Moving cybersecurity from art to science

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New technologies and cyber-savvy leadership are taking the intuition and guesswork out of security.

When it comes to cybersecurity and the ability to catch threats in the early stages before they can much damage, where does government stand? Effective, ineffective? Is it at least improving?

The picture over of the past couple of years doesn’t look encouraging. The infamous breach at the Office of Personnel and Management, other noted attacks on the Pentagon and the Internal Revenue Service and minor breaches elsewhere would seem to suggest the government is overwhelmed.

Some analyses seem to confirm that. The Government Accountability Office, for example, recently came out with a report that pointed out the number of cyber incidents affecting federal agencies rocketed to over 77,000 in 2015 compared to just 5,503 in 2006. That’s more than a 1,300 percent increase.

Over the last several years, GAO has made around 2,500 recommendations to agencies intended to help improve their information security controls, GAO Director of Information Security Issues Gregory Wilshusen told the President’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity. As of mid-September 2016, 1,000 of those had yet to be implemented.

As the GAO does, Wilshusen then listed a raft of actions agencies should take to improve the protection of their information and systems.

One of the emerging technologies that’s being pitched as a potential advance for security is big data analytics, which can look into the flood of data that’s being collected by various sensors and sort out the patterns that might point to potential security attacks. Even though many are skeptical of data analytics, particularly predictive analytics, it’s one of the more promising technologies government can use to get in front of security problems.

A MeriTalk survey showed that interest in using big data is high in government, with 81 percent of respondents saying their agencies are using it in some capacity, and over 50 percent already have it built into their cybersecurity strategy.

However, only 45 percent of those surveyed said they trusted big data results when it comes to cybersecurity. Nearly 90 percent of them said they had trouble drawing intelligence from the data, and a third of them admitted they still don’t have the right systems in place to gather the information they need even to start applying data analytics.

Read around the figures in the various studies, however, and things look more optimistic. At the least, it seems that the organizational resistance and executive-level inattention that has plagued government cybersecurity finally seem to have been overcome.

As Rocky DeStefano, cybersecurity expert at Cloudera, which sponsored the MeriTalk survey, pointed out, at least there’s interest in improving. The positive you can take away from the survey, two years after a similar one, is that a high percentage of government that is at least starting to use big data analytics, compared to much lower numbers back then.

And people are already reporting encouraging results, DeStefano said, such as 90 percent who have seen some reduction in successful attacks and 84 percent who are able to thwart at least some kinds of attacks by leveraging the results of big data analytics.

“That’s the most encouraging thing to me,” he said. “This is all still in its infancy and yet it’s still very, very effective.”

Outside of the federal arena, optimism in states also seems to be catching on. A report from Deloitte and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers showed an increasing level of awareness of security issues at the executive level, with cybersecurity is becoming “part of the fabric” of government operations.

Even the GAO, usually so critical of government security, had some kind words. While pointing out the faults and inconsistencies of agencies’ security efforts and that additional actions are needed, Wilshusen did tell the presidential commission that the Obama administration and agencies have acted to improve cybersecurity protections.

So it’s a start, but one that must be accelerated into much more effective and wider application. After all, when it comes to technologies like data analytics and other tools that can be used to their advantage, the bad guys have also not been slow to try and take advantage.

Both government and private industry are changing how they approach cybersecurity, DeStefano believes, and it will take patience. Unlike in the past, when security was much more a case of intuition and guesswork, there’s now a cadre of highly-skilled people identifying threats with mechanisms and techniques that can be replicated and improved for the future.

“What’s really happening is that we’re turning an art into a science, and that’s going to take time,” DeStefano said. “When we do that, we’ll be able to get a little more ahead of the game than we are today.”

This blog was changed Oct. 26 to correct the spelling of Mr. DeStefano's name.

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