Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris Attacks Tighten US Cyber Options

James McFarlin

The drums of war are sounding closer.

The barbaric ISIS Paris attacks of November 13th, preceded by the bombings in Lebanon and take down of the Russian airliner over Egypt on top of more than 770 reported ISIS terrorist attacks from 2013 to the present are the latest acts aimed at destabilizing and ultimately destroying Western civilization.

More attacks are coming. A US security official remarked today that Paris was certainly "not the only action in the ISIS pipeline." In confirmation of that belief, a video released by Islamic State threatens attacks against Germany, London, Washington DC and other US cities,

America faces threats from 'lone wolf' Islamic extremists and - coming soon - threats from attackers arriving in the waves of Syrian refugees scheduled to hit the nation's shores.

But such threats are dwarfed by the potential damage and massive loss of life from cyberattacks against US power and other critical national infrastructure targets.

There is a growing consensus that ISIS cyber threats to the US are increasing and becoming more immediate. Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command, believes such attacks are "much more a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'' during his time in command."

ISIS has been widely recognized for its social media prowess in recruiting, radicalization, training and fundraising. But those actions are just the beginning. John Cohen, a former counter-terrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security, believes that "It is only a matter of time until we start seeing ISIS-type organizations using cyber warfare techniques in a more expanded way."

And with America's near-total dependence on computer networks, it has much more at risk than many other nations, and certainly more than extremist groups, which have little to lose.

What is the US to do to deter such actions? Based on the success of cyberattacks throughout the breadth of America's institutions, from banks and retailers to defense contractors and government agencies, it is evident that existing cyber defense capabilities are not adequately effective.

In a sign of recognition that defensive measures must be supplanted or supported by more aggressive tactics, the US has recently accelerated its move toward increasing its offensive cyber weapons capabilities.

But more than a battle of technologies, cyber defenses are evolving into a battle of wills. With the exception of its Stuxnet computer virus targeting Iran's nuclear program, the US has been reluctant to deploy offensive cyber weapons, citing the possibility of such actions triggering counterattacks.

During such indecision, the risks mount. And for America's future, they are huge. Let's hope it does not take a cyber-9/11 attack to trigger America's resolve to deploy offensive cyber weapons to prevent what can be a major calamity.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Smaller Businesses Under Increasing Cyberattack

The latest data breach investigations study by Verizon showed that 71% occurred in businesses with fewer than 100 employees.

Ensuring data security for smaller firms is increasingly a game of 'risk and consequences.' Cyber criminals want personal and financial data and will strike when they want and how they want to get it. The most common consequences for small firms are financial loss, customer disruption and extensive recovery efforts.

Cybercriminals will take customer or financial records, donor or client information and proprietary business information critical to the success of the business.

Their goal may be schemes such as data theft, extorting payment for returning a computing network to a working state or submitting fake invoices for payment.

The question for many businesses is what to do about these threats. Turning the problem over to IT does not solve the problem. Cybersecurity is a team sport involving technicians, management and employees.

The largest proportion of data breaches occur because employees are either not following established data security procedures or lack such procedures to follow. Both of these vulnerabilities are addressable.

Steps as basic as providing employee training can limit cyber risks substantially. Excellent training courses are available via the Homeland Security website, where vendors such as SANS Institute offer their products.

Training will not be enough to tame cybersecurity exposure unless security becomes part of the culture of the organization, i.e., "This is how we do business."

Risk and consequences. Limit the former or expect the latter.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cyberattacks Have Consequences

James McFarlin

Whether it involves the Office of Personnel Management, the IRS or Department of the Navy, few days go by without news of new cyberattacks against the United States.

Perhaps because there are few examples, little is said about the consequences to the assailants from such attacks.

The Preface of "Aftershock, A Novel" [see image on right] previews a possible scenario of consequences which occur at the highest levels when cyberattack response spins out of control. In today's ever-present cyber-threat environment, this description is worth reading, particularly the foreshadowing presented in the final paragraph. An adaptation:

The early rays of the weak winter sun have yet to seep through the dense morning fog as the first attacks strike San Francisco.

