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Like the finer things in life, quality trumps quantity.

Sep 21, 2016

Socializing information security

In researching and preparing October's NoticeBored security awareness module, we've wandered away from the well-beaten-track into what is, for us at least, previously uncharted territory. You could say we're going off-piste.

Our topic concerns the human aspects of information security - a core area for any decent security awareness program and one that we bring up frequently, including a dedicated awareness module refreshed annually. We've always deliberately taken a broad perspective, exploring social engineering, social media, social networking and so on. 

This year, along with the conventional awareness stuff on phishing (of course) plus other scams, cons and frauds, we'll be lifting the covers on how the criminal black hats and other adversaries exploit both their own and our social networks. 

That train of thought leads naturally in to counteracting the power of criminal organizations through leveraging various white hat equivalents, both within our organizations (e.g. the idea of proactively recruiting everyone to the information security team, through creative security awareness outreach - an approach we call 'socializing information security') and without (e.g. leveraging professional membership bodies such as ISSA and ISACA, plus local peer groups, plus industry special interest groups, plus all manner of online communities ... and blogs not unlike this one).  

I hope you're making good use of myriad opportunities to share information, discuss things and learn new stuff from others in this field. Living in rural New Zealand - almost literally in a field, surrounded by far more sheep than people - I'd be lost without access to the global infosec communities into which I plug myself on a daily basis. 

The thing is, information security without information isn't security.


Sep 20, 2016

CIS Critical Security Controls [LONG]

Today I've been nosing through the latest 6.1 version of the CIS Critical Security Controls for Effective Cyber Defense, described as "a concise, prioritized set of cyber practices created to stop today’s most pervasive and dangerous cyber attacks".

In reality, far from being concise, it is a long shopping list of mostly IT/technical security controls, about 100 pages of them, loosely arranged under 20 headings. There are literally hundreds of controls, way more than the '20 critical controls' mentioned although obviously 'Implement the 20 critical controls' sounds a lot more feasible than 'Implement hundreds of tech controls, some of which we believe are critical for cyber defense (whatever that is)'!

The selection of controls is evidently driven by a desire to focus on what someone believes to be the key issues:
The CIS Controls embrace the Pareto 80/20 Principle, the idea that taking just a small portion of all the security actions you could possibly take, yields a very large percentage of the benefit of taking all those possible actions
There is no backing or evidence behind that bald assertion in the document, nor on the introductory page on the CIS website - but, hey, it's a nice idea, isn't it? "We only need to do these 20 things, possibly only the first 5, to be cyber-secure!". 

Yeah, right. Welcome to cloud-cuckoo land. Security doesn't work that way. Assuming that the bad guys are going to give up and go away if at first they don't succeed is almost unbelieveably naive. They are persistent buggers. Some see it as an intellectual challenge to find and exploit the chinks in our armor. If anything, closing the gaping holes makes it more fun to spot the remaining vulnerabilities ... and if all you have done is to implement 20 'critical controls', you are asking for trouble.

As to inferring that CIS has identified precisely the 'small proportion of all the security actions' which will generate 'a very large percentage of the benefit', well I leave you to ponder the meaning of the Pareto principle, and whether we are being duped into thinking 20 is a magic number. Personally, I doubt it's even remotely similar to the true value.

Naturally I looked to see what they advise in the way of security awareness, and duly found Critical Security Control 17:
CSC 17: Security Skills Assessment and Appropriate Training to Fill Gaps
For all functional roles in the organization (prioritizing those mission-critical to the business and its security), identify the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to support defense of the enterprise; develop and execute an integrated plan to assess, identify gaps, and remediate through policy, organizational planning, training, and awareness programs.
The recommendation is for training to fill gaps in knowledge, skills and abilities, implying specific/targeted training of specific individuals addressing particular technical security weaknesses. That, to me, is appropriate for those relatively few workers with designated security responsibilities, but does not work well for the majority who have many other responsibilities besides information security, let alone "cyber security".

Yes, I'm ranting about "cyber", again. Here we have yet another product from the US cyber defense collective that fails to clarify what it actually means by "cyber", unless you class this as definitive:
We are at a fascinating point in the evolution of what we now call cyber defense. Massive data losses, theft of intellectual property, credit card breaches, identity theft, threats to our privacy, denial of service – these have become a way of life for all of us in cyberspace. 
It's about as vague and hand-waving as "cloud". The CIS describes itself in similarly vague terms, again liberally sprinkled with cyber fairy-dust:
The Center for Internet Security, Inc. (CIS) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify, develop, validate, promote, and sustain best practices in cyber security; deliver world-class cyber security solutions to prevent and rapidly respond to cyber incidents; and build and lead communities to enable an environment of trust in cyberspace.
Anyway, back to CSC 17. The control is broken down into 5 parts:
[17.1] Perform gap analysis to see which skills employees need to implement the other Controls, and which behaviors employees are not adhering to, using this information to build a baseline training and awareness roadmap for all employees.
Hmmm, OK, a gap analysis is one way to identify weak or missing skills (and knowledge and competencies) that would benefit from additional training, but I'm not clear what they mean in reference to behaviors that employees are 'not adhering to'. In what sense do we 'adhere to' behaviors? I guess that might mean habits??
[17.2] Deliver training to fill the skills gap. If possible, use more senior staff to deliver the training. A second option is to have outside teachers provide training onsite so the examples used will be directly relevant. If you have small numbers of people to train, use training conferences or online training to fill the gaps. 
This part is explicitly about training for skills. There is no explanation for recommending 'more senior staff' or 'outside teachers' providing 'training onsite': there are of course many different ways to train people, many different forms of training. I see no reason to be so specific: surely what is best depends on the context, the trainees, the subjects, the costs and other factors? 

