That "Commission on Enhancing Cybersecurity" is absurd

Post Syndicated from Robert Graham original http://blog.erratasec.com/2016/12/that-commission-on-enhancing.html

An Obama commission has publish a report on how to “Enhance Cybersecurity”. It’s promoted as having been written by neutral, bipartisan, technical experts. Instead, it’s almost entirely dominated by special interests and the Democrat politics of the outgoing administration.

In this post, I’m going through a random list of some of the 53 “action items” proposed by the documents. I show how they are policy issues, not technical issues. Indeed, much of the time the technical details are warped to conform to special interests.

IoT passwords

The recommendations include such things as Action Item 2.1.4:

Initial best practices should include requirements to mandate that IoT devices be rendered unusable until users first change default usernames and passwords. 

This recommendation for changing default passwords is repeated many times. It comes from the way the Mirai worm exploits devices by using hardcoded/default passwords.

But this is a misunderstanding of how these devices work. Take, for example, the infamous Xiongmai camera. It has user accounts on the web server to control the camera. If the user forgets the password, the camera can be reset to factory defaults by pressing a button on the outside of the camera.

But here’s the deal with security cameras. They are placed at remote sites miles away, up on the second story where people can’t mess with them. In order to reset them, you need to put a ladder in your truck and drive 30 minutes out to the site, then climb the ladder (an inherently dangerous activity). Therefore, Xiongmai provides a RESET.EXE utility for remotely resetting them. That utility happens to connect via Telnet using a hardcoded password.

The above report misunderstands what’s going on here. It sees Telnet and a hardcoded password, and makes assumptions. Some people assume that this is the normal user account — it’s not, it’s unrelated to the user accounts on the web server portion of the device. Requiring the user to change the password on the web service would have no effect on the Telnet service. Other people assume the Telnet service is accidental, that good security hygiene would remove it. Instead, it’s an intended feature of the product, to remotely reset the device. Fixing the “password” issue as described in the above recommendations would simply mean the manufacturer would create a different, custom backdoor that hackers would eventually reverse engineer, creating MiraiV2 botnet. Instead of security guides banning backdoors, they need to come up with standard for remote reset.

That characterization of Mirai as an IoT botnet is wrong. Mirai is a botnet of security cameras. Security cameras are fundamentally different from IoT devices like toasters and fridges because they are often exposed to the public Internet. To stream video on your phone from your security camera, you need a port open on the Internet. Non-camera IoT devices, however, are overwhelmingly protected by a firewall, with no exposure to the public Internet. While you can create a botnet of Internet cameras, you cannot create a botnet of Internet toasters.

The point I’m trying to demonstrate here is that the above report was written by policy folks with little grasp of the technical details of what’s going on. They use Mirai to justify several of their “Action Items”, none of which actually apply to the technical details of Mirai. It has little to do with IoT, passwords, or hygiene.

Public-private partnerships

Action Item 1.2.1: The President should create, through executive order, the National Cybersecurity Private–Public Program (NCP 3 ) as a forum for addressing cybersecurity issues through a high-level, joint public–private collaboration.

We’ve had public-private partnerships to secure cyberspace for over 20 years, such as the FBI InfraGuard partnership. President Clinton’s had a plan in 1998 to create a public-private partnership to address cyber vulnerabilities. President Bush declared public-private partnerships the “cornerstone of his 2003 plan to secure cyberspace.

Here we are 20 years later, and this document is full of new naive proposals for public-private partnerships There’s no analysis of why they have failed in the past, or a discussion of which ones have succeeded.

The many calls for public-private programs reflects the left-wing nature of this supposed “bipartisan” document, that sees government as a paternalistic entity that can help. The right-wing doesn’t believe the government provides any value in these partnerships. In my 20 years of experience with government private-partnerships in cybersecurity, I’ve found them to be a time waster at best and at worst, a way to coerce “voluntary measures” out of companies that hurt the public’s interest.

