For and Against: Cyber security
Author and senior research scholar
Profile: John Casti
John Casti is one of the pioneers of complexity science and systems theory. A former editor of the journal Complexity, Casti has published nearly 20 volumes of academic and popular science. His latest book is ‘X-Events’
Chief operating officer
Profile: Paul Kenyon
Paul Kenyon is chief operating officer with Avecto, the Windows privilege management security specialist.
I think that President Obama is right. It is right and proper that the whole issue of cyber security be brought front and centre, irrespective of political considerations. The reason for this is that the communications infrastructure, of which the Internet is the absolute central component, underlies our way of life in the 21st century. The acceleration that the Internet provides pervades everything from business and banking to sending messages to our relatives in different corners of the earth. When it comes to being in a war, the images we see coming out of Syria and other hotspots are very 20th century. For post-industrial civilisations such as western Europe, north America and much of Asia, from the standpoint of gaining power on a nationwide level it is much more important to be able to shut down - or even better control - their modes of communication.
There are three ways that you can exert power. The first and most crude way to do this is by direct force: in other words, if you don’t do what I want you to do I’m going to hit you with this stick, shoot you with this gun or blow you up with this bomb.
The second way, which is a little more sophisticated, is to limit access to certain things such as travel and communications. The most elegant way of exerting power is to limit people’s access to freedoms without their knowing that you are doing it: subversion, if you like.
In the context of the Internet, the first option is simply to destroy it physically, by wrecking the hardware or gumming it up with malware. The second way is the Great Firewall of China, where governments try to restrict people’s ability to communicate through social networks. Finally, and most dangerously, you subvert the Internet by gaining control in some way so you can control and distort the transfer of information in your target country: your enemy, if you like.
The first two ways we are already familiar with, but when it comes to subverting the Internet nobody really knows for sure what will happen. We know that there are individuals and governments out there trying to subvert the Internet. And of course we only know about the efforts that have failed.
For these reasons I think that the major wars to come will not be fought with nuclear weapons or machine guns. They will be information wars. President Obama is correct in drawing attention to this fact and to call for a major effort to what is in effect policing the Internet.
Now I don’t believe that the Internet as we know it is going to be around for ever. Ultimately people are going to come around to the idea that we have to put in place a new system designed from the ground up to be secure against the kinds of threats the President is commenting on.
One of the questions that needs to be addressed is how your opponent - another country or a non-governmental group - could gain control of the Internet and surreptitiously restrict access. This might be achieved through distorting financial transactions. But if this becomes endemic and random it can undermine our ways of doing business.
How many of these things need to happen before it starts to show? We can’t be sure, but there are people working in cyber-security running computer simulations of ways in which the Internet can be attacked and what the impact will be. Attacks might not have to be as dramatic as you’d assume before people start to get unnerved. If financial distortions happen, it is only a matter of time before people lose trust in the financial system with the result that people no longer put money in banks or transfer it electronically. And before long you’ll be going back to a life where you have physical cash in your hand and a society that no longer trusts its government. This will mean the potential regression to a very primitive transaction society: we could go from a post-industrial way of looking at the world to an agrarian economy overnight. And if this happens through a subversion of the Internet then we will be allowing other people to call the shots.
Last October the White House announced it was taking steps to safeguard classified information and protect government computer networks against unauthorised disclosures such as the release of thousands of pages of secret documents by WikiLeaks back in 2010.The executive order signed by President Obama was the result of a seven-month review by his administration in which the White House sought to find a proper balance between security and the need for agencies to share classified information.
Under the executive order, the government will create a special committee to coordinate information sharing and to ensure that agencies that use classified computer networks protect information.
“Our nation’s security requires classified information to be shared immediately with authorised users around the world but also requires sophisticated and vigilant means to ensure it is shared securely,” says President Obama’s order.
The order mandates Attorney General Eric Holder and the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to establish an ‘Insider Threat Task Force’ to find ways to deter and detect security breaches.
The bottom line is that the government needs to move swiftly to maintain credibility - especially in an election year.
Earlier in 2011 the White House revealed language on new legislation directing private industries to improve computer security voluntarily, and have those standards reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security. The government clearly has plenty of work to do on preventing insider attacks. Our view is that it is about time the White House has caught up on ideas and technology that many corporate clients have known about for several years.
Establishing a least-privilege environment is the first step to achieving an IT environment whereby everyone can still be productive and remain secure.
The White House, of course, may not be taking this route to better security for all the right reasons, as there is an argument to show that it is simply looking to avoid another WikiLeaks Cablegate by creating more agency oversight and security for data stored on classified networks.
So, will the executive order stop sophisticated attacks, as exemplified by complex and targeted malware such as Stuxnet and Duqu? Our belief is that this is debatable, but the use of augmented security layers such as privilege management can greatly assist in this regard.
In view of the looming elections, there is an argument that the Department for Homeland Security should take a leaf out of the security industry’s best practices by adopting this least-privilege approach. But how should the White House go down this path?
The President needs to designate a senior official to be charged with overseeing the project, as well as implementing an insider threat detection and prevention program on a multi-agency basis.
In parallel with this, the government and its agencies also need to ensure that their information is properly classified, as well as start researching the many types of DLP (data leak prevention) technology that are available to today’s businesses. Coupled with self-assessments of current security arrangements this cannot help but engender a positive approach to data security.
The final step is to implement a policy of least-privilege. Researchers found that, when analysing published Windows 7 vulnerabilities through March 2010, 57 per cent were no longer applicable after removing administrator rights. In comparison, Windows 2000 was at 53 per cent, Windows XP was at 62 per cent, Windows Server 2003 was at 55 per cent, Windows Vista was at 54 per cent, and Windows Server 2008 was at 53 per cent.
This is good news for IT departments, as it means they can reduce the risk of a breach by configuring the operating system for standard users rather than an administrator.
Do you agree?
President Obama has his mind on security when talking about the cyber threat
|E&T magazine - Debate - Cyber security threats and political advantage||0||Reply|
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