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Cybersecurity

Encryption Technologies Central to Debate About Online Free Speech, Say CDT-Charles Koch Event Panelists

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot from the first webinar of the series, on Monday

December 13, 2020 – In the kick-off session to a weeklong series about “The Future of Speech Online,” the past, present and future of cryptography was front and center.

Can users enjoy the protections of end-to-end encryption and also be able to “get” bad actors? The problem, according to Erica Portnoy, senior staff technologist at the Electric Frontier Foundation, is that our society can’t have both.

Portney, one of the speakers in Monday’s session of the series sponsored by the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Charles Koch Institute, said that as a developer, she saw a marked difference in how the term “end-to-end encryption” was used in the field versus in the policy arena.

The use of the term in the policy arena has created conflict, she said. As a technical term, end-to-end encryption referrs to the process of turning a message into a secret message by its original sender to be decoded only by the final recipient. The “ends” here are the two devices—the sender’s device and the receiver’s device—and the encryption ensures that no can intercept or leak information in the conversation because the only people with the code to decrypt the message are the two parties conversing.

But end-to-end encryption is rendered null when people want the protections encryption can provide while also wanting to scan messages for potential threats. The latter, called client-side scanning, refers to when someone, usually the provider of the messaging platform, scans the messages before they’re encrypted to check for contraband materials.

If it is determined that the message has this illicit content, the app may refuse to send the message, notify the recipient, or forward it to a third party, perhaps without the user’s knowledge.

While the messaging system would still technically remain intact since there was no interception of an encrypted message, client-side scanning challenges user privacy and system security.

Portnoy said that she preferred the term “secure messaging” to refer to the situation where only the sender and her intended recipient could read messages or otherwise analyze their contents.

Other perspectives stressed the possibility of collaboration between encryption researchers and law enforcement

Not all agreed that the conflict between security and privacy was irreconcilable. Klon Kitchen, director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said he liked the way Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, framed the issue. We can’t allow ourselves to think about this as a choice between security and speech.

Kitchen emphasized that America needs both encryption and security moving forward, and that there needs to be a level of good faith and prudence between the government and the security research community.

He also stressed that “in a modern world, securing nations means securing networks,” and as nations, we cannot operate independently of each other.

Nick Sullivan, head of research at Cloudflare, Inc. addressed the difficulty of creating systems and policies that work for all parties—consumers, industry groups, and the government. He cited the rapid deployment of https as an example of getting mass adoption of encrypted systems.

From a consumer perspective, with so many interfaces that seem to have nothing in common about policy implementation, it can be difficult to know how to navigate these issues, not to mention difficult to audit the platform’s policies, said Sullivan.

When asked what he felt the key points the public should know were, he said it makes the most sense to increase the incentive for groups developing secure technologies. He also suggested bringing the community together to standardize and pick one way to do a security feature, similar to how Signal is used in both WhatsApp and iMessage.

Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, moderated this session.

Cybersecurity

Despite Increasing Risk, Companies Are Still Not Prioritizing Cybersecurity

Tim White

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March 10, 2021 – Experts said Tuesday that cybersecurity should be one of the top priorities for every business, but many businesses still don’t consider it as such.

“I was not that surprised to see 50 percent of executives count it as a high priority,” said Chad Kliewer, the information security officer of Pioneer Telephone Cooperative, at a Tuesday webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Let’s be honest, its not a moneymaker for most people,” he added.

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., who is chairman of the House Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems Subcommittee, was joined by several members of both the public and private sectors discussing cybersecurity for small and medium-sized businesses in the critical infrastructure industry. They used US Telecom’s recent 2021 Cybersecurity Survey as a backdrop for that discussion.

According to the survey, 26 percent of employees, versus 50 percent of executives, consider cybersecurity a high priority. Kliewer expressed disappointment about that gap, saying that for his company, he spends a lot of time focusing on employees and ensuring that they’re all informed on cybersecurity.

One challenge to be addressed to get businesses up to speed on cybersecurity is education and awareness.

Jeff Goldthorp of the Federal Communications Commission suggested on the webinar the possibility of federal agencies to providing “fairly robust and rich and large set of guidance and practices” to a smaller segment of the industry that “has a different set of needs or where the scale is smaller,” he said.

Ola Sage, CEO of CyberRx, expressed similar concern. There could be several reasons why employees don’t make cybersecurity as high a priority as executives, she said, including lack of mechanisms to communicate that message across the company, or employees believing that cybersecurity isn’t their personal responsibility. It comes back to the question of education and awareness, she said.

Langevin said cyber criminals often go after a broad range of targets, hoping to hit the easiest victims. “These criminals go after entities really with the weakest cybersecurity hygiene, which often unfortunately means small businesses,” he said. “Ransomware is rampant right now, and its hitting a lot of small businesses in addition to hospitals or school systems,” he said.

Langevin said cybersecurity monitoring is about “risk management,” which is an ongoing process.

The influence of foreign nation-state adversaries

The webinar came in the wake of other cybersecurity panels and congressional hearings on the recent SolarWinds cyberattack that infiltrated thousands of American companies and federal agencies. The hack is currently being blamed on Russia.

Langevin touched on the influence of foreign nation-state adversaries. “I want to make something perfectly clear: countries like Russia actively aid and abet cyber criminals,” he said.

“We’re really living in a golden age of cyber crime because there are countries, again, that allow and encourage criminals to operate within their borders,” he said. “While some of the talk of norms and the need for stronger cyber diplomacy may seem esoteric, I can really assure you that it is increasingly relevant to stopping the constant stream of intrusions targeting small businesses around the country,” he said.

