiguous. That is precisely why I believe the Obama Administration will keep the leadership on their new approach to Cyber Security right inside the White House itself. That really shouldn’t be a surprise since that is exactly what the Obama as a candidate said he would do.

Enigma Machines Collection at the National Cryptologic Museum photo by brewbooks.

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Beware the Cyber-Katrina!

Posted February 19th, 2009 by

Scenario: American Internet connections are attacked.  In the resulting chaos, the Government fails to respond at all, primarily because of infighting over jurisdiction issues between responders.  Mass hysteria ensues–40 years of darkness, cats sleeping with dogs kind of stuff.

Sounds similar to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?  Well, this now has a name: Cyber-Katrina.

At least, this is what Paul Kurtz talked about this week at Black Hat DC.  Now I understand what Kurtz is saying:  that we need to figure out the national-level response while we have time so that when it happens we won’t be frozen with bureaucratic paralysis.  Yes, it works for me, I’ve been saying it ever since I thought I was somebody important last year.  =)

But Paul…. don’t say you want to create a new Cyber-FEMA for the Internet.  That’s where the metaphor you’re using failed–if you carry it too far, what you’re saying is that you want to make a Government organization that will eventually fail when the nation needs it the most.  Saying you want a Cyber-FEMA is just an ugly thing to say after you think about it too long.

What Kurtz really meant to say is that we don’t have a national-level CERT that coordinates between the major players–DoD, DoJ, DHS, state and local governments, and the private sector for large-scale incident response.  What’s Kurtz is really saying if you read between the lines is that US-CERT needs to be a national-level CERT and needs funding, training, people, and connections to do this mission.  In order to fulfill what the administration wants, needs, and is almost promising to the public through their management agenda, US-CERT has to get real big, real fast.

But the trick is, how do you explain this concept to somebody who doesn’t have either the security understanding or the national policy experience to understand the issue?  You resort back to Cyber-Katrina and maybe bank on a little FUD in the process.  Then the press gets all crazy on it–like breaking SSL means Cyber-Katrina Real Soon Now.

Now for those of you who will never be a candidate for Obama’s Cybersecurity Czar job, let me break this down for you big-bird stylie.  Right now there are 3 major candidates vying to get the job.  Since there is no official recommendation (and there probably won’t be until April when the 60 days to develop a strategy is over), the 3 candidates are making their move to prove that they’re the right person to pick.  Think of it as their mini-platforms, just look out for when they start talking about themselves in the 3rd person.

FEMA Disaster Relief photo by Infrogmation. Could a Cyber-FEMA coordinate incident response for a Cyber-Katrina?

And in other news, I3P (with ties to Dartmouth) has issued their National Cyber Security Research and Development Challenges document which um… hashes over the same stuff we’ve seen from the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, the Systems and Technology Research and Design Plan, the CSIS Recommendations, and the Obama Agenda.  Only the I3P report has all this weird psychologically-oriented mumbo-jumbo that when I read it my eyes glazed over.

Guys, I’ve said this so many times I feel like a complete cynic: talk is cheap, security isn’t.  It seems like everybody has a plan but nobody’s willing to step up and fix the problem.  Not only that, but they’re taking each others recommendations, throwing them in a blender, and reissuing their own.  Wake me up when somebody actually does something.

It leads me to believe that, once again, those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk.

Therefore, here’s the BSOFH’s guide to protecting the nation from Cyber-Katrina:

  • Designate a Cybersecurity Czar
  • Equip the Cybersecurity Czar with an $100B/year budget
  • Nationalize Microsoft, Cisco, and one of the major all-in-one security companies (Symantec)
  • Integrate all the IT assets you now own and force them to write good software
  • Public execution of any developer who uses strcpy() because who knows what other stupid stuff they’ll do
  • Require code review and vulnerability assessments for any IT product that is sold on the market
  • Regulate all IT installations to follow Government-approved hardening guides
  • Use US-CERT to monitor the military-industrial complex
  • ?????
  • Live in a secure Cyber-World

But hey, that’s not the American way–we’re not socialists, damnit! (well, except for mortgage companies and banks and automakers and um yeah….)  So far all the plans have called for cooperation with the public sector, and that’s worked out just smashingly because of an industry-wide conflict of interest–writing junk software means that you can sell for upgrades or new products later.

