The Wall: Undermining National Security in More Ways Than One

The nation’s longest federal government shutdown continues, along with the debate on the issue that triggered it: a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. While every serious voice agrees on the importance of secure borders, what constitutes effective border defense varies widely. Largely ignored in these discussions: how the financial and emotional impact of the shutdown puts the nation at risk not from external threats, but internal ones.

From the beginning of this shutdown, we’ve heard numerous stories from the ranks of the 800,000 laid off government employees, as well as the massive number of government contractors who are also not getting paid (and won’t get back-pay when this is all over), on social media and in the press about how the shutdown has and will continue to impact them and their families:

“Last week we had soup for dinner and my son asked if it was because we didn’t have money.”

“I’m really worried my landlord will not be happy when I can’t pay my rent.”

A federal employee with diabetes who is running out of insulin “…can’t afford to go to the ER. I can’t afford anything. I just went to bed and hoped I’d wake up,”

These stories point out the precarious financial situation at least part of the nation’s federal workforce faces, not just during the furlough, but on a regular basis. ‘Living paycheck to paycheck’ is a phrase one usually does not associate with college-educated professionals on the General Schedule, which is a signal to the intelligence services of our adversaries that one of the primary means of getting someone to spy for you – Money – is more likely to produce results across a wider spectrum of targets than may have been thought.

Such efforts do not necessarily have to be applied to feds with security clearances; you don’t have to have a clearance to provide information of value to our adversaries. The collection of intelligence about an adversary is often described as akin to building a ‘mosaic’: a lot of little pieces of this and that, no one piece being particularly valuable, assembled over time into a comprehensive picture.

As an example, one of the classic little ‘asks’ that counterintelligence training used to tell you to be wary of is requesting a facility or agency phone book. What harm could that do, right? It’s not even classified. We always have extra and they just go in the trash at the end of the year. Well, you’ve just handed over a list of who does what in your organization, and provided a means to reach them. You’ve also confirmed, or filled in gaps, in an adversary’s knowledge of the organization and what it does.

A modern equivalent? “Hey, I’ve been trying to bid on this contract your agency is putting out. Could you provide me with the email of <a senior defense executive>?” What’s one email address, right? Well, for all the talk of “APT” and “sophisticated” nation-state hacking, phishing is still a leading method of cyber attack. And based on professional experience, the more senior the individual, the less attentive they are to cyber security threats.

With a little more time and effort, one could come up with an extensive list of potential scenarios. None of them have to be obviously linked to security or safety issues that might make a frustrated-but-loyal fed feel suspicious, because that’s the magic of building a mosaic: every little tiny bit helps.

This isn’t exclusively a nation-state-based threat. Contractors with questionable ethics, organized crime, terrorists, or other threat actors could all take advantage of the precarious financial situation Uncle Sam has placed his people in. This is of particular concern in environments where the trustworthiness of the workforce is already questionable.

Federal shutdowns are not new. But this one comes at the end of a string of insults and injuries the federal workforce has had to face in recent years. The most significant of these being the breach of computer systems at the Office of Personnel Management. OPM didn’t just lose personnel records, it lost the background checks and related paperwork for feds with security clearances. To maintain a clearance, one has to re-submit to a background check every few years. Questions about your financial situation will be asked. Investigators will understand what caused people to miss payments or take a ding to their credit scores in the winter of 2018/spring of 2019; but if a missed paycheck sends you into a financial Mariana Trench, that’s going to be an issue. Being in financial straits could cost you your clearance, the loss of which could cost you your job. The real impact of the shutdown for some might not come home to roost for months or years.

The opposite is also true: if the bulk of the workforce took a financial hit, but you managed to come out unscathed, why is that? Everyone assumed Aldrich Ames’ stories about his wife’s family’s wealth were true, until they found out it wasn’t.

How do we deal with this?

Congress and the White House should focus on border security, not a wall per se. While there are places along the U.S.-Mexico border where a literal wall might make sense, we need to apply all the tools and technologies available to us – steel, concrete, sensors, drones, and people – to address the problem. People want a check on illegal immigration, the form that check takes is less important than the fact that it exists, and is functional.

A comprehensive study of the federal pay scale. No one joins the gov’t to get rich, but if the financial troubles of the workforce are as deep and wide-spread as the media would have us believe, is that a function of a whole lot of people living beyond their means, or are we really not paying people a livable, much less market, wage? Its ‘federal service’ not ‘federal servitude.’