I'm hinting at what I feel is a significant issue with the entire CIS approach: it is prescriptive with little recognition or accounting for the huge variety of organizations and situations out there. Information risks differ markedly between industries and in different sizes or types of organizations, while their ability and appetite to address the risks also vary. A one-size-fits-all approach is very unlikely to suit them all ... which means the advice needs to be tempered and adapted ... which begs questions about who would do that, and how/on what basis. [I'll hold my hand up here. I much prefer the ISO27k approach which supplements its lists of controls with advice on identifying and analyzing information risks, explicitly introducing a strong business imperative for the security.] 
[17.3] Implement a security awareness program that (1) focuses on the methods commonly used in intrusions that can be blocked through individual action, (2) is delivered in short online modules convenient for employees (3) is updated frequently (at least annually) to represent the latest attack techniques, (4) is mandated for completion by all employees at least annually, (5) is reliably monitored for employee completion, and 6) includes the senior leadership team’s personal messaging, involvement in training, and accountability through performance metrics.
Oh dear. I would quarrel with every one of those six points:
  1. Why would you 'focus on the methods commonly used in intrusions' (specifically) rather than, say, protecting intellectual property, or spotting and correcting mistakes? We know of well over 50 topics within information risk and security that benefit from heightened awareness. This point betrays the prejudices of CIS and the authors of the document: they are myopically obsessed with Internet hackers, neglecting the myriad other threats and kinds of incident causing problems.

  2. Why 'short online modules'? It is implied that convenience rules, whereas effectiveness is at least as important. 'Online modules' only suit some of the workers who use IT systems, and we all know just how useless some online training and awareness programs can be in practice. If all you want is to be able to tick the box on some compliance checklist, then fine: force workers to click next next next while skimming as rapidly as possible through some mind-numbingly dull and boring, not to say cheap-and-nasty cartoon-style or bullet-point drivel, and answer some banale question to "prove" that they have completed the "training", and Bob's yer uncle! If you actually want them to learn anything, to think differently and most of all to change the way they behave, you are sadly deluded if 'short online modules' are your entire approach. Would you teach someone to drive using 'short online modules'? Can we replace the entire educational system with 'short online modules'? Of course not, don't be daft. 

  3. I agree that a security training and awareness program needs to be 'updated frequently', or more accurately I would say that it needs to reflect current and emerging information risks, plus the ever-changing business environment, plus recent incidents, plus business priorities, plus learning from past issues, incidents and near-misses (including those experienced by comparable organizations). Updating those 'short online modules' on 'the methods commonly used in intrusions' and 'the latest attack techniques' misses the point, however, if it all comes down to a cursory review and a bit of tittivation - worse still if the materials are only updated annually. The mere suggestion that annual updates might be sufficient is misleading in the extreme, bordering on negligent: things are moving fast in this domain, hence the security awareness and training program needs to be much more responsive and timely to be effective. [Again, if all you want is that compliance tick, then fine, suit yourself. Ignore the business benefits a culture of security would bring you. Do the least amount possible and pretend that's enough - like Sony and Target might have done ...] 

  4. 'Mandated for completion' harks back to the bad old days when we were all forced to attend some tedious annual lecture on health and safety, dental hygiene or whatever. We know that is a badly broken model, so why push it? Modern approaches to education, training and awareness are much more inclusive and responsive to student needs. The process caters for differing styles and preferences, uses a range of materials and techniques, and most of all seeks to hook people with content that is useful, interesting and engaging, so there should be no need to force anyone through the sausage machine. Wake up CIS! The world has moved on! How about the kcrazy notion, for instance, of rewarding people for being aware, demonstrating their understanding by doing whatever it is you want them to do? If your awareness and training materials are not sufficiently creative and engaging to drive demand, if your people need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the process then you might as well break out the cat-o-nine-tails. "The floggings will continue until morale improves"!

  5. Mere 'completion' of those 'short online modules' is trivial to determine as I mentioned above: simply count the clicks and (for bonus marks) set an arbitrary passmark on that final 'assessment' - albeit allowing students to try as many times as they can be bothered to keep on guessing, just to escape the tedium and get back to work. Do you honestly think that has any value whatsoever, other than (once again) ticking the compliance box like a good little boy? The same can be said for attendance at awareness sessions, courses, events or whatever. It's easy to count page views on the intranet Security Zone, for instance, and from there to claim that x% of employees have participated, but how many of they have taken the slightest bit of interest or actually changed their behaviors in any meaningful and positive way? You won't find that out by measuring 'completion' of anything. In short, 'completion' metrics are not PRAGMATIC.

