February 21, 2018

Don't love the cyber bomb, but don't ignore it either

Cybersecurity is overblown – or not

A recent report by Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins of George Mason University titled “Loving The Cyber Bomb? The Dangers Of Threat Inflation In Cybersecurity Policy” has gotten a bit of press. This is an important topic worthy of debate, but I believe their conclusions are incorrect. In this posting, I’ll summarize their report and explain why I think they’re wrong.

Brito & Watkins (henceforth B&W) argue that the cyber threat is exaggerated, and its being driven by private industry anxious to feed at the public trough in a manner similar to the creation of the military industrial complex in the second half of the 20th century as an outgrowth of the Cold War.

The paper starts by describing how deliberate misinformation in the run-up to the Iraq war is an example of how public opinion can be manipulated by policy makers and private industry trying to sell a threat. My opinion of the Iraq war is not relevant to this discussion, but I believe they’re using to create a strawman which they then knock down.

Next, B&W they use the CSIS Commission Report on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency and Richard Clarke’s “Cyber War” to argue that the threat of cyber conflict has been overblown. With regard to the former, they criticize the confusion of probes (port scans) with real attacks, and argue that probes are not evidence of an attack or breach but more akin to doorknob rattling. While that’s certainly true (and an analogy that’s been made for years), if your doorknob is rattled thousands of times a day it’s a strong indication that you’re living in a bad neighborhood! They then note that there’s little unclassified proof of real threats, and hence the call for regulation by CSIS (and others) is inappropriate. Unfortunately, quantitative proof is hard to come by, but there are enough incidents that there can be little doubt as to the severity of the threat. Requiring quantitative data before we move to protection would be akin to demanding an open and accurate assessment of the number of foreign spies and the damage they do before we fund the CIA! Instead, we rely on experts in spycraft to assess the threat, and help define appropriate defenses. In the same way, we should rely on cybersecurity experts to provide an assessment of the risks and appropriate actions. I certainly agree with both CSIS and B&W that overclassification of the threats works to our detriment – if the public is unable to see the threat, it becomes hard to justify spending to defend against it. I’ve personally seen this in the commercial software industry, where the inability to provide hard data about cyber threats to senior management results in that threat being discounted, with consequent risk to businesses. But again, the problems with overclassification do not mean the problem doesn’t exist.

Regarding Clarke’s book, there’s been plenty of criticism of both technical inaccuracies and the somewhat hysterical tone. Those notwithstanding, Clarke generally has a good understanding of the types of threats and the risks. B&W’s claim that the only verifiable attacks are DDOS is simply untrue – there have been verified attacks against infrastructure like water systems, although some of the claimed attacks are other types of failures that could have been cyber-related, but aren’t. As an example, while Clarke claims that the northeast power blackout of 2003 was cyber-related, there’s adequate evidence that it was not – but there’s also adequate evidence that such an accidental failure could be caused by a deliberate attack. Similarly, the NYSE “flash crash” was not caused by a cyber attack, but demonstrates the fragility of modern highly computerized systems, and shows that a cyber attack could cause similar symptoms. That which can happen by accident can also happen intentionally, if an adversary desires.

As for B&W’s analogy to the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower so famously feared, and the increasing influence of cyberpork, I must reluctantly agree. Large defense contractors have, in recent years, flocked to cyber as it has become trendy and large budgets have become attractive, frequently more concerned with revenue than with solving problems. However, the problems existed (and were being discussed) by researchers and practitioners long before the influx of government contractors. The fact that they’re trying to make money off the problem doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

The final section of the paper, covering regulatory issues, has some good points, but it is so poisoned by the assumptions in the earlier sections of the paper that it’s hard to take seriously.

To summarize, we should distinguish between the existence of the problem (which is real and growing) versus the desire of some government contractors to cash in – the fact that the latter is occurring does not deny the reality of the former.