Does Einstein need a post-SolarWinds makeover?

A marquee program designed to protect the government against cybersecurity threats is facing new scrutiny in the wake of Solar Winds Orion breach, but analysts say the program was unlikely to have ever stopped the hacking campaign.

enterprise security (Omelchenko/Shutterstock.com)
 

On day one of Alejandro Mayorkas' tenure as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, if he's confirmed as expected, he'll be under pressure from Congress to deliver answers about why the federal government's cybersecurity measures failed to detect or defend against the SolarWinds Orion hack.

Mayorkas promised at his confirmation hearing to review the agency's high profile cybersecurity programs, including the network protection program Einstein that's a key component of the National Cybersecurity Protection System.

Lawmakers, prior to the discovery of the breach in December, were already signaling for changes to those programs. In recent spending legislation, Congress suggested DHS consider layering other capabilities into Einstein, which is run by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS.

Einstein observes traffic flowing in and out of federal networks, allowing the government to target threats using a database of known malware. It's unlikely Einstein ever could have detected the malware implanted into SolarWinds Orion, analysts told FCW. But replacing the system wholesale to address the problem of unknown or zero-day threats would be far too costly. The most viable path forward, these cybersecurity experts said, would be to install new capabilities, necessarily bolstered by private industry.

Kiersten Todt, formerly executive director of the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity was blunt about Einstein's record. "There are no real strong success stories of Einstein," she said. "When you look at what happened with SolarWinds, they essentially outsmarted Einstein."

Philip Reitinger, president and CEO of the Global Cyber Alliance, said, "The challenge with detecting activity like the SolarWinds hack is that the hack is accomplished through 'authorized' malware."

To detect that malware, a defensive system would either have to deny all communications that are not explicitly whitelisted or establish a user activity baseline capable of singling out abnormalities for investigators to pursue. "That can be difficult to do and resource intensive," he added.

Michael Hamilton, a former vice chair for a government coordinating council focused on critical infrastructure protection, described a similar method as the most likely way forward for DHS to improve Einstein. Although its precise capabilities are classified, Hamilton speculated the program's age -- Einstein was originally developed in 2003 -- is a sign it may not be baselining user activity in the way he and Reitinger described.

Hamilton said that "it's not likely they throw it out and start over," noting the program's cost. "My understanding is that it cost $6 billion to develop."

A CISA official declined to comment specifically on the program's methods when asked about the analysts' suggestion.

"Einstein intrusion detection and prevention capabilities primarily rely on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) intrusion-detection capabilities, which utilize CISA's access to cyber threat intelligence to detect, and block where appropriate, suspected malicious cyber activity," the official said.

Whatever new capability or program DHS establishes, Todt said it must be predicated on industry playing a larger role than it does with Einstein.

"Government cannot do this by itself nor should it," she said. "I think Einstein was predicated on government doing it by itself."

Mike McNerney, co-founder and chair of the Institute for Security and Technology, said another fundamental challenge Einstein faces is the government's ongoing transition to the cloud.

"While it [Einstein] may continue to be a part of the government's security approach, there are other products and technologies better suited for the cloud," he said. "Combined with greater access control initiatives, the more networked-based Einstein is arguably less useful."

In addition to any review Mayorkas begins, the White House has also started accounting for the damage done in the wake of SolarWinds Orion. Within days of being sworn in, Biden ordered the new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, to provide a sweeping intelligence review of the hack.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H), a member of the Senate committee responsible for overseeing DHS, said Biden must "engage in a top-to-bottom review of how this was able to happen and go undetected for so long, and what needs to be done to strengthen the federal government's cybersecurity."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.