This BriefingsDirect thought leadership interview comes in conjunction with The Open Group Conference in Washington, D.C., beginning July 16. The conference will focus on how security impacts the enterprise architecture, enterprise transformation, and global supply chain activities in organizations, both large and small.
We’re now joined on the security front with one of the main speakers at the conference, Joel Brenner, the author of “America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime, and Warfare.”
Joel is a former Senior Counsel at the National Security Agency (NSA), where he advised on legal and policy issues relating to network security. Mr. Brenner currently practices law in Washington at Cooley LLP, specializing in cyber security. Registration remains open for The Open Group Conference in Washington, DC beginning July 16.
Previously, he served as the National Counterintelligence Executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and as the NSA’s Inspector General. He is a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: The Open Group is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Your book came out last September and it affirmed this notion that the United States, or at least open Western cultures and societies, are particularly vulnerable to being infiltrated, if you will, from cybercrime, espionage, and dirty corporate tricks.Why are we particularly vulnerable, when we should be most adept at using cyber activities to our advantage?
Brenner: Let’s make a distinction here between the political-military espionage that’s gone on since pre-biblical times and the economic espionage that’s going on now and, in many cases, has nothing at all to do with military, defense, or political issues.
The other stuff has been going on forever, but what we’ve seen in the last 15 or so years is a relentless espionage attack on private companies for reasons having nothing to do with political-military affairs or defense.
So the countries that are adept at cyber, but whose economies are relatively undeveloped compared to ours, are at a big advantage, because they’re not very lucrative targets for this kind of thing, and we are. Russia, for example, is paradoxical. While it has one of the most educated populations in the world and is deeply cultured, it has never been able to produce a commercially viable computer chip.
We’re not going to Russia to steal advanced technology. We’re not going to China to steal advanced technology. They’re good at engineering and they’re good at production, but so far, they have not been good at making themselves into an entrepreneurial culture.
That’s one just very cynical reason why we don’t do economic espionage against the people who are mainly attacking us, which are China, Russia, and Iran. I say attack in the espionage sense.
The other reason is that you’re stealing intellectual property when you’re doing economic espionage. It’s a bedrock proposition of American economics and political strategy around the world to defend the legal regime that protects intellectual property. So we don’t do that kind of espionage. Political-military stuff we’re real good at.
Gardner: Wouldn’t our defense rise to the occasion? Why hasn’t it?
Brenner: The answer has a lot to do with the nature of the Internet and its history. The Internet, as some of your listeners will know, was developed starting in the late ’60s by the predecessor of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a brilliant operation which produced a lot of cool science over the years.
It was developed for a very limited purpose, to allow the collaboration of geographically dispersed scientists who worked under contract in various universities with the Defense Department’s own scientists. It was bringing dispersed brainpower to bear.
It was a brilliant idea, and the people who invented this, if you talk to them today, lament the fact that they didn’t build a security layer into it. They thought about it. But it wasn’t going to be used for anything else but this limited purpose in a trusted environment, so why go to the expense and aggravation of building a lot of security into it?
Until 1992, it was against the law to use the Internet for commercial purposes. Dana, this is just amazing to realize. That’s 20 years ago, a twinkling of an eye in the history of a country’s commerce. That means that 20 years ago, nobody was doing anything commercial on the Internet. Ten years ago, what were you doing on the Internet, Dana? Buying a book for the first time or something like that? That’s what I was doing, and a newspaper.
In the intervening decade, we’ve turned this sort of Swiss cheese, cool network, which has brought us dramatic productivity and all and pleasure into the backbone of virtually everything we do.
International finance, personal finance, command and control of military, manufacturing controls, the controls in our critical infrastructure, all of our communications, virtually all of our activities are either on the Internet or exposed to the Internet. And it’s the same Internet that was Swiss cheese 20 years ago and it’s Swiss cheese now. It’s easy to spoof identities on it.
So this gives a natural and profound advantage to attack on this network over defense. That’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in.
Gardner: Let’s also look at this notion of supply chain, because corporations aren’t just islands unto themselves. A business is really a compendium of other businesses, products, services, best practices, methodologies, and intellectual property that come together to create a value add of some kind. It’s not just attacking the end point, where that value is extended into the market. It’s perhaps attacking anywhere along that value chain.
What are the implications for this notion of the ecosystem vulnerability versus the enterprise vulnerability?
Brenner: Well, the supply chain problem really is rather daunting for many businesses, because supply chains are global now, and it means that the elements of finished products have a tremendous numbers of elements. For example, this software, where was it written? Maybe it was written in Russia — or maybe somewhere in Ohio or in Nevada, but by whom? We don’t know.