If you’re a fed, particularly one with a clearance, maybe don’t talk to reporters or get on social media to discuss your plight. This is not the old days: identifying the missives of potential targets is neigh on trivial to actors like Russia and China (especially if they have your OPM file and SF-86 paperwork). And while no one thinks they’re the one who is going to sell out their country to pay the mortgage, under the right conditions, anyone can be pressured to do a little, seemingly innocuous thing, that could contribute to serious damage down the road.

/* Full credit and extensive thanks to Freshman, who came up with the idea for this post and was instrumental in its creation. */

Cyber Stars

/* Warning: Extensive over-use of the word “cyber” ahead. */


The other day my old friend and colleague Bob Gourley Tweeted:

Random thought: There are 24 four-star flag officers in the U.S. military. Every 4 star I have ever met is really smart. But only one of those 24 has real cyber war experience, and he is retiring soon. How do we change that for the better?

My friendly, snarky-a** response at the time was:

First: Get a time machine

The services have had “cyber” components for several years now, and the US Cyber Command has been active since 2009. But a military officer could have been exposed to what we would recognize as the cyber mission these days at roughly the turn of the century. For the sake of discussion let’s say this was their first assignment out of training. The average amount of time officers spend at various ranks breaks down something like this:

Rank / Time in Service


2nd Lieutenant / 1 year

1st Lieutenant / 1.5 years

Captain / 4 years

Major/ 10 years

Lieutenant Colonel/ 16 years

Colonel/ 22 years


So if our notional lieutenant started her career in cyber in ‘99, she attended all the right schools, got sufficient command time, and punched all her staff assignment tickets, she might be a G2 (chief intelligence officer) or battalion commander. If she was a “rock star” she may have received several “below the zone” promotions (getting advanced ahead of her peers) and might even be looking at colonel in the very near future.


Time in service doesn’t mean time spent doing the job. The first 4-6 years of an officer’s career is learning the ropes. It is probably when they’re the most technically oriented. Once they get a company-level command their life is basically paperwork (and shaking their head ruefully and the shenanigans of the junior enlisted in their charge).

After company command is staff jobs (more paperwork), and higher civilian and military education. Lieutenant colonel is an officer’s next opportunity at command, and where they’re exposed in-depth to sub-disciplines and how to make all those moving parts work as a coherent whole. Then more staff time until colonel, and with luck brigade command.

In 20 years Colonel Duty Bound is a very well-rounded officer, but she has spent less than half of that time actively working the mission.

“But Mike, there were more senior officers who were working the mission back then. The pipeline of experienced cyber offices isn’t so grim.”

True, but you know who I never heard of back then? Paul Nakasone. You know who I did know? Dusty Rhodes (not the other one). “Who?” you ask. Exactly. Then Captain Jay Healey could have been a Colonel by now. Then Lt. Commander Bill Peyton a Rear Admiral. Then Major Marc Sachs a Lieutenant General. My man Bob Gourley could have been an Admiral and running US Fleet Cyber Command by now, but you know what the Navy decided not to do to one of the pioneering officers in the cyber field? Make him a Captain. We’re not lacking in talent, we’re lacking in talent management.

We have been training, equipping, and staffing for the cyber mission – in fits and starts – for over two decades, and yet the cyber career field is still a newborn. To put things into perspective, the Army Air Corps went from biplanes to the B-29 Super Fortress and nascent jet fighters between the ~20 years of its formation and the end of WWII. Moore’s Law indeed.

The various service schoolhouses can turn out 1,000 cyber lieutenants and ensigns a year, but there are still only a handful of flag officer billets for service-level and national-level command in the field. To be successful as warfighters in the information age, we have to ensure that “cyber” is an element within every career field. As odd as this sounds, we can’t treat technology, the use thereof, and the associated risks and threats to same, as something special. Everyone has to know something about it. Everyone has to be responsible for it to some degree. Every commander at every level in every career field needs to know what cyber can do for them (and if they’re not careful what it can do to them and their ability to execute the mission).

Success is a constellation, not a supernova.

The Global Ungoverned Area

There are places on this planet where good, civilized people simply do not voluntarily go, or willingly stay. What elected governments do in safer and more developed parts of the world are carried out in these areas by despots and militias, often at terrible cost to those who have nowhere else to go and no means to go if they did.