  6. Part 6 is a vague mish-mash of concepts, depending on how one interprets the weasel-words. 'Personal messaging' from the 'senior leadership team' is all too often an excuse for a few (as few as possible!) carefully-chosen words on those dreadfully trite corporate motivational posters: "Make It So" says the boss. "Do it ... or else!" Likewise, 'getting involved in training' might be restated as "Turn up at the odd event" or "Make a guest appearance, say a few words, press-the-flesh". What's completely missing from the CIS advice is the revolutionary idea that managers - at all levels from top to toe - should actively participate in the security awareness and training program as students, not just whip-crackers and budget-approvers. Managers need to be well aware of information risks, security, compliance, governance, control And All That, just as staff need to know how to avoid becoming cyber-victims. How do you expect managers to know and care about that stuff if they are not participating in the security awareness program? What kinds of strategies are they likely to support if they lack much of a clue? [Hint: "Implement the 20 controls" has a certain ring to it.]

    The final clause about 'accountability through performance metrics' once again needs careful interpretation. Along with responsibility, duty, obligation and so on, accountability is a crucially important concept in this field, yet one that is more often misinterpreted than correctly understood. We like to sum it up in the hackneyed phrase "The buck stops here" which works in two ways: first, we are all personally accountable for our actions and inactions, our decisions and indecisions, our good and bad choices in life. The person who clicks the phishing link and submits their password (the very same crappy password they use on all the places they can get away with it) leading to a major incident can and should be held to account for that obvious lapse of judgment or carelessness. At the same time, the person's managers, colleagues, support network and - yes - their security awareness and training people all share part of the blame because information security is a team game. I would also single out for special attention those who put the person in the situation in the first place. There are almost always several immediate issues and a few root causes behind security incidents: teasing out and addressing those root causes is the second angle to stopping-the-buck. Why did the person ignore or misread the signs? Why didn't the systems identify and block the phishing attack? Why wasn't this kind of incident foreseen and avoided or mitigated? ... leading ultimately to "What are we going to do about this?" and sometimes "Who will swing for it?"! Performance metrics are of tangential relevance in the sense that we are accountable for meeting defined and measurable performance targets, but holding people to account for information security is much more involved than counting how many widgets they have processed today. Performance is arguably the most difficult aspect to measure in information security, or cyber-security for that matter. It's all very well to measure the number and consequences of incidents experienced, but how many others were avoided or mitigated?
OK, moving along, let's take a squint at the remaining parts of CSC 17:
[17.4] Validate and improve awareness levels through periodic tests to see whether employees will click on a link from suspicious email or provide sensitive information on the telephone without following appropriate procedures for authenticating a caller; targeted training should be provided to those who fall victim to the exercise. 
Of the 50+ topics in information security awareness and training, why pick on email and phone phishing, specifically? Is nothing else important? I appreciate that phishing is a current concern but so too are ransomware, privacy, human errors, industrial or national espionage, piracy and many many others, ALL of which benefit from targeted awareness and training. What's more, the situation is dynamic and differs between organizations, hence it is distinctly misleading to pick out any one topic for special attention unless it is phrased merely as an example (it wasn't). Oh dear. It gets even worse at the end with the suggestion that 'targeted training' should be administered to victims: is that punishment? It sounds like punishment to me. We're back to flogging again. How about, instead, rewarding those who did not fall for the exercise, the ones who spotted, resisted and reported the mock attack? Hey, imagine that!
[17.5] Use security skills assessments for each of the mission critical roles to identify skills gaps. Use hands-on, real world examples to measure mastery. If you do not have such assessments, use one of the available online competitions that simulate real-world scenarios for each of the identified jobs in order to measure mastery of skills mastery.
'One of the online competitions'?? Well I suppose that is an approach, but somehow I doubt its effectiveness - and (for good measure) it definitely raises security concerns. Instead of being tacked on the bottom like the donkey's tail, 17.5 should probably have been included in 17.1 since it relates back to the identification of 'gaps'. As to measuring 'masterery of skills mastery', let's assume that is just a typo, a human error, one of those 50+ other things that best practice broad-spectrum information security awareness and training programs cover besides phishing or cyber-wotsits. 

Bottom line: sorry, CIS, but if control #17 is representative of the remaining 19, I'm disappointed. There are too many flaws, errors and omissions, and it is very biased towards IT and hacking. It is prescriptive and too far from good- let alone best-practice to recommend. 


PS  Remember these distinctly cynical comments the next time you read or hear someone extolling the virtues of the CIS 20 critical controls. If they think the CIS advice is wonderful, what does that tell you about their standards and expectations? 

PPS  And if you disagree with me, the floor's yours. I'm happy to discuss. Put me right if you will.

Sep 14, 2016

Resilience good, assured resilience better, proven and optimized resilience best

One of several excellent heads-ups in the latest issue of RISKS concerns an IEEE report on Facebook's live testing of their data center resilience arrangments.

Facebook's SWAT team, business continuity pro's, tech crew and management all deserve congratulating on not just wanting to be resilient, but making it so, proving that it works, and systematically improving it so that it works well.

However, I am dismayed that such an approach is still considered high-risk and extraordinary enough to merit both an eye-catching piece in the IEEE journal and a mention in RISKS. Almost all organizations (ours included*) should be sufficiently resilient to cope with events, incidents and disasters - the whole spectrum, not just the easy stuff.  If nobody is willing to conduct failover and recovery testing in prime time, they are admitting that they are not convinced the arrangements will work properly - in other words, they lack assurance and consequently face high risks.

