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GUEST ESSAY: Pentagon’s security flaws highlighted in GAO audit — and recent data breach

By Sherban Naum

Being the obvious target that it is, the U.S. Department of Defense presumably has expended vast resources this century on defending its digital assets from perennial cyber attacks.

Related: Why carpet bombing email campaigns endure

And yet two recent disclosures highlight just how brittle the military’s cyber defenses remain in critical areas. By extension these developments are yet another reminder of why constantly monitoring and proactively defending business networks must be a prime directive at all large organizations, public and private.

A U.S.  Government Accountability Office audit last week found that the defense department is playing catch up when it comes to securing weapons systems from cyberattacks.  At an earlier Senate hearing,  GAO auditors described how DoD has failed to adequately address numerous warnings about how the rising use of automation and connectivity in weapons systems also tend to result in a fresh tier of critical vulnerabilities.

And then last Friday, as if to serve as a reminder that even routine security best practices may  not be getting the emphasis they deserve, the Pentagon disclosed how attackers manipulated the account of a third-party vendor to access DoD travel records.

The result: personal information and credit card data of at least 30,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel were compromised.  Don’t be surprised if the number of victims climbs higher, as we learned from the 2015 hack of 21.5 million personnel records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Supply chain gaps

The hacking of DoD travel records raises an important nuance. Five years after hackers broke into Target via its HVAC vendor, it remains as crucial as ever to stay on top of trust decisions about who can gain access to a supply chain, and under what criteria.

Naum

One has to assume that DoD specified certain security controls at the time the contract was awarded to the travel services vendor. …more

GUEST ESSAY: Supply chain vulnerabilities play out in latest Pentagon personnel records breach

By Michael Magrath

It is disheartening, but not at all surprising, that hackers continue to pull off successful breaches of well-defended U.S. government strategic systems.

Related podcast: Cyber attacks on critical systems have only just begun

On Friday, Oct. 12, the Pentagon disclosed that intruders breached Defense Department travel records and compromised the personal information and credit card data of U.S. military and civilian personnel.

The Associated Press, quoting a U.S. official familiar with the matter, reported that the breach could have happened months ago, but was only recently discovered. At this juncture, as many as 30,000 federal employees are known to have been victimized, but that number may grow as the investigation continues.

The Pentagon has since issued a statement conceding that a department cyber team informed leaders about the breach on Oct. 4. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino now says that DoD continues to gather information on the size and scope of the hack, and is attempting to identify the culprits.

It does appear that this is another example of attacks successfully penetrating a weak supply chain link, underscoring the importance of addressing third-party risks.

Third-party risk

Buccino disclosed that authorities are examining a “breach of a single commercial vendor that provided service to a very small percentage of the total population” of Defense Department personnel. …more

MY TAKE: Cyber attacks on industrial controls, operational technology have only just begun

By Byron V. Acohido

“May you live in interesting times.” The old Chinese proverb–some consider it a blessing and others a curse–certainly describes the modern-day cyber landscape.

Related: 7 attacks that put us at the brink of cyber war

In today’s geopolitical terrain, nation-state backed cyber criminals are widening their targets and starting to zero in on their adversaries’ business and industrial sectors, using more and more sophisticated weaponry to do so.

With the bulls-eye on a country’s financial Achilles heel, state-sponsored attackers are sowing chaos, disruption and fear. And the risks are multiplying as more digital devices become connected in insufficiently secured environments.

Monitoring and management of many existing industrial control systems’ (ICS) embedded devices, like pumps, valves and turbines, are ancient in technological terms. And until recently, security surrounding operational technology (OT) – the networks that run production operations – have been siloed, or air-gapped, from information technology (IT) operations, which work in the corporate space. Isolating OT operations from public networks like the internet had once been considered best practice.

Dismantling the silos

But Gartner and others now recommend merging OT and IT security. Convergence of the two in the industrial internet of things (IIoT) makes for better communication and access to online data and processes, but it also flings the door wide open for nefarious activity by cyber criminals. Espionage scenarios that once were the basis of movies and novels now have become real-life exploits.

I talked to Phil Neray, vice president of industrial security at CyberX, a company founded in 2013 that operates a platform for real-time security of the industrial internet.

Read on to learn what Neray has to say about industrial security, then hear a more in-depth discussion on the subject on the accompanying podcast:

As organizations digitize their operations and add more sensors and other devices to the production environment, …more

MY TAKE: The many ways social media is leveraged to spread malware, manipulate elections

By Byron V. Acohido

Remember how we communicated and formed our world views before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, CNN and Fox News?

We met for lunch, spoke on the phone and wrote letters. We got informed, factually, by trusted, honorable sources. Remember Walter Cronkite?

Today we’re bombarded by cable news and social media. And Uncle Walt has been replaced by our ‘friend circles.’

This is well-understood by those with malicious intent and hacking capabilities. And this is why they’ve adopted social media as the go-to platform for spreading malware and propaganda.

Mounir Hahad, Head of Juniper Threat Labs at Juniper Networks, has been studying this development closely. I spoke with Hahad at Black Hat USA 2018. Give a listen to our full conversation on the accompanying podcast. Here are a few takeaways:

Faked social media

It’s human nature to trust people a little more who are in your circle of friends. We’re wired to relax our judgment and click more quickly on items sent by someone we’re familiar with, be it an image, a document, a video clip or a webpage link.

