The big cybersecurity challenge: Time-to-detection

Do you sunbathe? You shouldn’t in this day of hypersensitivity about skin cancer. But if you do, the sunlight falling on your liver-spotted, lizard-like skin has been traveling through space for about nine minutes. When you gaze at the night sky and see Alpha Centauri, you probably remember from grade school that light from that nearby planet takes about 4.3 years to get to earth.

If something like a Burning Man festival were held on Alpha Centauri, you wouldn’t know about it until 4.3 years after it was over. Too late to load up your Airstream and get there in time for the fun. Most stars are so far away, they probably collapsed into black holes a billion years ago, yet all we see is merry twinkling millennium after millennium.

Federal Drive host Tom Temin
Federal Drive host Tom Temin

Not to over-dramatize, but this is how things are in cybersecurity — specifically intrusion detection. When the Office of Personnel Management was patching its systems, it discovered its great breach, months after the break had occurred. It might have been still more months before anyone noticed the anomaly. It reminds me of a corny roadside display in Pennsylvania when I was a kid. A sign on a little barn said, “World’s Biggest Steer Inside.” When you pulled over and peered in the window, you saw a big jagged hole in the back of the barn, a chain lying in the dirt, and another sign, “Too bad, guess he got away!” There must’ve been a gift shop or goat’s milk fudge stand nearby.

This is one of the big problems with modern-day cyber attacks. Too often, IT and security staffs only find out about them long after the damage has been done and the hackers have moved on to other soft targets. If it takes seconds or minutes to exfiltrate data, what good does discovering it do next year?

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I recently spoke with John Stewart, one of the top security guys at Cisco. The topic was Cisco’s Midyear Security Report. Here’s my summary: Federal IT and security people, like everyone else, have plenty to worry about. Like the fact that a thousand new security product vendors have started up in the last five years, yet most of them sell non-interoperable software. Or that the white-hat, good-guys side of the cybersecurity equation is literally about a million qualified people short.

Yet among the most seemingly intractable problems lies time-to-detection, or how long on average it takes for organizations to find out they’ve been hacked. This makes it likely that many more successful attacks have occurred than systems administrators are aware of. Stewart says most of the data show that IT staffs routinely take months to detect breaches. A major goal of the products industry and practitioners’ skill sets must therefore be getting time-to-detection down to seconds. At this point, I’ll bet many federal agencies would be happy with days or hours.

Malicious hackers aren’t standing still, the Cisco report points out. They’re switch vectors and modalities at lightning speed. They’re using wealth transfer techniques that stretch law enforcement’s ability to detect. Stewart says, systems like Bitcoin and the murky avenues of the dark web don’t include or even require the typical middlemen of the surface financial transaction world — such as banks, transfer networks, mules. He describes the bad-hacker industry using a term the government likes to use for itself: innovative. 

Embedded IP domains and fungible URLs, jacking up data write-rewrite cycles to dizzying speeds, or quietly turning trusted systems into automated spies in the time it takes someone to go for coffee — that kind of thing. You might call it agility. They’re dancing circles around systems owners. The hacking community has become wickedly innovative at evading detection, Stewart says, exploiting the common systems and software everyone uses routinely.

He adds that the motivations of bad hackers have blossomed into a veritable bouquet. They go after systems for espionage, theft of money or intellectual property, terrorism, political activism, service disruption and even outright destruction. That’s a good case for the so-called risk-based approach to cybersecurity planning. If you’re a utility, disruption or destruction is more likely to be the hackers’ goal. If you’re a database of people with clearance, espionage and theft are good bets.

Answers? As cybersecurity people like to say, there is no silver bullet. Stewart says nations will have to cooperate more, tools will have to improve, people will have to get smarter. Cisco hopes to build some sort of architecture framework into which the polyglot of cyber tools can plug, reducing what he calls the friction of integration.

For now, a good strategy for everyone connected to cybersecurity is to bore in on the essential question: How soon can we know what’s going on?


Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m., on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.

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