Life online is not unlike life in these ungoverned areas: anyone with the skill and the will is a potential warlord governing their own illicit enterprise, basking in the spoils garnered from the misery of a mass of unfortunates. Who is to stop them? A relative handful of government entities, each with competing agendas, varying levels of knowledge, skills, and resources, none of whom can move fast enough, far enough, or with enough vigor to respond in-kind.

Reaping the whirlwind of apathy

Outside of the government, computer security is rarely something anyone asks for except in certain edge cases. Security is a burden, a cost center. Consumers want functionality. Functionality always trumps security. So much so that most people do not seem to care if security fails. People want an effective solution to their problem. If it happens to also not leak personal or financial data like a sieve, great, but neither is it a deal-breaker.

At the start of the PC age we couldn’t wait to put a computer on every desk. With the advent of the World Wide Web, we rushed headlong into putting anything and everything online. Today online you can play the most trivial game or fulfill your basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, all at the push of a button. The down side to cyber-ing everything without adequate consideration to security? Epic security failures of all sorts.

Now we stand at the dawn of the age of the Internet of Things. Computers have gone from desktops to laptops to handhelds to wearables and now implantables. And again we can’t wait to employ technology, we also can’t be bothered to secure it.

How things are done

What is our response? Laws and treaties, or at least proposals for same, that decant old approaches into new digital bottles. We decided drugs and povertywere bad, so we declared “war” on them, with dismal results. This sort of thinking is how we get the Wassenaar Agreement applied to cybersecurity: because that’s what people who mean well and are trained in “how things are done” do. But there are a couple of problems with treating cyberspace like 17th century Europe:

  • Even when most people agree on most things, it only takes one issue to bring the whole thing crashing down.
  • The most well-intentioned efforts to deter bad behavior are useless if you cannot enforce the rules, and given the rate at which we incarcerate bad guys it is clear we cannot enforce the rules in any meaningful way at a scale that matters.
  • While all the diplomats of all the governments of the world may agree to follow certain rules, the world’s intelligence organs will continue to use all the tools at their disposal to accomplish their missions, and that includes cyber ones.

This is not to say that such efforts are entirely useless (if you happen to arrest someone you want to have a lot of books to throw at them), just that the level of effort put forth is disproportionate to the impact that it will have on life online. Who is invited to these sorts of discussions? Governments. Who causes the most trouble online? Non-state actors.

Roads less traveled

I am not entirely dismissive of political-diplomatic efforts to improve the security and safety of cyberspace, merely unenthusiastic. Just because “that’s how things are done” doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to get us where we need to be. What it shows is inflexible thinking, and an unwillingness to accept reality. If we’re going to expend time and energy on efforts to civilize cyberspace, let’s do things that might actually work in our lifetimes.

  • Practical diplomacy. We’re never going to get every nation on the same page. Not even for something as heinous as child porn. This means bilateral agreements. Yes, it is more work to both close and manage such agreement, but it beats hoping for some “universal” agreement on norms that will never come.
  • Soft(er) power. No one wants another 9/11, but what we put in place to reduce that risk, isn’t The private enterprises that supply us with the Internet – and computer technology in general – will fight regulation, but they will respond to economic incentives.
  • The human factor. It’s rare to see trash along a highway median, and our rivers don’t catch fire Why? In large part because of the crying Indian. A concerted effort to change public opinion can in fact change behavior (and let’s face it: people are the root of the problem).

Every week a new breach, a new “wake-up call,” yet there is simply not sufficient demand for a safer and more secure cyberspace. The impact of malicious activity online is greater than zero, but not catastrophic, which makes pursuing grandiose solutions a waste of cycles that could be put to better use achieving incremental gains (see ‘boil the ocean’).

Once we started selling pet food and porn online, it stopped being the “information superhighway” and became a demolition derby track. The sooner we recognize it for what it is the sooner we can start to come up with ideas and courses of action more likely to be effective.

/* Originally posted at Modern Warfare blog at CSO Online */

The Wolf is Here

For decades we’ve heard that iCalamity is right around the corner. For decades we’ve largely ignored pleas to try and address computer security issues when they are relatively cheap and easy, before they got too large and complicated to do at all. We have been living a fairy tale life, and absent bold action and an emphasis on resiliency, it only gets grim(m)er going forward.

