Currently the situation is one of attackers using automation to focus on vulnerable targets
Internet of things is worth the resilience trade-offs it demands – effort, thought and inconvenience

‘No society is more than three meals from revolution’ says the old adage. Updating the idea for the Information Age is a revealing, if somewhat worrying, exercise. How resilient are we as a society? Could your company function efficiently after a complete failure in IT? How effective would your employees be if forced to work from home following a collapse in the transport network?

If the Internet could no longer be accessed it would probably not even count as a calamity for us as individuals, merely an annoyance. After all, we seem to manage for a few hours after the aircraft’s doors have been closed. A few tweets and profile updates are missed, but, in general, humanity rolls on. But what if civic leaders at the national and international levels were denied the ability to deliver critical services? Will our (increasingly driverless) transport networks fail safely or be at all operable if they lose connectivity? How long would it be before tap water became unsafe to drink? How would we talk to each other or organise any kind of response?

Living in the future?

Like it or not, we have already built a world in which everything is connected via an unassured and fundamentally insecure platform. We may be in a new Information Age, but it is, for the time being at least, an age of Information Insecurity.  At AppSec 2015 in Santa Monica, Alex Stamos, Chief Security Officer at Facebook and previously CISO at Yahoo, countered the idea that we are living in the future. Rather, he suggested, we are only 3% into the information revolution and the days of dedicated hardware are over: everything is now a platform and application security is a topic more deserving of our attention.

Even our bodies are becoming sensors, with the advent of internal and in some cases digestible sensors. Many of us are already part of this new world, albeit at a very basic level, using technologies like Fitbit or Strava, for example. Sharing and collating our medical data, including our genetic make-up, can make healthcare much more pro-active and sustainable, improving the quality of our increasingly extended lives or broadening our attack surfaces, depending on your point of view. In 2011 Marc Andreessen, a Hewlett-Packard Board member, warned in a WSJ article, “software is eating the world”. Four years on are we more or less vulnerable?

Cyber Armageddon has been predicted on numerous occasions: from North Korean hackers destroying critical infrastructure, to a cyber Pearl Harbor “derailing trains loaded with lethal chemicals”.

Sure, there are hackers with malicious intent, operating, as Alex Stamos says, if not in a state-sponsored capacity, certainly in a state-looks-the-other-way capacity. To demonstrate the industrial scale of hacking out there, at XQ we maintain an Internet of Things Honey Pot. Over nine months there have been nearly a thousand successful log-ins. That’s three log-ins a day to a machine that should be anonymous, and that nobody should even be touching.

Automated log-ins

As we move from a world of network security to one of application security we need to embrace (and be comfortable with) the near-certainty of being hacked and design resilience into our systems, processes and mind-sets

What’s also interesting is that two-thirds of these log-ins are entirely automated. They are SSH scanners finding our machine and brute forcing the password.  They’re easy to spot – they try hundreds of passwords combinations a minute. Faster than a human being could possibly type. The remaining third – the human part of the attack – is more interesting. They don’t try to guess the password; that’s all done automatically. These are people who come back once their scanner has done the hard work and really take a look at you.

FireEye, a US firm specialising in network security, produced a survey in 2014 which examined 1216 organisations across 63 countries, covering over 20 industries. 97% reported a breach in the previous 12 months with 27% reporting persistence on the network. 75% had experienced command and control activity. The average time it took to detect a breach was 229 days, with two-thirds discovered by third parties.

Currently the situation is one of attackers using automation to focus on vulnerable targets, while we, as defenders, are reliant upon patches, bolt-ons and reacting to breaches that are usually spotted by third parties in the first instance. That’s a lot of clients losing confidence in our ability to protect their data. Hardly a sustainable business model.

Designing secure systems

So there is a problem, and it’s not going away. Instead as we become ever-more connected, we will become ever-more vulnerable; as individuals, businesses and communities. Perhaps even to the point of the doomsday scenarios painted previously.

If they are to build resilience, civic leaders (and individuals) need to assume a ‘when’, not ‘if’, approach to the shocks that will be caused, or at least made possible, by the very technologies that were supposed to make our lives better in the first place.

