State of the Union: Cyberthreat

State of the Union: Cyberthreat

Summary: President Obama signed a cybersecurity executive order yesterday. Our own David Gewirtz, one of America's leading cybersecurity experts, explains why Mr. Obama didn't go far enough.


Normally, shortly after the President delivers his Constitutionally-mandated State of the Union report (it’s the report that’s required, not the speech), I deconstruct the speech and provide you with the points I think are important to consider.

Today is not a normal day. While the union is undergoing its usual economic and political stresses, with the sad addition of increased gun violence, what I consider the most important story got only a two-paragraph mention in President Obama’s speech last night.

America is being attacked. Constantly. Unrelentingly. We are being attacked by enemy nation states (like North Korea), frenemy nation states (like China and Russia), friendly nation states (like France and Israel), hacker groups (like Anonymous), just plain ol’ organized crime organizations out to make a buck, and individual hackers out to make a name for themselves.

Although the President only gave the cyberthreat two paragraphs of attention in his speech, he did something else very important yesterday: he issued an Executive Order, “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity” (full text, ZDNet analysis).

It is at this point that I must share with you an important disclosure about myself. I am a member of the FBI’s InfraGard program, the infrastructure security partnership between the FBI and industry. I am also a member of the U.S. Naval Institute and the National Defense Industrial Association, the leading defense industry association promoting national security. I'm also the Cyberwarfare Advisor to the International Association of Counterterrorism and Security Professionals.

I’m telling you this because you need to know that I look at these issues from a similar perspective as those in Homeland Security and the other three-letter agencies. We have a challenge here: we are being attacked. We have a second challenge: we Americans cherish our privacy and any defense has to also protect that privacy.

Let me be blunt: I don’t think President Obama went far enough.

Mr. Obama's Executive Order is a step in the right directly, but it’s not strong enough and may even open the door to new exploits.

I also think President Obama missed a golden opportunity to involve the American people. In fact, I think he squandered a necessary, critical, golden opportunity – using  the bully pulpit of the State of the Union and its worldwide media coverage to involve American citizens in their own cyberdefense.

On the other hand, the Executive Order generally gets the privacy protection side of things pretty much right. Previous attempts at cybersecurity legislation have forgotten the the importance of privacy. When CISPA and SOPA were spun up, so were the forces of We The Internet, and rightly so. Those were both bad law-making and they were rightfully squashed.

President Obama’s new Executive Order takes those concerns into account. “Privacy” is mentioned 14 times in the order. Section 5 of the document is entitled, “Privacy and Civil Liberties Protections,” and provides substantial and reasonably guidelines for the ongoing maintenance of our sacred freedoms.

This is supported by a statement from the ACLU (quoting from an article in The Hill):

"The president’s executive order rightly focuses on cybersecurity solutions that don’t negatively impact civil liberties," Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the ACLU, in a statement. "For example, greasing the wheels of information sharing from the government to the private sector is a privacy-neutral way to distribute critical cyber information."

Unfortunately, in its first run through Congress, CISPA seemed to miss the point about America freedom and privacy. I am not convinced that additional legislation, especially the way CISPA was written, is necessary to protect America, since our existing laws about crime, espionage, and warfare pretty much cover the defensive aspects of the cyberthreat.

I am also deeply concerned about reports that CISPA is back on the table, essentially unchanged. Sadly, in 5 reasons why SOPA, PROTECT-IP and other legislative idiocy will never die, I predicted this sort of thing would keep on happening.

On the other hand, the new Executive Order seeks to set mandatory cybersecurity standards for government agencies and voluntary standards for U.S. companies and organizations.

However, as malware guru Phil Owens mentioned to me in yesterday’s cybersecurity webcast, once you set standards, you also set a minimum bar for acceptability. Essentially, you’re telling agencies and businesses that “this is good enough,” and you’re telling attackers, “This is what we’re watching for,” leaving the door open for attack vectors not covered in regulations.

My ZDNet colleague and friend Zack Whittaker points out that the terms “cyberthreat” and “cyberintrusions,” remain relatively undefined. His contention is that those “hacktivist” organizations that choose to use Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks as a form of protest speech might then be targeted by the US government.

My take on DDoS as protest speech is quite simple: DDoS is an attack that must be defended, and the attackers must be brought to justice. In fact, a DDoS attack is an asymmetrical attack, which means that the attackers often have a vast logistical advantage over the defenders.

There is a difference between a flash mob (or even a Million-Man March) and a DDoS attack. A DDoS attack uses computers infiltrated against the will of their users, and turns ordinary computer users into cannon fodder. It would be as if – when a group decided they wanted to conduct a flash mob in protest – they broke into millions of homes, kidnapped the residents, and dragged them along, just to raise their numbers for the TV cameras.

