Securing the government’s information systems is one of the most important tasks facing the new administration. It is a challenge that agencies have struggled with for over 20 years, and with the increasing complexity of federal networks, it is becoming more difficult. Like their private industry colleagues, agencies are turning to cloud and IoT technologies to increase access and efficiencies. In doing so, they must address the exposure of their entire attack surface, including legacy platforms and these new technologies.
Early White House appointments and a pending executive order demonstrate a focus on accountability and regaining control of government networks.
It takes more than money
The government’s primary weapon in the fight to secure its networks has been money. The recently released budget blueprint includes a proposed $1.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to protect Federal networks and critical infrastructure from attack.
Throwing money at the problem will not solve it
My experience in and observation of cybersecurity efforts has shown that throwing money at the problem will not solve it. It is more important to make cybersecurity a cultural priority first and foremost. Organizations in government or industry which embrace the inherent importance of cybersecurity and exercise good systems and cyber hygiene are orders of magnitude more secure than those that spend more and prioritize less. Organizations and agencies need to understand their exposure and address the problems that have been there for years. Traditional cybersecurity focus on the network perimeter is no longer adequate. Technologies like cloud, IoT and DevOps processes introduce vectors that bypass the perimeter on the way into agencies’ systems and data. If you haven’t picked up on the irony of it, most of the high profile breaches are the result of adversaries exploiting well-known vulnerabilities and exfiltrating sensitive data.
Most high profile breaches are the result of adversaries exploiting well-known vulnerabilities
If network administrators and security professionals do not know their networks, they cannot possibly defend them. Knowing your network means knowing the architectures, systems, protocols, applications, users, data types, and the business and mission processes they support. This simple prerequisite for success gets incredibly challenging when you think about the proliferation of non-traditional compute platforms and processes across the enterprise.
The President is expected to appoint the National Security Agency’s Rob Joyce to handle government cybersecurity policy. Joyce, who heads NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking group, would work under homeland security advisor Tom Bossert, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush.
Joyce, with his hands-on experience in penetrating the networks of adversary nations, brings a great perspective to U.S. cybersecurity. At last year’s 2016 USENIX conference, he explained that there is no magic bullet for attacking or defending a network. The key to successfully attacking a network is “to know it better than the people who designed it and the people who are securing it.” Conversely, the key to defense is to know your own network better than your adversaries.
The key to defense is to know your own network better than your adversaries
Applying this message to U.S. cybersecurity means complete discovery and mapping of networks, identifying all systems and devices and assessing their configuration and security status. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has produced a library of cybersecurity standards and best practices, but this guidance cannot be used until agencies are aware of their networks and can monitor their systems.
Having a cybersecurity advisor in the White House who understands and lives by this will help ensure that agencies properly prioritize their cybersecurity efforts. The final version of the president’s executive order on cybersecurity has not yet been released, but I am encouraged that draft versions would hold agency heads accountable for their cybersecurity. Accountability is a powerful tool for focusing attention on the basics and to deny intruders the opportunity to burrow into our systems. Those of us who work in the commercial sector must also refrain from resting on our laurels. Staying ahead of our adversaries is a shared responsibility for all of us.
As a non-partisan issue, I have confidence that Bossert and Joyce will help bring a new focus to U.S. cybersecurity, and will work constructively with the private sector and government leaders to bring the best intelligence, process and technology to bear on the task of defending our networks.
Continuity and change
The new administration does not have to start from scratch to form its cybersecurity policy. Cybersecurity has been a priority of previous administrations, and despite shortcomings, there have been important contributions that the president and his advisors can build on, including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, the DHS Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program, and the proposed IT Modernization Fund.
Change happens when cybersecurity is elevated to the highest priority in an organization
By building on what works and focusing on the basics of improving the security of our networks, we now have a chance to move government cybersecurity into a new era. Change happens when cybersecurity is elevated to the highest priority in an organization, including government. We must all protect the modern IT landscape, make smart investments in people and technology, improve cooperation, and embrace accountability to succeed.