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Adam Vincent

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Combating Sophisticated Cyber Threats

Industry Conference Follow-up

I was part of a panel titled “Developing Security Strategies to Successfully Combat Sophisticated Threats to your Network, while Protecting Customer Privacy” at the TM Forum conference two weeks ago.  Given the topic, and the interesting conversation, I wanted to highlight some of the ideas expressed around sophisticated threats.

Verizon’s Marc Spitler, and AT&T’s Brian Rexroad. Daniel O’Donnel from Network Critical and Ajay Uggirala from NetScout, and Martin Huddleston from United Kingdom (UK) Ministry of Defense (MoD) accompanied me on the panel.

In essence, cyber-attack is big business.  In 2010, studies from Symantec's newest Norton Cybercrime Report sited that the financial losses resulting from cyber-attack were resulting in similar losses worldwide to the business of illegal drug trade – 388B. Recent studies from the UK Cabinet office state that cyber espionage and intellectual property theft account for the same or greater financial losses to all the other categories of financial loss due to cyber combined[1]. Making an assumption that cyber espionage and intellectual property theft are as significant as this report states, and many organizations either haven’t reported or simply do not know that they have been breached, I think it is safe to assume that the number as it relates to Cyber is likely higher than the Norton report states. In one example in particular, a company lost 1B in Intellectual property over the course of a couple days.  This was a technology that this company worked on for 20-plus years. Cyber presents a relatively low risk, high reward business today, and it is safe to assume that is going to get worse, before better.

Sophisticated cyber attackers are not just aiming their capabilities at big business.  It’s hard for me even to say anymore that there are companies that aren’t being targeted by sophisticated threats since the types and sizes of organizations being attacked by sophisticated threats have become so broad.  In a blog post “Cyber Espionage – Knowing You Are a Target” Cyber Squared provided some basic questions to determine if you or your business is potentially a target of a sophisticated adversary.

During the panel, I discussed that the sophisticated attacker is not your typical smart high school kid; instead we are dealing with strategic, well-funded, and motivated organizations with a plan. The unfortunate reality is that these types of organized attacks are increasing in frequency and are leveraging military grade capabilities against businesses that have immature or no past experiences dealing with such an threat.  Although the sophisticated threat is operating against strategic goals, their attack model is largely tactical.    They utilize attack tools that are just sophisticated enough to penetrate your network defenses, while holding the more powerful tools in reserve for more robust situations.

Annie our moderator at some point in the panel asked “what do you see as being the single most important approach to respond to these changing challenges “.

There were varying answers to this question from the panel.  One panelist, Martin Huddleston from UK MOD stated that a large portion of attack could be averted with simple patch management, and locking down systems.  Another panelist, Ajay Uggirala, offered the advice that combining various systems, most of which are already in place would give the organization better visibility across the attack.  Obviously both are critical; however I think the problem runs deeper than just fixing what we have. You simply can’t defend against these types of threats as you would from a common cyber attacker.  Imagine yourself defending your home against the common criminal.   You would have locks on all your doors and windows, and possibly even have an alarm system or a mean looking dog.  Now imagine that a well-trained, possibly nation-state sponsored and trained fighting force wants to infiltrate your home.  You are simply not prepared, and preparation will cost more than most organizations can afford.  We may force them to use their more advanced capabilities by tightening down our security controls and having better visibility across our networks, but the likelihood that this will be good enough to stop a highly motivated and dedicated attacker, is difficult for me to imagine.

I said something during the panel, which likely made some, or maybe all of the audience cringe.  I said that you should be operating your network as though the sophisticated threat is already inside, because they probably are, and if they aren’t today, they will be at some point.  To further clarify this statement, one must remember that the threat is persistent; they don’t try and move on, they make it their job “literally” to gain and maintain access to your network. Here are a few thoughts that I would share with any organization that believes that they may be targeted by a persistent sophisticated threat.


  • The first step in understanding your risk is to understand the threat that is targeting you.  You can’t count on Symantec or McAfee providing you a burglar alarm for the sophisticated threat, instead you need to understand how the adversary will approach, what tools they will utilize, and how once they are in your network – you can continue to do business.  It’s a strategic effort to counter a strategic adversary.
  • Make investments in countering the particular threat that has, is, and will be targeting you.   Make investments in the people whom understand this threat.  Although generalists are good, it is critical to realize that no one person can answer all questions.  Utilize products that provide dynamic capabilities to defend against the attack and that allow constant adaptation given changes in the tactical capabilities of the threat. Practice as though you are being attacked.  The threat does this every day, and you are only one stop along their way.
  • Share and collaborate your experiences about the threat.  This is critical because you are one stop along the road, or potentially being targeted similarly to your business partners and/or competitors.  We can become stronger as a group than you are on your own.
  • Instrument defenses to allow community knowledge of the attacker.  This is critical because the security community takes days, weeks, and months to make a change, while you and your partners can immediately share indicators or patterns of attack, and use this information to defend against the attack.

Given the vast array of organizations being targeted by sophisticated threats, I hope that the panel and this follow-up blog post are helpful in understanding the problem a bit better, and in beginning the process of implementing an organizational plan to deal with this type of threat.

I enjoyed the opportunity to speak as a member of the panel and hope that the TM Forum will invite me back in the future.

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More Stories By Adam Vincent

Adam is an internationally renowned information security expert and is currently the CEO and a founder at Cyber Squared Inc. He possesses over a decade of experience in programming, network security, penetration testing, cryptography design & cryptanalysis, identity and access control, and a detailed expertise in information security. The culmination of this knowledge has led to the company’s creation of ThreatConnect™, the first-of-its-kind threat intelligence platform. He currently serves as an advisor to multiple security-focused organizations and has provided consultation to numerous businesses ranging from start-ups to governments, Fortune 500 organizations, and top financial institutions. Adam holds an MS in computer science with graduate certifications in computer security and information assurance from George Washington University. Vincent lives in Arlington, VA with his wife, two children, and dog.