The value of bad news
"John, your vulnerability assessment grade for October is B." Such messages have become a staple of Philip Heneghan's communication with executives at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
As the agency's information systems security officer, Heneghan said notifying the right people about network and system vulnerabilities is his foremost concern.
Heneghan is among a growing number of federal information security managers who rely on vulnerability scanners to discover and report hidden network security risks.
Even the usually protracted process of selling to federal agencies has been shortened for sales of vulnerability scanners, said one company executive, who added that he has not seen anything like it in his 25 years in the industry.
The scanners find potential security risks, which in most instances, can be blamed on employees who lack systems engineering knowledge.
But agency officials cannot improve their cybersecurity grades until vulnerabilities are fixed, and information security officers say they have little power other than persuasion for getting program officials to fix them.
"In our environment, you can't force anybody," said Thomas O'Keefe, deputy director of information systems security in the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of the Chief Information Officer.
Because the CIO's office owns none of the FAA's systems or networks, he said, the only recourse is to alert and advise. "We just cajole and convince and work the organizations," he said.
Some federal networks, such as the FAA's, have about 100,000 devices connected to them. A few have more. A network scan can discover every router, server, workstation, printer and wireless access point — basically any device on a network that is passing IP traffic.
Vulnerability scanners also can check for risky configurations such as open ports that allow peer-to-peer file sharing. Scans can find leaks, which are zones in which unnecessary or unauthorized network connections pose a security risk.
"It's like sanitizing your hard drive or doing an antivirus scan," said Pedro Cadenas Jr., cyber and information security chief at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Federal security experts have found that vulnerability scanners can be useful even in difficult circumstances. USAID's global network has 15,000 devices in 80 spots worldwide, many of them in developing countries served by low-bandwidth connections.
"We have a fairly poor infrastructure as a ground rule," Heneghan said. But the agency's vulnerability scanner, IP360, made by nCircle Network Security, adapts to those conditions and "basically allows us to monitor the vulnerability of all devices."
Heneghan said he runs scans on USAID's network three or four times a week and sends about 100 report card messages each month to senior agency executives. These people don't like to be told they have anything less than an A, he said. "If they don't have an A, they start pounding on people, and things get fixed."
USAID's technicians, however, don't need to wait a month to gain access to vulnerability scan results and begin making fixes. After finding security risks, nCircle's software automatically prepares a work plan, assigns a priority to each vulnerability and describes how to fix it. "That has made it much easier for people," Heneghan said.
For the vulnerability scanner and related equipment, he said, agency officials pay less than $100,000 a year, an expense he regards as well justified.
"It has heightened people's knowledge of risk," he said.
Still, raising awareness can be frustrating for security officials at any CIO office because they lack the authority to fix the vulnerabilities they find.
VA officials have used IPsonar, a vulnerability scanner from Lumeta, to help raise security awareness, especially among employees not well trained in systems or network engineering.
But security officials cannot do much more than that, Cadenas said. "We're not writing any tickets; we're not threatening to shut anybody down," he said.
The situation at the VA is similar to the one facing the FAA, except that if a malicious worm or virus got through to the air traffic control system, it could shut down that vital system.
"My job is to worry on a [round-the-clock], 365-day basis that the controllers will not have a negative cyber event in their infrastructure," O'Keefe said. He and Cadenas spoke at a corporate briefing sponsored by Lumeta.
When FAA officials ran their first scan using the IPsonar tool, the results were shocking. "We found many connections that we didn't know about," O'Keefe said.
Because of the critical nature of the FAA's network, security officials have only a few hours a week in which they can run a scan of the network. But the scans have been effective in reducing risks, he said.
Now, when FAA officials run a vulnerability scan, they rarely experience any surprises. "Zero is the number," he said. "I don't want anybody connected to our network whom I don't know about and whom I haven't looked in the eye and asked, 'What in the heck are you doing?'"