As cyber security consultants, we’ve yet to come across an energy production or transmission network that we couldn’t reach from the Internet

And it is a question of resilience, not disconnection. As cyber security consultants, we’ve yet to come across an energy production or transmission network that we couldn’t reach from the Internet, either directly or indirectly, from the corporate and supply chain networks that attach to it. The same applies for water, sanitation, emergency services, healthcare, welfare and so on. Modern industrial control and automation plants cannot operate in their ‘just in time’ world unless they are able to source materials in response to price and availability fluctuations. And to do this, they need the Internet. It is no longer sufficient to think solely of how easy it is to disrupt our energy supply via a cyber attack. It is now essential to design systems and think in terms of failing gracefully, in a controlled manner, before restoring services quickly and safely.

Creating sustainable environments

In the short term – say, the next fifteen to twenty years – it will be difficult to argue that billions of embedded devices that can’t be patched but are hooked to our networks, calling out into the darkness of the Internet is a bad thing. But we are not totally helpless.

As we move from a world of network security to one of application security we need to embrace (and be comfortable with) the near-certainty of being hacked and design resilience into our systems, processes and mind-sets. We cannot turn off the Internet. Nor do we want to. We have, collectively, decided that the Internet of things is worth the resilience trade-offs it demands – effort, thought and inconvenience. The opportunity to create a more sustainable, economically prosperous and environmentally friendly society is too enticing to turn away from. Remember, we’re only 3% down the road.

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Managing security during unprecedented times of home working
Managing security during unprecedented times of home working

Companies are following government guidance and getting as many people as possible working from home. Some companies will have resisted home working in the past, but I’m certain that the sceptics will find that people can be productive with the right tools no matter where they are. A temporary solution will become permanent. But getting it right means managing risk. Access is king In a typical office with an on-premise data centre, the IT department has complete control over network access, internal networks, data, and applications. The remote worker, on the other hand, is mobile. He or she can work from anywhere using a VPN. Until just recently this will have been from somewhere like a local coffee shop, possibly using a wireless network to access the company network and essential applications. CV-19 means that huge numbers of people are getting access to the same desktop and files, and collaborative communication toolsBut as we know, CV-19 means that huge numbers of people are getting access to the same desktop and files, applications and collaborative communication tools that they do on a regular basis from the office or on the train. Indeed, the new generation of video conferencing technologies come very close to providing an “almost there” feeling. Hackers lie in wait Hackers are waiting for a wrong move amongst the panic, and they will look for ways to compromise critical servers. Less than a month ago, we emerged from a period of chaos. For months hackers had been exploiting a vulnerability in VPN products from Pulse Secure, Fortinet, Palo Alto Networks, and Citrix. Patches were provided by vendors, and either companies applied the patch or withdrew remote access. 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There is clearly much for CIOs to think about, but it is possible to secure a network by applying some well thought through tactics. I believe it comes down to having a ‘more speed, less haste’ approach to rolling out, scaling up and integrating technologies for home working, but above all, it should be mixed with an employee education programme. As in reality, great technology and a coherent security strategy will never work if it is undermined by the poor practices of employees.

Security technology and AI: A powerful duo in the fight against COVID-19
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Emergency response and notification systems: Crucial for improving hospital security
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White, president/CEO of Protection Management, a consultant who works with hospitals to address their security needs. During the Ebola scare in 2014, however, hospitals had to re-examine their plans to ensure they were prepared to meet the challenges specific to rare and deadly disease. “Hospitals are prepared for most things, but Ebola seemed to have caught the whole world off guard, so people responded in different ways,” says White, who previously was security director of two multi-campus medical facilities before becoming a consultant. Hospital security Hospitals made adjustments to their emergency programs to determine how best to handle Ebola patients" He adds, “Hospitals made adjustments to their emergency programs to determine how best to handle Ebola patients and to protect other patients and staff. It was a new threat that healthcare organisations had not specifically addressed.” A particular concern was the possibility of an infected person walking into an emergency room and infecting other people and/or requiring facility decontamination. One role the hospital security department plays in such an emergency is to control access to the facility and to control visitors’ movements once they are inside the facility, says White. If the Ebola scare had progressed to the point that a hospital would need to screen patients, security would be positioned at the front entrance to help with that screening and, if necessary, to direct patients to a specific area for quarantine. Protective equipment Security might also need to wear protective equipment to handle a patient who is resistant to treatment, for example. There are often interactions between security personnel and the general public, a scenario that becomes more complicated if Ebola or a similar infection is likely. In general, security would be tasked with maintaining order and keeping people where they need to be, freeing up the medical professionals to do their jobs more efficiently, says White. To prepare for the impact of the Ebola scare, hospitals addressed various training and equipment needs and adjusted their disaster/emergency response plans. Read parts two and three of our heathcare mini series here and here.