Lessons From The New Threat Environment From Sony, Anthem And ISIS


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Cameron F. Kerry


Editor’s note: Cameron F. Kerry is a distinguished visiting fellow in The Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation and is a regular contributor to TechTank, a Brookings blog focused on improving technology policy.  

The cyberattack on Sony Pictures entertainment left plenty of roiled waters in its aftermath: lawsuits from employees whose personal information was leaked; apologies to President Obama and other subjects of hasty emails; U.S. sanctions against North Korea and a war of words back and forth; and the irony of Sony turning to the entity most identified in those emails as a threat to its content distribution model, Google, to distribute “The Interview.”

The Anthem hack exposed a record number of customers. Such a large-scale attack on health records rather than payments (as in the comparable Target attack) was new and raises questions as to just what information the hackers were seeking.

Now come reports of ISIS attacks on U.S. websites. The hacker reportedly placed the black ISIS flag on the websites of several American businesses including a zoo in California and cocktail bar in Massachusetts, seemingly trolling the Internet for vulnerable — albeit lower-profile — targets. Even today it’s not possible to assess the full extent of the damage. But there is widespread agreement that, taken together, these kinds of hacks are unprecedented. Here are some lessons.

Get ready for the next wave of attacks

There have been highly disruptive attacks before (on Saudi Aramco in 2012), political stunts (LulzSec), and ones that have inflicted high costs (Target, for one prominent example). Although the FBI described the sophistication of the Sony attack as “extremely high,” some cybersecurity experts say otherwise. But what is clearly new about these recent attacks are their wholesale breadth and brazenness.

Until Sony Pictures, actors behind advanced persistent threats have been content to exploit their penetration without showing their hands. After all, why announce your presence if you can pluck crown jewels with impunity or lie strategically in wait?

In that instance, though, the attackers let loose. Sony’s CEO Michael Lynton called the hackers’ threats “criminal extortion” – ransomware on a grand scale. One can visualize some of the mafias that trade in credit card numbers and other information on the “dark Internet” trying out cyber protection rackets. But such blatant tactics are more likely to attract actors with non-economic motives who can make a splash with a single big stunt. ISIS appears to have taken a page from the North Korean “Guardians of Peace” playbook.

Cybersecurity is about much more than hardening systems

Sony reportedly hardened its systems after the 2011 PlayStation Network breach caused it to lose information from 77 million user accounts. But hardening systems has focused on firewalls to keep threats out, constantly updating to keep abreast of changing threat signatures. The trouble with this focus is that it does not stay ahead of new threats.

Increasingly, cybersecurity is focusing on detection and resiliency for inevitable penetration of firewalls. The MIT Media Lab, for example, hardly uses any firewalls so it can enable its users to collaborate widely and launch websites without needing permissions. Security relies instead on monitoring systems thoroughly in order to establish a baseline, identifying anomalies such as a computer moving unusual volumes of data or communicating with suspect IP addresses, and responding rapidly when unusual behavior is observed by taking affected computers off the network.

Would measures like these have prevented the Sony or Anthem hacks? One would expect that monitoring could detect unusual access to or transmission of gigabytes of unreleased films or mass email accounts and set off some alarms.

Be careful with system administrators

The government would not issue sanctions against North Korea without a high level of confidence in the attribution of the Sony attack. Even so, some analysts insist it was an inside job.

A reason to suspect insider involvement is the breadth and scale of what was stolen. After all, other wholesale infiltrations of information were accomplished by insiders like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Snowden was able to take so much and make such broad statements about what he could learn about people because he had extraordinary access as a system administrator.

The number of different email accounts hacked at Sony required access to numerous passwords.  Some of the weak passwords that appeared in leaks suggested loose password management, but the wide number of accounts hacked suggest that culprits acquired some extraordinary access, like a system administrator’s. Barring a brute-force attack of unprecedented scale, the hackers either had inside help or gained privileged access through some effective sophisticated phishing or social engineering.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, the NSA took steps to limit how much access a single systems administrator can have. The Sony attack is a reminder that other organizations need to do the same.

It really comes down to information governance

The privileges that system administrators get are part of a larger issue. Information governance  —  deciding who gets access to what, on what terms — is a key part of any information management system.

As general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce, I had to deal with issues of cybersecurity, privacy, knowledge management, records management and the constant production of information in response to Freedom of Information requests, litigation, or congressional inquiries.  With each of these, I saw the same questions coming up: who kept what information, and how it was kept, and where. One response I initiated was to break down silos in training on these issues and bring them together under the heading of information management. In a digital world, everyone is an information manager.

Every organization today needs to understand its information assets, map its information systems, make thoughtful choices about what information to collect and keep (and what not to), establish rules to govern that information, and put in place systems to ensure that these rules are carried out and respond promptly if they are not.

Information governance

If it was not clear from Target’s loss of information on 70 million of its “guests” or Uber’s use of customer records to identify “rides of shame” (to pick two especially high-profile examples among many), the Sony hack is a glaring reminder of how much is at stake in the way organizations manage information.

The New York Times reported that Sony’s initial response to the “Guardians of Peace” attack was slow. Given the volume and velocity of information flowing, some breaches are inevitable and some are routine. Good information governance, monitoring and response systems will help differentiate between trivial and significant incidents and surface those that are critical to mission and brand.

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