Security experts: OPM breach shows Einstein isn't enough

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A cyberattack exposing the personally identifiable information of up to 4 million current and former federal employees has left the Office of Personnel Management reeling and security experts pondering how the damage might have been lessened.

The post-mortem analysis touches on two Department of Homeland Security programs -- known as Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) and Einstein -- that are the cornerstones of federal civilian cyber defense. To make the next hack of a federal agency less devastating, security experts say, these programs need to be complemented with tools such as encryption.

Details of how the hackers breached OPM are still emerging. A DHS spokesman said Einstein, an intrusion-detection program, was involved in the response to the breach, but CDM is a broader program whose direct role in responding to the cyberattack is much more difficult to measure. Nonetheless, security experts are using one of the largest-ever hacks of federal employee data as a teachable moment for cybersecurity policy.

"Cybersecurity must mean more than protecting the system -- it must also include protecting data," said John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. "If information contained within government and private-sector systems is encrypted, then the harm caused by cyberattacks such as this one would be minimal."

The Einstein system, which DHS began deploying in 2005, focuses on the perimeter of federal networks by installing sensors at Web access points and sifting through that data for vulnerabilities. But once hackers are already on the network, that initial line of defense is moot and the focus should be on protecting data inside the network, said Cohen, who is now a professor at Rutgers University.

DHS's Computer Emergency Readiness Team used the Einstein system to discover the recent breach at OPM, according to DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee. After OPM suffered a big breach in March 2014, the agency beefed up its cybersecurity via a "comprehensive network monitoring plan, through which OPM detected new malicious activity" in April 2015, Lee said in a statement.

A DHS official noted that "U.S. CERT reviewed the malware and shared the analysis with the affected agencies and interagency partners, and deployed the signatures to Einstein to protect federal networks."

But to Morgan Wright, a consultant who has worked cybersecurity projects for DHS and the Justice Department, those efforts are insufficient. Einstein "pretty much failed, unless you consider the five months it took to discover the intrusion 'real-time,'" he said. Multiple reports have said that the hackers hit OPM in December but the agency did not detect the intrusion until April.

And Einstein, now in its third iteration, doesn't come cheap. For fiscal 2016, DHS requested $479.8 million for "network security deployment" including Einstein 3.

CDM, meanwhile, focuses on metrics such as endpoint security and identity management. The program offers a system of dashboards that give network managers a clearer view of vulnerabilities and, as the name implies, at least theoretically provides "continuous" monitoring. And it too involves significant agency spending; the blanket purchase agreement for CDM services has a total ceiling of $6 billion.

Chris Cummiskey, who until November was DHS's acting undersecretary for management, said he held out more hope for CDM than Einstein as a remedy for sophisticated breaches because CDM "seems to give us the additional ability to see these bad actors on the networks, once they're already through the perimeter."

The latest cyberattack on OPM hit an agency data center hosted by the Department of the Interior, highlighting the vulnerabilities that come from having interconnected federal civilian networks. One of the biggest challenges in rolling out massive and complementary programs like Einstein and CDM is that they are implemented at different rates across federal agencies, so that security "holes will continue to exist," said Cummiskey.

Lee, the DHS spokesman, declined to comment on the extent to which OPM and Interior had implemented CDM and Einstein. OPM and Interior spokespeople referred those questions back to DHS.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 8, 2015

Re-examine the critical controls. You have to fund all 20 not just a few. Otherwise you have circumvention by the adversary. The yearly 10% cuts by OMB to IT and O&M since 2010 when CDM is not fully implemented don't help the situation.

Mon, Jun 8, 2015

New and emerging hacks are created everyday to circumvent the very appliances and controls put in place to prevent them. As long as the federal government relies on employees who are not current with new and emerging hacking technologies there will always be breeches .

Sun, Jun 7, 2015 Verdias

It is important to remember that Einstein 3 is merely an IPS, nothing magical. Because it is managed centrally instead of by the individual organizations/teams that are being protected by the IPS, it is highly unlikely that the signatures will be tweaked to offer the most relevant alerts. This will lead to an increase in false alerts as well as an absence of alerts that should exist. It is not surprising that the teams that need to review alerts will deemphasize this tool over time, over those which they have more ability to control and adept to their environment.

Sun, Jun 7, 2015

What an aberration to call the program Einstein. Of course Einstein would be appalled at the current activities of the DHS, such as the continuous and egregious violation of civil rights and whole swaths of the Constitution, all under the guise of a war on terror that is fostered and perpetuated by the very organizations charged with the duty of protecting Americans from same. Perhaps the lesson for DHS is name your programs in keeping with historical personalities that they more realistically represent, like say Stalin or Mao. The sad part is, someone in DHS is going to read this post and likely begin tracking me down as an enemy of the state.

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