I spent a good deal of time last week supporting the launch of the Cisco 2014 Annual Security Report. I’m one of the Cisco executive sponsors for the report, which means that while I cannot take credit for writing it, I am significantly involved in setting course, providing advice, and reviewing its findings. The report represents months of collaboration among threat researchers and other cybersecurity experts at Cisco and Sourcefire. Much of the data comes from both our own experience and what we have learned from willing customers. As promised, it provides a “warts-and-all analysis” of security news from 2013 and our perspective for the year. I also commend the writers, editors, and document producers for their hard work, clear thinking, and ability to lead a very complex project over the finish line in good order.
Our report that the cyberthreat and risk landscape has only grown stronger and more complex over the past year is not exactly a revelation, perhaps, but we can perceive some clear trends in the evolution. We now can see that because the cybercrime network has become so mature, far-reaching, well-funded, and highly effective as a business operation that very little in the cybersecurity world can—or should—be trusted without verification.
We also expect adversaries to continue designing campaigns that take advantage of users’ trust in systems, applications, and the people and businesses they know. It’s an effective strategy. How do we know? Because 100 percent of the networks analyzed by Cisco, despite the best efforts of their IT and Security teams, have traffic going to known malware threat sites. Not all traffic going to bad sites means bad things are happening, but as the old saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s usually fire.
The Cisco 2014 Annual Security Report highlights three key challenges organizations will face in the year ahead. These issues are:
- A growing attack surface area: New ways of doing business—such as cloud computing, mobility, and rapid growth in the number of connected devices—are rapidly expanding the attack surface available to cybersecurity adversaries. Adversaries have myriad inroads to bits and pieces of useful information that pave the way to big time pay dirt. Quite often, they have a very easy path from there to the ultimate destination: the data center, where high-value information resides that can be exploited and monetized.
- The proliferation and sophistication of the attack model: Companies have become the focus of targeted attacks that are hard to detect, remain in networks for long periods, and exploit network resources to launch attacks elsewhere. Even basic Internet infrastructure services—including web hosting servers, nameservers, and data centers—have become key targets for hackers who want to launch increasingly larger campaigns.
- Complexity of threats and solutions: Monitoring and managing information security has never been more difficult for security teams. Solutions countering well-understood types of attacks—viruses, worms, data leaks, denial of service, etc.—long relied upon by organizations for cybersecurity, are simply inadequate in today’s complex threat environment where many attacks are not only stealthy, but also relentless.
Just to make things even more difficult, we’ve learned that counterfeit and tampered IT products are a growing security problem. The problem is more serious than phony gear masquerading as premium brand gear. Tampered and bogus goods often include hacker-friendly backdoors and other exploitable weaknesses. Like water pressing against a poorly engineered dam, bad actors will seek out and exploit any security weakness—known vulnerabilities and intentional backdoors—in the technology supply chain.
I’ve written a lot in the past year about what it takes to develop trustworthy systems: building security from the ground up, from the beginning to the end of a product’s life cycle. I’ve also explained how Cisco has invested considerable time, effort, and money in the effort to make our products robust enough for deployment as trustworthy systems. When I talk about trust, my concern goes beyond a narrow focus on our ability to trust technology. Society now depends on information technology to deliver essential services. When that technology ceases to work, or when we can’t trust the services delivered through technology, our social, economic, and cultural fabric unravels.
I wouldn’t be in the security business, however, if I thought the security situation was irrevocably hopeless. As we learn more about how our adversaries work and what they seek to achieve, we improve our ability to limit damage to socially tenable levels. While the Cisco Annual Security Report is a sobering read, it fills me with added determination to contain today’s threats and preempt tomorrow’s traps and pitfalls. I certainly hope it has the same effect on you.