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 */

Cyber War: The Fastest Way to Improve Cybersecurity?

For all the benefits IT in general and the Internet specifically have given us, it has also introduced significant risks to our well-being and way of life. Yet cybersecurity is still not a priority for a majority of people and organizations. No amount of warnings about the risks associated with poor cybersecurity have helped drive significant change. Neither have real-world incidents that get worse and worse every year.

The lack of security in technology is largely a question of economics: people want functional things, not secure things, so that’s what manufacturers and coders produce. We express shock after weaknesses are exposed, and then forget what happened when the next shiny thing comes along. Security problems become particularly disconcerting when we start talking about the Internet of Things, which are not just for our convenience; they can be essential to one’s well-being.

To be clear: war is a terrible thing. But war is also the mother of considerable ad hoc innovation and inventions that have a wide impact long after the shooting stops. War forces us to make those hard decisions we kept putting off because we were so busy “crushing” and “disrupting” everything. It forces us to re-evaluate what we consider important, like a reliable AND secure grid, like a pacemaker that that works AND cannot be trivially hacked. Some of the positive things we might expect to get out of a cyberwar include:

  • A true understanding of how much we rely on IT in general and the Internet specifically. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, so the song says, and that’s certainly true of IT. You know IT impacts a great deal of your life, but almost no one understands how far it all goes. The last 20 years has basically been us plugging computers into networks and crossing our fingers. Risk? We have no idea.
  • A meaningful appreciation for the importance of security. Today, insecurity is an inconvenience. It is not entirely victimless, but increasingly it does not automatically make one a victim. It is a fine, a temporary dip in share price. In war, insecurity means death.
  • The importance of resilience. We are making dumb things ‘smart’ at an unprecedented rate. Left in the dust is the knowledge required to operate sans high technology in the wake of an attack. If you’re pushing 50 or older, you remember how to operate without ATMs, GrubHub, and GPS. Everyone else is literally going to be broke, hungry, and lost in the woods.
  • The creation of practical, effective, scalable solutions. Need to arm a resistance force quickly and cheaply? No problem. Need enough troops to fight in two theaters at opposite ends of the globe? No problem. Need ships tomorrow to get those men and materiel to the fight? No problem. When it has to be done, you find a way.
  • The creation of new opportunities for growth. When you’re tending your victory garden after a 12 hour shift in the ammo plant, or picking up bricks from what used to be your home in Dresden, it’s hard to imagine a world of prosperity. But after war comes a post-war boom. No one asked for the PC, cell phone, or iPod, yet all have impacted our lives and the economy in significant ways. There is no reason to think that the same thing won’t happen again, we just have a hard time conceiving it at this point in time.

In a cyberwar there will be casualties. Perhaps not directly, as you see in a bombing campaign, but the impacts associated with a technologically advanced nation suddenly thrown back into the industrial (or worse) age (think Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria). The pain will be felt most severely in the cohorts that pose the greatest risk to internal stability. If you’re used to standing in line for everything, the inability to use IT is not a big a deal. If you’re the nouveau riche of a kleptocracy – or a member of a massive new middle class – and suddenly you’re back with the proles, you’re not going to be happy, and you’re going to question the legitimacy of whomever purports to be in charge, yet can’t keep the lights on or supply potable water.

Change as driven by conflict is a provocative thought experiment, and certainly a worst-case scenario. The most likely situation is the status quo: breaches, fraud, denial, and disruption. If we reassess our relationship with cybersecurity it will certainly be via tragedy, but not necessarily war. Given how we responded to security failings 16 years ago however, it is unclear if those changes will be effective, much less ideal.

/* Originally published in CSOonline – Modern Warfare blog */

What Cybersecurity and a Trip to the Dentist Have in Common

It was that time of year again. The day I lie and promise to be good the rest of the year: dental check-up day. During this most recent visit I was struck at how much people treat the security of their computers and accounts in the same way they treat their oral health.

You know what you’re supposed to do, but you don’t do it. “How often do you floss?” the dentist asks us, knowing full well that we’re lying through our bloody gums. If we flossed regularly we wouldn’t have bloody gums. When it comes to security we know we’re supposed to do all sorts of things, like create strong passwords and never re-use them, or lock our screens when we leave our desks, or use two-factor authentication on everything we can. When do we do these things? When a bunch of passwords get stolen and cracked, or when a phish leads to a data breach; the equivalent of flossing like a maniac the night before your annual check-up.

You have tools, but you don’t use them well. Mechanical toothbrushes, water flossers, even the metal tools the hygienist uses to scrape away plaque, are all readily available. When do you use them? You brush in the morning for sure and usually at night. We already know you don’t floss. You bought the Waterpik but it makes such a mess you only use it after corn on the cob or brisket. Likewise, you may run anti-virus software but you’re not diligent about updating it. You delay installing patches because it is inconvenient. You allow Flash and pop-ups and cookies and all sorts of things that could cause problems because who wants to use the web like it’s 1995?

