The Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

The Center for Education and Research in
Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

Symposium Summary: Distinguished Lecture


A summary written by Nabeel Mohamed.

The main focus of the talk was to highlight the need for “information-centric security” over existing infrastructure centric security. It was an interesting talk since John was instrumental in providing real statistics to augment his thesis.

Following are some of the trends he pointed out from their research:

  • Explosive growth of information: Digital content in organization grows by about 50% every year.
  • Most of the confidential/sensitive information or trade secrets of companies are in the form of unstructured data such as emails, messages, blogs, etc.
  • The growth of malicious code in the market place out-paces that of legitimate code.
  • Attackers have found ways to get around network protection and get at the sensitive/confidential information leaving hardly any trace most of the time. Attackers have changed their motivation; they no longer seek big press and they want to hide every possible trace regarding the evidence of attacks.
  • Threat landscape has changed markedly over the last ten years. Ten years ago there were only about five viruses/malicious attacks a day, but now it’s about staggering 15,000 a day.
  • The research conducted by the Pondemon Group asked laid-off employees if they left with something from the company and 60% said yes. John thinks that the figure could be still higher as there may be employees who are not willing to disclose it.

These statistics show that data is becoming increasingly important than ever before. Due to the above trends, he argued that protecting infrastructure alone is not sufficient and a shift in the paradigm of computing and security is essential. We need to change the focus from infrastructure to information.

He identified three elements in the new paradigm:

  1. It should be risk-based.
  2. It should be information centric.
  3. It should be managed well over a well-managed infrastructure.

John advocated to adopt a risk-based/policy-based approach to manage data. A current typical organization has strong policies on how we want to manage the infrastructure, but we don’t have a stronger set of policies to manage the information that is so critical to the business itself. He pointed out that it is high time that organizations assess the risk of loosing/leaking different types information they have and devise policies accordingly. We need to quantify the risk and protect those data that could cause high damage if compromised. Identifying what we want to protect most is important as we cannot protect all adequately.

While the risk assessment should be information-centric, one may not achieve security only by using encryption. Encryption can certainly help protect data, but what organizations need to take is a holistic approach where management (for example: data, keys, configurations, patches, etc.) is a critical aspect.

He argued that it is impossible to secure without having knowledge about the content and without having good policies on which to base organizational decisions. He reiterated that “you cannot secure what you do not manage”. To reinforce the claim, he pointed out that 90% of attacks could have been prevented had the systems came under attack been managed well (for example, Slammer attack). The management involves having proper configurations and applying critical updates which most of the vulnerable organizations failed to perform. In short, well-managed systems could mitigate many of the attacks.

Towards the end of his talk, he shared his views for better security in the future. He predicted that “reputation-based security” solutions to mitigate threats would augment current signature-based anti-virus mechanisms. In his opinion, reputation-based security produces a much more trusted environment by knowing users’ past actions. He argued that this approach would not create privacy issues if we change how we define privacy and what is sensitive in an appropriate way.

He raised the interesting question: “Do we have a society that is sensitive to and understands what security is all about?” He insisted that unless we address societal and social issues related to security, the technology alone is not sufficient to protect our systems. We need to create a society aware of security and create an environment for students to learn computing “safely”. This will lead us to embed safe computing into day- to-day life. He called for action to have national approach to security and law enforcement. He cited that it is utterly inappropriate to have data breach notification on a state-by- state basis. He also called for action to create an information-based economy where all entities share information about attacks and to have information-centric approach for security. He mentioned that Symantec is already sharing threat information with other companies, but federal agencies are hardly sharing any threat information. We need greater collaboration between public and private partnerships.


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