About a decade ago, I remember leading management in a mainstream bank through the same journey. We had an under-resourced business continuity function, plus some disaster recovery arrangements, and some of our IT and comms systems were allegedly resilient, but every time I said "OK so let's prove it: let's run a test" I was firmly rebuffed by a nervous management. It took several months, consistent pressure, heavyweight support from clued-up executive managers and a huge amount of work to get past a number of aborted exercises to the point that we were able to conduct a specific disaster simulation under strictly controlled conditions, in the dead of night over a bank holiday weekend. The simulation threw up issues, as expected, but on the whole it was a success. The issues were resolved, the processes and systems improved, and assurance increased. 

At that point, management was fairly confident that the bank would survive ... a specific incident in the dead of night over a bank holiday weekend, provided the incident happened in a certain way and the team was around to pick up the pieces and plaster over the cracks. I would rate the confidence level at about 30%, some way short of the 50% "just about good enough" point, and well shy of the 100% "we KNOW it works, and we've proven it repeatedly under a broad range of scenarios with no issues" ultimate goal ...

My strategy presentations to management envisaged us being in the position that someone (such as the CEO, an auditor or a careless janitor) could wander into a computer suite on an average Wednesday morning and casually 'hit the big red button', COMPLETELY CONFIDENT that the bank would not instantly drop offline or turn up in the news headlines the next day. Building that level of confidence meant two things: (1) systematically reducing the risks to the point that the residual risks were tolerable to the business; and (2) increasing assurance that the risks were being managed effectively. The strategy laid out a structured series of activities leading up to that point - stages or steps on the way towards the 100% utopia.

The sting in the tail was that the bank operated in a known high-risk earthquake zone, so a substantial physical disaster that could devastate the very cities where the main IT facilities are located is a realistic and entirely credible scenario, not the demented ramblings of a paranoid CISO. Indeed, not long after I left the bank, a small earthquake occurred, a brand new IT building was damaged and parts of the business were disrupted, causing significant additional costs well in excess of the investment I had proposed to make the new building more earthquake-proof through the use of base isolators. Management chose to accept the risk rather than invest in resilience, and are accountable for that decision. 


* Ours may only be a tiny business but we have business-critical activities, systems, people and so forth, and we face events, incidents and disasters just like any other organization. Today we are testing and proving by using our standby power capability: it's not fancy - essentially just a portable generator, some extension cables and two UPSs supporting the essential office technology (PCs, network links, phones, coffee machine ...), plus a secondary Internet connection - but the very fact that I am composing and publishing this piece proves that it works since the power company has taken us offline to replace a power pole nearby. This is very much a live exercise in business continuity through resilience, concerning a specific category of incident. And yes there are risks (e.g. the brand new UPSs might fail), but the alternative of not testing and proving the resilience arrangements is riskier. 

That said, we still need to review our earthquake kit, check our health insurance, test our cybersecurity arrangements and so forth, and surprise surprise we have a strategy laying out a structured series of activities leading up to the 100% resilience goal. We eat our own dogfood.

UPDATE: today (15th Sept) we had an 'unplanned' power cut for several hours, quite possibly a continuation or consequence of the planned engineering work that caused the outage yesterday. Perhaps the work hadn't been completed on time so the engineers installed a temporary fix to get us going overnight and returned today to complete the work ... or maybe whatever they 'fixed' failed unexpectedly ... or maybe the engineers disturbed something in the course of the work ... or maybe this was simply a coincidence. Whatever. Today the UPSs and generator worked flawlessly again, along with our backup Internet and phone services. Our business continued, with relatively little stress thanks to yesterday's activities.

Sep 12, 2016

Security metrics for business or business metrics?

At first glance, "How To Talk About Security With Every C-Suite Member" by Andrew Storms dispenses good advice. The author emphasizes that there's not much point talking tech to the execs.
"Communicating with C-suite leaders about the ongoing security threats your company faces can easily turn into an exercise in futility. Their eyes glaze over as you present metrics and charts that illustrate the current state of the business’s IT infrastructure, and your attempts to justify investments in additional security tools and systems end up being unsuccessful."
Mmm, well, if you are indeed trying to justify investments in [IT] security tools and [IT] systems using [IT] metrics and charts concerning the IT infrastructure, then yes you are patently focused on IT.  Or, as Mr Storms put it, you are "failing to contextualize your data into terms that resonate with leaders who work outside of IT."

"When speaking with leaders from across the business, it’s important to remember the common goal you share: enablement. In your case, by assessing the risks your company faces, balancing them with the potential costs of a breach, and making security investments accordingly, you’re enabling every department to function and thrive on a day-to-day basis. You need to make it clear to your audience—in terms they can relate to—how your team is directly contributing to this universal goal. Rather than presenting industry-standard metrics without further explanation, contextualize your findings by showing their net value."
I welcome the business enablement angle even more than the [information] risk part but there's more to this than investing in controls to prevent 'breaches', and that final sentence jars with me. 'Rather than presenting industry-standard metrics' is a curious turn of phrase: why would anyone be presenting 'industry-standard metrics', and if so what are they? What does that even mean? It's a false dichotomy.

It gets worse ...
"Explain exactly why you’ve chosen to present this metric, and describe exactly how addressing hosts with a 5-or-higher CVSS score directly enables the whole company."
To put that another way, "Say why your geeky tech metric is on the table and how wonderful it is". The implication is that the execs are not clever enough to understand IT security metrics, so dumb them down (and speak loudly!).

The possibility of the execs having driven the selection of information security metrics to suit business objectives in the first place doesn't seem to have occurred to the author.

