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This is a repost of my recent comments on SCADASEC with regard to the most recent rush of frantic reports of cyber-espionage and the subsequent pitchfork-waving demands for legislation and/or further immediate regulation.


Ok, so bad stuff is happening. Whether or not we agree on the extent, damage, or origins of attacks against our infrastructure, there’s no disagreement among people in the industry that there is a problem that must be dealt with.  So, now that we’re here, let’s all take a breath and look around and assess where we’re at.

First, these intrusions do not seem to represent a substantial change in our tactical situation; these types of intrusions have been occurring in one form or another for years. We may be -detecting- them more frequently before, but that’s it.  A nationally significant incident occurring by way of a cyber attack against our critical infrastructure by a serious actor is, by many accounts, just as likely to happen now as it was a few years ago.  This is interesting.  It has long been observed that “the internet can be taken down in 30 minutes and no one is sure why that hasn’t happened yet.”  I imagine that a similar thing can be said about our critical infrastructure.

While I am not suggesting that there is anything but a pressing, critical, national security level issue with the state of our cyber security and CIKR, I am suggesting that it is not so imminent that the value of taking our considered time in fixing the problem should be thrown out in favor of passing rushed, ill-advised legislation or regulation.

Let me elaborate:

The proposed cyber security / critical infrastructure regulation proposals I have seen would absolutely achieve a short term tactical gain in our level of security.

It would do so, though, by committing us to a permanent cyber security arms race at the cost of any hope of a long term strategic win. We would spend all of our money, effort, and cycles, repeatedly reacting to our adversaries’ change in tactics and would provide no method of ultimately getting ahead of them. Eventually, we would have 853 (heh) layers of defense, attackers would still be getting through them all, but we’d be out of any more money to throw at more layers.

This is both because of the nature of the problem as well as the proposed solution. What we have on our hands is a complete architectural failure of our cyber networks with regard to “security”.  It is not the lack of some subset of individual security controls. Mandating specific control sets at this point – or any existing in-place “security best practices” – would be akin to insisting that contractors keep building a house on top of a known bad foundation. Incremental improvements will never address that kind of a problem.

What we need (from our technology) but do not have are information-centric systems with end-to-end processing requirements designed into their bones.  We skip the hard work of identifying what information we need our systems to produce, what information they need to take in initially, what transformations must be made to the source information, and who can make those transformations in what contexts. We then fail to tightly couple our code, our designs, and our infrastructure to those requirements when we do have them.

We skip it because it seems hard and expensive and the perceived value of speed and the enticements of deferred costs seem to outweigh the risks to the organizations making these decisions.  The costs of adding layers and layers and layers of ineffective security afterwords, however, is rarely calculated and compared to just doing it right the first time.

Instead of doing the right thing up front, we end up with tack-on solution sets like NIST 800-53. I don’t know about you all, but I’m pretty sure that if you did everything 800-53 describes – but never did the legwork I just described – security would still fail and it would fail badly.  In fact, we see this time and time again in existing federal IT networks.  800-53, by itself, does not work for IT.  Why would we legislate it for control systems? I don’t mean to pick on NIST here – it’s one of the better control catalogues out there – but that still doesn’t mean it works.

Technically, we are actually -nowhere near- industry agreement on how to solve the cyber security problem (Did anyone listen to Bruce Potter’s opening Shmoocon remarks? He astutely compared our current cyber security efforts to building a Maginot Line “In-depth”).  If that’s true, then legislating something we know will never allow us to achieve a strategic win seems contrary to logic.  But, if we want to put our heads in the sand and go the “any incremental gain we can achieve now is worth it even if we’ll have to redesign it from scratch later” route, the idea of legislating security controls for our critical infrastructure is still fatally flawed.

Why? Because a lack of security controls in our national critical infrastructure is not the problem, it is a symptom. Not only is it a symptom, but it’s a symptom of exactly the same problems that led to Wall Street’s collapse and the atrocious mortgage mess. Let me say that again: “it’s a symptom of exactly the same problems that led to Wall Street’s collapse and the atrocious mortgage mess.”

Those with budget authority – in both private and public organizations – are collectively and consistently making poor operational risk management decisions.  They are opting for short term gains at the expense of long term strategic success.  From where I sit, I honestly cannot tell whether it’s intentional or simply a lack of visibility into what the actual risks are (which stems from poorly designed organizational architecture).  In either case, we have an issue of priorities by people making decisions – and that’s not a technical failure at all.

What happens if we mandate 800-53 or something similar? We create yet another technical compliance regime which, at best, only indirectly affects prioritization of cyber risk.  The priority for decisions makers becomes meeting the regulation, not securing their organizations. When this happens, the risk is pushed down to the dedicated people on this list who then have to do the best they can in an environment where their organizations limit their ability to ultimately succeed. When that happens, we also find that good money is repeatedly thrown after bad and security, instead of being a business enabler, becomes a bottomless pit.

We need to find a way, if we think legislation is needed, to directly legislate cyber security as a priority and accountability for failure. If user information is stolen, decision makers need to be held responsible. If control systems are compromised in ways that could result in public harm, decisions makers need to be held responsible.  If people suddenly became on the hook for -succeeding-, then one would hope the market and industry would be driven to finding ways to succeed.

It would be nice if education, not legislation, would suffice for this.  But what I’ve been hearing on this list and in professional forums seems to indicate that the time for that is almost behind us. So, if we’re going to end up with legislation or regulation, let’s do it slowly, so it goes smoothly, so it’ll work quickly.


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