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A Cynic’s Take on Cyber Czars and 60-day Reports

Today, and Before

On July 17, 2008, (then) Senator Barack Obama held a town hall meeting on national security at Purdue University. He and his panel covered issues of nuclear, biological and cyber security. (I blogged about the event here and here.) As part of his remarks at the event, Senator Obama stated:

Every American depends — directly or indirectly — on our system of information networks. They are increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being. But it's no secret that terrorists could use our computer networks to deal us a crippling blow. We know that cyber-espionage and common crime is already on the rise. And yet while countries like China have been quick to recognize this change, for the last eight years we have been dragging our feet.

As President, I'll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I'll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We'll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information — from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

That was a pretty exciting statement to hear!

On February 9, 2009, (now) President Obama appointed Melissa Hathaway as Acting Senior Director for Cyberspace and charged her with performing a comprehensive review of national cyberspace security in 60 days. I interacted with Ms. Hathaway and members of her team during those 60 days (as well as before and after). From my point of view, it was a top-notch team of professionals approaching the review with a great deal of existing expertise and open minds. I saw them make a sincere effort to reach out to every possible community for input.

If you're keeping count, the report was delivered on or about April 10. Then, mostly silence to those of us on the outside. Several rumors were circulated in blogs and news articles, and there was a presentation at the RSA conference that didn't really say much.

Until today: May 29th.

Shortly after 11am EDT, President Obama gave some prepared remarks and his office released the report. In keeping with his July 2008 statement, the President did declare that "our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset." However, he did not appoint someone as a National Cyber Advisor. Instead, he announced the position of a "Cybersecurity Coordinator" that will be at a lower level in the Executive Office of the White House. No appointment to that position was announced today, either. (I have heard rumor from several sources that a few high-profile candidates have turned down offers of the position already. Those are only rumors, however.)

The President outlined the general responsibilities and duties of this new position. It apparently will be within the National Security Staff, reporting to the NSC, but also reporting to OMB and the National Economic Council, and working with the Federal CIO, CTO and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The new Coordinator will be charged with

  1. helping develop (yet another) strategy to secure cyberspace. This will include metrics and performance milestones;
  2. coordinating with state and local governments, and with the private sector, "to ensure an organized and unified response to future cyber incidents."
  3. to strengthen ties with the private sector, with an explicit mandate to not set security standards for industry.
  4. to continue to invest in cyber (although the examples he gave were not about research or security
  5. to begin a national campaign to increase awareness and cyber literacy.

The President also made it clear that privacy was important, and that monitoring of private networks would not occur.

Reading Between the Lines

There were a number of things that weren't stated that are also interesting, as well as understanding implications of what was stated.

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs. The position reports to several entities, presumably with veto power (more on that below). Although the President said the appointee will have "regular access" to him, that is not the same as an advisor -- and this is a difference that can mean a lot in Washington circles. Although it is rumor that several high-profile people have already turned down the position, I am not surprised given this circumstance. (And this may be why it has been two months since the report was delivered before this event — they've been trying to find someone to take the job.)

The last time someone was in a role like this with no real authority -- was in 2001 when Howard Schmidt was special adviser for cyberspace security to President G.W.Bush. Howard didn't stay very long, probably because he wasn't able to accomplish anything meaningful beyond coordinating (another) National Plan to Secure Cyberspace. It was a waste of his time and talents. Of course, this President knows the difference between "phishing" and "fission" and has actually used email, but still...

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. If we look back at our problems in cyber security (and I have blogged about them extensively over the last few years, and spoken about them for two decades), many of them are traceable to false economies: management deciding that short-term cost savings were more important than protecting against long-term risk. Given the current stress in the economy I don't expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that "cheapest must be best."

Third, there was no mention of new resources. In particular, no new resources for educational initiatives or research. We can pump billions of dollars into the bank accounts of greedy financiers on Wall Street, but no significant money is available for cyber security and defense. No surprise, really, but it is important to note the "follow the money" line -- the NEC has veto power over this position, and no money is available for new initiatives outside their experience.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts. We already have laws in place and mechanisms that could be deployed if we simply had the resources and will to deploy them. No mention was made at all about anything active such as this -- all the focus was on defensive measures. Similarly, there was no mention of national-level responses to some of the havens of cyber criminals, nor of the pending changes in the Department of Defense that are being planned.