I would turn this whole thing on its head. Instead of 'talking about security', the discussion should instead be about the business, or rather what concerns the execs in relation to achieving the organization's business and other objectives. Instead of focusing rather negatively on [information] risks, how about turning the discussion towards something much more positive such as the business opportunities opened up by secure access to high quality information?

The point is that investing in security is not a goal in itself but a means to an end. If the end is obvious, and it is clear how information security supports or enables reaching it, investing or not investing is no longer a major issue. It's not exactly a forgone conclusion, however, because there may be other even more valuable opportunities and various constraints. It's a strategic issue, exactly the kind of thing that execs enjoy. With this in mind, the particular metrics are incidental, almost irrelevant to a much bigger and more significant business discussion.

Gary (Gary@isect.com)

Aug 31, 2016

Hot off the press!

The NoticeBored security awareness topic for September is communications security.

It is just as important to protect information while it is being communicated as when it is stored and processed, and yet communications mechanisms are numerous, widespread, complex, dynamic and hence tricky to control. 

Communications security is a substantial challenge for every organization, even the very best.

We have covered various aspects of communications from different angles many times before in the awareness program, mostly emphasizing ICT (information and communicaitions technologies) but also the human aspects such as social engineering and fraud. This time around we supplement the usual fare with something new: body language.

Aside from the actual words we use in conversation or in writing, the way we express stuff is often just as revealing - in fact in information security terms, body language qualifies as a communications side-channel. 

The TV is awash with examples, such as the US presidential candidates currently making numerous appearances. Provided they stick to the script, the politicians' carefully-prepared and well-rehearsed speeches are intended, of course, to follow specific lines and communicate largely pre-determined messages. In practice, their gestures, facial expressions, nods and shakes of the head, smiles and grimaces, demeanor, even the          dramatic        pauses       supplement and frame what they are saying, affecting the way they are understood by the audience and (for that matter) the journalists and news media. The specific choice of words, the phrasing and intonation, even the speaker's volume and cadence, also influence the communication. In addition there's the broader context including factors such as the lead-up, time of day, location, props, formality, clothing, audience reactions and participation, and more.

With all that in mind, it's obvious that the words alone don't paint the whole picture, hence controlling the communications involves much more than simply writing the script.  Most politicians, presenters, celebrities and performers are presumably coached in how to communicate well, or at least they are experienced and well-practiced at it. They don't all have the same abilities, however, and lapses of concentration or emotional outbursts can trip anyone up. If you are observant, there are other more subtle cues, many of which the speaker is unaware of (gently shaking the head in disagreement while saying "yes" is a classic and surprisingly common example). Controlling our subconscious, reflexive or innate behaviors is hard, especially under the full glare of the global media presence.

Translating over into the corporate context, there are information security implications for situations such as business meetings, phone calls, video-conferences, negotiations, sales pitches, seminars and presentations - including, for that matter, security awareness and training events. Whenever we converse or interact with other people, there are bound to be both intended and unintended communications. Being aware of this is the first step on the way to taking charge and controlling - or securing - the comms. It's also an important part of responding to the audience since communications are almost invariably bidirectional.

On that note, please comment on this item or email me with your thoughts. I'd love to hear back from you. 

Hello! Is there anyone out there?  Tap once for yes, twice for no.

Gary (Gary@isect.com)

PS  I guess that's two taps then ...

Aug 29, 2016

Droning on and on

In connection with an awareness module on physical security in July 2015, I blogged about the possibility of people using drones to deliver drugs and other contraband to prisons ... and sure enough they areThe same technology could be used to deliver drugs to dealers and addicts, I guess, or books, or crop sprays, or pizza and beer

Or bombs. 

We know that drones are a threat to low-flying aircraft, near airports particularly, while they are clearly being used for military purposes including surveillance and delivery platforms for weapons. The police have their eye on them too.

The big question is how the authorities plan to treat the associated risks.  

Drones can be detected using radar, radio receivers and audio location, as well as visually including infra red. Tracking them is possible by eye or using pan-and-tilt mounts and electronics similar to those used for missiles. However, small drones have tiny signatures, while military drones are presumably stealthy or come in swarms

The remote control/console facilities may be concealed, potentially far away, and relocatable though only in 2 dimensions unlike the drones' 3! Fully autonomous drones dispense with the remote control too.

Once detected, they can be shot down, lasered, microwaved, jammed on several frequencies, netted (?) or spoofed (meddling with the GPS or remote control instructions) ... but a kilogram or more of material falling out of the sky is itself hazardous, while military drones probably fight back, not least because of their value (reportedly ~$1m for a Chinese military drone, $30m for a US Reaper). 

I'm interested to see what happens next. Will we see anti-drone drones, maybe, with chase and capture, divert or destroy capabilities? Or something simple such as fine mesh nets stretched over prison yards?

Oh by the way, a driverless car (or tractor, motorbike, truck or tank) is simply a land-based drone, isn't it? Great way to deliver goods ... or drugs or bombs ... 


Aug 23, 2016

The Navy lark

The official US navy report into an embarrassing incident in the Arabian Gulf at the start of this year is well worth reading.

In short, the incident involved two US navy patrol boats straying into Iranian territorial waters around Farsi Island, one of them suffering a mechanical failure, then both being intercepted by an armed force of Iranians from the island. Without a shot being fired, the navy crews were 'captured', taken to the island, interrogated, video'd and released the next day. No big deal in the grand scheme of things ... but distinctly embarrassing for the US navy and government, as well as those directly involved.  