     Power is the first to go, stilling electrical equipment and draping the city in a carpet of darkness. Electric Muni buses stall in the streets. Lacking control signals with which to operate, Southern Pacific trains sit motionless on their tracks. The Bank of America tower, Transamerica Pyramid and other skyscrapers hang over the city like shadowed spires, towering monuments from an age past.

     Attempts to use smart phones yield only the wailing cadence of circuits-busy signals. Land lines, cable and Internet transmissions have vanished as though they never existed, reducing television and computer screens to blank, darkened slates of glass. Only battery-powered devices cling on to their electronic lives, although without connection. It is a world where Internet connections no longer exist.

     Anxious residents cluster in small groups in the streets outside their homes, hands stuffed in jacket pockets for warmth. As to whether they had experienced an earthquake - they thought not. Nor were there claims of having heard explosions. Many clutch laptops, iPads and smart phones, anxiously searching for answers. But answers were not to come.

     The absence of sound envelopes them like a cloak. Conversations turn from nervous banter to speculation, whispers of possibilities, but to no result except to feed a spreading dread of events imagined but not known, growing fears felt but not spoken.

     Residents toss personal belongings into their vehicles and rush to leave the city, only to find bridges and arteries out of San Francisco barricaded by armed squads of National Guardsmen. 

     Growing anxieties are fueled by the sounds of military helicopters and accompanying drones clawing their way over the city like massive birds of prey. Something big, something bad, is happening in the City by the Bay.

     As residents recoil from the shock of the morning's events, 3,000 miles away in the nation's capital an aftershock of infinitely greater magnitude threatens to trigger massive worldwide repercussions in the days to come.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Exploring America's Lack of Cyber Strategy

James McFarlin

The emperor's clothes are coming off. A series of high-profile cyberattacks against government agencies are blasting open the true seriousness of the internal weaknesses in America's lack of cyber preparedness.

And the world is watching the undressing. Articles and commentary in traditional print media to professional journals and blogs are increasingly critical of not only America's cyber weaknesses but its lack of seriousness in addressing the issue.

The recent Wall Street Journal article "We're Losing the Cyber War" addresses years of Obama administration passivity in the face of repeated digital attacks. The Office of Personnel Management attack, in which 18 million or more federal employee employment records, including security clearances, is a case in point. While the data loss is calamitous in its own right, the lack of responsibility shown by the agency's management can only be viewed as arrogant, and lacking responsibility.

OPM director Katherine Archuleta, in a Senate hearing investigating this loss, stated "I don't believe anyone is personally responsible. If there is anyone to blame it is the perpetrators." This display of self-defiance was offered with a straight face in spite of the fact that the OPM Inspector General's office had warned the agency for more than three years of its widespread cyber defense weakness, warnings that largely went unheeded.

Perhaps feeling pressured by this attack as well as network breaches in the Internal Revenue Service, Department of State, US Army, and others, the White House then issued a directive for agencies to plug their gaping holes in cybersecurity. A "30-day "cyber sprint" was initiated, where agencies were ordered to shore up their defenses. This in spite of the fact that they had largely failed to do so for years.

At least two thoughts come to mind here. The first is the absolute naivete of this exercise, which has been described as everything from a smokescreen to hype to a hail Mary. The second: Where have these priorities been? House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), stated "The cyber race started fifteen years ago," and that this action was "coming too late" to be effective.

We face a serious national security threat from the cyber realm. When will this be taken seriously? Lee Hamilton, co-author of the 9/11 Commission Report, perhaps stated our problem best. In an update to that report issued on September 11, 2014, he said: "One of the problems in 9/11 was the lack of imagination of the terrorist threat facing us. Let's not make that same mistake in the cyber realm."

Seems as though we did that undressing some time ago.

Friday, June 26, 2015

OPM Data Breach Symptomatic of US Cyber Weaknesses

James D. McFarlin

The list of recent breaches of U.S. government agencies is long and includes organizations such as the Department of Defense, US Army, Securities Exchange Commission, Postal Service, IRS, even the White House.

