Jofny's comment on my post Unify Against Threats asked the following:
So, Richard, I'm curious which security people - who are decision makers at a business level - are focusing on vulnerabilities and not threats?
If there are people like that, they really need to be fired.
This comment was on my mind when I read the story FBI: US Business and Government are Targets of Cyber Theft in the latest SANS NewsBites:
Assistant Director in charge of the US FBI's Cyber Division Shawn Henry said that US government and businesses face a "significant threat" of cyber attacks from a number of countries around the world. Henry did not name the countries, but suggested that there are about two dozen that have developed cyber attack capabilities with the intent of using those capabilities against the US. The countries are reportedly interested in stealing data from targets in the US. Henry said businesses and government agencies should focus on shoring up their systems' security instead of on the origins of the attacks.
The editors' comments are the following:
(Pescatore): It really doesn't matter where the attacks come from, businesses have been getting hit by sophisticated, financially motivated, targeted attacks for several years now.
(Ullrich): A very wise remark. It doesn't matter who attacks you. The methods used to attack you and the methods used to defend yourself are the same. We spend too much time worrying about geographic origins. In cyberspace, nation states are a legacy concept.
This is the mindset that worries me, even though the FBI AD agrees. It ignores this fact: Vulnerabilities and exploits are mindless. On the other hand, intelligent adversaries are not. Therefore, if you are doing more than defending yourself against opportunistic, puerile attackers, it pays to know your enemy by learning about security threats (as shown on the book cover to the right).
Once your security program has matured to the point where not any old caveman can compromise you, it pays to put yourself in the adversary's place. Who might want to exploit your organization's data? What data would be targeted? How could you defend it? How could you detect failure? When complaining to the government and/or law enforcement, to whom can you attribute the attack? Knowing the enemy helps prioritize what to defend and how to do it.
About the AD telling businesses not to worry about threat sources: he's just quoting official FBI policy. I wrote about this in More Threat Reduction, Not Just Vulnerability Reduction:
Recently I attended a briefing were a computer crimes agent from the FBI made the following point:
Your job is vulnerability reduction. Our job is threat reduction.
In other words, it is beyond the legal or practical capability of most computer crime victims to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate threats.
Let's briefly address the "In cyberspace, nation states are a legacy concept." comment. We've been hearing this argument for fifteen years or more. Last time I checked, nation states were alive and well and shaping the way cyberspace works. Just this morning I read the following Economist article Information technology: Clouds and judgment; Computing is about to face a trade-off between sovereignty and efficiency:
The danger is less that the cloud will be a Wild West than that it will be peopled by too many sheriffs scrapping over the rules. Some enforcers are already stirring up trouble, threatening employees of online companies in one jurisdiction to get their employers based in another to fork over incriminating data for instance. Several governments have passed new laws forcing online firms to retain more data. At some point, cloud providers may find themselves compelled to build data centres in every country where they do business.
Finally, independent actors do not operate intelligence services who target our enterprises; nation states do. I've written about Counterintelligence and the Cyber Threat before. Part of the problem may stem from a distinction Ira Winkler made at RSA 2006, which I noted in my post RSA Conference 2006 Wrap-Up, Part 3:
I highly recommend that those of you who give me grief about "threats" and "vulnerabilities" listen to what Mr. Winkler has to say. First, he distinguishes between those who perform security functions and those who perform counter-intelligence. The two are not the same. Security focuses on vulnerabilities, while counter-intelligence focus on threats.
Maybe I spend more time on the counterintelligence problem than others, but I can't see how vulnerability-centric security is a good idea -- except for those who sell "countermeasures."