Solutions are rarely permanent. Fillings replace the gap left when a cavity is removed, but eventually fillings can develop cracks. Crowns can come loose. That new IDS or firewall or end-point solution, where there was none, is a significant improvement in your security posture, but there are ways to bypass or undermine every security mechanism, at which point you’re back in the hands of expensive professionals (to fix the problem and/or clean up the mess) and looking at another pricy – and temporary – investment.

You have to get your hands dirty to do the job right. Understanding just what a sorry state your oral health is in means letting someone put their hands in your mouth. They’re spraying water and its splashing on your face. They’re getting their blood on their fingers. Bits of gunk are flying around. Sometimes they have to put you under because what’s necessary would make you scream. There is no such thing as a quick fix to security problems either. You have to attack the problem at the root, and that means blood, sweat, and tears.

These issues don’t exist in a vacuum. Dental health impacts more than just your mouth, and illnesses that impact other parts of your body can impact oral health. Bad or poor security can have a negative impact on your organization in myriad ways, and if your organization doesn’t place a priority on security you’re not going to get the best security capabilities or resources. In both cases you have to view the situation holistically. Just because you have a pretty smile, doesn’t mean you don’t have problems.

 

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.

“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.

Between Preppers and FEMA Trailers

Today, for want of a budget, the Federal government is shutting down. If the nation suffered a massive cyber attack today what would happen? If you think the government is going to defend you against a cyber attack or help you in the aftermath of a digital catastrophe – budget or no budget – think again. The government cannot save you, and you can no more count on timely assistance in the online world as you can in the physical one in the aftermath of a disaster. Help might come eventually, but your ability to fight off hostiles or weather a digital storm depends largely on what you can do for yourself.

The vast majority of the time, natural or man-made disasters are things that happen to someone else. People who live in disaster or storm prone areas know that at any given moment they may have to make due with what they have on hand, consequently they prepare to deal with the worst-case scenario for a reasonable amount of time. The reason you don’t see people in the mountain-west or north-east in FEMA trailers after massive snow or ice storms is a culture of resilience and self-reliance.

How does this translate into the digital world? Don’t efforts like the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative and all the attention foreign state-sponsored industrial espionage has gotten recently belay the idea that the government isn’t ready, willing and able to take action in the face of a digital crisis?

Federal agencies are no better at protecting themselves from digital attack than anyone else. The same tricks that lead to a breach at a bank work against a government employee. Despite spending tens of billions of tax dollars on cyber security we continue to hear about how successful attackers are and that attacks are growing and threatening our economy and way of life. The increasing amount of connectivity in industrial control systems puts us at even greater risk of a disaster because very few people know how to secure a power plant or oil refinery.

It’s not that the government does not want to make the Internet a safer and more secure; it is simply ill-equipped to do so. Industrial-age practices, bureaucracy, a sloth-like pace, its love affair with lobbyists, and its inability to retain senior leaders with security chops means “cyber” will always be the most talked-about also-ran issue in government. You know what issue has shut down the federal government this week? It isn’t “cyber.”

Protect you against threats? What leverage do we really have against a country like China? Cold War approaches won’t work. For one, you’re probably reading this on something made in China; your dad never owned a Soviet-made anything. We cannot implement “digital arms control” or a deterrence regime because there is no meaningful analog between nuclear weapons and digital ones. Trying to retrofit new problems into old constructs is how Cold Warriors maintain relevance; it’s just not terribly useful in the real world.

So what are we to do? Historically speaking, when the law could not keep up with human expansion into unknown territory, people were expected to defend themselves and uphold the rudiments of good social behavior. If someone threatened you on your remote homestead, you needed to be prepared to defend yourself until the Marshal arrived. This is not a call to vigilantism, nor that you should become some kind of iPrepper, but a reflection of the fact that the person most responsible for your safety and security online is you. As my former colleague Marc Sachs recently put it:

“If you’re worried about it, do something about it. Take security on yourselves, and don’t trust anybody else to do it.”

What do you or your business need to survive in the short- and long-term if you’re hacked? Invest time and money accordingly. If computer security is terra incognita then hire a guide to get you to where you want to go and teach you what you need to know to survive once you’re there. Unless you want to suffer through the digital equivalent of life in a FEMA trailer, you need to take some responsibility to improve your resilience and ensure your viability.

How Many Holes in a Gohor Stick?