Reasonably affordable personal computers became a thing when I was in high school. I fiddled around a bit, but I didn’t know that computer security was a thing until I was on active duty and the Morris Worm was all over the news. Between the last time Snap! charted and today, we have covered a lot of ground from a general purpose IT perspective. We’ve gone from HTML and CGI to the cloud. From a security perspective however, we’ll still largely relying on firewalls, anti-virus, and SSL.

Why the disparate pace of progress? People demand that their technology be functional, not secure. Like so many areas of our lives, we worry about the here and now, not the what-might-be. We only worry about risks until a sufficiently horrific scenario occurs, or if one is not enough, until enough of them occur in a sufficiently short period of time.

Of course today we don’t just have to worry about securing PCs. By now it is fairly common knowledge that your car is full of computers, as is increasingly your house. Some people wear computers, and some of us are walking around with computers inside of us. Critical infrastructure is lousy with computers, and this week we learned that those shepherd boys crying ‘wolf’ all those years weren’t playing us for fools, they were just too early.

The fragility of our standard of living is no longer the musings of Cassandras. The proof of concept was thankfully demonstrated far, far away, but the reality is we’re not really any safer just because ‘merica. Keeping the lights on, hearts beating, and the water flowing is a far more complex endeavor than you find in the commodity IT world. It is entirely possible that in some situations there is no ‘fix’ to certain problems, which means given various inter-dependencies we will always find ourselves with a Damoclean sword over our heads.

Mixed mythologies notwithstanding, the key to success writ large is insight and resiliency. The more aware you are of what you have, how it works, and how to get along without it will be critical to surviving both accidents and attacks. I would like to think that the market will demand both functional and secure technology, and that manufacturers will respond accordingly, but 50 years of playing kick the can tells me that’s not likely. The analog to security in industrial environments is safety, and that’s one area power plants, hospitals, and the like have down far better than their peers in the general purpose computing world. We might not be able to secure the future, but with luck we should be able to survive it.

Intelligence Agencies Are Not Here to Defend Your Enterprise

If there is a potentially dangerous side-effect to the discovery of a set of 0-days allegedly belonging to the NSA it is the dissemination of the idea, and credulous belief of same, that intelligence agencies should place the security of the Internet – and commercial concerns that use it – above their actual missions. It displays an all-too familiar ignorance of why intelligence agencies exist and how they operate. Before you get back to rending your hair and gnashing your teeth, let’s keep a few things in mind.

  1. Intelligence agencies exist to gather information, analyze it, and deliver their findings to policymakers so that they can make decisions about how to deal with threats to the nation. Period. You can, and agencies often do, dress this up and expand on it in order to motivate the workforce, or more likely grab more money and authority, but when it comes down to it, stealing and making sense of other people’s information is the job. Doing code reviews and QA for Cisco is not the mission.
  2. The one element in the intelligence community that was charged with supporting defense is no more. I didn’t like it then, and it seems pretty damn foolish now, but there you are, all in the name of “agility.” NSA’s IAD had the potential to do the things that all the security and privacy pundits imagine should be done for the private sector, but their job was still keeping Uncle Sam secure, not Wal-Mart.
  3. The VEP is an exercise in optics. “Of course we’ll cooperate with your vulnerability release program,” says every inter-agency representative. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with our mission,” they whisper up their sleeve. Remember in every spy movie you ever saw, how the spooks briefed Congress on all the things, but not really? That.
  4. 0-days are only 0-days as far as you know. What one can make another can undo – and so can someone else. The idea that someone, somewhere, working for someone else’s intelligence agency might not also be doing vulnerability research, uncovering exploitable conditions in popular networking products, and using same in the furtherance of their national security goals is a special kind of hubris.
  5. Cyber security simply is not the issue we think it is. That we do any of this cyber stuff is only (largely) to support more traditional instruments and exercises of national power. Cyber doesn’t kill. Airstrikes kill. Snipers kill. Mortars kill. Policymakers are still far and away concerned with things that go ‘boom’ not bytes.In case you haven’t been paying attention for the past 15 years, we’ve had actual, shooting wars to deal with, not cyber war. 

I have spent most of my career being a defender (in and out of several different intelligence agencies). I understand the frustration, but blaming intelligence agencies for doing their job is not helpful. If you like living in the land of the free its important to note that rules that would preclude the NSA from doing what it does merely handicaps us; no one we consider a threat is going to stop looking for and exploiting holes. The SVR or MSS do not care about your amicus brief. The Internet is an important part of our world, and we should all be concerned about its operational well-being, but the way to reduce the chance that someone can crack your computer code is to write better code, and test it faster than the spooks can.