As someone who’s had to defend against an attack from millions of computers a day aimed at a few private servers, I have not a shred of patience for anyone conducting a DDoS. There is no excuse for a DDoS and it is not and never will be a legitimate form of protest.

Moving on, I mentioned earlier that President Obama squandered a golden opportunity.

When the President discussed cybersecurity in his speech, he made it sound like something that’s the concern of government and industry. Although he mentioned identity theft, he didn’t involve the American people – moms, dads, grandparents, kids, teachers, students, office workers, Facebookers – in the discussion.

He didn’t make the threat real to real Americans.

In World War II, when the Nazis were bombing London, the British government communicated the threat to their people. It was obvious, as bombs were dropping. But the government made it clear that everyone had some responsibility in the national defense.

They instituted blackout rules, requiring lights to be doused at night, or black curtains to be hung over windows. The reasoning was very practical. If a Luftwaffe bomber could see a lit building, it could hit the building.

Now, say there was an apartment building with 100 apartments. If even one resident ignored the blackout rules, the building might be hit, and hundreds of tenants might be killed – just because one person disregarded the defensive rules.

This is quite analogous to our cybersecurity problems today. We are not just getting attacked at the entry point to banking networks or federal agencies. No. In fact, most of the attacks are being conducted against regular American citizens, you, me, your mom, my dad, and so on.

If any one of us has poor defenses, malware (like the kind that tunneled into the New York Times last week) could make it into our home networks, and then spread from family member to family member, from home computer to work computer, from work computer to work network, and so on.

Where President Obama missed his opportunity was making this point. We, as Americans, will never ever have a comprehensive cybersecurity defense until every computer-using American is safe from attack. And every computer-using American won’t be safe from attack until each of us fully understands both the risks and the methods of protection.

We need this to be a national priority, a message of Presidential import, and Mr. Obama missed it.

Until every American is on board, until every American is aware of the threat, until every American is actively involved in his or her own defensive behavior, cyberattackers have an easy, wide-open invitation to enter, pillage, and plunder our networks.

This is war. It’s a war where, whether we like it or not, we’re all combatants. I just wish President Obama had explained that to his fellow Americans.

Topics: Security, Government, Privacy


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • We need protection Obama

    Rights are disappearing and made up rights are being created left and right.
    Hoards of people that just exist for voting purposes have swung elections out of control.
    It's disgusting how people are being treated like livestock, fed foodstamps, obamacare, endless unemployment checks, etc and then brought to market to vote.

    Representaion without taxation is killing this country.
    • Gawd....

      You have Internet access -- so what is your excuse to posting such inane, goofball drivel? The dog ate your brain?
      • It's probably the incest

        Keeping it in the family has it's genetic and cognitive tolls...
      • Disengage brain. Spout Fox News rhetoric.

        Welcome to fear-induced cognitive manipulation by special interest media. Your brain has been thoroughly washed of any independent thinking.

        Reactionary morons are what is really killing this country. They ignore reality, morality, compassion, the Constitution, and human rights. They move us closer to totalitarianism with every "patriotic" decision they make. They react to every media sensation out of fear rather than careful thought. They address symptoms rather than causes. More baseball bats and kitchen knives kill people each year than guns, yet we need to be disarmed. The mentally ill are the ones doing the mass killing, yet we aren't addressing mental health at all. Instead, we're attacking LEGAL gun owners. The criminals will ALWAYS have guns. Disarming the populace is meant to protect the government, not the people. They want to make law abiding citizens the helpless victims of anyone with a gun.

        Here's another example: There are far more jobs available right now than there are people who are unemployed, yet these reactionary morons want to cut education funding which could enable unemployed people to fill those jobs and support themselves. People with little or no education are the ones filling most of our prisons. A large number of people turn to crime because they don't have the education to support themselves any other way. Many have a better life in prison than on the outside. Morons think helping the impoverished is expensive, when it's more than twice as expensive to feed, clothe, and house the same people in prisons. I remember seeing the taxpayer cost per prisoner and thinking the majority of those people would stop committing crimes if they made HALF that amount working. It would make more sense to train prisoners to do bridge and road construction, then hire them when they get out to repair our crumbling infrastructure instead of housing them indefinitely. If we included free job training as part of our poverty programs, the number of poor would decrease substantially over time, and more people would be in the middle class.

        This would benefit the government because the middle class are the only ones paying full tax rates. The poor don't make enough to be taxed and the very rich have bought enough Congressmen to create the loopholes they need to avoid paying their fair share. The rich are the only ones enjoying "representation without taxation." Their influence upon our government is a trillion times higher than any poor person. Any person the poor help elect is immediately turned into a puppet by the rich upon arrival in Washington.

        Morons make decisions based on artificial media-induced fear. Intelligent people see the actual causes of the problems and address those, rather than what media is telling them to address. In other words, they think for themselves rather than parroting the sound bites special interest owned media broadcast. Try it sometime.
        • More Education?