There are two fundamental different issues for supply chain, depending on the company. One is counterfeiting. That’s a bad problem. Somebody is trying to substitute shoddy goods under your name or the name of somebody that you thought you could trust. That degrades performance and presents real serious liability problems as a result.
The other problem is the intentional hooking, or compromising, of software or chips to do things that they’re not meant to do, such as allow backdoors and so on in systems, so that they can be attacked later. That’s a big problem for military and for the intelligence services all around the world.
The reason we have the problem is that nobody knows how to vet a computer chip or software to see that it won’t do these squirrelly things. We can test that stuff to make sure it will do what it’s supposed to do, but nobody knows how to test the computer chip or two million lines of software reliably to be sure that it won’t also do certain things we don’t want it to do.
You can put it in a sandbox or a virtual environment and you can test it for a lot of things, but you can’t test it for everything. It’s just impossible. In hardware and software, it is the strategic supply chain problem now. That’s why we have it.
If you have a worldwide supply chain, you have to have a worldwide supply chain management system. This is hard and it means getting very specific. It includes not only managing a production process, but also the shipment process. A lot of squirrelly things happen on loading docks, and you have to have a way not to bring perfect security to that — that’s impossible — but to make it really harder to attack your supply chain.
Notion of cost
Gardner: So many organizations today, given the economy and the lagging growth, have looked to lowest cost procedures, processes, suppliers, materials, and aren’t factoring in the risk and the associated cost around these security issues. Do people need to reevaluate cost in the supply chain by factoring in what the true risks are that we’re discussing?
Brenner: Yes, but of course, when the CEO and the CFO get together and start to figure this stuff out, they look at the return on investment (ROI) of additional security. It’s very hard to be quantitatively persuasive about that. That’s one reason why you may see some kinds of production coming back into the United States. How one evaluates that risk depends on the business you’re in and how much risk you can tolerate.
This is a problem not just for really sensitive hardware and software, special kinds of operations, or sensitive activities, but also for garden-variety things.
Gardner: We’ve seen other aspects of commerce in which we can’t lock down the process. We can’t know all the information, but what we can do is offer deterrence, perhaps in the form of legal recourse, if something goes wrong, if in fact, decisions were made that countered the contracts or were against certain laws or trade practices.
Brenner: For a couple of years now, I’ve struggled with the question why it is that liability hasn’t played a bigger role in bringing more cyber security to our environment, and there are a number of reasons.
We’ve created liability for the loss of personal information, so you can quantify that risk. You have a statute that says there’s a minimum damage of $500 or $1,000 per person whose identifiable information you lose. You add up the number of files in the breach and how much the lawyers and the forensic guys cost and you come up with a calculation of what these things cost.
But when it comes to just business risk, not legal risk, and the law says intellectual property to a company that depends on that intellectual property, you have a business risk. You don’t have much of a legal risk at this point.
You may have a shareholder suit issue, but there hasn’t been an awful lot of that kind of litigation so far. So I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s quite the question you were asking me, Dana.
Gardner: My follow on to that was going to be where would you go to sue across borders anyway? Is there an über-regulatory or legal structure across borders to target things like supply chain, counterfeit, cyber espionage, or mistreatment of business practice?
Depends on the borders
Brenner: It depends on the borders you’re talking about. The Europeans have a highly developed legal and liability system. You can bring actions in European courts. So it depends what borders you mean.
If you’re talking about the border of Russia, you have very different legal issues. China has different legal issues, different from Russia, as well from Iran. There are an increasing number of cases where actions are being brought in China successfully for breaches of intellectual property rights. But you wouldn’t say that was the case in Nigeria. You wouldn’t say that was the case in a number of other countries where we’ve had a lot of cybercrime originating from.
So there’s no one solution here. You have to think in terms of all kinds of layered defenses. There are legal actions you can take sometimes, but the fundamental problem we’re dealing with is this inherently porous Swiss-cheesy system. In the long run, we’re going to have to begin thinking about the gradual reengineering of the way the Internet works, or else this basic dynamic, in which lawbreakers have advantage over law-abiding people, is not going to go away.
Think about what’s happened in cyber defenses over the last 10 years and how little they’ve evolved — even 20 years for that matter. They almost all require us to know the attack mode or the sequence of code in order to catch it. And we get better at that, but that’s a leapfrog business. That’s fundamentally the way we do it.
Whether we do it at the perimeter, inside, or even outside before the attack gets to the perimeter, that’s what we’re looking for — stuff we’ve already seen. That’s a very poor strategy for doing security, but that’s where we are. It hasn’t changed much in quite a long time and it’s probably not going to.
Gardner: Why is that the case? Is this not a perfect opportunity for a business-government partnership to come together and re-architect the Internet at least for certain types of business activities, permit a two-tier approach, and add different levels of security into that? Why hasn’t it gone anywhere?