I think the problem is fixable, but I predict these are the conditions for it to happen:

  • Massive failure of some infrastructure component due to IT security issues
  • Massive ownage of Government IT systems that actually gets publicized
  • Deaths caused by massive IT Security fail
  • Osama Bin Laden starts writing exploit code
  • Citizen outrage to the point where my grandmother writes a letter to the President

Until then, security issues will be always be a second-fiddle to wars, the economy, presidential impeachments, and a host of a bazillion other things.  Because of this, security conditions will get much, much worse before they get better.

And then the cynic in me can’t help but think that, deep down inside, what the nation needs is precisely an IT Security Fail along the lines of 9-11/Katrina/Pearl Harbor/Dien Bien Fu/Task Force Smith.

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Inside the Obama Administration’s Cyber Security Agenda

Posted January 28th, 2009 by

Interesting article in Security Focus on President Obama and cybersecurity.  Yes, I complained on twitter because the “document on homeland security” is not really any kind of a solution, more like a bullet list of goals that sound suspiciously like a warmed-over campaign platform.

Guess what?  Every President does this, they put out their agenda for everyone to see.  With the last administration, it was the 5-point President’s Management Agenda.

Let’s be honest here, as Bubba the Infantryman would say, “There are only a couple of ways to suck an egg, and this egg has been around for a long time.”  Any cybersecurity strategy will harken back to the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace because the problems are the same.  If you remember back to when the NStSC was first released, a horde of critics appeared out of the woodwork to say that there wasn’t enough implementation details and that the strategy wouldn’t be implemented because of that.  Well, they were partly right.

And now there’s the President stating his agenda with the same ideas that people have been saying for 6 years in more detail than what and suddenly it’s new and innovative.  That’s politics for you, folks.  =)  Bubba, in a rare fit of wisdom would say “The way you can tell the true pioneers is that they have arrows sticking out of their backs” and it might seem apropos here, if maybe a little bit cynical.

Hidden Agenda Eats Agenda photo by emme-dk.

Let’s go through each of the points with a little bit of analysis from myself:

  • Strengthen Federal Leadership on Cyber Security:Declare the cyber infrastructure a strategic asset and establish the position of national cyber advisor who will report directly to the president and will be responsible for coordinating federal agency efforts and development of national cyber policy.

  • Great idea.   Between OMB, NIST, DHS, DoD, DOJ, and a cast of thousands, there is a huge turf war over who really owns security.  Each of these groups do a phenomenal job doing what it is they do, but coordination between them is sometimes more like a semi-anarchist commune than a grand unified effort.  I seem to remember saying at one point that this was needed.  Granted, I was specifically talking about the internal side of the InfoSec Equitites Issue, so the scope here is a little different.

    The Cyber Czar is literally buried deep down inside DHS with no real authority, a presidential advisor like is in the agenda would report directly to the President. 

  • Initiate a Safe Computing R&D Effort and Harden our Nation’s Cyber Infrastructure:Support an initiative to develop next-generation secure computers and networking for national security applications. Work with industry and academia to develop and deploy a new generation of secure hardware and software for our critical cyber infrastructure. 

  • We have a very good R&D plan in place (.pdf caveat), it just needs to be adopted and better funded.  For those of you who need a project, this is like a wishlist on things that some very smart Government guys are willing to fund.

  • Protect the IT Infrastructure That Keeps America’s Economy Safe: Work with the private sector to establish tough new standards for cyber security and physical resilience.

  • Ouch, I cringe when I read this one.  Not that it’s needed because when it really comes down to it, every CISO in the US is dependent on the software and hardware vendors and their service providers.

