Cyber Security: No Pain, No Gain

July 15, 2015

By Hans Holmer

Senior Cyber Strategist, Technical Counterintelligence Center

INTELLIGENT DECISIONS

Leaders of companies frequently find themselves at a loss for how to lead in the cyber arena.  Typically, from the C-Suite point of view,  “cyber” appears to be a technology problem rather than a people problem–and the technology moves way too quickly for us ordinary mortals to keep up.  Too often the “people aspect” of cyber security is overlooked and, yet, it is one of the most critical areas, where leaders can do their company and their employees the most good.  In fact, cyber security is like exercise: No pain, no gain.

For example, the traveling executive is likely to be the senior leader who travels the world carrying electronic devices that hold crucial company intellectual property and proprietary data.  He or she is also too busy to deal with painful security requirements that interfere with work and their computer has just the sort of data that are of critical value to the business… and to competitors or even foreign governments.  It doesn’t take a genius to know that a number of countries are gaining access to US intellectual proprietary and patented information by cyber means.  As of mid-2014, Bloomberg estimates that more than $445 billion worth of intellectual capital was lost this way. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-06-09/cybercrime-remains-growth-industry-with-445-billion-lost )

So how can companies protect their traveling executives and lead their business in cyber security?  By demonstrating that cyber security is business resiliency. That data protection is important enough to put above the pain of “not doing things the way you’ve always done them.”  By proving that you are willing to accept pain to secure their data when traveling. All the data show that changing our behavior is the key to stopping breaches, hacks, and data loss.

  • Take the time to install every security update and patch. Almost all intrusions depend on software vulnerabilities for which patches have been issued but not installed.  Computers that connect inside and outside the corporate network are particularly at risk because users rarely are willing to let the update process detract from work demands.  So if traveling senior executives demonstrate how protecting their computer is critical to the business and demand that their computers maintain the highest levels of security, this alone would be a major step forward in corporate cyber leadership.
  • Use a designated computer for foreign travel. This reduces the amount of intellectual property within the computer and, in turn, reduces the chances that the computer can introduce malware when returned to the corporate network. It also prevents the disclosure of corporate log-in credentials overseas.
  • Keep computer, phones, and other devices in your sight at all times.  Sure, it can be painful.  But not as painful as the loss of intellectual property, competitive advantage, and lost business.

When corporate leadership demonstrates that cyber security is important and that useful countermeasures are worth the pain, it sets the priorities for the rest of the organization.  By taking the lead in secure technology use while traveling abroad, senior leadership can set the tone for the entire corporation and enjoy increased cyber security practices.  In the process of learning to use  technology securely, everybody benefits.  It’s a win for leadership and for cyber security.  Not only does it demonstrate that mitigating risks while traveling is important, but also that protecting company data on the corporate network is important.  The same countermeasures that secure a travel computer will secure a corporate network. Doing one but not the other is nothing more than a waste of time.  Cyber security is very much an all-or-nothing kind of problem; it’s “data ecology.” The entire network as well as all the employees need to actively participate.  And it starts at the top.

 

Hans Holmer works in the Technical Counterintelligence Center of Intelligent Decisions.  He can be reached at hholmer@intelligent.net or 703.599.4735.

Hans is a retired CIA officer with about 20 years in cyber, 26 years in intelligence  and over 40 years in computers and similar technologies.


Cyber: Lightning or potholes?

May 8, 2015

By Hans Holmer

When you read about big breaches of corporate data, the breaches are generally described as the computer equivalent of “lightning,”  something so fearsome and unstoppable that only the government and draconian laws could prevent those breaches.

To the cyber practitioner, the more apt analogy for breaches is potholes.  Like potholes, vulnerabilities in software and hardware are ubiquitous, not that hard to fix, and new ones are discovered all the time.  The sheer scales of devices that need to be patched and the number of patches and updates that need to be deployed is daunting but the actual installation of a patch is not complex.  This is important because almost all breaches depend on unpatched computers to succeed.  The lightning strikes, more properly called 0-days, are extremely rare.

The key to keeping a street pothole-free is first to know what streets you are responsible for and what kinds of road surface they use.  The same is true of computer networks.  You need to know all the devices and software on your network – PCs, printers, servers, routers, scanners, etc.  Any devices and software that are not yours present a threat unless moved to a separate network.  When you know your network you can patch it – all of it.

Once you know the roads you are responsible for, you can determine whether the road surfaces are appropriate for the traffic that uses them.   You’ve noticed that highways have different surfaces than neighborhood roads.  In IT network terms, you need to ensure that users and processes have credentials that are appropriate for the kind of work they do so that no users or processes have more access than they need.  Only a small percentage of users should have administrative privileges, and those privileges should be allocated for particular purposes.

When it comes to detecting potholes, system administrators have an easier time than city managers.  Most modern operating systems benefit from monthly patch-cycles.  If you have computers that no longer receive patches, such as 13-year old Windows XP operating system, it might be time to repave that road.  It is no surprise that breaches are ubiquitous given that 17% of computers still run Windows XP one year after Microsoft stopped issuing patches and it is hard to blame those vulnerabilities on hackers.  By the way, the most common Windows operating system, with 58% of the total market, is Windows 7 which was released in 2009.  It is now on “extended support” until 2020.  There is a strong argument for re-paving the road before it becomes one giant pothole.

You already know that most urban streets have more potholes than are good for your car.  In a nutshell, this is because inadequate resources are devoted to maintaining the streets and nobody wants to block the street while repaving it.  The same is true of computer networks.  The damage done to vehicles is not borne by the city and the cost of a network breach is similarly unpredictable, unlike the cost of securing the network.  In both cases, high known costs outweigh uncertain, but almost certainly orders of magnitude higher, future costs.

If you had to track the pothole repair metrics, you’d track the number of streets that are completely patched.  You can do the same for networks.  If you compile the percentage of PCs that are fully patched plus the percentages of all other devices which are fully patched, that would create an indicator of the security of a network.  Given that the vast majority of breaches exploit these fundamental vulnerabilities, it is an adequate proxy for the security of the network.

Once you have reached a state where your average security is predictably high, it is time to bring in experts who can help you defeat the lightning strikes.  It is well known that 0-days seek your most valuable items, in whatever form it takes, be it intellectual property, customer specifics or money.  By implementing expert countermeasures focused on protecting your critical data and processes, you can reach that rare state of having neither potholes nor lightning in your network.

 

Hans Holmer works in the Technical Counterintelligence Center of Intelligent Decisions.  He can be reached at hholmer@intelligent.net or 703.599.4735.

Hans is a retired CIA officer with about 20 years in cyber, 26 years in intelligence  and over 40 years in computers and similar technologies.