Reported reasons for the success of these breaches vary but follow repeatable patterns which include unheeded warnings. antiquated legacy software, management denial, lack of accountability and lax cybersecurity operating procedures.

Protecting critical data such as taxpayer records should be a primary priority. Yet in the IRS - which recently had more than 100,000 personal tax returns stolen - employees have been allowed to follow weak security practices, including using passwords such as "password."

Einstein, the Department of Homeland Security cyber defense system, over a decade and $529 million in the making, has been ineffective in stopping breaches and is already considered outdated technology according to former DHS lawyer Gus Colebella.

The government agency cybersecurity failures are widespread. According to Sen. John Boozman (R., Ark.) at a recent hearing, "Office of Personnel Management is just the most recent example of the government's systemic failure to protect itself."

The OPM breach, in which at least 18 million personnel records of former and current government employees, including their security clearance applications, were stolen is a prime example of cyber security gone missing.

According to the New York Times, the OPM inspector general has issued warnings to the agency since 2010 over its lax cybersecurity, even describing the organization's computer security as a "Chinese hacker's dream."

But in a stunning display of bravado, OPM director Katherine Archuleta declined to take any responsibility for the breaches, instead laying the blame totally on China. In spite of calls by congressional committee members for her dismissal, Obama stood behind her, making it clear her job was secure no matter what.

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who served both as director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, knows a thing or two about cybersecurity. Hayden recently said this about the OPM breach: "This is not shame on China. This is shame on us for not protecting that kind of information. This is a tremendously big deal. And my deepest emotion is embarrassment."

In a typical 'lead from behind' response, on June 12th the White House directed all federal agencies to take a series of swift measures to "lock down" government systems against cyberattack. U.S. chief information officer Tony Scott even launched what he is calling a "30-day cybersecurity sprint."

To comply with this directive, agencies will reportedly be undertaking steps that many - including OPM chief Archuleta - have said have not been possible over even a period of years. Such efforts, besides being ludicrous at their very core are merely more administration window dressing and doomed to failure.

Until cybersecurity is taken seriously by this administration, the embarrassment expressed by Gen. Hayden will continue for us all. Except those in the White House, of course, where deniability and lack of accountability reign supreme.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

America's Passive-Aggressive Cyber Stance

James D. McFarlin

In the years since WWII, America has protected its national interests and supported its allies through projecting power across the globe in the four domains of land, sea, air and space.

But in today's newer, fifth domain of cyberspace, America projects a confusing passive-aggressive posture that neither deters its aggressors or comforts its allies.

The picture of U.S. proactive cyber intelligence posture has been stripped and hung out in full disclosure via the National Security Agency documents misappropriated by Edward Snowden, currently encamped and employed in Russia. In terms of setting the U.S. on its heels in cyberspace, president Vladimir Putin could not have created a more savory scenario had he designed it himself. Or perhaps he did.

Snowden's headline-grabbing depiction of America's cyber information-gathering activities was a gift to Islamic terrorist regimes of monumental proportions. New communications codes and channels were set. Revised methods for avoiding U.S. intelligence surveillance were put into effect. All flashed into immediate use, most likely via U.S. social media tools such as Instagram and Twitter.

News of U.S. intelligence actions enraged some of America's European allies, in particular those who felt they were on the receiving end of espionage activities best designed for use against potential assailants. Additionally, U.S. tech firms rushed to distance themselves from involvement, seeking to protect their own global business interests,

However, in protecting its own interests, the level of U.S. inaction is a paradox. 

Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars of intellectual property, including advanced weapons systems plans, are stolen by China's cyber military groups. In 2014, nearly 525 million personal and financial records were stolen from U.S. institutions by Russian and other cyber crime syndicates. More than 80 million personal records were appropriated from Anthem Health alone.