Build a wall and make China pay for it

Action Item 1.3.1: The next Administration should require that all Internet-based federal government services provided directly to citizens require the use of appropriately strong authentication.

This would cost at least $100 per person, for 300 million people, or $30 billion. In other words, it’ll cost more than Trump’s wall with Mexico.

Hardware tokens are cheap. Blizzard (a popular gaming company) must deal with widespread account hacking from “gold sellers”, and provides second factor authentication to its gamers for $6 each. But that ignores the enormous support costs involved. How does a person prove their identity to the government in order to get such a token? To replace a lost token? When old tokens break? What happens if somebody’s token is stolen?

And that’s the best case scenario. Other options, like using cellphones as a second factor, are non-starters.

This is actually not a bad recommendation, as far as government services are involved, but it ignores the costs and difficulties involved.

But then the recommendations go on to suggest this for private sector as well:

Specifically, private-sector organizations, including top online retailers, large health insurers, social media companies, and major financial institutions, should use strong authentication solutions as the default for major online applications.

No, no, no. There is no reason for a “top online retailer” to know your identity. I lie about my identity. Amazon.com thinks my name is “Edward Williams”, for example.

They get worse with:

Action Item 1.3.3: The government should serve as a source to validate identity attributes to address online identity challenges.

In other words, they are advocating a cyber-dystopic police-state wet-dream where the government controls everyone’s identity. We already see how this fails with Facebook’s “real name” policy, where everyone from political activists in other countries to LGBTQ in this country get harassed for revealing their real names.

Anonymity and pseudonymity are precious rights on the Internet that we now enjoy — rights endangered by the radical policies in this document. This document frequently claims to promote security “while protecting privacy”. But the government doesn’t protect privacy — much of what we want from cybersecurity is to protect our privacy from government intrusion. This is nothing new, you’ve heard this privacy debate before. What I’m trying to show here is that the one-side view of privacy in this document demonstrates how it’s dominated by special interests.

Cybersecurity Framework

Action Item 1.4.2: All federal agencies should be required to use the Cybersecurity Framework. 

The “Cybersecurity Framework” is a bunch of a nonsense that would require another long blogpost to debunk. It requires months of training and years of experience to understand. It contains things like “DE.CM-4: Malicious code is detected”, as if that’s a thing organizations are able to do.

All the while it ignores the most common cyber attacks (SQL/web injections, phishing, password reuse, DDoS). It’s a typical example where organizations spend enormous amounts of money following process while getting no closer to solving what the processes are attempting to solve. Federal agencies using the Cybersecurity Framework are no safer from my pentests than those who don’t use it.

It gets even crazier:

Action Item 1.5.1: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) should expand its support of SMBs in using the Cybersecurity Framework and should assess its cost-effectiveness specifically for SMBs.

Small businesses can’t even afford to even read the “Cybersecurity Framework”. Simply reading the doc, trying to understand it, would exceed their entire IT/computer budget for the year. It would take a high-priced consultant earning $500/hour to tell them that “DE.CM-4: Malicious code is detected” means “buy antivirus and keep it up to date”.

Software liability is a hoax invented by the Chinese to make our IoT less competitive

Action Item 2.1.3: The Department of Justice should lead an interagency study with the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and work with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and interested private sector parties to assess the current state of the law with regard to liability for harm caused by faulty IoT devices and provide recommendations within 180 days. 

For over a decade, leftists in the cybersecurity industry have been pushing the concept of “software liability”. Every time there is a major new development in hacking, such as the worms around 2003, they come out with documents explaining why there’s a “market failure” and that we need liability to punish companies to fix the problem. Then the problem is fixed, without software liability, and the leftists wait for some new development to push the theory yet again.

It’s especially absurd for the IoT marketspace. The harm, as they imagine, is DDoS. But the majority of devices in Mirai were sold by non-US companies to non-US customers. There’s no way US regulations can stop that.