Fifth, the President stated "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic." I suspect that was more than intended to reassure the privacy advocates -- I believe it was "code" for "We will not put the NSA in charge of domestic cyber security." Maybe I'm trying to read too much into it, but this has been a touchy issue in many different communities over the last few months.

There are certainly other things that might be noted about the report, but we should also note some positive aspects: the declaration that cyber is indeed a strategic national asset, that the problems are large and growing, that the existing structures don't work, that privacy is important, and that education is crucial to making the most of cyber going forward.

Of course, Congress ("pro is to con as Progress is to Congress") is an important player in all this, and can either help define a better or solution or stand in the way of what needs to be done. Thus, naming a Cyberspace Coordinator is hardly the last word on what might happen.

But with the perspective I have, I find it difficult to get too excited about the overall announcement. We shall see what actually happens.

The Report

I've read the report through twice, and read some news articles commenting on it. These comments are "off the top" and not necessarily how I'll view all this in a week or two. But what's the role of blogging if I need to think about it for a month, first? cheese

It is important to note that the President's remarks were not the same as the report, although its issuance was certainly endorsed by the White House. The reason I note the difference is that the report identifies many problems that the President's statement does not address (in any way), and includes many "should"s that cannot be addressed by a "coordinator" who has no budget or policy authority.

What is both interesting and sad is how much the new report resembles the largely-inconsequential National Plan to Secure Cyberspace issued under the Bush Administration (be sure to see the article at the link). That isn't a slam on this report -- as I wrote earlier, I think it is a good effort by a talented and dedicated team. What I mean to imply is that the earlier National Plan had some strong points too, but nothing came of it because of cost and prioritization and lack of authority.

There are a number of excellent points made in this report: the international aspects, the possibility of increased liability for poor security products and pratices, the need for involvement of the private sector and local governments, the need for more education, the problems of privacy with security, and more.

I was struck by a few things missing from the report.

First, there was no mention of the need for more long-term, less applied research and resources to support it. This is a critical issue, as I have described here before and has been documented time and again. To its credit, the report does mention a need for better technology transfer, although this is hardly the first time that has been observed; the 2005 PITAC report "Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization" included all of this (and also had minimal impact).

The report had almost nothing to say about increasing resources and support for law enforcement and prosecution. This continues to puzzle me, as we have laws in place and systems that could make an impact if we only made it a priority.

There is no discussion about why some previous attempts and structures -- notably DHS -- have failed to make any meaningful progress, and sometimes have actually hindered better cyber security. Maybe that would be expecting too much in this report (trying not to point fingers), but one can't help but wonder. Perhaps it is simply enough to note that no recommendations are made to locate any of the cyber responsibilities in DHS.

There is some discussion of harmonizing regulations, but nothing really about reviewing the crazy-quilt laws we have covering security, privacy and response. There is one sentence in the report that suggests that seeking new legislation could make things worse, and that is true but odd to see.

As an aside, I bet the discussion about thinking about liability changes for poor security practices and products -- a very reasonable suggestion -- caused a few of the economic advisors to achieve low Earth orbit. That may have been enough to set off the chain of events leading to reporting to the NEC, actually. However, it is a legitimate issue to raise, and one that works in other markets. Some of us have been suggesting for decades that it be considered, yet everyone in business wants to be held blameless for their bad decisions. Look at what has played out with the financial meltdown and TARP and you'll see the same: The businessmen and economists can destroy the country, but shouldn't be held at fault. mad

There is discussion of the supply-chain issue but the proposed solution is basically to ensure US leadership in production -- a laudable goal, but not achievable given the current global economy. We're going to need to change some of our purchasing and vetting habits to really achieve more trustworthy systems — but that won't go over with the economists, either.

