Election 2016 & WikiLeaks: Bad, But Not Your Worst Nightmare

John Podesta may be the poster child for poor user security practices but the real problem is rigid regulatory compliance frameworks that perpetuate ineffective perimeter defenses.

By now, like the rest of us, you’ve probably cringed at all the textbook cybersecurity mistakes committed by Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta. He requested, for example, that his iCloud password be sent to him via plaintext email. He selected weak passwords containing no special characters. He reused the same password across different publicly accessible accounts. It just goes on and on. Podesta is now being referred to by many in the security industry as the poster child for bad cybersecurity decisions, and I think he deserves it.

Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta Image Source: Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock

Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta
Image Source: Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock

But for cybersecurity professionals, there is a problem with the implicit messaging in this case. Yes, better selection and handling of passwords would have made Podesta’s email much more secure. But it’s been the practical and empirical experience of most leaders in the field of cybersecurity, that if a nation state really wants your sensitive data, then it will obtain it through a variety of means – the most common of which is the advanced persistent threat or APT. And while good password selection might slow down an APT, it won’t stop it.

Stated simply, as most security professions already know, an APT begins with the bad guys gaining access into an organizational network through email phishing or some other external means. Outsourced connections, for example, are popular for slipping past perimeter firewalls. Once in, the bad guys quietly install remote access tools, from which they browse, steal, and exfiltrate valuable data. The approach is effective because firewalls simply cannot properly arbitrate complex business processes with external groups, and such interaction is a requirement for every organization in the world. As a result, local security administrators are forced to leave ports open on the firewall, which is sort of like leaving your doors ajar or your windows unlocked.

Now, if you wonder why this dumb firewall approach continues to be used everywhere, against the advice of just about every expert, you will find an unexpected root cause: compliance. Yes, the stiff regulatory and compliance community still clings fearfully to the ineffective but familiar firewall concept like a victim dangling from a rope unwilling to let go and drop into the safety net below. They refuse to accept new security architectures, such as virtualized, distributed cloud networks scattered across hybrid infrastructure, citing such modern and superior technologies as too risky. Such belief comes from stubborn ignorance, and it is holding us all back.

So yes, it is fine, perhaps even recommended, to use the Podesta case to help improve local user decisions about cybersecurity. Go make your corporate awareness video and put his face in the first frame. But we must also recognize that the more serious cybersecurity problem comes from bad organizational security design spearheaded by regulatory and compliance auditors who perpetuate ineffective perimeter defenses through their rigid checklist frameworks. Until we fix this more complex problem, we will continue to see an onslaught ofcybersecurity threats, but with no obvious poster child to blame. 

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Dr. Edward G. Amoroso is currently chief executive officer of TAG Cyber LLC, a global cyber security advisory, training, consulting, and media services company supporting hundreds of companies across the world. Ed recently retired from AT&T after thirty-one years of service, … View Full Bio

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