A CDC for Cyber

I remember reading somewhere a few years back that Microsoft had commissioned a report which recommended that the U.S. government set up an entity akin to its Center for Disease Control but for cyber security.  An intriguing idea.  The trade press talks about malware and computer viruses and infections to describe self -replicating malicious code in the same way doctors talk about metastasizing cancers or the flu; likewise, as with public health, rather than focusing on prevention and detection, we often blame those who have become infected and try to retrospectively arrest/prosecute (cure) those responsible (the cancer cells, hackers) long after the original harm is done. Regarding cyber, what if we extended this paradigm and instead viewed global cyber security as an exercise in public health?

As I recall, the report pointed out that organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the World Health Organization in Geneva have over decades developed robust systems and objective methodologies for identifying and responding to public health threats; structures and frameworks that are far more developed than those existent in today’s cyber-security community. Given the many parallels between communicable human diseases and those affecting today’s technologies, there is also much fraud examiners and security professionals can learn from the public health model, an adaptable system capable of responding to an ever-changing array of pathogens around the world.

With cyber as with matters of public health, individual actions can only go so far. It’s great if an individual has excellent techniques of personal hygiene, but if everyone in that person’s town has the flu, eventually that individual will probably succumb as well. The comparison is relevant to the world of cyber threats. Individual responsibility and action can make an enormous difference in cyber security, but ultimately the only hope we have as a nation in responding to rapidly propagating threats across this planetary matrix of interconnected technologies is to construct new institutions to coordinate our response. A trusted, international cyber World Health Organization could foster cooperation and collaboration across companies, countries, and government agencies, a crucial step required to improve the overall public health of the networks driving the critical infrastructures in both our online and our off-line worlds.

Such a proposed cyber CDC could go a long way toward counteracting the technological risks our country faces today and could serve a critical role in improving the overall public health of the networks driving the critical infrastructures of our world. A cyber CDC could fulfill many roles that are carried out today only on an ad hoc basis, if at all, including:

• Education — providing members of the public with proven methods of cyber hygiene to protect themselves;
• Network monitoring — detection of infection and outbreaks of malware in cyberspace;
• Epidemiology — using public health methodologies to study digital cyber disease propagation and provide guidance on response and remediation;
• Immunization — helping to ‘vaccinate’ companies and the public against known threats through software patches and system updates;
• Incident response — dispatching experts as required and coordinating national and global efforts to isolate the sources of online infection and treat those affected.

While there are many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, that focus on the above tasks, no single entity owns them all. It is through these gaps in effort and coordination that cyber risks continue to mount. An epidemiological approach to our growing technological risks is required to get to the source of malware infections, as was the case in the fight against malaria. For decades, all medical efforts focused in vain on treating the disease in those already infected. But it wasn’t until epidemiologists realized the malady was spread by mosquitoes breeding in still pools of water that genuine progress was made in the fight against the disease. By draining the pools where mosquitoes and their larvae grow, epidemiologists deprived them of an important breeding ground, thus reducing the spread of malaria. What stagnant pools can we drain in cyberspace to achieve a comparable result? The answer represents the yet unanswered challenge.

There is another major challenge a cyber CDC would face: most of those who are sick have no idea they are walking around infected, spreading disease to others. Whereas malaria patients develop fever, sweats, nausea, and difficulty breathing, important symptoms of their illness, infected computer users may be completely asymptomatic. This significant difference is evidenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of those with infected devices have no idea there is malware on their machines nor that they might have even joined a botnet army. Even in the corporate world, with the average time to detection of a network breach now at 210 days, most companies have no idea their most prized assets, whether intellectual property or a factory’s machinery, have been compromised. The only thing worse than being hacked is being hacked and not knowing about it. If you don’t know you’re sick, how can you possibly get treatment? Moreover, how can we prevent digital disease propagation if carriers of these maladies don’t realize they are infecting others?

Addressing these issues could be a key area of import for any proposed cyber CDC and fundamental to future communal safety and that of critical information infrastructures. Cyber-security researchers have pointed out the obvious Achilles’ heel of the modern technology infused world, the fact that today everything is either run by computers (or will be) and that everything is reliant on these computers continuing to work. The challenge is that we must have some way of continuing to work even if all the computers fail. Were our information systems to crash on a mass scale, there would be no trading on financial markets, no taking money from ATMs, no telephone network, and no pumping gas. If these core building blocks of our society were to suddenly give way, what would humanity’s backup plan be? The answer is simply, we don’t now have one.

Complicating all this from a law enforcement and fraud investigation perspective is that black hats generally benefit from technology long before defenders and investigators ever do. The successful ones have nearly unlimited budgets and don’t have to deal with internal bureaucracies, approval processes, or legal constraints. But there are other systemic issues that give criminals the upper hand, particularly around jurisdiction and international law. In a matter of minutes, the perpetrator of an online crime can virtually visit six different countries, hopping from server to server and continent to continent in an instant. But what about the police who must follow the digital evidence trail to investigate the matter?  As with all government activities, policies, and procedures, regulations must be followed. Trans-border cyber-attacks raise serious jurisdictional issues, not just for an individual police department, but for the entire institution of policing as currently formulated. A cop in Baltimore has no authority to compel an ISP in Paris to provide evidence, nor can he make an arrest on the right bank. That can only be done by request, government to government, often via mutual legal assistance treaties. The abysmally slow pace of international law means it commonly takes years for police to get evidence from overseas (years in a world in which digital evidence can be destroyed in seconds). Worse, most countries still do not even have cyber-crime laws on the books, meaning that criminals can act with impunity making response through a coordinating entity like a cyber-CDC more valuable to the U.S. specifically and to the world in general.

Experts have pointed out that we’re engaged in a technological arms race, an arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill. The challenge is that nefarious uses of technology are scaling exponentially in ways that our current systems of protection have simply not matched.  The point is, if we are to survive the progress offered by our technologies and enjoy their benefits, we must first develop adaptive mechanisms of security that can match or exceed the exponential pace of the threats confronting us. On this most important of imperatives, there is unambiguously no time to lose.

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