Jun 192016
Computer security is evolving in a time of social media

Following the success of their Hack the Pentagon project, the US Department of Defense is to extend the project across its network.

Run over four weeks earlier this year, the pilot program reportedly generated t138 unique bug reports and paid out $71,200 to hackers.

The company running the pilot, Hacker One, is one of a group of companies organising bounty hunts for the hacking community.

Casey Ellis, the CEO of competing service Bugcrowd, describes his business as being “essential a community of thirty thousand hackers from around the world.”

“The whole idea is to identify where the vulnerabilities are discovered and fixed before the bad guys,” he says. “your guys who you are paying by the hour are plenty smart but they are competing with a crowd of bad guys who think creatively.”

Ellis explained how services like Bugcrowd allow clients like the US Department of Defense to manage the risk and administrative aspects of running a security competition, making it easier for large organisations to run crowdsourced projects like this.

Much has been written about crowdsourcing but it’s commercial fields like security testing where tapping the wisdom of the community really pays off. For some consulting firms, these services could turn out to be real threats.

Apr 252016
businesses based on debt are now going bankrupt

The breach of the Bangladeshi banking network has been shocking on a number of levels, not least for the allegations the institutions were using second hand network equipment with no security precautions.

Fortunately for the Bangladesh financial system the hackers could spell and so only got away with a fraction of what they could have.

Now there are claims the SWIFT international funds transfer system may have been compromised by the breach, which shows the fragility of global networks and how they are only as strong as the weakest link.

As the growth of the internet shows, it’s almost impossible to build a totally secure global communications network. As connected devices, intelligent systems and algorithms become integral parts of our lives, trusting information is going to become even more critical.

The Bangladeshi bank hack was a lucky escape but it is an early warning about securing our networks.

Update: It appears the hackers were successful in getting malware onto the network according to Reuters but, like their main efforts, were somewhat crude and easily detected. One wonders how many sophisticated bad actors have quietly exploited these weaknesses.

Apr 142016

Boards and executives have finally got the message about security John Stewart, Chief Security and Trust Officer at Cisco.

For most of the computer era security has been seen as an inhibiter to innovation and speed to market, but now with most businesses finding they face a three year time frame to transform in face of digital disruption Stewart says corporate managments now see security of their products as being a valued feature.

Stewart bases his view on an online survey, Cybersecurity as a Growth Advantage, where Cisco polled 1,014 senior executives with extensive cybersecurity responsibilities in 10 countries and 11 in-depth interviews with senior executives and cybersecurity experts.

From this, Cisco found a third of businesses now sees security as being a competitive advantage.

Digital disruption drives the shift

Stewart puts this down to boards and senior executives realising how widespread digital disruption is, “it’s highly unlikely Weight Watchers saw the disruption coming from Fitbit,” he muses. “In fact it’s hard to see how anyone could have seen that coming.”

As a consequence of these widespread and often unexpected disruptions, corporate leaders are trying to shore up their existing positions against unforeseen competitors by shifting to digital platforms as quickly as they can.

“We have to do digital and if we are going to do digital we have to have strong cybersecurity controls,” says Stewart in explaining why cybersecurity is an important part of this strategy.

Security as a cornerstone

“By making cybersecurity a cornerstone of their businesses, security-led digital organizations are able to innovate faster and more effectively, because they have significantly greater confidence in the security of their digital capabilities,” Stewart says.

Certainly managers are worried about the risks of going digital with Cisco reporting many businesses have put projects on hold due to concerns about security risks, “a lack of cybersecurity strategy can cripple innovation and slow business, because it can hinder development of digital offerings and business models.”

According to Cisco’s findings, seventy-one percent of executives said that concerns over cybersecurity are impeding innovation in their organizations. Thirty-nine percent of executives stated that they had halted mission-critical initiatives due to cybersecurity issues.

Encouraging moves

While the possibility that corporate leaders are taking cyber security seriously is encouraging, that change is yet to be seen in the marketplace, particularly in the consumer Internet of Things market where being first trumps security, design considerations or even basic safety.

The real test for how important cybersecurity really is remains in the marketplace — will customers pay more for secure products?

One sense that in Cisco’s marketplace of enterprise customers where security failures could have expensive, embarrassing and possibly catastrophic consequences, customers will pay more for trustworthy devices. In the consumer field it may well be different.

Probably the most important finding from Cisco’s survey is that businesses are now understanding security has to be designed into products and processes rather than being bolted on as an after thought. If that is true, then we have come a long way.

Apr 052016

With vendors shutting down connected devices and restricting data feeds, customers demanding open source software and open standards may be essential to safeguard against companies misusing their power over the IoT.

Last night I had dinner with a group of executives from US telco CenturyLink. During the the evening, conversation turned to the use of US and Chinese routers and the risks of government mandated backdoors in both countries’ equipment.

My thought during that conversation is concerns about software backdoors are a compelling argument for these devices to run open source software, making it harder – although not impossible – for hidden nasties harder to be built into systems.

Google Nest becomes evil

Overnight that argument for open source became stronger in my mind with the news Google Nest were to shut down the Revolv home automation hubs the company bought two years ago.

Google aren’t just stopping support for these devices, they are going to render them useless to their owners. It’s a remarkable move that undermines any confidence customers can have in Google’s hardware offerings.

While Revolv isn’t the first and will be far from the last Internet of Things device to be abandoned by its vendor, its fate indicates the importance of keeping as much of the ecosystem as open as possible – the less vendor lock there is, the less hostage you are to rapacious manufactures.