The Airborne Shuffle in Cyberspace

I did my fair share supporting and helping develop its predecessor, but I have no special insights into what is going on at CYBERCOM today. I am loathe to criticize when I don’t know all the details, still I see reports like this and scratch my head and wonder: why is anyone surprised?

Focus. If you have to wake up early to do an hour of PT, get diverted afterwards to pee in a cup, finally get to work and develop a good head of steam, only to leave early to go to the arms room and spend an hour cleaning a rifle, you’re not going to develop a world-class capability in any meaningful time-frame. Not in this domain. Not to mention the fact that after about two years whatever talent you’ve managed to develop rotates out and you have to start all over again.

Speed. If you have to call a meeting to call a meeting, and the actual meeting can’t take place for two weeks because everyone who needs to be there is involved in some variation of the distractions noted above, or TDY, you have no chance. It also doesn’t help that when you manage to have the meeting you are forced to delay decisions because of some minutia. You’re not just behind the power curve, you’re running in the opposite direction.

Agility. If your business model is to train generalists and buy your technology…over the course of several years…you are going to have a hard time going up against people with deep expertise who can create their own capabilities in days. Do we need a reminder inhow effective sub-peer adversaries can be against cutting edge military technology? You know what the people attacking SWIFT or major defense contractors aren’t doing? Standing up a PMO.

The procurement and use of tanks or aircraft carriers is limited to the military in meat-space, but in cyberspace anyone can develop or acquire weapons and project power. Globally. If you’re not taking this into consideration you’re basically the 18th Pomeranians. Absent radical changes no government hierarchy is going to out-perform or out-maneuver such adversaries, but it may be possible to close the gaps to some degree.

Focus. You should not lower standards for general purpose military skills, but in a CONUS, office environment you can exercise more control over how that training is performed and scheduled. Every Marine a rifleman, I get it, but shooting wars are relatively rare; the digital conflict has been engaged for decades (and if your cyber troops are hearing shots fired in anger, you’ve probably already lost).

Speed. Hackers don’t hold meetings, they open chat sessions. Their communication with their peers and partners is more or less constant. If you’re used to calling a formation to deliver your messages orally, you’re going to have to get used to not doing that. Uncomfortable with being glued to a screen – desktop or handheld? You’re probably ill-suited to operate in this domain.

Agility. You are never going to replicate ‘silicon valley’ in the DOD without completely disrupting DOD culture. The latter is a zero-defect environment, whereas the former considers failures to be a necessary part of producing excellence. You cannot hold company-level command for 15 years because its the job you’re best suited to; you can be one of the world’s best reverse engineers for as long as you want to be. What is “normal” should mean nothing inside an outfit like CYBERCOM.

Additional factors to consider…

Homestead. If you get assigned to CYBERCOM you’re there for at least 10 years. That’s about 20 dog years from the perspective of the domain and related technology experience, and it will be invaluable if you are serious about effective performance on the battlefield.

Lower Rank/Greater Impact. Cyberspace is where the ‘strategic corporal’ is going to play an out-sized role. At any given moment the commander – once their intent is made clear – is the least important person in the room.

Bias for Action. In meat-space if you pull the trigger you cannot call back the bullet. If your aim is true your target dies. In cyberspace your bullets don’t have to be fatal. The effect need only be temporary. We can and should be doing far more than we apparently are, because I guarantee our adversaries are.

“Cyber MAD” is a Bad Idea. Really Bad.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but nothing screams “legacy future” like trying to shoe-horn cold-war thinking into “cyber.” This latest attempt doesn’t disappoint (or maybe it does, depending on how you look at it) because it completely miss two key points:

  1. Cyberspace is not meat-space;
  2. Digital weapons are nothing like atomic ones.

Yes, like the nuclear arms race, it is in fact more expensive to defend yourself than it is to attack someone. Generally speaking. Its OK to paint with a broad brush on this point because so many entities online are so woefully inadequate when it comes to defense that we forget that there are actually some who are quite hard and expensive to attack. Any serious colored-hat who is being honest will tell you that they deal with more than their fair share of unknowns and ‘unknown unknowns’ when going after any given target.

But unlike malicious actions in cyberspace, there is no parsing nuclear war. You’re nuked, or you’re not. Cyber-espionage, cyber-crime, cyber-attack…all indistinguishable in all technically meaningful ways. Each has a different intent, which we are left to speculate about after-the-fact. In the other scenario, no one is around to speculate why a battalion of Reds turned their keys and pushed their buttons.

