COMMENTARY

Top leaders are realizing that, when it comes to IT security, ignorance is costly

Assessing vulnerability and risk through the prisms of technology and policy is vital

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice.

Last month, several hundred technology executives, experts and information security gurus, including me, met at the EastWest Institute’s inaugural cybersecurity summit in Dallas. Although a smaller gathering than the now enormous RSA security conference and trade show, the EastWest Institute’s summit was more for the suit-and-tie set than the T-shirt and flip-flops crowd. Members of the latter group usually attend the more technically hardcore Black Hat and Defcon hacker conventions in Las Vegas.

So why did the suits come to Dallas? One reason above all else is money. Companies face rising losses from cyberattacks and are spending more money on cybersecurity. Cyber acts of corporate espionage and international organized crime are becoming more pervasive, and they are costing public and private organizations increasing sums. The criminals’ methods and tools are growing more sophisticated, and the question of how much cybersecurity is enough is largely unanswerable. All those developments make corporate executives nervous.

The big problem of the moment is the set of intrusions designed to steal intellectual property — business plans, bid information, trade secrets, research data and other forms of proprietary information. The attacks, labeled advanced persistent threats by the FBI and its major IT security contractor, Mandiant, usually involve a targeted e-mail, or spear phishing, attack. In that scenario, the bad guys locate individuals in an organization whom they believe hold sensitive information and send them an e-mail message with a clandestine payload that will infect the targeted individual’s PC or other device. After the machine is infected, it can receive orders from the attacker and begin sending the information to unauthorized parties. That slurping of data can go on for seconds, minutes or months.

Federal IT managers know all about this. But fear about the problem often makes the security folks unwilling to update or change their enterprise software baselines. They try to lock down devices, but then a senior manager who knows little about IT and perhaps nothing about IT security overrides the security folks and accesses ESPN on his or her BlackBerry. And now that BlackBerry is the big concern. Mobility means that there's more to protect in more places more often. Yikes!

Without diving deep into all that is wrong with the well-intended Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), let me make a point I’ve made before. In information security, policy and technology are often oil and water. What FISMA gives us is a lot of quasi-ambiguous score carding. Red means bad, etc. Instead, we need approaches that look at vulnerability and risk through the lenses of technology and policy. So where do we start?

The one thing government can do today is start pushing as much business activity through browser/server communications — aka cloud computing — and stop deploying new pieces of client software.

Years ago, Sun Microsystems got the message right: The network is the computer. That means users are going to have to connect to data resources that are somewhere else. The question for IT managers is simple: Do you want three or four pieces of software handling those connections — or dozens of them? Device to browser to server — that is business computing. All the other client applications, from spreadsheets and databases to adware and bots, can be banished. That will eliminate plenty of headaches.

 

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