The lightly-redacted report was produced by an official investigation into the incident and, as usual for such things, it points the finger at a number of contributory factors, systemic issues or root causes that failed to prevent or avoid the incident. As usual, the wording is quite formalized, stilted and circumspect in places but if you read it carefully, the core messages sing out like one of Dame Kiri Te Kanewa's most powerful arias.  Here are just a few of the issues mentioned in the report (I'm paraphrasing, somewhat cynically):

  • The boat crews were new to the Gulf, not acclimatized to the heat, and poorly prepared for their new roles
  • The boats were poorly maintained, with various issues around the on-shore maintenance facilities and budget/resource constraints: they should not have set to sea in the first place
  • The mission was substantially longer than normal with a nighttime refuelling stop at sea and the crews were inexperienced in both regards - in other words, it was known to be a risky venture
  • All manner of proper procedures were not followed, with a substantial amount of miscommunication and numerous communications failures (exacerbated by the mixture of classified and nonclassified comms, a multitude of systems and technical issues)
  • Even the written logs have conflicting, missing and erroneous information, making them unreliable as formal records hence frustrating the post-incident investigation
  • Some people were certified competent without, it seems, completing the corresponding schooling and qualification, at least not to the appropriate level of assurance due in part to inadequate training
  • Genuine concerns about the mission and more generally were repeatedly dismissed or disregarded by more senior officers, thanks in large part to the predominant 'yes sir' culture and morale issues 
  • The roles and responsibilities among the boat crews (including navigation, crucially, as well as their command and control structure, hierarchy or authority) were unclear
  • The on-board GPS system was not 'loaded with crypto' ... and would presumably have reverted to the normal civilian resolution (surely good enough to identify Farsi Island?)
  • The pre-notified route through the middle of the Gulf would have been well clear of the island but having left port late due to earlier issues, the boats took a more direct straight-line route to save time and avoid bad weather, despite continuing communications issues and concerns
  • Some messages were passed to shore including several positions indicating they were well off the planned course, but they were not all passed on correctly or plotted, hence the course deviation that led to the incident was not properly flagged up as an issue
  • At one point, an on-shore navigation system was out of action as it was being rebooted, a planned daily occurrence (!)
  • As Farsi Island came into sight, the boats were essentially lost. One captain realized they must be in territorial waters but didn't know which nation (!!). The Island sighting was not reported up the line. The crews claimed they thought they were 3 to 5 miles away whereas in fact they were just 1.6 miles from the island. They did not adopt defensive positions
  • The navy crews were unable to communicate with the approaching Iranians
  • During and following their capture and interrogation (i.e. under duress), crew members only partially recalled and followed the code of conduct and training for such eventualities, perhaps reflecting a lack of clarity in the official guidance concerning the particular circumstances of this incident
The sting in the tail is that this incident could easily have been much worse. Aside from the likely injuries or deaths if the navy crews had defended themselves and resisted capture (assuming they were actually capable of using their weapons - some of which weren't properly mounted), the incident could have sparked an escalation of the conflict in the area, leading to serious military and political consequences at least. One of the navy captains reportedly thought about the possibility of sparking a US-Iran war by over-reacting to the approaching Iranian boats, repeatedly referring to the incident as a 'misunderstanding'. 

The report claims quite indignantly, repeatedly and at some length, that the navy boats should have been allowed "innocent passage" by the Iranians and had "sovereign immunity", but notes also that Iranian laws impose special conditions for military vehicles. This whiffs of sour grapes to me, perhaps an attempt by the powers that be to deflect attention from the numerous shortcomings.

The context and lead-up is far more complex than my comments imply and, despite the effort that went into the investigation and the report, there is undoubtedly much more to it than was reported - such is the nature of incident investigation and auditing, both in general and especially in such highly-charged situations, within an embarrassed military organization no less. The published report is the tip of a huge iceberg of findings, concerns and suspicions that remain largely out of sight. Only the few findings that are substantiated by credible if not undeniable evidence gathered by the investigators (the "Findings of fact", in the stilted language of the report) are officially reported, at least in theory. However, diligent investigators and experienced auditors have creative ways to put their real points across, despite the interminable 'file reviews' and private discussions that no doubt took place between them and their subjects - or rather their respective bosses. What we see in print leaves out more than it says, but gives clues as to what we're missing.

Juxtaposition for instance. In one paragraph we read very matter-of-factly that a senior navy officer denied knowing that there were any maintenance issues with the boats. The very next equally matter-o'-fact paragraph points out that the officer chaired a regular meeting about boat maintenance (clearly implying that he either did know, or should have known about the problems that led to a boat being stranded in Iranian waters). The report often gives such hints but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion. It's not hard.

As to determining and bottoming-out the root causes, the investigation does not appear as comprehensive or effective as I would have liked. It only went a fathom or two down into a deep sea trench. Most of the issues identified in the report presumably result from issues further upstream, and additional contributory factors and decisions that were not explored, or not reported anyway. I wish the investigator/s had continued probing instead of moving on to other issues after each revelation ... but it is what it is.