Locked out of the subscription economy

As we’ve seen with Amazon in the past, the ‘subscription economy opens users to the risk they can be locked out of their data or purchased apps. Now we’re seeing how vendors can lock users out of the products entirely.

With connected cars and homes now becoming common, this is something that should concern buyers. As we see everything from door locks to smoke detectors and kettles being connected to the Internet of Things, the risk of being at the mercy of an unreasonable vendor or malfunctioning software becomes greater.

At least with an open source model, it’s easier to build workarounds when faced with an uncooperative supplier and, in a world full of poorly designed IoT products, it’s possible for the community to review the software and understand its bugs.

The security aspect of open platforms is also critical for the IoT as we’re already seeing a plethora of unpatched devices where vendors have long lost interest in supporting the older products.

Open interoperation

More importantly, open platforms make it easier for devices to work together, something that is critical in connected buildings or industries. At the moment the IoT is a mish mash of competing standards and formats.

Over time it won’t be surprising to see the market demanding more open source applications and data feeds – indeed we’re seeing this happen with artificial intelligence platforms – the proprietary model brings in too many risks and makes the IoT far more complex.

While open source software won’t solve problems such as APIs and data feeds being closed or changed, it does give more power back to users and communities. It’s not hard to understand why vendors though would resist these moves.

Mar 192016

A year after hackers demonstrated the risks of connected cars, the FBI and the US Department of Transportation have warned consumers of the risks in internet connected vehicles.

This warning comes as automobile manufacturers are pushing their new breed of motor cars as being software platforms rather than vehicles and calls into question how well security and safety are being designed into their products.

One of the recurrent features of these sort of warnings is how regulators, manufacturers and software designers try to push the risks back onto consumers rather than the companies designing these systems.

Officials said that while not all car hacking incidents result in safety risks, consumers should take the appropriate steps to minimize their own risks.

It’s hard to see what consumers can really do, as most of these systems are ‘black boxes’ protected by strict terms preventing users from seeing, let alone understanding, the software running the vehicles. Customers have to trust the manufacturers to do the right thing.

For the Internet of Things, and connected cars, to be successful they have to deliver value to consumers and have the confidence of the market. Right now many of these features seem to do neither.


Mar 102016
padlock on a cd drive

“Cybersecurity is out of the dungeon and now selling itself as a business service,” says Cisco’s Chief Security and Trust Officer, John Stewart.

Stewart was discussing his company’s security challenges at a Cisco Live briefing at their Melbourne conference yesterday.

The shift to security as a business service follows the pattern of computerisation in business believes Stewart, “at first businesses said you can’t keep important documents on computers, then they said you could only keep important data on computers”

For Stewart, the fact c-level execs recognise the importance of cybersecurity is a positive sign that indicates organisations are taking IT and communications security seriously.

When asked what keeps him up at night, Stewart said it was worries about infrastructure security, the Ukrainian power network’s experience after an attack from a seriously motivated group of hackers indicates just how serious this is.

Interestingly Stewart remains focused on the risks of security breaches, as the Internet of Things rolls out it may well be the integrity of data streams becomes a far greater focus for system administrators and security officers.

Paul travelled to Cisco Live in Melbourne as a guest of Cisco

Feb 242016
Computer security is evolving in a time of social media

“I get quite frustrated with the cybersecurity industry” says Andy France, Deputy Director of Cyber Defence Operations at British Intelligence Agency GCHQ. “We have to think differently.”

France was speaking at the Telstra Cyber Security Forum at the company’s Sydney experience centre yesterday where he outlined how organisations are rethinking about protecting their data.

“What we haven’t realised is just like the Bronze Age, the Stone Age, the Industrial Age and the Internet Age, we have to think differently about what that means to in terms of security and privacy. We have to think differently about how we build systems.”

The biggest problem France sees in the industry itself are the lack of skills to build those secure systems, a situation he believes is partly created by the sector’s credentialism gaining certifications is several orders of magnitude more bureaucratic than becoming a fighter pilot.

In contrast the bad guys who France splits into five groups – script kiddies, hacker collectives, crime syndicates, hackers for hire and nation states – have no such concerns about certificates and accreditation.

“You have serial collectors of letters after their names,” he states. “We’re putting an artificial bar against the people with the new thought processes that are going to help us address this problem.”

“It feels like the criteria has been set up to create a nice little market so we can control day rates,” French says, “in a world where we’re screaming out for talent and need people to come along who are interested and challenged by the subject.”

Apart from the trap of credentialism, the real concern for businesses and users should be the integrity of data in France’s opinion. We need to be certain information is accurate, a problem that will be exacerbated as businesses processes are automated around data streams being connected by the Internet of Things.

France suggests three principles should underlie an organisation’s data defences; having systems in place to spot early indications of a problem, obey the five ‘knows’ and understanding your network.

Understanding your network, what France calls the ‘defender’s advantage’, is the most essential task of all for someone protecting their organisation’s data. “Is someone knows your network better than you then that should be a criminal offense,” he states. “To get the defender’s advantage in place you need to understand your network.”

“Technology in itself with not keep you safe.” French says and describes security as being subject to Pareto’s Law where most vulnerabilities are mundane background noise, “we need to have a balance where technology looks after the 80% and we have the people and processes in dealing with the unexpected 20%.”

“It’s certainly not going to get any better,” French warns about the trends for cyber security in 2016. For most companies and system administrators it’s going to be a matter of being alert and having the processes in place to deal with the unexpected.