New York Times disclosure of cyber-attacks should pave way for greater corporate engagement and a critical infrastructure executive order

Seal of the White House Office of Homeland Sec...

Seal of the White House Office of Homeland Security, which was formed by executive order on October 8, 2001,http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011008-2.html and later grew into the United States Department of Homeland Security. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the lead story in the New York Times focused on its own failure to defend from Chinese political computer hacking, there is a renewed concern regarding the vulnerability of domestic computer systems, particularly those that are part of the critical national infrastructure. Homeland Security describes critical infrastructure as “the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”

While the Communications Sector is one of the 18 Sectors identified as part of the critical infrastructure, the focus is on the telecommunications network rather than the content itself. Nonetheless, the continuing attack which lasted over four months raises serious questions regarding the ability of organizations to effectively defend themselves against a serious professional attack.

Among the facts that stood out was the failure of commercial antivirus software. According to the Times, “[o]ver the course of three months, attackers installed 45 pieces of custom malware. The Times — which uses antivirus products made by Symantec — found only one instance in which Symantec identified an attacker’s software as malicious and quarantined it, according to Mandiant.”

The nature of the exposure has also changed. Instead of attacks targeted at firewalls, the campaign is not conducted through phishing – bogus links in innocuous emails that open the firewall to allow installation of “remote access tools” — or RATs.

Those tools can siphon off oceans of data — passwords, keystrokes, screen images, documents and, in some cases, recordings from computers’ microphones and Web cameras — and send the information back to the attackers’ Web servers.

Michael Higgins, chief security officer at The Times, said: “Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals. They send a malicious piece of code to your e-mail account and you’re opening it and letting them in.”

To meet this threat the Department of Homeland Security established the Office of Infrastructure Protection in 2002. It has its hands full.

This is a complex mission. Critical infrastructure ranges from the nation’s electric power, food and drinking water to its national monuments, telecommunications and transportation systems, chemical facilities, and much more. The vast majority of critical infrastructure in the United States is privately owned and operated; thus, public-private partnerships are essential to protect and boost the resilience of critical infrastructure and respond to events.

The attacks are real.  The Washington Post has reported on an overseas attacks which target utilities, including one which gained control of a Texas water utility.

Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers. … From October to April, the DHS received 120 incident reports, about the same as for all of 2011. But no one knows how often breaches have occurred or how serious they have been. Companies are under no obligation to report such intrusions to authorities.

Congress flirted with new legislation to update the obligation of companies in the 18 sectors which provide our critical infrastructure but it was ultimately unable to agree on legislative action. In its place, President Obama is expected to issue an executive order which will highlight the obligation to respond to a notice of imminent threat or to update the capacity to respond to a cyber-attack by any organization within one of the sectors which receives a governmental notice.  A possible draft of the order is available here.

While business is reluctant to embrace these new obligations, the acknowledgment by the New York Times of the vulnerability companies face should change the dialogue about the executive order and the need to plan for cyber-defense rather than complain about its costs. After all, the cost of inaction will be much, much higher.

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