Phishing Is Culprit Behind Vast Majority of Data Exfiltration, Intelligence Official Says

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A top federal counterintelligence official says agencies must do more to harden their cybersecurity defenses, even if that means sacrificing some mission capabilities.

Over the last eight or nine years, of all the successful data exfiltrations and breaches that have hit the federal government and private industry, about 90 percent of them were the result of spear-phishing campaigns that targeted unsuspecting employees.

That's according to William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"Until we clean that up, our adversaries need not get sophisticated with their intrusion apparatus," Evanina said during a keynote address on March 8 at a MeriTalk-hosted event, "Cyber Convergence: Security, the Cloud and Your Data."

"As American citizens, we have an unbelievable inability not to click on a link," he said, joking that any company that can absolutely prevent users from clicking on authorized links or opening unauthorized attachments would make a fortune.

On that front, agencies need to make progress. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told CyberScoop this week that more than two-thirds of agencies have adopted DMARC, which stands for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance. DHS mandated that, by Jan. 15, all agencies adopt some form of the protocol to prevent email spoofing, which can then be used in phishing campaigns to get users to click on links that will load malware. DMARC, DHS notes, gives agencies the "strongest protection against spoofed email, ensuring that unauthenticated messages are rejected at the mail server, even before delivery."

More broadly, Evanina argued, agencies and IT security leaders need to be willing to enhance cybersecurity protections at the expense of sacrificing some mission capabilities. Without that security, agencies will see their brands eroded, and with that, their value. IT leaders also need todevelop crisis security plans and practice them regularly, he said.

Agencies Must Make Cybersecurity a Priority

Evanina said that his job, part of which involves providing counterintelligence outreach to government and private sector entities and issuing public warnings regarding intelligence threats to the U.S., involves "varying degrees of bad." However, he said, the government is doing an excellent job on the offensive front of counterintelligence activities.

Yet the threats the government faces are real and complex, Evanina said. "The threat we face now, today, is greater, more complicated, more sophisticated and more pervasive than ever before," he said.

The government's adversaries are "constantly learning from us and adjusting; they know our gaps and weaknesses," he said. The government always loves to defend against the last breach and not threats that will come in the future, Evanina said. "We rarely do predictive analysis of what the next breach is going to be."

Agencies now are being pushed to deliver flexible and fast services to users and citizens, Evanina said, with the mission delivered "at the click of a button," and security is often seen as an afterthought. The White House has pushed agencies to take a more risk-based approach to cybersecurity and protect high-value assets.

Evanina said the government must find a middle ground where the needs of end users are satisfied, but IT assets and data are secure.

"We have to be OK with sacrificing capability for security," Evanina said.

"We have no choice but to secure what we're doing, even if we have to sacrifice a little bit of mission," he continued, adding that IT leaders must do some "marketing" to convince employees that "it is going to be OK" if that happens. A security breach can fundamentally damage an agency's brand in the eyes of employees and citizens.

"It's all about [your agency's] brand," he said. "If you lose that, you lost everything."

How Agencies Can Address Security Vulnerabilities

How can agency IT leaders approach cybersecurity threats?

Evanina suggested that they convene meetings not just with CIOs and CISOs, but acquisition, procurement, privacy and civil liberties stakeholders, and have an airing of everyone's concerns, issues and equities. That, he said, will drive home that "everyone in the agency is responsible for this issue."

For example, Evanina noted, adversaries might, hypothetically, be scanning an agency's connected heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for vulnerabilities, especially HVAC systems in data centers. If the air conditioning is hacked and shut down in a data center, it could cause a catastrophic failure. Yet, Evanina said, who is responsible for protecting the HVAC system? The CIO, CISO or facilities offices?

"Who owns supply chain threats in your government agency or your business?" he asked. Is there an official in charge of supply chain security? Supply chains, Evanina said, "cause me a lot of agita."

Agencies also need to develop a crisis plan to respond to a breach or other major event, Evanina said. "If you don't have a crisis plan, shame on you, because you will be in a crisis," he said. Agencies must not only develop that plan but practice it at least twice a year through "tabletop" exercises that simulate attacks.

That way, "everyone who is accountable for your business understands the equities dangers and vulnerabilities, and then finds out how to fix those gaps."

IT leaders must also have a "deep conversation" about "what you are trying to protect," Evanina said. "What is your brand, your data, your secret sauce? What is it that makes your company or your agency that special, and what if it got out?" Agencies must prioritize those high-value assets and protect the most important ones first.

Then, agency leaders must "socialize" that information and make sure all employees understand what those key assets are and what is being done to protect them. Users need to know if a procurement or insider threat can affect those assets. External stakeholders need to be identified about such assets and plans, he said.

"The world of cyber changes every minute," Evanina said. Agencies must ensure they have as much information from Information Sharing and Analysis Centers, the intelligence community, DHS and other agencies about threats. "Inform yourself of the threat to drive the protection of your vulnerabilities and assets."

This content is made possible by FedTech. The editorial staff of Nextgov was not involved in its preparation.

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