Welcome to NBlog, the NoticeBored blog

I may meander but I'm 'exploring', not lost

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.

Regards,
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 ... 

Regards,

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?

Regards,

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!

Regards,

Aug 16, 2016

Sony still paying for the hack


The Sony hack 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.

Regards,

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.

Regards,
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.