Monthly Archives: September 2010

Cybersecurity: It’s More Than Worms, Hacking and Phishing

To put things into perspective, let’s analogize about some information technology related initiatives.  In the realm of things, accounting is like a lake, integration is like a bay and cyber security is like the Pacific Ocean.  The scope of understanding required to be a cyber security expert is so vast that it fills volumes just trying to define it, let alone protect it.

The reason cyber security is so vast is that it is a strategy for mitigating risk from breach of confidentiality, lack of integrity and lack of availability of information systems and networks.  Consider the number of threats that target these three things and then consider this number is only the known threats.  Also, know that new threats are being uncovered daily.  Moreover, threats are not all technological, some of them are socially engineered, which make them all that more difficult to defend against.

When I talk to individuals about their cyber security strategy, most times these days, the answer reflects a tactical requirement to understand the nature of the threat and take some action to institute some protection.  If these organizations continue to operate in this manner with the number of growing threats, they will soon be all consumed just trying to keep up let alone operate the networks and systems.  The sheer magnitude of threat management will in and of itself result the worst threat of all—denial of service.

In my recent talk at the Air Force IT Conference I discussed using a Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) tool combined with a Governance, Risk & Compliance (GRC) tool to assist with automation of handling of cyber threats.  The SIEM does a great job of allowing real incidents to be recognized, which can then be driven to closure using the GRC.  In this case, closure does not simply mean handled, it means completely mitigated.

Another growing trend I see in cyber security is to allow threat management to be designed outside of the realm of enterprise architecture.  When this occurs, security is implemented in a silo manner usually related to the operational focus of the IT group implementing the security architecture and solution.  For example, the network group focuses on network security, while the application group focuses on access control and authorization.  While common, this is perhaps the greatest weakness in a cyber security strategy and can be easily exploited by an attacker.  The cyber security solution must be implemented in an integrated manner watching horizontally from network through application.

For certain, if someone wants to breach or limit access to your systems and data, they will find a way to so that is not being watched.  Which brings me to the next most important point about cyber security—you cannot watch everything all the time.  We’ve all seen the spy movies where they time the video camera movements so they can sneak into the building undetected.  Even with the best tools on the market today, you may only be made aware of a breach after it has occurred and once it has been correlated with other known events that highlight the likelihood of breach.  At this point, stopping the breach is but a bullet point on the post-mortem slide and all attention must now be focused on the impact of the breach.

So, let’s see what we’ve got so far:

  1. We don’t know what we don’t know
  2. We can’t watch everything at all times
  3. Many are simply trying to understand the nature of the threat
  4. Current security architectures are being implemented in silo manner

And, now the cherry on top, not everything that is a threat is intentional.  As if cyber security wasn’t complex enough, now we’re not just policing for cyber criminal activity, we’re fending off and responding to: uneducated users, careless utility and maintenance personnel, suppliers and vendors, and general defects.

As I like to say, resistance is futile, so instead, implement a strategy that keeps you out of the fray as much as possible.  Implement and ensure compliance with your security policies, educate your organization on things they can do to minimize the opportunity for a cyber security incident, catalog and value your assets, and implement tools in a concerted and integrated manner.  Moreover, make it a policy to revisit this lifecycle as least two times annually.

One point I’d like to expand upon from above is catalog and value your assets.  Most organizations I have worked with do not do this as a general activity.  Cyber security threat management is a risk management activity.  You value your assets and apply resources to protect from the most critical and high-valued ones to the least critical and lower-valued ones.  If you’re in the business of arbitrage, where seconds equate to big dollars, deploy most of your budget protecting the trading systems and networks.  If you’re in government, you’re going to make sure that the systems required to operate the government get the most resources applied first.  Knowing where to apply your resources is the most critical aspect of the mission.

To me, cyber/info security may resemble the epitome of architecture as it requires more depth and more breadth than any other branch of architecture.  Moreover, to do it right, requires the architect to have experience and understanding in multiple facets of IT architecture including network, storage, server, virtualization, application and data.  The unfortunate truth, however, is that a complete security architecture is still viewed as a “nice to have”, not a “must have”.  Most business and IT executives feel comfortable knowing that they have a deadbolt on the front and back door and the windows are locked.