There is no good discussion about defining roles among law enforcement, the military, the intelligence community, and private industry in responding to the problems. Yes, that is a snake pit and will take more than this report to describe, but the depth of the challenges could have been conveyed.

As David Wagner noted in email to an USACM committee, there is no prioritization given to help a reader understand which items are critical, which items are important, and which are merely desirable. We do not have the resources to tackle all the problems first, and there is no guidance here on how to proceed.


I didn't intend for this to be a long, critical post about the report and the announcement. I think that this topic is receiving Presidential attention is great. The report is really a good summary of the state of cybersecurity and needs, produced by some talented and dedicated Federal employees. However, the cynic in me fears that it will go the way of all the other fine reports -- many of which I contributed to -- including the PITAC report and the various CSTB reports; that is, it will make a small splash and then fade into the background as other issues come to the fore.

Basically, I think the President had the right intentions when all this started, but the realpolitik of the White House and current events have watered them down, resulting in action that basically endorses only a slight change from the status quo.

I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But experience has shown that it is almost impossible to be too cynical in this area. In a year or so we can look back at this and we'll all know. But what we heard today certainly isn't what Candidate Obama promised last July.

(And as I noted in a previous post, Demotivators seem to capture so much of this space. Here's one that almost fits.)

Cyber security challenges and windmills

[Note: the following is primarily about U.S. Government policies, but I believe several points can be generalized to other countries.]

I was editing a section of my website, when I ran across a link to a paper I had forgotten that I wrote. I'm unsure how many people actually saw it then or since. I know it faded from my memory! Other than CERIAS WWW sites and the AAAS itself, a Google search reveals almost no references to it.

As background, in early April of 2002, I was asked, somewhat at the last moment, to prepare a paper and some remarks on the state of information security for a forum, Technology in a Vulnerable World, held on science in the wake of 9/11. The forum was sponsored by the AAAS, and held later that month. There were interesting papers on public health, risk communication, the role of universities, and more, and all of them are available for download.

My paper in the forum wasn't one of my better ones, in that it was somewhat rushed in preparing it. Also, I couldn't find good background literature for some of what I was writing. As I reread what I wrote, many of the points I raised still don't have carefully documented sources in the open literature. However, I probably could have found some published backup for items such as the counts of computer viruses had I spent a little more time and effort on it. Mea culpa; this is something I teach my students about. Despite that, I think I did capture most of the issues that were involved at the time of the forum, and I don't believe there is anything in the paper that was incorrect at that time.

Why am I posting something here about that paper, One View of Protecting the National Information Infrastructure, written seven years ago? Well, as I reread it, I couldn't help but notice that it expressed some of the same themes later presented in the PITAC report, Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization (2005), the NRC report Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace (2007), and my recent Senate testimony (2009). Of course, many of the issues were known before I wrote my paper -- including coverage in the NRC studies Computers at Risk: Safe Computing in the Information Age (1991), Trust in Cyberspace (1999) and Cybersecurity Today and Tomorrow (2002) (among others I should have referenced). I can find bits and pieces of the same topics going further back in time. These issues seem to be deeply ingrained.

I wasn't involved in all of those cited efforts, so I'm not responsible for the repetition of the issues. Anyone with enough background who looks at the situation without a particular self-interest is going to come up with approximately the same conclusions -- including that market forces aren't solving the problem, there aren't enough resources devoted to long-term research, we don't have enough invested in education and training, we aren't doing enough in law enforcement and active defense, and we continue to spend massive amounts trying to defend legacy systems that were never designed to be secure.

Given these repeated warnings, it is troubling that we have not seen any meaningful action by government to date. However, that is probably preferable to government action that makes things worse: consider DHS as one notable example (or several).

Compounding the problem, too many leaders in industry are unwilling to make necessary, radical changes either, because such actions might disrupt their businesses, even if such actions are in the public good. It is one of those "tragedy of the commons" situations. Market forces have been shown to be ineffective in fixing the problems, and will actually lead to attempts to influence government against addressing urgent needs. Holding companies liable for their bad designs and mistakes, or restricting spending on items with known vulnerabilities and weaknesses would be in the public interest, but too many vendors affected would rather lobby against change than to really address the underlying problems.