          K12 is free, but they fail to graduate huge numbers of kids, and graduating K12 you basiaclly need an 8th grade education.

          Anyone with a pulse can get into college to "get their learn on" and load of with federal loans.

          Most fail college classes and never graduate.

          Gee money well spent.

          Three things fix about everything:
          1. Flat tax 10-20%, no credits, no deduction for corps or personal AT ALL.
          2. Prisions are all now work camps, all cost paid for by some product or service by prisoners.
          3. Allow success and ALLOW failure. Right now succes is punished and failure rewarded.
    • What Rock Did You Crawl From Under?

      Voting is a RIGHT granted by the U.S. Constitution. Treated like livestock? No more people are being treated like humans, because of these programs. I must, also, point out that many people that think like you have thought that some people should not vote. Some will defend, "with their lives", the right to own a gun, but the right to vote--well that is just not that important. About swinging out of control: "The People" have swung control of the vote in their favor, contrary to your thinking. No, they didn't go the way you think they should, but, again, you are only a majority of one!! Peace!
      • This revolutionary war happened

        because of taxation without representation, why then is representation without taxation ok?

        Last year 51% of country paid nothing in income taxes, up from 47%.

        It's probably even worse for 2012 nearly climbing near 60%, the number should be ZERO.
        • I'll ask the question again

          Where are you getting these stats?
          John L. Ries
          • He can't tell you

            as he make them up or his friends, the nutcase part of NRA that have taken over, has told him so. And if it is like any other with his opinions, accepted without asking for source of the data. Because if asked, it could turn out being false.
      • Voting is a right?

        All the U.S. Constitution originally did was to make the qualifications for voting for members of the House of Representatives (originally the only directly elected federal institution) the same as for the "most numerous branch" of the state legislature, effectively allowing each state to make its own rules). We've passed a number of amendments since then that have prohibited various forms of discrimination, but to this day, it's the states that at least theoretically determine the qualifications for voting.

        Of course, that has nothing to do with "rights", which are not legal entitlements, but moral ones.
        John L. Ries
    • Proof
  • There is a balancing act at work here

    The dopey SOPA/PIPA/CISPA garbage freaked out a lot of people over excessive government snooping and loss of privacy and liberty, so Obama had to carefully tread a middle ground here.
  • There's a flaw in the WWII analogy...

    People living in London were living in perfectly normal houses. These were designed to have windows which let light out. They weren't designed to deter bombing raids and in fact, those happened VERY rarely when you look at London as a city that's been around for almost 2000 years in one form or another.

    The internet, on the other hand, is new, has been changing continuously and, as you note, is always under attack. (Sidenote - everyone everywhere is always under attack in the internet - at least in part because everyone defines 'attack' differently. So framing this as an 'American' problem is kind of superficial.)

    The solution isn't to build bunkers - it's to fix the internet.

    The internet got started within a very closed group (DARPA and then educational institutions) where obscurity by isolation made per-user security unimportant. Then the net leaked out to the real world and that shortsightedness has plagued us ever since.

    Something as simple as base level packet encryption on ALL packets would have helped. A mail protocol that wasn't wide open and had *some* kind of authentication requirements would have helped. An IP addressing scheme that had enough addresses to handle at least the actual population of the world would have been smart because then NAP would never have existed, as would an IP address registration system equivalent to the global DNS system - but also acting as an address *invalidator* (so unassigned addresses could safely be rejected) and so on.

    The state of "cybersecurity" to day is the result of many bad decisions made over the years by the architects and caretakers of the internet. Time to stop blaming the people who just use the net and start blaming the people who botched (and are still botching) the design of it.
    • Good points

      But until we do, we need to make sure people are safe. We also need to fix our bridges and bring back Firefly and Buffy, but I don't see those happening, either.
      David Gewirtz
      • Agreement with david and thewerewolf

        I agree with david on the point that americans should need to be trained in the area of cyberwarfare. Relatively few americans are without a PC (excluding the amish and other very violence neutral people). Training in cyberwarfare is good similar to handing an american an gun though (very bad people would prefer to use it for bad purposes). But similar to being taught proper handling of a knive in royal rangers or boyscouts. if someone gets a special license or takes a class to own a gun then some unstable people would not get a gun because they would not pass any tests (Similar to a drivers license in the fact that you can buy from anyone you choose as long as you have a license. ). Knowledge is the first step but offering cybersecurity classes to people at community centers would be a tremendous help effort in the area of the United States I live in. As I have been learning david in my security class malware that exploits "social engineeing" tactics is most prevelant in the wild so it would require giving knowledge to us citizens about at the minimum common procedure.
        Also, I agree with the werewolf in the fact that poor standards or poor updates to the current computing standards leave lots of room for improvement. your issue david is more one of documentation and trying to do too complicated encryption and authication procedures that no-one knows how they can be improved. For example, the flaw found in WEP encrpytion for wireless networks involved authentication issues but WPA does not have those issues (I will try to remember where in my book i found that and I think their was a magazine article or scholarly article too on this).
        • No i was not talking about licensing computers.

