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Fixing the Federal IT Mess Before it is Too Late

Let us take a headcount of recent events: the attack on the Ukraine’s electric grid, a LinkedIn data dump as a result of a 2012 breach, the information warfare campaign surrounding the US Elections, a peculiar “Google Docs” app involved in a massive spear-phishing campaign, and most recently, another information warfare campaign aimed at the French Elections. Do not forget our “good ole friends”—North Korea, Iran, and Syria, just to mention a few—are well into the cyber game and ready to pounce on the next database which has been left unguarded, unencrypted, and unprepared to thwart an attack.

As the disc jockey says, “and the hits keep on playing!”

Despite increased “cybersecurity talk” since the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach, great strides in Federal IT security improvement are not apparent.

Despite loads of Congressional attention, there is only one piece of credible legislation to show for, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA).

And despite the billions spent on cyber defense measures, we seem to wake up every morning to news of some type of new breach, making it feel like Groundhog Day.

With each new breach, some nation state, cybercriminal, or terrorist group has gotten their hands on our personal information (and that of our spouses, kids, and parents) all in an effort to exploit us further, whether it is a wire transfer scam or an attempted run at the crown jewels of whoever employs us. Coupled with publicly available information that we—and our family, friends, and co-workers, and businesses, services, and not-for-profits—post online, and that which is available through workplace and government listings, seemingly tiny and unrelated pieces of information, once collated, become a powerful weapon for the adversary.

The adversary will not hesitate for one moment to use this information against us should it meet their interests.

We cannot overemphasize this issue enough: spear-phishing and pretexting tactics work and they work extremely well. And government employees are by no means exempt or necessarily protected from these social engineering attacks. Once that email makes it past the firewalls, the spam filters, the anti-virus and the artificial intelligence onto your device (which it can and does), you—and you alone—are the last line of defense.

So why have we been so completely unsuccessful in defending our data? There are enough reasons to numb you:

Silo mentalities of various agencies, groups, and companies;

  • Unsubstantiated hype of vendor strategies designed to work together, but in practice are disjointed;
  • Never-ending shortage of skilled cyber professionals;
  • Perpetual lack of money, time, and attention the issue truly needs;
  • Basic naivety of the user; and
  • A fundamental misunderstanding of issues and terms.

Do people really understand the intricacies and complexities the cybersecurity challenge presents? How much do the US House and Senate really care to understand these intricacies and complexities?

We do not need to spend another year, or election cycle, or decade debating across party lines or through political filters when there are actionable steps that support a unified American interest, regardless of party or ideology.

The country’s most important secrets are at stake. The country’s ability to function relies on these backbone networks. And the country’s inability to find common ground or develop a basic understanding of the challenges—for decades—has gotten us into this mess.

For these reasons, we offer practical and actionable steps to help defend the nation. We offer a five-point plan, much of it easy to implement, but will require effort. We are not asking anyone to move mountains. Rather, we ask those responsible to take the necessary and sufficient steps to move some of the valuables to higher ground.