Those of us who have been observing this problem for so long are therefore hoping that the administration's 60 day review provides strong impetus for meaningful changes that are actually adopted by the government. Somewhat selfishly, it would be nice to know that my efforts in this direction have not been totally in vain. But even if nothing happens, there is a certain sense of purpose in continuing to play the role of Don Quixote.

Sancho! Where did I leave my horse?

Why is it that Demotivators® seem so appropriate when talking about cyber security or government? If you are unfamiliar with, let me encourage you to explore the site and view the wonderfully twisted items they have for sale. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest or ties to the company, other than as a satisfied and cynical customer.

On a more academic note, you can read or purchase the NRC reports cited above online via the National Academies Press website.

This time, the Senate

On March 19, I had an opportunity to testify before the Senate Committee on on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing was entitled Cybersecurity -- Assessing Our Vulnerabilities and Developing An Effective Defense.

I was asked to include information on research problems, educational initiatives, and issues regarding the current state of cyber security in the nation.   As is usual for such things, the time between the invitation and the due date for written testimony was short. Thus, I didn't have the time to delve deeply into the topic areas, but could only address the things that I already had on hand -- including some posts from this blog that I had written before. The result was a little longer than the other statements, but I think I covered more ground.

One hint for people testifying before Congress on such things: you can't depend on how long you will have for spoken remarks, so be sure any points you want to make are in your written testimony. In this case, the hearing was limited to about 75 minutes because there were several votes scheduled on the Senate floor, and the committee needed to adjourn to allow the Senators to attend the votes. And, as is common for too many hearings, there weren't many of the committee members present; I believe the hearing began with only two of the 25 members present, and some movement of members in and out to reach a maximum of four seated at any one time. In this case, the chair (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia) apologized to us several times for the low turnout. However, many (all?) of the staff and aides were present, so I'm certain the gist of the testimony presented will be considered.Spaf testifying

The Senator made a nice introductory statement.

My written testimony is available on my website as well as the committee site. My oral statement was from rough notes that I modified on the fly as I listened to the other testimony (by Jim Lewis, Eric Weiss and Ed Amoroso). That statement, and the whole hearing, are available via the archived hearing webcast (my remarks start at about 46:30 into the webcast). If I get a transcribed version of those remarks, I will post them along with my written testimony on my website in the "US government" section.

Comments by the other speakers were good overall and I think we collectively covered a lot of ground. The questions from the Senators present indicated that they were listening and knew some of the problems in the area. The comments from Senator Nelson about the intrusions into his systems were surprising: several Senate security staff were present at the hearing and indicated to me that his remarks were the first they had heard of the incidents! So, the hearing apparently set off an incident-response exercise -- separate from responding to my presence in the building, that is. grin

Will this hearing make a difference? I don't know. I've been testifying and saying the same things for over a dozen years (this was my 8th Congressional hearing testimony) and things haven't gotten that much better...and may even be worse. Senator Rockefeller has indicated he intends to introduce legislation supporting more funding for students studying cyber security issues. There was some good news coverage of all this (e.g., FCW and CNet).

I am told that there will be more hearings by this committee. Some House committees have been holding hearings too, and the President's 60 day review continues apace. The added attention is great, but with the sudden interest by so many, the result may be more confusion rather than resolution.

Stay tuned.

As a reminder, if you want to know about my occasional postings such as this but don't want to subscribe to the RSS feed,  you can subscribe to the mailing list.

Also as a reminder, there is my tumble blog on security issues, with links to items on the news and WWW of possible interest to those who find my ramblings and rants of interest.

Spaf Gets Interviewed

[tags]interview,certification[/tags]I was recently interviewed by Gary McGraw for his Silver Bullet interview series.  He elicited my comments on a number of topics, including security testing, ethical hacking, and why security is difficult.If you like any of my blog postings, you might find the interview of some interest.  But if not, you might some of the other interviews of interest – mine was #18 in the series.