It goes further than that, Hahad argues. He contends that a lot of us tend to more quickly believe the information shared by our circle of friends, and that we often fail to verify and think critically. And this is exactly what Hahad and his team of security analysts observed during the 2016 elections.

“The most publicly visible aspect is swaying voter opinion on certain questions,” he explains. “That has been happening through the fake accounts we know of, through a lot of the fake websites that have been specifically put up to promote certain views, and some of that was to mostly sway discourse.”

The second aspect was less publicized, but it is a technique regularly used in the past to compromise users and businesses. The bad actors went phishing to gain access to candidates’ inner circles, …more

Q&A: The troubling implications of normalizing encryption backdoors — for government use

By Byron V. Acohido

Should law enforcement and military officials have access to a digital backdoor enabling them to bypass any and all types of encryption that exist today?

We know how Vladmir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jung-un  would answer: “Of course!”

Related: Nation-state hacks suggest cyber war is underway

The disturbing thing is that in North America and Europe more and more arguments are being raised in support of creating and maintaining encryption backdoors for government use. Advocates claim such access is needed to strengthen national security and hinder terrorism.

But now a contingent of technology industry leaders has begun pushing back. These technologists are in in full agreement with privacy and civil rights advocates who argue that this is a terrible idea

They assert that the risk of encryption backdoors ultimately being used by criminals, or worse than that, by a dictator to support a totalitarian regime, far outweighs any incremental security benefits. I had an invigorating discussion with Jeff Hudson, CEO of Venafi, about this at Black Hat USA 2018.

Venafi is the leading provider of machine identity protection. Machine to machine connection and communication needs to be authenticated  to access systems, so this technology is where the rubber meets the road, with respect to this debate. For a full drill down, please listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are excerpts edited for clarity and space:

LW: What’s wrong with granting governments the ability to break encryption?

Venafi: It has been established over a long period of time that the minute you put a backdoor in, and you think it’s secure, it almost immediately will fall into the wrong hands. Because it’s there, the bad guys will get to it. This makes backdoors the worst possible things for security.

The government wants to be able to surveil network traffic and They want  backdoors so they can see everything. If they can see all the traffic all the time, they can just sit back and surveil everything. …more

MY TAKE: Poorly protected local government networks cast shadow on midterm elections

By Byron V. Acohido

In March 2018, the city of Atlanta fell victim to a ransomware attack that shut down its computer network. City agencies were unable to collect payment. Police departments had to handwrite reports. Years of data disappeared.

Related: Political propaganda escalates in U.S.

The attack also brought cybersecurity to the local level. It’s easy to think of it as a problem the federal government must address or something that enterprises deal with, but cybersecurity has to be addressed closer to home, as well.

I spoke to A.N. Ananth, CEO of EventTracker, a Netsurion company, about this at Black Hat USA 2018. His company supplies a co-managed SIEM service to mid-sized and large enterprises, including local government agencies.

EventTracker has a bird’s eye view; its unified security information and event management (SIEM) platform includes – behavior analytics, threat detection and response, honeynet deception, intrusion detection and vulnerability assessment – all of which are coupled with their SOC for a co-managed solution. For a drill down on our discussion, give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are key takeaways:

Local risks

Security of local and state government agencies takes on a higher level of urgency as we get closer to the midterm elections.

“State and local governments are not immune to the digital transformation so their dependence on IT is as high as it’s ever been,” says Ananth. “Consequently, the security of these kinds of systems has become paramount.”

If all politics are local, elections are even more so. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, security for elections is in the hands of local election administrators, overseen by the state’s chief election official, but protection has been lacking.

During 2016, 39 states were hacked. At least one state saw an attempt to delete voter rolls; …more

MY TAKE: Here’s how diversity can strengthen cybersecurity — at many levels

By Byron V. Acohido

Of the many cybersecurity executives I’ve interviewed, Keenan Skelly’s career path may be the most distinctive. Skelly started out as a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician. “I was on the EOD team that was actually assigned to the White House during 9/11, so I got to see our national response framework from a very high level,” she says.

Today, Skelly is Vice President of Global Partnerships and Security Evangelist at Circadence®, a distinctive security vendor, in its own right.

Related: How ‘gamification’ makes training stick

Circadence got started in the 1990s as a publisher of one of the earliest massively multiplayer online games. It adapted its gaming systems to help the U.S. military carry out training exercises for real life cyber warfare. That led to a transition into what it is today: a leading supplier of immersive “gamification” training modules designed to keep cyber protection teams in government, military, and corporate entities on their toes.

I met with Skelly at Black Hat USA 2018 and we had a thoughtful discussion about a couple of prominent cybersecurity training issues: bringing diversity into AI systems and closing the cybersecurity skills gap. For a drill down, please listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways:

Diversifying AI

Discussions are underway in the technology sector about how Artificial Intelligence could someday eliminate bias in the workplace, and thus engender a more meritocratic workplace

“We’re starting to see Artificial Intelligence and machine learning in just about every space and every tool,” Skelly observes.

Diversity in emerging AI-infused security systems – or, more specifically, the lack of it – is a rising concern. Here’s why: The experts with the knowledge to tweak the algorithms for automated detection systems, at this moment, comprise a very narrow talent pool. The concern is that this could constrain the development of broadly effective security-focused AI.

“The problem is that if you don’t have a diverse group of people training the Artificial Intelligence, …more