Notes from Tony Sager Keynote at SANS

I took a few notes at the SANS Incident Detection Summit keynote by Tony Sager last week. I thought you might like to see what I recorded.

All of the speakers made many interesting comments, but it was really only during the start of the second day, when Tony spoke, when I had time to write down some insights.

If you're not familiar with Tony, he is chief of the Vulnerability Analysis and Operations (VAO) Group in NSA.

  • These days, the US goes to war with its friends (i.e., allies fight with the us against a common adversary). However, the US doesn't know its friends until the day before the war, and not all of the US' friends like each other. These realities complicate information assurance.

  • Commanders have been trained to accept a certain level of error in physical space. They do not expect to know the exact number of bullets on hand before a battle, for example. However, they often expect to know exactly how many computers they have at hand, as well as their state. Commanders will need to develop a level of comfort with uncertainty.

  • Far too much information assurance is at the front line, where the burden rests with the least trained, least experienced, yet well-meaning, people. Think of the soldier fresh from tech school responsible for "making it work" in the field. Hence, Tony's emphasis on shifting the burden to vendors where possible.

  • "When nations compete, everybody cheats." [Note: this is another way to remember that with information assurance, the difference is the intelligent adversary.]

  • The bad guy's business model is more efficient than the good guy's business model. They are global, competitive, distributed, efficient, and agile. [My take on that is the financially-motivated computer criminals actually earn ROI from their activities because they are making money. Defenders are simply avoiding losses.

  • The best way to defeat the adversary is to increase his cost, level of uncertainty, and exposure. Introducing these, especially uncertainty, causes the adversary to stop, wait, and rethink his activity.

  • Defenders can't afford perfection, and the definition changes by the minute anyway. [This is another form of the Defender's Dilemma -- what should we try to save, and what should we sacrifice? On the other hand we have the Intruder's Dilemma, which Aaron Walters calls the Persistence Paradox -- how to accomplish a mission that changes a system while remaining undetected.]

  • Our problems are currently characterized by coordination and knowledge management, and less by technical issues.

  • Human-to-human contact doesn't scale. Neither does narrative text. Hence Tony's promotion of standards-based communication.

Thanks again to Tony and our day one keynote Ron Gula!


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