Brenner: What I think you’re saying is different tiers or segments. We’re talking about the Balkanization of the Internet. I think that’s going to happen as more companies demand a higher level of protection, but this again is a cost-benefit analysis. You’re going to see even more Balkanization of the Internet as you see countries like Russia and China, with some success, imposing more controls over what can be said and done on the Internet. That’s not going to be acceptable to us.
Gardner: We’ve seen a lot with cloud computing and more businesses starting to go to third-party cloud providers for their applications, services, data storage, even integration to other business services and so forth.
If there’s a limited lumber, or at least a finite number, of cloud providers and they can institute the proper security and take advantage of certain networks within networks, then wouldn’t that hypothetically make a cloud approach more secure and more managed than every-man-for-himself, which is what we have now in enterprises and small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs)?
Brenner: I think the short answer is, yes. The SMBs will achieve greater security by basically contracting it out to what are called cloud providers. That’s because managing the patching of vulnerabilities and other aspects and encryption is beyond what’s most small businesses and many medium-sized businesses can do, are willing to do, or can do cost-effectively.
For big businesses in the cloud, it just depends on how good the big businesses’ own management of IT is as to whether it’s an improvement or not. But there are some problems with the cloud.
People talk about security, but there are different aspects of it. You and I have been talking just now about security meaning the ability to prevent somebody from stealing or corrupting your information. But availability is another aspect of security. By definition, putting everything in one remote place reduces robustness, because if you lose that connection, you lose everything.
Consequently, it seems to me that backup issues are really critical for people who are going to the cloud. Are you going to rely on your cloud provider to provide the backup? Are you going to rely on the cloud provider to provide all of your backup? Are you going to go to a second cloud provider? Are you going to keep some information copied in-house?
What would happen if your information is good, but you can’t get to it? That means you can’t get to anything anymore. So that’s another aspect of security people need to think through.
Gardner: How do you know you’re doing the right thing? How do you know that you’re protecting? How do you know that you’ve gone far enough to ameliorate the risk?
Brenner: This is really hard. If somebody steals your car tonight, Dana, you go out to the curb or the garage in the morning, and you know it’s not there. You know it’s been stolen.
When somebody steals your algorithms, your formulas, or your secret processes, you’ve still got them. You don’t know they’re gone, until three or four years later, when somebody in Central China or Siberia is opening a factory and selling stuff into your market that you thought you were going to be selling — and that’s your stuff. Then maybe you go back and realize, “Oh, that incident three or four years ago, maybe that’s when that happened, maybe that’s when I lost it.”
What’s going out
So you don’t even know necessarily when things have been stolen. Most companies don’t do a good job. They’re so busy trying to find out what’s coming into their network, they’re not looking at what’s going out.
That’s one reason the stuff is hard to measure. Another is that ROI is very tough. On the other hand, there are lots of things where business people have to make important judgments in the face of risks and opportunities they can’t quantify, but we do it.
We’re right to want data whenever we can get it, because data generally means we can make better decisions. But we make decisions about investment in R&D all the time without knowing what the ROI is going to be and we certainly don’t know what the return on a particular R&D expenditure is going to be. But we make that, because people are convinced that if they don’t make it, they’ll fall behind and they’ll be selling yesterday’s products tomorrow.
Why is it that we have a bias toward that kind of risk, when it comes to opportunity, but not when it comes to defense? I think we need to be candid about our own biases in that regard, but I don’t have a satisfactory answer to your question, and nobody else does either. This is one where we can’t quantify that answer.
Gardner: It sounds as if people need to have a healthy dose of paranoia to tide them over across these areas. Is that a fair assessment?
Brenner: Well, let’s say skepticism. People need to understand, without actually being paranoid, that life is not always what it seems. There are people who are trying to steal things from us all the time, and we need to protect ourselves.
In many companies, you don’t see a willingness to do that, but that varies a great deal from company to company. Things are not always what they seem. That is not how we Americans approach life. We are trusting folks, which is why this is a great country to do business in and live in. But we’re having our pockets picked and it’s time we understood that.
Gardner: And, as we pointed out earlier, this picking of pockets is not just on our block, but could be any of our suppliers, partners, or other players in our ecosystem. If their pockets get picked, it ends up being our problem too.
Brenner: Yeah, I described this risk in my book, “America the Vulnerable,” at great length and in my practice, here at Cooley, I deal with this every day. I find myself, Dana, giving briefings to businesspeople that 5, 10, or 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have given to anybody who wasn’t a diplomat or a military person going outside the country. Now this kind of cyber pilferage is an aspect of daily commercial life, I’m sorry to say.
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