What US regulations will stop is IoT innovation in the United States. Regulations are so burdensome, and liability lawsuits so punishing, that it will kill all innovation within the United States. If you want to get rich with a clever IoT Kickstarter project, forget about it: you entire development budget will go to cybersecurity. The only companies that will be able to afford to ship IoT products in the United States will be large industrial concerns like GE that can afford the overhead of regulation/liability.

Liability is a left-wing policy issue, not one supported by technical analysis. Software liability has proven to be immaterial in any past problem and current proponents are distorting the IoT market to promote it now.

Cybersecurity workforce

Action Item 4.1.1: The next President should initiate a national cybersecurity workforce program to train 100,000 new cybersecurity practitioners by 2020. 

The problem in our industry isn’t the lack of “cybersecurity practitioners”, but the overabundance of “insecurity practitioners”.

Take “SQL injection” as an example. It’s been the most common way hackers break into websites for 15 years. It happens because programmers, those building web-apps, blinding paste input into SQL queries. They do that because they’ve been trained to do it that way. All the textbooks on how to build webapps teach them this. All the examples show them this.

So you have government programs on one hand pushing tech education, teaching kids to build web-apps with SQL injection. Then you propose to train a second group of people to fix the broken stuff the first group produced.

The solution to SQL/website injections is not more practitioners, but stopping programmers from creating the problems in the first place. The solution to phishing is to use the tools already built into Windows and networks that sysadmins use, not adding new products/practitioners. These are the two most common problems, and they happen not because of a lack of cybersecurity practitioners, but because the lack of cybersecurity as part of normal IT/computers.

I point this to demonstrate yet against that the document was written by policy people with little or no technical understanding of the problem.

Nutritional label

Action Item 3.1.1: To improve consumers’ purchasing decisions, an independent organization should develop the equivalent of a cybersecurity “nutritional label” for technology products and services—ideally linked to a rating system of understandable, impartial, third-party assessment that consumers will intuitively trust and understand. 

This can’t be done. Grab some IoT devices, like my thermostat, my car, or a Xiongmai security camera used in the Mirai botnet. These devices are so complex that no “nutritional label” can be made from them.

One of the things you’d like to know is all the software dependencies, so that if there’s a bug in OpenSSL, for example, then you know your device is vulnerable. Unfortunately, that requires a nutritional label with 10,000 items on it.

Or, one thing you’d want to know is that the device has no backdoor passwords. But that would miss the Xiongmai devices. The web service has no backdoor passwords. If you caught the Telnet backdoor password and removed it, then you’d miss the special secret backdoor that hackers would later reverse engineer.

This is a policy position chasing a non-existent technical issue push by Pieter Zatko, who has gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars from government grants to push the issue. It’s his way of getting rich and has nothing to do with sound policy.

Cyberczars and ambassadors

Various recommendations call for the appointment of various CISOs, Assistant to the President for Cybersecurity, and an Ambassador for Cybersecurity. But nowhere does it mention these should be technical posts. This is like appointing a Surgeon General who is not a doctor.

Government’s problems with cybersecurity stems from the way technical knowledge is so disrespected. The current cyberczar prides himself on his lack of technical knowledge, because that helps him see the bigger picture.

Ironically, many of the other Action Items are about training cybersecurity practitioners, employees, and managers. None of this can happen as long as leadership is clueless. Technical details matter, as I show above with the Mirai botnet. Subtlety and nuance in technical details can call for opposite policy responses.

Conclusion

This document is promoted as being written by technical experts. However, nothing in the document is neutral technical expertise. Instead, it’s almost entirely a policy document dominated by special interests and left-wing politics. In many places it makes recommendations to the incoming Republican president. His response should be to round-file it immediately.

I only chose a few items, as this blogpost is long enough as it is. I could pick almost any of of the 53 Action Items to demonstrate how they are policy, special-interest driven rather than reflecting technical expertise.