Eric Goldstein, executive assistant director for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said “adversaries of all types are targeting American businesses now.

“It is not just the case that if you are a company that has highly sensitive [intellectual property] or provides critical infrastructure that you are the only type of company at risk. We are now seeing adversaries, including criminal groups, that will launch what I call indiscriminate attacks targeting anybody in this country with a vulnerability,” he said.

“Every company in America is at risk,” he said, adding they need to “take urgent steps to manage vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure.”

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Cybersecurity

Senate Looks for Answers During First Public Hearing on SolarWinds Cyber Attack

Tim White

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Screenshot of FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia from the hearing

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2021 – In the first public hearing on the topic since the SolarWinds cyberattack in December, industry leaders testified Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Select Committee that there are still unanswered questions about the attack.

Those questions include who did it, how they did it, and what they wanted.

Although the attack colloquially assigns SolarWinds as the victim, many companies were affected, and it was the cybersecurity firm FireEye that first announced they had been infiltrated.

The hack, which occurred between March and June 2020 and targeted several companies and federal agencies, has been widely attributed to Russian intelligence. FireEye’s CEO Kevin Mandia and Microsoft President Brad Smith, both whom testified at the hearing, said the adversary was likely the Russians, but did not want to give an irrefutable affirmation.

“We all pretty much know who it is,” said Mandia.

Although there is not yet definitive proof, we are confident from the evidence that this was the Russian intelligence agency, said Smith.

As Broadband Breakfast reported Tuesday, SolarWinds’ CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said that the attack was very sophisticated and required extensive expertise, as it occurred in the software update supply chain environment.

The other witnesses agreed. Mandia explained that FireEye found the implanted code from thousands of hours of examining detailed assembly code that requires specialized knowledge to understand.

Although we’ve seen many cyberattacks in the past, the scale of this attack was new, said Smith. The level of expertise we saw here required at least a thousand very skilled, capable engineers, he said.

Mandia said that this attack has been in the works for a long time. “This has been a multi-decade campaign for them. They just so happen to—in 2020—create a backdoor SolarWinds implant,” he said.

“They did a dry run in October of 2019, where they put innocuous code into the SolarWinds build just to make sure the results of their intrusion made it into the SolarWinds production platform environment,” he said.

SolarWinds still does not yet know how the attacker penetrated the company’s supply chain environment, but has narrowed it down to a few possibilities, said Ramakrishna. He did not elaborate on details, emphasizing that the investigation was still under way.

The witnesses said that what the hackers wanted and everything they took is still a mystery. At this point, we still don’t know everything the attacker did—only the attacker does, said Smith.

Various senators asked what needs to be done now that the world knows about the attack. The witnesses said they need better partnerships between the public and private sectors, especially a confidential way to report cyberattacks to the government.

They also said that nations need to agree on “ground rules” for engaging in cyberwarfare. During war, we agree not to bomb ambulances or hospitals, and in the digital space there needs to be equivalent off-limit targets, said Smith. These should include software updates, because the entire world and every type of infrastructure, both digital and physical, relies on them, he said.

The House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees are scheduled to hold a similar hearing Friday.

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Cybersecurity

SolarWinds CEO Says Hack Shows Need for Information-Sharing Between Industry and Government

Tim White

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Photo of SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna from Health iPASS

February 23, 2021 – The data breach suffered by SolarWinds in December illustrates the need for better communications between industry and government, according to the CEO of the information tech company.

CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said Monday that it is important that the industry shares information because cyberattacks cannot be dealt with alone.

Ramakrishna and Suzanne Spaulding from the Center for Strategic & International Studies talked Monday about what SolarWinds and the industry had learned in the two months since the malicious attack.

“I see this as an organizational commitment to the community,” Ramakrishna said. “Why would a victim of a hack be out there talking about it? It is our obligation to do so,” he added.

Improving information sharing

Ramakrishna said there are three aspects of cyberwarfare that the community can improve on. 

First, there needs to be more public and private partnerships between companies and governments to resolve these issues, which should also include protection and possible incentives for hacked victims to come forward publicly.

Second, the community needs to set better standards for itself, to reach for excellence instead of just compliance. We should do more than just check off the necessary boxes to meet requirements, he said.

Third, there needs to be better communication methods with government agencies, he noted. Ramakrishna lamented that dealing with different agencies slowed down their ability to find solutions and led to an “asymmetry of information” between the company and the government. He suggested there could be one government “clearinghouse” that communicates with companies and then disseminates the information to the necessary agencies.

The SolarWinds cyberattack, which many believe was Russian in origin, breached several prominent entities, including federal agencies, through a supply-chain software update in early 2020. Although SolarWinds initially thought up to 18,000 of its customers may have been affected, they’re learning that that number is actually much less than that, Ramakrishna said.

Neither he nor Spaulding could definitively say what the perpetrators wanted from the attack, but speculated that they had many objectives, including a few likely “prized assets,” according to Ramakrishna, and gathering details about the environments that they hacked.

They probably wanted more than just to look around—it was more than just a reconnaissance mission, Spaulding said. 

Ramakrishna stepped into the CEO position at SolarWinds on January 4, and said he wasn’t expecting a malicious cyberattack to be the first priority of his new tenure, but said that he was prepared for circumstances like this from his previous experience.

He, as well as former SolarWinds CEO Kevin Thompson, will now testify in front of the U.S. House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees on Friday about the attack. to be held on Friday.

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