  • Get all non-essential, non-sensitive, non-confidential, non-classified data to a public or hybrid cloud. This has been done in other government agencies, particularly within the Intelligence Community. Some of the largest companies put tremendous amounts of data in the cloud because it is efficient, cost effective, and safe. An abundant amount of capacity and infrastructure exists to support this transfer, most of it already blessed by FedRAMP, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, a government-wide program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services. This approach is the only feasible way to manage the large amounts of “big data” we continue to produce. Throwing billions of dollars at 30-year old network security systems that should be in “cyber assisting living” or six feet below is just throwing more good money after bad. And we simply do not have money to throw around. This shift to the cloud can be done quickly and efficiently. Will it be worth it? Yes. Will it make data safe? Yes. Are there any caveats? Yes: we need to adopt full-scale Identity and Access Management (IAM) protocols.
  • Institute cloud-based IAM solutions for hybrid clouds and then train the heck out of each employee on the threats of social engineering attacks. Spear-phishing, pretexting, social media policies. All these need attention and mandatory IAM provides a great deal of defensive support. Mandatory multi-factor authorization (it is time to seriously consider incorporation of biometric solutions in order to achieve Triple-Factor Authentication). After IAM, mandatory spear-phishing training, done quarterly, with reporting packages to agency executives charged with keeping their agency’s data secure. Access control, password management, and spear-phishing are the banes of cyber existence. Time to jump all over these issues and put them to bed.
  • Get confidential, non-public, and classified data to a private top secret cloud. The Intelligence Community (IC) and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have been working together since 2013 to build a secure workspace that moves information off legacy networks. The IC is not the only government entity that has valuable data which must be protected.
  • Train leaders and influential persons on the terminology. Improper use does much more harm than good. Like, a lot, of harm. What is the difference between something hacked and something leaked? What is the difference between something stolen and something copied? What is the difference between unauthorized access and authorized access by an unauthorized user? These nuances matter and when decision makers and influential persons misuse terminology, intentionally or not, the result is a conflated problem.
  • Demystify “cybersecurity” and stop the sensationalizing. Some things have been around longer than you think. The word “cyber” has intimidated far too many people and emboldened select others. The word has made some—who really need to be a part of the conversation and solution—shy away from the issue for fear that “cyber” is some “hyper-technical” problem that cannot be solved by a layperson. Conversely, “cyber” has made others feels as though they are the only ones capable to solve this issue—a completely irrational posture—and feel all those who lack their technical prowess are somehow unworthy. This is a team game. Get over it. We all need each other. And stop the hysteria. Yes, there is a serious problem that must be addressed, but loud accusations, waving arms, and misguided statements of effects and capabilities do little.
  • In fact, they play right into the hands of the adversaries. “Information” was not weaponized in 2016. Information has always been weaponized, since ancient times, only the tools have changed. The US was the information dominance global leader throughout the 20th Century, but has weakened over the last three decades. This posture must change in order to succeed. The US must reclaim is dominant position in order to remain the leader of the Free World and to protect its interests.

Are these hard tasks? Some more so than others, particularly the last two, but generally speaking, no, they are not hard to implement and they are achievable. We know, because we have done them before. Segmentation works. Indeed, the more we move data to the cloud, through virtualization and micro-virtualization of cloud-based networks we can “ring fence” our most important data. Education, regardless of pre-existing knowledge level, does wonders when presented in a non-threatening, non-technical, easy-to-understand manner. No easy task, but again, we know it is doable and works. You would be amazed how lightbulbs go off over peoples’ heads when we say “think of cybersecurity like this: network security + information security = data security.” Cybersecurity suddenly seems less threatening.

When should we take action? “Today” is the right answer. Do we have any reason not to take action today? No, apart from our own lackadaisical notion that we are actually good enough to keep out most important data on premises and keep it safe. History (OPM for example) shows we cannot. And recent hacks show that even if we could, we still need to step up our game and move onto next level solutions in addition to the cloud, such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

In a recent Walt Disney movie, the protagonist—played by Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock—told another character, “buck up buttercup!”  The #CyberAvengers have a similar to our government: time to buck up!

We do not need committees upon committees.

We do not need to build anything to support this effort.

We need to just get it done!

In Defense of the United States of America,

The #CyberAvengers

The #CyberAvengers are a group of salty and experienced professionals who have decided to work together to help our country by defeating cybercrime and slowing down nefarious actors operating in cyberspace seeking to exploit whatever their tapping fingers can get a hold of. How?  We do this by raising our collective voices on issues critical importance so that we can keep this great country in the lead— both economically and technologically—and to keep it safe and secure.  All the issues are intertwined and more complex than ever, which is why we have differing backgrounds, but have common cause. We complement each other, we challenge each other, and we educate each other. What do we get out of writing articles like this? Nada. Goose egg. We are friends. We are patriots. And we are not satisfied to sit around and do nothing. We want to keep this nation and its data safe and secure.

The #CyberAvengers are:

Paul Ferrillo, Chuck Brooks, Kenneth Holley, George Platsis, George Thomas, Shawn Tuma, and Christophe Veltsos.


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