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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Opening Keynote: Neal Ziring (Symposium Summary)

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Keynote Summary by Mark Lohrum

Neal Ziring, the current technical director for the Information Assurance Directorate at the NSA, was given the honor of delivering the opening keynote for the 2011 CERIAS Symposium on April 5th at Purdue University. He discussed the trends in cyber threats from the 1980s to today and shifts of defenses in response to those threats. He noted that, as a society, we have built a great information network, but unless we can trust it and be defended against possible threats, we will not see the full potential of a vast network. Ziring’s focus, as an NSA representative, was primarily from a perspective of preserving national interests regarding information security.

Ziring discussed trends in threats to information security. In the 1980s, the scope of cyber threats was rather simple. Opposing nations wished to obtain information from servers belonging to the U.S., so the NSA wished to stop them. This was fairly straightforward. Since the 1980s, threats have become far more complex. The opponents may not be simply opposing countries; they may be organized criminals, rouge hackers, hacktivists, or more. Also in years past, much expertise was required to complete attacks. Now, not so much expertise is required, which results in more threat actors. In the past, attacks were not very focused. Someone would write a virus and see how many computers in a network in can effect, almost as if it were a competition. Now, attacks are far more focused on achieving a specific goal aimed at a specific target. Ziring cited a statistic that around 75% of viruses are targeted at less than 50 individual computers. Experts in information security must understand the specific goals of a threat actor so attacks can be predicted.

Ziring also discussed shifts in information security. The philosophy used to be to simply protect assets, but now the philosophy includes defending against known malicious code and hunting for not yet known threats. Another shift is that the NSA has become increasingly dependent upon commercial products. In the past, defenses were entirely built internally, but that just does not work against the ever-changing threats of today. Commercial software advances at a rate far faster than internal products can be developed. The NSA utilizes a multi-tiered security approach because all commercial products contain certain shortcomings. Where one commercial product fails to protect against a threat, another product should be able to counter that threat; this concept is used to layer security software to fully protect assets.

A current concern in information security is the demand for mobility. Cell phones have become part of everyday life, as we as a society carry them everywhere. As these are mobile networking computers, the potential shortcomings of security on these devices is a concern. If they are integrated with critical assets, a security hole is exposed. Similarly, cloud computing creates a concern. Integrity of information on servers which the NSA does not own must be ensured.

Ziring brought up a couple of general points to consider. First, information security requires situational awareness. Knowing the current status of critical information is necessary to defending it properly, and knowing the status of the security system consistently is required. Currently, many security systems are audited every several years, but it may be better to continuously check the status of the security system. And secondly, operations must be able to operate on a compromised network. The old philosophy was to recover from a network compromise, then resume activity. The new philosophy, because networks are so massive, is to be able to run operations while the network is in a compromised state.

Ziring concluded by discussing the need to create academic partnerships. Academic partnerships can help the NSA have access to the best researchers, newer standards, and newer technologies. Many of the current top secure systems would not have been possible without academic partnerships. It is impossible for the NSA to employ more people than the adversaries, but it is possible to outthink and out-innovate them.

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