Consultants Say Their Cyber Warnings Were Ignored

by adam on August 3, 2016

Back in October, 2014, I discussed a pattern of “Employees Say Company Left Data Vulnerable,” and its a pattern that we’ve seen often since. Today, I want to discuss the consultant’s variation on the story. This is less common, because generally smart consultants don’t comment on the security of their consultees. In this case, it doesn’t seem like the consultant’s report was leaked, but people are discussing it after a high-profile issue.

In brief, the DNC was hacked, probably by Russian intelligence, and emails were given to Wikileaks. Wikileaks published them without redacting things like credit card numbers or social security numbers. The head of the DNC has stepped down. (This is an unusual instance of someone losing their job, which is rare post-breach. However, she did not lose her job because of the breach, she lost it because the breach included information about how her organization tilted the playing field, and how she lied about doing so.)

This story captures a set of archetypes. I want to use this story as a foil for those archetypes, not to critique any of the parties. I’ll follow the pattern from “employess vs company” present those three sections: “I told you so”, “potential spending”, and “how to do better.” I also comments on preventability and “shame.”

Was it preventable?

Computer security consultants hired by the DNC made dozens of recommendations after a two-month review, the people said. Following the advice, which would typically include having specialists hunt for intruders on the network, might have alerted party officials that hackers had been lurking in their network for weeks… (“Democrats Ignored Cybersecurity Warnings Before Theft,” Michael Riley, Bloomberg.)

People are talking about this as if the DNC was ever likely to stop Russian intelligence from breaking into their computers. That’s a very, very challenging goal, one at which both US and British intelligence have failed. (And as I write this, an FBI agent has been charged with espionage on behalf of China.) There’s a lot of “might,” “could have,” and other words that say “possible” without assessing “probable.”

I told you so!

The report included “dozens of recommendations,” some of which, such as “taking special precautions to protect any financial information related to donors” might be a larger project than a PCI compliance initiative. (The logic is that financial information collected by a party is more than just card numbers; there seems to be a lot of SSNs in the data as well). If one recommendation is “get PCI compliant,” than “dozens of recommendations” might be a Sysyphean task, or perhaps the Agean Stables are a better analogy. In either case, only in mythology can the actions be completed.

Missing from the discussion I’ve seen so far is any statement of what was done. Did the organization do the top-5 things the consultants said to do? (Did they even break things out into a top-5?)

Potential Spending

The review found problems ranging from an out-of-date firewall to a lack of advanced malware detection technology on individual computers, according to two of the people familiar with the matter.

It sounds like “advanced malware detection technology” would be helpful here, right? Hindsight is 20:20. An out-of-date firewall? Was it missing security updates (which would be worrisome, but less worrisome than one might think, depending on what those updates fix), or was it just not the latest revision? If it’s not the latest revision, it can probably still do its job. In carefully reading the article, I saw no evidence that any single recommendation, or even implementing all of them, would have prevented the breach.

The DNC is a small organization. They were working with a rapidly shifting set of campaign workers working for the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. I presume they’re also working on a great many state races, and the organizations those politicians are setting up.

I do not believe that doing everything in the consultant’s report could reasonably be expected to prevent a breakin by a determined mid-sized intelligence agency.

Shame

“Shame on them. It looks like they just did the review to check a box but didn’t do anything with it,” said Ann Barron-DiCamillo, who was director of US-Cert, the primary agency protecting U.S. government networks, until last February. “If they had acted last fall, instead of those thousands of e-mails exposed it might have been much less.”

Via Meredith Patterson, I saw “The Left’s Self-Destructive Obsession with Shame,” and there’s an infosec analog. Perhaps they would have found the attackers if they’d followed the advice, perhaps not. Does adding shame work to improve the cybers? If it did, it should have done so by now.

How to do better

I stand by what I said last time. The organization has paid the PR price, and we have learned nothing. What a waste. We should talk about exactly what happened at a technical level.

We should stop pointing fingers and giggling. It isn’t helping us. In many ways, the DNC is not so different from thousands of other small or mid-size organizations who hold sensitive information. Where is the list of effective practice for them to follow? How different is the set of recommendations in this instance from other instances? Where’s the list of “security 101” that the organization should have followed before hiring these consultants? (My list is at “Security 101: Show Your List!.”)

We should define the “smoke alarms and sprinklers” of cyber. Really, why does an organization like the DNC need to pay $60,000 for a cybersecurity policy? It’s a little hard to make sense of, but I think that the net operating expenditures of $5.1m is a decent proxy for the size of the organization, and (if that’s right) 1% of their net operating expenses went to a policy review. Was that a good use of money? How else should they have spent that? What concrete things do we, as a profession or as a community, say they should have done? Is there a reference architecture, or a system in a box which they could have run that we expect would resist Russian intelligence?

We cannot expect every small org to re-invent this wheel. We have to help them better.

2 comments

I point small organisations at Office 365 (and large ones). Running an email server is commodity; it does not differentiate your business and the best you can do is not get it wrong. Is it Russian-proof? I don’t know but it might free up resources that could help do risk analysis and security review more broadly for the org (and if that’s as unlikely to happen as I expect in many orgs) at least the mail works well and is no less secure than the best-run mail servers.

by Mary Branscombe on August 5, 2016 at 8:00 pm. Reply #

The issue with recommending Office365 to your customers is that there is no ability to do any kind of forensic activity in that environment should you have questions you need answers to like “Where in the world did this user log-in from and what did they do?”.

There are canned compliance reports. Nothing at all that would help you in Incident Response.

But then again, companies of this size typically don’t have IR so they’re just food for the criminal ecosystem to feed on.

by Red on August 10, 2016 at 10:16 pm. Reply #

Leave your comment

Not published.

If you have one.