Back to the Basics

A simple strategy for a complex cyber threat.

The cyber threat landscape is changing at a rapid pace. Critical government information technology infrastructure is probed or under attack 24 hours a day, seven days a week by perpetrators of military or economic espionage, cybercrime and cyberwarfare. The number of attacks against federal networks increased nearly 40 percent in 2010, according to a recent White House report to Congress on federal computer security.

Cyberattacks are "an existential threat to the United States that could significantly alter our nation's potential," Steven Chabinsky, deputy assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, told government IT officials at conference in Washington last spring.

The two latest administrations have dedicated significant time and resources to addressing the cyber threat, making a great deal of progress. In 2008, President George W. Bush launched the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative to develop a comprehensive approach to securing critical infrastructure. In April, U.S. Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt released the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, which outlines a plan for securing online transactions, and Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III recently detailed an aggressive strategy that contains five "pillars" of strategic cybersecurity planning.

Yet federal agencies are too eager to find the silver bullet-the latest and greatest solution to this rapidly growing problem.

Advanced technologies have their place in a risk-based strategy, but agencies still must focus on the building blocks of a strong cybersecurity plan. They include the fundamental principles of good infrastructure management-know your network, guard your perimeter, keep your systems up to date and invest in technologies that are designed for a modern threat environment. With a basic plan in place, managers can prioritize cybersecurity investments based on risk rather than focusing solely on new products that often create a false sense of security, cost more over time, and provide only a patchwork of protection and deterrence. So where should agencies begin?

From a risk-management perspective, they must focus on mitigating threats to key systems. The first step is identifying priorities based on risk. Which systems are most vulnerable? Which are most important to the mission? What data is most valuable to potential enemies?

It's crucial to look at information and communications infrastructure as a whole, defining assets not solely in physical terms but in terms of their critical functions for the mission and business. Then the organization can set short-, medium- and long-term IT security objectives that become the strategy for reducing and managing cyber risk. Prioritized tactics can enhance the organization's cybersecurity by reducing attackers' return on investment. Many cyber adversaries are motivated by ROI in terms of time and energy. An effective defense makes the costs of attack high enough that the rewards are not worth the investment.

Developing software with fewer vulnerabilities makes adversaries work harder, and limiting access during a system breach reduces their gains. Then adversaries will seek alternative targets. And managers don't need multimillion-dollar cybersecurity tools to accomplish this goal.

Another step in a strategic approach to risk management is to ensure the IT infrastructure is strong at its foundation. Compliance and incident management response often take focus away from fundamental security measures and strategic risk management. A life-cycle approach to continuously managing and monitoring security identifies the people, processes, policies and technology needed to protect systems, detect intrusions, respond to security problems and recover systems. Cyber risk cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed.

Agencies must take an evolutionary approach to cybersecurity innovation, moving gradually toward optimal performance. After establishing the baseline state of their networks and IT assets, managers can compare it to a maturity model to prioritize investments in service and security. Such a model boosts their strategic advantage and reduces ROI for would-be attackers.

Agencies are faced with unique organizational challenges such as governance issues, budget competition and the sheer complexity of the heterogeneous IT systems they run. These issues-as well as newer factors like the consumerization of IT, a constant evolution of disparate mobile devices, and the continued growth of telework-are making it difficult to deploy even basic system defenses consistently.

On top of that, government IT managers are often forced to work with incompatible legacy applications and infrastructures that fail to meet prerequisites for some security technologies and often block or inhibit key cyber-security investments.

The agencies that think about risk holistically and then plan investments accordingly are sure to fare better. So don't fall into the trap of focusing too much time, money and resources on the latest and greatest security technology or custom solution as a panacea while ignoring basic commercial solutions and fundamental cybersecurity measures that would greatly mitigate risk. Ironically, many agencies already own the necessary technology through enterprise licensing agreements but have simply failed to deploy it.

Jerry Cochran is a cybersecurity architect at Microsoft Public Sector Services' National Security Group.

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