Attacker identity is indeed important whether you’re viewing a potential conflict through nuclear or digital lenses, but you know what excuse doesn’t work in the nuclear scenario? “It wasn’t me.”

Um, IR burn says it was…

There is no such equivalent in cyberspace. You can get close – real close – given sufficient data and time, but there will be no Colin Powell-at-the-UN-moment in response to a cyber threat because “it wasn’t me” is a perfectly acceptable excuse.

But we have data.

You can fabricate data

You know what you can’t fabricate? Fallout.

All of this, ALL OF THIS, is completely pointless because if some adversary had both the will and the wherewithal to attack and destroy our and just our critical infrastructure and national security/defense capabilities via cyber means…what are we meant to strike back with? Who are those who happen to be left unscathed supposed to determine who struck first? I was not a Missileer, but I’m fairly certain you can’t conduct granular digital attribution from the bottom of an ICBM silo.

What is the point of worrying about destruction anyway? Who wants that? The criminals? No, there is too much money to be made keeping systems up and careless people online. The spies? No, there is too much data to harvest and destruction might actually make collection hard. Crazy-bent-on-global-domination types? This is where I invoke the “Movie Plot Threat” clause. If the scenario you need to make your theory work in cyberspace is indistinguishable from a James Bond script, you can’t be taken seriously.

MAD for cyberspace is a bad idea because its completely academic and does nothing to advance the cause of safety or security online (the countdown to someone calling me “anti-intellectual” for pointing out this imperial nudity starts in 5, 4, 3….). MAD, cyber deterrence, all this old think is completely useless in any practical sense. You know why MAD and all those related ideas worked in the 60s? Because they dealt with the world and the problem in front of them as it was, not how they wished it to be.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more and do more differently in order to make cyberspace a safer and more secure environment. I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. I’m even willing to bet there is a period of history that would provide a meaningful analog to the problems we face today, but the Cold War isn’t it.

Dust off Khrushchev while we’re at it

Kissinger’s call for detente would make a lot more sense if the analog to “cyber” was the cold war, MAD, etc.

It is not.

I have a lot of respect for the former SECSTATE, but to be mildly uncharitable, he doesn’t really have a lot to add to this discussion. None of his cold war ilk do. “Cyber” is pretty much the closest thing to a perfect weapon anyone has seen in history (you can claim “it wasn’t me!” and no one can prove definitively otherwise in a meaningful time frame). Proposed solutions that ignore or give short shrift to this basic fact are a colossal waste of time, which is all cold war retreads have at this point. No one who can use “cyber” as a meaningful weapon for intelligence or combative activities is going to surrender one byte of capability. No security regime that has been proposed stands up to a modicum of scrutiny once the most basic, practical issues are raised. We need to hear proposals that have at least one foot rooted in reality because the threat is here and now; ideas whose success depends on a world that doesn’t currently exist and is unlikely to (did I mention no one in their right might would give up capability? I did, good) are consuming cycles we could be using to come up with something practical.

Turn Away from the (Fulda) Gap

Former DIRNSA/DNI McConnell is right in his assessment of the state of cyber conflict and the US’s disposition, but like so many of his generation he defaults to what he knows best and supposes we can secure the future if we look to the past. That would be great if the present, much less the future, were reflective of anything like the past so many cold warriors are familiar with. It is natural to try and frame current situations into familiar constructs, but the utility of such thinking ends in the classroom or salon: legacy futures will get us nowhere.

Reducing the impact of cyber conflict through deterrence (as it is commonly portrayed) and the sharing of information are admirable goals; ones we’ve been trying to accomplish without significant results for years.

Attribution requires a level of effort so massive and onerous the only way to make it fast and easy is to re-engineer how the Internet works and the government’s access to the necessary mechanisms. That is a task that is anything but fast or easy or more importantly: cheap. Barring a combination technical-legal breakthrough that is free, global in scope and universal in acceptance, attribution isn’t happening. No attribution, no deterrence (in a traditional sense).

The point of deterrence is to make an attack unthinkable. “Unthinkable” means a lot more when the threat is atomic vice digital. Government systems are attacked regularly; so are the systems of the private firms that support defense and intelligence work. There are only a few entities worldwide that can make use of the information that is stolen from targeted systems, so we have attribution in a meta sense, and justification to act in a meta fashion. Let me know how that strongly worded demarche goes over.