Who is Hacking Whom? [Updated]

[tags]hacking, national security, China, cyber espionage[/tags]
Over the last week or two there have been several news items based on statements and leaks regarding on-going cyber espionage.  For instance, two articles, one in the British Financial Times and another on CNN allege that Chinese agents had successfully broken into systems at the Pentagon resulting in a shutdown of unclassified mail systems.  The London Times had an article on the Chinese Army making preparations for “Cyber War” and in New Zealand an official indicated that government systems had been hacked by foreign agents, implying Chinese involvement.  An article in today’s Christian Science Monitor noted that China has been attacking German and British government sites and industry, and another article in the Asia-Pacific news mentions France and Australia as targets.

Of course, these kinds of stories aren’t new.  There was a story in the Washington Post back in 2005 about alleged Chinese hacking, and another set of stories this past March including one in USA Today,  There seems to be a thread going back to at least 2003, as reported in Time magazine.

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in a classic “Spy vs. Spy” countercharge, a Chinese official complained that their systems had been hacked into and damaged by foreign agents.  That could very well be true, but the timing is such that we should be rather skeptical of these claims.

So, what is really going on?  Well, it probably is the case that few people know the whole, real story—and it is undoubtedly classified within each country where any part of the story is known.  However, there are a few things we know for certain:

  1. Most government agencies and companies around the world use common products—the same products that are so frequently penetrated by criminal hackers and malware.  We have years of evidence that these systems are easy to hack and hard to defend. Furthermore, those systems are often not kept up-to-date with patches because they are mission-critical and patches can break existing applications.
  2. The Chinese have publicly stated that they are pursuing activities in the cyber espionage and warfare arena.  Given the world situation, the US, Brits, Germany, and several other countries are likely targets—not only for political and military espionage, but for economic and technical espionage.  (The Chinese could certainly benefit by stealing plans on how to make lead-free toy coloring and toxin-free toothpaste, for instance. grin
  3. The Chinese are almost certainly not the only country with resources, talent and motives to commit cyber espionage.
  4. It’s possible (sometimes) to trace connections back to particular networks and machines, but it is difficult to know if those are the “final” machines in a chain.  It is even more difficult to determine who is running those machines and whether those individuals are motivated by government orders, criminal intent, or simply a hobbyist’s interest.  All three groups are likely to be interested in access to the kinds of information that appear to be involved in these incidents; in some cases, there may be ties between organized crime and governmental entities, so activities of one benefit the other.

Given those 4 observations, we can be reasonably sure that not all the events being discovered are actually government sanctioned; that not all the actors are being accurately identified; and probably only a fraction of the incidents are actually being discovered.  The situation is almost certainly worse in some ways than implied by the newspaper accounts.

Some of us have been warning about lax cyber security, especially coupled with poorly designed COTS products, for years.  What is surprising is that authorities and the press are viewing these incidents as surprising!

It remains to be seen why so many stories are popping up now.  It’s possible that there has been a recent surge in activity, or perhaps some recent change has made it more visible to various parties involved.  However, that kind of behavior is normally kept under wraps.  That several stories are leaking out, with similar elements, suggests that there may be some kind of political positioning also going on—the stories are being released to create leverage in some other situation.

Cynically, we can conclude that once some deal is concluded everyone will go back to quietly spying on each other and the stories will disappear for a while, only to surface again at some later time when it serves anoher political purpose.  And once again, people will act surprised.  If government and industry were really concerned, we’d see a huge surge in spending on defenses and research, and a big push to educate a cadre of cyber defenders.  But it appears that the President is going to veto whatever budget bills Congress sends to him, so no help there.  And the stories of high-tech espionage have already faded behind media frenzy over accounts about Britney being fat, at least in the US.

So, who is getting violated?  In a sense, all of us, and our own governments are doing some of the “hacking” involved.  And sadly,  that isn’t really newsworthy any more.

Updated 9/14
And here is something interesting from the airforce that echoes many of the above points.

[posted with ecto]