My Federal Government Security Crash Program

In the wake of recent intrusions into government systems, multiple parties have been asking for my recommended courses of action.

In 2007, following public reporting on the 2006 State Department breach, I blogged When FISMA BitesInitial Thoughts on Digital Security Hearing. and What Should the Feds Do. These posts captured my thoughts on the government’s response to the State Department intrusion.

The situation then mirrors the current one well: outrage over an intrusion affecting government systems, China suspected as the culprit, and questions regarding why the government’s approach to security does not seem to be working.

Following that breach, the State Department hired a new CISO who pioneered the “continuous monitoring” program, now called “Continuous Diagnostic Monitoring” (CDM). That CISO eventually left State for DHS, and brought CDM to the rest of the Federal government. He is now retired from Federal service, but CDM remains. Years later we’re reading about another breach at the State Department, plus the recent OPM intrusions. CDM is not working.

My last post, Continuous Diagnostic Monitoring Does Not Detect Hackers, explained that although CDM is a necessary part of a security program, it should not be the priority. CDM is at heart a “Find and Fix Flaws Faster” program. We should not prioritize closing and locking doors and windows while there are intruders in the house. Accordingly, I recommend a “Detect and Respond” strategy first and foremost.

To implement that strategy, I recommend the following, three-phase approach. All phases can run concurrently.

Phase 1: Compromise Assessment: Assuming the Federal government can muster the motivation, resources, and authority, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or another agency such as DHS, should implement a government-wide compromise assessment. The compromise assessment involves deploying teams across government networks to perform point-in-time “hunting” missions to find, and if possible, remove, intruders. I suspect the “remove” part will be more than these teams can handle, given the scope of what I expect they will find. Nevertheless, simply finding all of the intruders, or a decent sample, should inspire additional defensive activities, and give authorities a true “score of the game.”

Phase 2: Improve Network Visibility: The following five points include actions to gain enhanced, enduring, network-centric visibility on Federal networks. While network-centric approaches are not a panacea, they represent one of the best balances between cost, effectiveness, and minimized disruption to business operations.

1. Accelerate the deployment of Einstein 3A, to instrument all Federal network gateways. Einstein is not the platform to solve the Federal government’s network visibility problem, but given the current situation, some visibility is better than no visibility. If the inline, “intrusion prevention system” (IPS) nature of Einstein 3A is being used as an excuse for slowly deploying the platform, then the IPS capability should be disabled and the “intrusion detection system” (IDS) mode should be the default. Waiting until the end of 2016 is not acceptable. Equivalent technology should have been deployed in the late 1990s.

2. Ensure DHS and US-CERT have the authority to provide centralizing monitoring of all deployed Einstein sensors. I imagine bureaucratic turf battles may have slowed Einstein deployment. “Who can see the data” is probably foremost among agency worries. DHS and US-CERT should be the home for centralized analysis of Einstein data. Monitored agencies should also be given access to the data, and DHS, US-CERT, and agencies should begin a dialogue on whom should have ultimately responsibility for acting on Einstein discoveries.

3. Ensure DHS and US-CERT are appropriately staffed to operate and utilize Einstein. Collected security data is of marginal value if no one is able to analyze, escalate, and respond to the data. DHS and US-CERT should set expectations for the amount of time that should elapse from the time of collection to the time of analysis, and staff the IR team to meet those requirements.

4. Conduct hunting operations to identify and remove threat actors already present in Federal networks. Now we arrive at the heart of the counter-intrusion operation. The purpose of improving network visibility with Einstein (for lack of an alternative at the moment) is to find intruders and eliminate them. This operation should be conducted in a coordinated manner, not in a whack-a-mole fashion that facilitates adversary persistence. This should be coordinated with the “hunt” mission in Phase 1.

5. Collect metrics on the nature of the counter-intrusion campaign and devise follow-on actions based on lessons learned. This operation will teach Federal network owners lessons about adversary campaigns and the unfortunate realities of the state of their enterprise. They must learn how to improve the speed, accuracy, and effectiveness of their defensive campaign, and how to prioritize countermeasures that have the greatest impact on the opponent. I expect they would begin considering additional detection and response technologies and processes, such as enterprise log management, host-based sweeping, modern inspection platforms with virtual execution and detonation chambers, and related approaches.

Phase 3. Continuous Diagnostic Monitoring, and Related Ongoing Efforts: You may be surprised to see that I am not calling for an end to CDM. Rather, CDM should not be the focus of Federal security measures. It is important to improve Federal security through CDM practices, such that it becomes more difficult for adversaries to gain access to government computers. I am also a fan of the Trusted Internet Connection program, whereby the government is consolidating the number of gateways to the Internet.

Note: I recommend anyone interested in details on this matter see my latest book, The Practice of Network Security Monitoring, especially chapter 9. In that chapter I describe how to run a network security monitoring operation, based on my experiences since the late 1990s.