The latest heist? From the files of the Internal Revenue Service. This theft is in spite of the fact that the IRS has been warned for years over their lax and ineffective cyber security procedures. The IRS response? Those American citizens who had their tax records stolen were offered a free year of credit monitoring, so they could be informed - after the fact - when their identities were used to establish lines of credit, obtain loans, or perhaps open credit and debit card accounts.

The U.S. inexplicably allows attacks on American corporate, military and government networks to occur without retribution. Further, this posture is not expected to change. In a presentation at Stanford University in April on the Department of Defense 2015 National Cyber Strategy, defense secretary Ashton Carter informed private enterprise that as far as cyber security is concerned, "You are on their own."

This lack of commitment to cyber defense is poised to take a further fall. On June 1, the provisions of the post-9/11 Patriot Act setting up the monitoring of telephone call metadata for tracking terrorist activity are expiring. These protections do not appear to have the support in congress or the White House for renewal.

The lapse of these measures places America's intelligence agencies in the defensive position of relying on third party telephone companies and a panel of judges to provide information on potential threats against the United States. According to national security experts, such limitations seriously degrade U.S. national defense capabilities.

Where can this path lead? Although the security of the post-WW II world has vanished from current view, our future may already be written.

Following 9/11, U.S. intelligence agencies were widely faulted for not collecting the proper information, "not connecting the dots," to prevent the attacks. Thomas Keane and Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, published an update to their original report, fittingly, on September 11, 2014. They stated the following:

       "One lesson from 9/11 is that we didn't awaken to the gravity of the 
        terrorist threat until it was too late. We must not repeat that mistake 
        in the cyber realm."

How short must our memories be?

Monday, May 4, 2015

EMP and Cyber: Twin Threats but Not Twin Risks

It has been an enlightening but disturbing two weeks on the subject of threats posed by electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) and cyber attacks to America's critical national infrastructure.

In the case of cyber, Defense secretary Ash Carter's April 22nd release of the "DOD CYBER STRATEGY" for 2015 outlines the DoD priorities and responsibilities to the American homeland in the case of cyber conflict.

The stated strategy makes clear that the DoD's primary duty is to defend its own networks, with the objective of keeping its communications necessary for warfare operations intact.

Protection of critical U.S. infrastructure, ninety percent of which is operated by the private sector, receives secondary importance and little detail in the report, which states: "The majority of [private sector] intrusions can be stopped through cybersecurity investments that companies can and must make themselves."

In other words, in case of a crippling national cyber attack, the private sector must plan on fending for itself.

The threats posed by an EMP attack were well chronicled in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on May 1st by Amb. Henry Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and Peter Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

The article describes that "An EMP attack, most likely from the detonation of a nuclear weapon in space, would destroy unprotected military and private sector electronics nationwide, blacking out the electric grid for months or years."

The authors point out that such an event would cause widespread death from hunger, disease and social disruption that by some estimates could reach ninety percent of the U.S. population.

Society would crash to a halt. No highways filled with speeding automobiles; no jet trails arching across the morning sky; no brightly-lit skyscrapers, just dark, towering hulks of glass and steel.

In examining this threat, it is important to keep in mind that desire does not equal capability. North Korea or Iran, for example, may have the desire to inflict widespread damage to the U.S., but neither reportedly holds the missile or miniaturized nuclear weapons capability to conduct such an attack.

Nor does capability equal action. U.S.satellites would know the source of any nuclear-caused EMP attack on the United States. Retribution would be expected to be harsh and immediate, likely critically injuring or destroying the assailant.

In contrast, cyber attacks present a different and arguably even more dangerous level of risk.

Due to inherent attribution difficulties, 'false flag' attack capabilities, increasingly-procurable cyber weapons and an inherently larger universe of potential assailants, mounting a counterattack on the true offending party can be a tricky and imprecise exercise. Counterattacking the wrong party would only amplify and worsen an already dangerous global conflict.

EMP and cyber threats are potentially so damaging that both should be treated with the utmost urgency. But it could be argued that cyber threats present the greatest immediate risk.

Looking ahead, one can hope that a cyber-era deterrent like that between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War will help avoid the consequences either threat.