    Something the world outside the Beltway doesn’t understand is that “standards” are roughly equal to “regulation”.  It’s much, much better if the Government goes to industry groups and says “hey, we want these things to be part of a standard, can you guys work to put it all together?” There might be some regulation that is needed but it should be kept as small as possible.  Where the Government can help is to sponsor some of the standards and work along with industry to help define standards.

    Maybe the best model for this is the age-old “lead the horse to water, demonstrate to the horse how to drink, hold the horses mouth in the water, and you still can’t get them to drink.”  We’ve tried this model for a couple of years, what is needed now is some kind of incentive for the horse to drink and for vendors to secure their hardware, software, firmware, and service offerings.

  • Prevent Corporate Cyber-Espionage: Work with industry to develop the systems necessary to protect our nation’s trade secrets and our research and development. Innovations in software, engineering, pharmaceuticals and other fields are being stolen online from U.S. businesses at an alarming rate.

  • Maybe this gets down to political beliefs, but I don’t think this is the Government’s responsibility to prevent corporate cyber-espionage, nor should you as a company allow the Government to dictate how you harden your desktops or  where you put your IDS.  If you are not smart enough to be in one of these high-tech industries, you should be smart enough to keep your trade secrets from going offshore, or else you’ll die like some weird brand of corporate darwinism.

    Government can prosecute evildoers and coordinate with other countries for enforcement efforts, which is exactly what you would expect their level of involvement to be.

    Yes, in some cases when it’s cyber-espionage directed at the Government by hacking contractors or suppliers (the military-industrial complex), then Government can do something about it with trickle-down standards in contracts, and they usually do.  Think ITAR export controls scoped to a multi-national corporation and you have a pretty good idea of what the future will hold.

  • Develop a Cyber Crime Strategy to Minimize the Opportunities for Criminal Profit: Shut down the mechanisms used to transmit criminal profits by shutting down untraceable Internet payment schemes. Initiate a grant and training program to provide federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies the tools they need to detect and prosecute cyber crime.

  • This point is interesting to me.  We already have rules to flag large transactions or multiple transactions, that’s how Elliot Spitzer got caught.  Untraceable Internet payment schemes sounds like pulp-fiction stuff and income tax tracking to me, I would like to know if they really exist.

    On the other hand, law enforcement does need training.  There really is a shortage of people with the law enforcement and technical security backgrounds who can do investigations.

  • Mandate Standards for Securing Personal Data and Require Companies to Disclose Personal Information Data Breaches: Partner with industry and our citizens to secure personal data stored on government and private systems. Institute a common standard for securing such data across industries and protect the rights of individuals in the information age.

  • National data breach law == good, because it standardizes all of the state laws that are such a hodge-podge you need a full-time staff dedicated to breaking down incidents by jursidiction.  We have something like this proposed, it’s S.459 which just needs to be resurrected and supported by the Executive Branch as part of their agenda.

    A common standard could be good as long as it’s done right (industry standards v/s Government regulation), see my comments above.


    Note some key points I want you to take away:

    Nothing is new under the sun.  These problems have been around a long time, they won’t go away in the next 4 years.  We have to build on the work of people who have come before us because we know they’ve looked at the problem and came to the same conclusions we will eventually come to.

    Partnership is emphasized.  This is because as much lip-service we give to the Government solving our problems, the American Way (TM) is for the Government not to be your Internet Nanny.  Government can set the environment to support private information security efforts but it really is up to the individual companies to protect themselves.

    Industry needs to solve its own problems.  If you want the Government to solve the nation’s information security problems, it means that we take US-CERT and have them monitor everything whether you want them to or not.  Yes, that’s where things are heading, folks, and maybe I just spilled the beans on some uber-secret plan that I don’t know about yet.  Trust me, you don’t want the transparency that the Government watching your data would provide.

    Be careful what you ask for.  You just might get it.  When it comes to IT security, be extra careful because you’ll end up with regulation which means more auditors.

    Agenda Grafitti photo by anarchosyn.

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