Aside from the obvious value of this report to the navy, it has much wider application, raising awkward questions for all organizations such as:

  • Does our corporate culture enable and support dissent, giving people legitimate opportunities to speak up about issues and concerns, knowing that they will be investigated and taken seriously? Or do we deliberately or inadvertently stifle bad news and (inapprorpiately) 'refuse to take no for an answer'?
  • Do our people have the wherewithall to spot and report issues and concerns? Is it expected of us all, in fact? Are we encouraged and motivated, as well as enabled, to speak up?
  • Does our command structure clearly allocate responsibilities and accountabilities, to people who are in fact fully competent to fulfil their obligations even under especially challenging and stressful situations such as serious incidents or inappropriate/dangerous commands? 
  • Are our policies, procedures, training courses and exercises sufficiently clear and effective in preparing people for all the situations we may face, including special arrangements for high-risk and novel situations? Do we remember and follow our training, in fact? Are we even checking that?
  • Do we identify and manage information risks properly, with the appropriate early-warning and response mechanisms in place to escalate matters if risks are becoming unacceptable, and to strengthen and monitor key controls?
  • Do our networks, IT systems and associated processes adequately facilitate effective, timely communications, even when under intense pressure? Are they reliable and resilient, for sure? Do they enable critical messages to be prioritized and monitored (e.g. mechanisms to ensure that they are delivered, received, acted upon and closed off, rather than being ignored, with fall-back mechanisms such as out-of-band messaging)?
  • Do we have the right governance arrangements and capabilities to investigate and learn from incidents, squeezing every drop of value from situations that those involved might wish were swept under the carpet?

At least those are my take-aways. What about you? What do you think?


Aug 19, 2016

Have fun learning

The simple structure of the NoticeBored quiz belies its effectiveness as an security awareness mechanism: in the right setting with a good facilitator and (most of all) a group of willing, cheerful, fun-loving participants who are up for a laugh, the quiz can be a supremely memorable and effective learning experience.  

In awareness terms, that’s a remarkably powerful outcome.  

Really, a 'supremely memorable and effective learning experience'? That's no idle claim. This is not an empty marketing piece. Trust me, I know what I'm saying.

Every month as part of the module, we deliver to NoticeBored subscribers an awareness quiz supporting the month's information security topic ... but it's probably not what you have in mind. A conventional quiz would be a set of factual questions with the corresponding answers, the sort of thing that some mind-numingly banale TV presenter/celebrity might try to flog into life with a bit of (fake) drama and (pumped-up) audience participation.

We deliberately avoid that approach. For us, the quiz is not merely an exercise in factual recall, not even when surrounded by the glitter and razamatazz of a prime-time TV game-show. We don't particularly care how much participants knew before attending the quiz night. We aren't terribly interested in who are the winners and losers: points mean prizes, maybe, but that's not the goal. Wherever they start out from, we want everyone to go home with more knowledge and understanding than they had when they arrived. 

We care passionately about them learning.

Our approach, therefore, is to focus on promoting and facilitating group dynamics in the social situation than on the specific learning points. My mention of 'quiz night' was a massive clue. If people enjoy themselves, have a good time and (incidentally) learn stuff, they will come back for more ... and learn more in the process.

This is the adult education equivalent of the after-school club that many of us experienced as teens. Speaking personally, I had a great time learning about electronics and radio at the club, way beyond what I would ever have picked up from the textbooks and staged experiments that filled the physics lessons. "Mister Cluer" (as he was known by day) or "Graeme" (at the club) gave us just the right mix of encouragement and freedom to explore our horizons and develop our interests - essentially teaching ourselves - a learning experience that has literally stayed with me for life.

I invested my afternoon today developing a quiz for September's 'communications security' awareness topic. I hope it pays off big time for our subscribers. I must say, I wish I could be there to join in!


Aug 16, 2016

Sony still paying for the hack

The hack just under two years ago is still costing Sony money.

An article in the Hollywood Reporter notes that Sony has paid $millions already:
"After the hack, Sony has faced several lawsuits over failure to safeguard private data and most notably settled a class action from former employees in a deal worth somewhere between $5.5 million to $8 million."
That is on top of the substantial costs directly incurred in or caused by the incident, including the loss of business, inability for Sony Pictures Entertainment to operate for several weeks, penalties from the authorities due to its problems filing financial results on time, and of course the incident investigation and actions arising, clearing-up the mess.

Possibility Pictures is now claiming compensation for the loss of revenue on one of its films that Sony was supposed to be distributing. "To write love on her arms" was one of five films stolen in the hack and released onto the Internet as part of the incident. Possibility Pictures claims that Sony breached its obligation under an anti-piracy clause in their agreement due to the "entirely forseeable and avoidable failure of internal security".

'Entirely forseeable' is an interesting turn of phrase. It's not too hard for Sony to figure out what went wrong with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, after the fact, but to claim that it was 'entirely forseeable' implies that Sony was blind to the possibility before the fact. It seems to me this was an audacious hack, unique in terms of its scale and the media coverage, so is it reasonable to expect Sony to have foreseen it? I guess that is one of many questions that will be argued out in court (if it gets that far). It's a fascinating example of information risk management.


Aug 2, 2016

Another dubious survey

According to a Vanson Bourrne survey conducted for McAfee (now part of Intel Security), specialist "cybersecurity"* professionals are in high demand.

No surprise there.

