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Increase in Federal Government Cyber Attacks Lays Groundwork for 2016

Increase in Federal Government Cyber Attacks Lays Groundwork for 2016

Blog Article Published: 01/11/2016

By John Sellers, Vice President/Federal, Lancope

unnamedAt the end of last year, we looked back and said that 2014 was the year of high profile cyber attacks on the private sector. Target, Michaels, Sony and several healthcare companies and universities were plastered all over the news headlines. So did it get any better this year? In retrospect, 2015 was the year that government agencies were targeted. From the theft of more than 21 million records of government employees and their families from the Office of Personnel Management to breaches at the IRS, Defense Department, and the Census Bureau, both military and civilian agencies suffered significant intrusions.

Following the discovery of the OPM breach, and later revelations regarding its size and duration, President Obama ordered the federal government to undertake a 30-day Cyber Sprint to improve network defenses. Federal CIO Tony Scott directed agencies to take several steps to improve their cybersecurity postures, most notably to accelerate the use of multi-factor authentication, especially for privileged users. Though short-term in execution, the sprint has resulted in agencies stepping up their implementation of multi-factor authentication – with long-term benefits – and tightened up their standards for users’ access to different parts of their networks.

Another area of emphasis was, and remains, improved overall situational awareness within agencies’ networks – using tools such as dashboards to identify abnormal or unexpected behaviors by an asset within the network. For instance, in the OPM breach, important data was exfiltrated out of the network by a resource that never should have been communicating with the data repository.

With all of these incidents, agencies started to take a deeper look at threats with a specific look at insider threat. They began to reassess their misconceptions about what constitutes an insider threat. It’s easy to view Edward Snowden as an insider threat; it is harder, but necessary, to recognize that any employee’s action which causes loss of data or degradation of network performance, even if taken innocently, also is an insider threat.

All of these lay the groundwork for 2016.

First, there is every reason to believe there will be more breaches. Intrusions set a record in 2014 – which was promptly obliterated by the pace of intrusions in 2015. The United States and China may have come to an agreement on cyber theft of intellectual property, but there are other players interested in that type of information, and cyber espionage, whether by nation-states or non-state actors, will continue to accelerate.

The government is doing what it can to address fundamental cyber hygiene as quickly as possible, but these problems grew over time and it will take time to fix them. For many years, organizations focused on building bigger (fire)walls, fortifying the perimeters of their networks, but that can only go so far before the walls themselves cause performance degradation. It’s fair to say that organizations have prioritized network availability over security.

Part of resetting that tradeoff, and expanding on the idea of situational awareness, I see the emergence of “context-aware security.” It is not sufficient to be able to see what’s happening on a network; it is important to know what normal, everyday activity looks like on that network, in order to identify anomalous behavior, whether by a device or a user.

The application of the concept of risk management to data resources will continue. Agencies have realized that all data are not created equal – the “crown jewels,” the databases with the information critical to meeting agencies’ missions, need the greatest protection. The containerization of these data assets will reinforce the categorization of users and devices that are allowed access.

The normalization of cloud services within government agencies will lead to another security development – ongoing discussions about how to enforce policy and monitor security in an asset not actually owned and controlled by the government. FedRAMP has done a lot in this regard, but it does not require visibility at the transaction level – identifying who is making a request, where that request is going inside the cloud.

Software-defined networks will continue to spread, as they provide both affordability and flexibility in configuration and management. But has there been enough threat modeling of SDNs to understand what their potential vulnerabilities may be? There should be concern that attackers may figure out those weaknesses for us, and attention paid to finding them before they are targeted.

Another trend in government IT that raises security implications in 2016 is the rapid growth of the Internet of Things. This reinforces the need for context-aware security; the proliferation of devices, the explosion of data, makes it imperative to have a better understanding of “normal” network behavior. With IoT, the stakes become very high – whether it’s driverless cars or automated power systems, intrusions could put many lives physically at risk.

A final observation for the New Year: Agencies will continue to be hamstrung by procurement rules written to buy tanks and aircraft, commodity products and services. Between FedRAMP and FITARA, the government is doing what it can to address fundamental flaws in its purchases of IT systems, software, and services. More reform is needed, even if it is directed solely at IT security products and services – until the rules are changed for IT security solution procurements, the government won’t be able to keep up with the changing threat landscape.

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