          Sorry, I hope I did not confuse people about licensing guns as an Analogy to licensing computers that is not what i meant but training citizens on proactive approaches is good thinking.
        • Joe Sixpack ain't a cybersecurity expert.

          But he figured out he could go on down to Walmart and buy one of them durn 'puters and plug it in. Nobody bothered to tell him he could instantly become a victim and unintended accessory to cybercrime. That 'puter just sits there getting slower and slower, he doesn't know why, and it's part of a botnet attacking a bank or defense contractor or sending spam out to people like him.

          Back when it was only enthusiasts who had computers, there wasn't such a problem because enthusiasts tend to keep up with the technical details instead of just how to get on the facebook and play the angry birds games.

          I can't say much more about it without coming off as some sort of elitist who does nothing but read computer manuals. While the level of education I've subjected myself to is extreme, the problem is that most people who are online don't have any education at all regarding how it all works and what's required to keep the bad guys out.

          I'm certainly not saying licensing or certification or insurance or anything else like that should be required, but people have to take responsibility for what they do online, just like they take responsibility when they drive their car out on the road.
  • Only the government can protect us!

    That is the cry of the Left. All we have to do is give them all of our money, all of our guns, and give up all of our rights and society will be safe and perfect!

    Yeah, right. History tells us what happens when people give up their power to government, and it ain't pretty. Our nation was created to keep the balance of power away from Washington, not concentrate it in a few hands. Too bad we pissed it all away.
    • Actually no

      Your assumption that the cry from the left is "Only the government can protect us!". The difference between the left and the right is not nearly as big as it is contrived to appear. Don't jump to the conclusion that because the left tends to support entitlements, yes that dirty word, when in fact they tend more to just care about the suffering of others. Do they care too much? Perhaps, but that should not be extrapolated into the accusation that they want government to control them or even take care of them when they are not in need.

      I lean towards compassion towards the downtrodden and assist where I can. Sometimes this is best facilitated through an organization and in some cases such as through social security - the big bad government. However it is not government per se that is the problem - no more than a gun is a problem - it is the corruption that lies within it and its abuse of power. This abuse stems from the fear that their corruption will be exposed, and therefore they want to get out ahead of any potential disclosures through the use of surveillance.

      Anyone who involves themselves in Left-Right bashing is playing the sucker right into their hands because you are expending your energy in the wrong direction and opening yourself to difficulty because of the effects of hating others who in fact are much more like you than you know.
      • Really, no

        In many discussions about limiting our 2nd Amendment rights, the common theme from the Left is that we don't really need guns because we have the best police forces in the world, and it is their job to protect us. We do have extensive police forces, at least in the cities, yet in every mass shooting the police only show up after the fact. Every day you can read the news and see stories of people dying while waiting for the police. Every day there are also stories about people protecting themselves and their families with guns, yet these almost never make the highly filtered and biased news.

        New York City limits the type of food we can eat and even the size of drinks we can buy. Why? Because, in the Left's words, we are too fat and too simple minded to decide for ourselves what to eat. The Left wants to decide for us what types of guns we can have, how they load, and how many rounds they can carry. Obamacare gives government the power to decide for us what type of insurance we need, who we should buy it from, and even intrudes into decisions about what type of care we get. Calls to limit free speech, privacy, and to monitor all of our communications are increasing. We even have drones patrolling our skies, watching from above.

        The Left believes that government is the solution to every problem. We began a "war on poverty" back in the 60s, and have spent over $16 trillion dollars since, yet our poverty rate is the same today as before we started. We have focused on education since about the same time, spending more on our schools than any other nation, yet have watched as our student rankings have sank to near the bottom of developed nations. Despite bankrupting our nation, our children, poor, and elderly are no better off than back in the day when local communities controlled the schools and family and charities shouldered the burden of helping those in need.

        You claim to be compassionate, and I accept that, but you must realize that the goals of the Left have nothing to do with compassion. The Left seeks to centralize power in Washington, nothing more. To accomplish that task in the United States, our fundamental rights must be abridged, as a nation of free people are hard to control. Faith must be minimalized, as the people must see government as the ultimate authority. Finally, the people must be dependent on the government for their very subsistence, else they may decide that they would be better off on their own.

        I do not hate liberals or Leftists, but I do oppose their goals and agenda for our nation. I do foresee a time when our nation will become so divided that our union will fail and the various States will break apart and go their own way. Irreconcilable differences is the phrase that comes to mind, and we have reached the point where divorce is all but assured. I only hope that when that time comes we can agree to part ways peacefully, as the alternative would be unthinkable.