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Growing up, a lot of my sci-fi reading focused on old classic works by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Campbell, Pohl, etc. For some reason, I missed the 80’s almost completely. Specifically, I missed Ender’s Game until just this past month. So, I’ve been catching up. As of tonight, I’ve just finished “Ender’s Shadow”. My thoughts on the book (and series) overall are beyond the scope of this blog, but there was a series of passages early on that I think resonate closely with my last post here, and with my overall feeling that we need a real strategy for changing the odds on the cyber security playing field altogether instead of just building up defenses linearly. Let me know if you agree?

“He could come from anywhere – from anywhere all at once. So we run into the classic problem of defense, cubed. The farther out you deploy your defenses, the more of them you have to have, and if your resources are limited, you soon have more fortifications than you can man. What good are based on moons, Jupiter, or Saturn, or Neptune, when the enemy doesn’t even have to come in on the plane of the ecliptic? He can bypass all our fortifications. The way Nimitz and MacArthur used two-dimensional island-hopping against the defense in depth of the Japanese in WWII. Only our enemy can work in three dimensions. Therefore we cannot possibly maintain defense in depth..”

“So even if we intercept 99 of 100 attacking squadrons, he only has to get one squadron through to cause terrible destruction.  We saw how much territory a single ship could scour when they first showed up.  Get ten ships to us for a single day, and if they spread us out enough, they’d have a lot more than a day and they would wipe out our most important centers. “


Earlier this week, I started back up at TSA supporting their private sector critical infrastructure responsibilities under HSPD-7 and the NIPP.  Being new (well, new again), I just had to get on some of my recurring soap boxes.  One of them was our doomed-to-failure to security approaches.  (Nice to start off on an optimistic foot yeh?)  Pretty soon, the conversation narrowed down to the role of CERTs and incident response. In the middle of trying to explain how sending a bunch of guys in trenches to combat an enemy who could nuke from thousands of miles away was a waste of time, I had a revelation: The “bad guys”, with complete cooperation with the “good guys”, are creating a denial of service condition across the country and planet: a Responder Denial of Service – or, an “RDOS”.

What exactly is an RDoS? It works a lot like a syn-flood, which spins up a whole lot of blank connection attempts to a server. The server must receive these connections, wait for awhile to see if valid data arrives, then close them. The thing is, because the sender knows the connections are blank (and using things like botnets and such), it can generate a lot more connection attempts than the server can handle. Eventually, the server gets so busy that it fails to respond to real connections.

Now, think of how we handle “security”.  We religiously and studiously avoid building hardened, defensible systems from the ground up and rely on fixes, patches, and incident responders to cope with the eventual problems later (hoping all the while – in vain – that the attacks never come).

What we end up with, by and large, are systems that are so poorly constructed that it takes a large amount of effort to detect, confirm, respond to, and recover from attacks.  Further, while attackers can fairly easily attack multiple systems simultaneously, we require dedicated defenders/responses for much smaller groups of systems (or even individual systems).  This leaves us with an “RDoS”. Our security philosophies leave so much open that we can never, ever sufficiently resource our defenses at an adequate level. Everyone is occupied. Just ask your incident response vendors, teams, and CERT’s (over beers, of course), about their available resources vs the demand for their services, vs the large iceberg of incidents under the water that aren’t even talked about yet.

As I’ve said before: Good guys – you, we, have failed and will continue to fail if we keep going down this same road.  We can’t win until we change strategies completely. We need to embrace our failure and build systems which are defensible from the inside, which are measurably effective against operational/business objectives,  and which assume, from the get go, that sections and components have, are, and will continue  to be compromised. This hacking perimeters on, giving lip service to change control, and our complete inability to integrate cyber into our ORM and our ORM into our business decision making is a waste of time and resources. We’d be better off spending the money and time elsewhere if we’re going to keep doing security as badly as we do it now.

If anyone disagrees with this post, I’d LOVE to hear a rational argument as to why. (Really!)

(UPDATE: 08/06/10)

I really think some of Bruce Potter’s remarks at Shmoocon in 2009 are pertinent here:

People are getting owned a lot.

  • Increased success in getting past our defenses
  • Increasingly malicious motivations. The bad guys aren’t after web defacements
  • In spite of the above, we haven’t changed our methods. Its a lot of the same
  • Spear phishing and drive-bys are unabated.

What we have is a Maginot line…in depth
Of 66 million websites indexed by Google, 5 percent had drivebys.
These sites with drivebys weren’t just the risky underbelly of the web. It was every category of website. I don’t think that is surprising to anyone who has paid attention to security.
These findings were published last year in in USENIX.
The malicious content on these sites was then scanned using three top Antivirus vendors. The best detection rate among these three vendors was only 75%. The worst was 30%. These are untargeted attacks. Imagine the ability of an attack targeted at your organization to cut through your antivirus defenses.
So What do you do?

NAC? Most people don’t have that deployed even if they’ve bought it.
Firewall Internally?
Token authentication?
Change jobs?

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