I’ve never used Palantir. I’ve never used DCGS-A. When I started as an Analyst you (no-shit) used pencil and paper (and a thing called a guhor stick…but that’s a lewd joke for another day). The kerfuffle over Palatir vs. DCGS-A reminds me of the days when computers started making in-roads in analysis shops, and I hope everyone involved can remember some of those lessons learned.

Now my working world in those early days wasn’t entirely computer-free, but back then computers were where you stored data and recorded activity and typed up reports, you didn’t “link” things together and you certainly didn’t draw, graph or do anything anyone coming up in the business today would recognize as computer-oriented.

If there was a quantum leap in the utility computers gave to analysis it was this application called Analyst Notebook. Analyst Notebook would take in the data you had already entered into some other system (assuming you could get it out of said system), and kick out diagrams and pictures that let you make quick sense of who was talking to whom, what happened when, and identify connections or anomalies you may have missed staring into a green screen at row after row, column after column of letters and numbers.

That’s the key here: Analyst Notebook, Palantir, etc. are Analyst’s tools, they are not analysis tools. Is that a distinction without a difference? I’m not aware of any software application that will think on your behalf. I’m not aware of anyone in the military or IC who would trust answers produced entirely by an algorithm and without human interpretation or enhancement. If you could computerize analysis you wouldn’t have a headcount problem in the IC. Analyst Notebook, Palantir, DCGS-A . . . they’re all tools, and if you’ve been working with hand tools all your life and suddenly someone hands you a Skil saw, of course you’re going to think the Skil saw was sent from heaven.

Now, is the government notorious for producing bloated, expensive, minimally functional software that everyone hates to use (when it works at all)? We don’t have time to go into all the examples, but the answer is ‘yes.’ If I offer you tool A OR tool B when you’ve been using tool C, which are you going to choose? Does that make your other choice crap? Of course not.

It sounds to me like if there is a 800 lb gorilla in the room it’s usability, and if there is one thing that commercial apps excel at its the user experience. Think about the Google interface, and then think about a data retrieval system fielded in the 70s, and you tell me what your average analyst would rather use…

If the ultimate requirement is capability, then the answer is simple: hold a shoot-out and may the best app win. Pretty-but-sub-capable isn’t going to cut it; functional-but-frustrating isn’t either. If DCGS-A is all that, they should be big enough to learn from what Palantir does well; If Palantir is really about saving lives and national defense, they ought to be big enough to implement what GIs need most. Competition raises everyone’s game, but this isn’t about .com vs .gov, it’s about lives.

how you make acquisition work for you

The Defense Department’s launch of approved collaboration tools has triggered rapid growth in networked interactions by its uniformed warfighters and civilian personnel, largely because of its unique approach of giving users a choice between two sets of commercially developed services, project officials said.

[…]

The collaborative tools represent DISA’s first attempt to provide a service that is built from commercial applications, as is the approach of offering two sets of side-by-side services developed and provided by separate vendors that compete for the loyalty of individual DOD users, DISA officials said.

The biggest benefit of DISA’s approach is that it removes the burden of creating, launching and managing the services from DOD and places it on the vendors, officials said. It also cuts DOD’s cost considerably because in contracting for the services, the department defined only the functions it needed, not the technical specifications of the services.

Mission First, People Always

Not going to repeat the now well-worn story of Walter Reed-related issues, merely wanted to take a minute to point out a trend and offer up a lesson.

There was a time when, while serving on active duty, the Army just decided to stop paying me. Never did figure out what happened, the checks just stopped coming. I worked through the chain. I trusted it. I accepted the fact that things move slowly in the Army. I waited. I followed up. I waited some more. I exhausted every internal option available to me as I watched my savings dwindle (the chow hall was great, but I still had other bills to pay).  When loan defaults loomed I wrote my Senator who at the time was Army veteran Daniel Inouye.

Roughly 72 hours later I had a check for all my back pay and a line outside my barracks room door of members of my chain of command from battalion-level on down asking if everything was OK, and would I please work through the chain of command to resolve future problems ’cause we really get the heebie jeebies when Senator’s offices call.

The pay problems of one buck sergeant don’t compare to the woes of outpatients at Walter Reed, but this story – and many others any GI will be happy to relate to you – are indicative of the general mindset of those at the top. Nothing is their problem (“If you sloppy GI’s wouldn’t keep food in your rooms there wouldn’t be a rat problem”)  until someone makes it their problem, and that “someone” is never going to be someone they outrank. The operative phrase is “mission first, people always” until people do what people do and then it becomes “people whenever.”

Under different circumstances I’m sure everyone highest levels of Army medicine and the Department of the Army are great folks, but that they responded in typical Army fashion to this situation is beyond shameful. I hope this serves as a lesson for a wider variety of defense and national security leadership: fat lot of good your big initiatives are going to be if you are undone by the little things.