The report reveals that respondents feel their governments are not doing enough to close the skills gap:
"Respondents in all countries surveyed said cybersecurity education was deficient. Eighty-two percent of respondents report a shortage of cybersecurity skills. More than three out of four (76%) respondents believe their government is not investing enough in cybersecurity talent. "
No surprise there either. 

Apparently the shortage is worse in 'high-value skills' (isn't that simply the result of supply and demand - a shortage of supply increases the price people are willing to pay?) and is worse in cybersecurity than in 'other IT professions' (implying that the report's authors consider cybersecurity to be an IT profession):
"High-value skills are in critically short supply, the most scarce being intrusion detection, secure software development, and attack mitigation. These skills are in greater demand than soft skills in communication and collaboration. A majority of respondents (53%) said that the cybersecurity skills shortage is worse than talent deficits in other IT professions." 
Hmmm: on that last point, 53% is barely above 50%, a 3% difference that looks to me as if it might fall within the margin of error for this kind of survey. In the same vein, did you spot that comment above about 76% being "more than three out of four"? Unfortunately, the report doesn't state the margin of error, and in fact gives barely enough information about the 'materials and methods' to determine whether the results have any scientific value at all. Tucked away in a sidebar towards the end, the small print reads:
"Intel Security commissioned independent technology market research specialist Vanson Bourne to undertake the research upon which this report is based. A total of 775 IT decision makers who are involved in cybersecurity within their organization were interviewed in May 2016 across the US (200), the UK (100), France (100), Germany (100), Australia (75), Japan (75), Mexico (75) and Israel (50). The respondents were from organizations with at least 500 employees, and came from within both public and private sectors. Interviews were conducted online using a rigorous multi-level screening process to ensure that only suitable candidates had the opportunity to participate."  
OK so the survey involved a stratified/selected sample of 775 "IT decision makers who are involved in cybersecurity", again indicating a bias towards IT. The fact that Vanson Bourne describes itself as an "independent technology market research specialist", while McAfee/Intel is an IT company, are further hints.

Aside from the bald assertion, we are told nothing more about that "rigorous multi-level screening process to ensure that only suitable candidates had the opportunity to participate". On what basis were candidates deemed "suitable" or "unsuitable"? Who decided? At what point was this determination made: before they were surveyed, during the process or afterwards (perhaps according to their responses to some qualification questions)? I can barely guess what a "rigorous multi-level screening process" might be: possibly just a few simple filters (e.g. country, job title and organization size) on Vanson Bourne's database of tame respondents (which, if true, suggests yet another source of potentially significant bias: this was not a random sample). 

I have to ask: why did respondents respond? What incentives were offered? Yep, another possible bias, especially if they were required to answer certain questions in a certain way to qualify for the incentives. 

We are also told next to nothing about the survey method, other than that it was "online" (implying a web-based survey). In particular, we aren't told how the questions were framed and phrased, nor even how the online survey question and response process was designed. I guess it was probably a simple multiple-choice survey in which respondents are required to select a single option from the handful of choices on offer: such surveys are quick, easy and cheap to construct, perform and analuyse ... but there are all sorts of potential sources of bias in there. For starters, the title of the survey immediately sets a frame of reference for potential respondents. I would be surprised if the survey was not introduced to potential respondents as something along the lines of "cybersecurity skills survey", perhaps even "cybersecurity skills shortage survey" or possibly "Hacking the Skills Shortage: A study of the international shortage in cybersecurity skills" (the title of the issued report). 

Secondly, the specific wording of the question stems and answers is important, plus the number of options offered and the possibility of respondents selecting multiple or zero answers, or indicating a preference for certain answers over others, or writing in their own preferred answers. Consider the obvious difference between, for example "Do you consider cybersecurity education to be deficient?" and "Do you consider cybersecurity education to be sufficient?". While they amount to the same thing, there are distinctly different implications in each case. There is no end of possibilities for phrasing survey questions and answers, may far more subtle than my example. Even the specific order and number of both questions and answers can affect the outcome.

And then there are the questions that may have been asked and responded-to but the data were later discarded for some more or less legitimate reason. The authors could easily have come clean on that.  "The survey asked the following 25 questions ..." would have made a worthwhile annex to the report, along with the rationale for disregarding any of them e.g. legitimate concerns about the construction of the questions, ambiguity in the wording etc.

Oh yes, then there's the statistics - the analysis that generated the reported results, and the raw data that were analyzed. Aside from chucking in the odd term such as median, the report gives little indication of any statistical analysis. The more cynical of us may see that as a plus-point, but from a scientific perspective, sound statistical analysis can add value by drawing out the information and meaning lurking in any data set - like for instance whether 53% is or is not a statistically significant difference from 50% in the example I quoted earlier.

OK, enough already. The take home lesson from this survey, as with so many other marketing-led efforts of this nature, is that the report needs to be read and interpreted carefully, and largely discounted due to the inherent bias and uncertainty. I am repeatedly disappointed that such supposedly professional survey organizations seldom make much of an effort to explain their methods or convince us that the results are valid, beyond chucking in a few vague indications as to sample size. It's an integrity issue, and yes I realise he who pays the piper calls the tune so as far as I'm concerned both Vanson Bourne and McAfee/Intel Security join companies such as Ponemon on the 'dubious value' pile, at least for now. They can always change their ways with the next survey report ... but I'm not holding my breath.

Gary (Gary@isect.com)

They never do explain exactly what they mean by "cybersecurity". Presumably the respondents each interpreted it in their own way too.