Public-Private partnerships are a great idea. We’ve got ISACs for just that purpose, but what have they done in any practical sense? Neither side is as open as they could or should be, no one talks about anything new. The NSA is a great national resource for critical industries that rely on a stable and secure cyberspace to operate, but no one is going to trust the assurance side of the NSA as long as it is tied to the snooping part. The reasons for keeping the agency’s two directorates together are strong, but the reasons for splitting them apart are more compelling (more on that in a separate venue).

It’s one thing to have an international agreement in place, but its folly to think that the most dangerous threats to a nation’s ability to operate in cyberspace would a) adhere to any regime they signed or b) would show up at the negotiating table in the first place. The most dangerous people in cyberspace – those who can and do actually use their weapons – don’t salute a flag, hold sovereign territory, or sign international agreements. For all the time, money and energy put forth trying to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the world is surprisingly full of new nuclear powers (and those that belligerently aspire to achieve such status). Viewed through such a lens, every computer science department in every university is a weapons lab, every professor a national security resources that must be sequestered in Naukograds. Talk about unworkable.

It would be great if safety and security in cyberspace were a notional physics experiment where all the important factors are negligible and controllable, but it’s not, so the only real solutions are the practical ones. The way forward in securing cyberspace is not deterring threats, its making threats irrelevant.

Cyberspace is a construct with physical underpinggings. As long as those underpinnings are resilient enough to withstand or recover from attacks in a reasonable amount of time, an adversary can attack all day, every day, to no avail. Someone once said the war on terror should continue until terrorism is a nuisance, and so should it be for cyberspace. As someone who has spent a good chunk of his career addressing these issues it almost pains me to say it, but securing cyberspace is less about security as it is about resilience.

Resilience and security are not the same thing. You can try to make sound the same, but they’re just not. The problem is that “security” sells, “resilience” is like continuity of operations, and we all know how that’s viewed. Just look over at the shelf to your left, that gigantic three-ring binder with your COOP plan that has ½” of dust on it. Yeah, guys with resilience on their minds put that together. If anyone gets less respect organizationally than cyber security guys its resilience guys, which is a shame because of the two communities, the one that is more successful is the resilience crowd. Resilience is achievable. It is happening. Backups and hot sites and redundancy in connectivity, etc., etc. all contributes more to making cyber attacks irrelevant than firewalls, intrusion detection systems, or anti-virus software. Of course the latter is sexy, the former tedious grunt work. It’s not call the Comprehensive National Resilience Initiative, but it probably should be.

When you get down to it though, making cyberspace more secure isn’t about the physical, its about the behavioral. Most of the compromises suffered by the US government and the businesses that support national security and defense would go away if we had – early on in the ‘Net’s foray from the governmental to the public/commercial – established, promulgated, and enforced good behavior and safe practices. When BBS sysops ruled the roost, you complied with the rules or you were off-line. In our rush to watch dancing hamsters, participate in the worldwide garage sale, and speed access to nudity, being a good netizen didn’t just take a back seat, it was left in the driveway. No matter how hard we try to educate our respective workforces about cyber security, they’re still the weakest link in the cyber security chain. We loose billions in lost R&D and proprietary information that supports national security, yet we still don’t punish people for their digital sins the same way we would if they had committed the same violation in meat-space. Knowingly violating espionage laws gets you prison; knowingly violating corporate security policy is hardly detected.

That’s a shame because cyber security is the root of national security in the information age. The ability to project physical power means nothing – the trillions we spend on defense a waste – if that power can be made irrelelvent with a few lines of code. That’s all it takes if any one of the millions of moving parts associated with the design, construction, acquisition, and deployment of our first-world weapons platforms is compromised by an adversary. Make no mistake: the chinks in the armor of the military-industrial complex are too numerous to count, much less monitor or secure.

I support wholeheartedly any effort to really make cyberspace a safer and stronger place, but every few years I listen to the same speeches, read the same studies and ‘strategies’ and watch the same budget cycles burn through billions with no discernible  improvement in our security disposition. What I’d like the heavy hitters in the national security arena to do is stop ignoring the recommendations, stop buying the same non-solutions, stop relying on cold warriors, and start acting like they care as much about the ability of an adversary to run arbitrary code on a national security computer as they did nuclear fission occurring over Washington, New York, and Omaha.