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Beware Cyber Threat Amnesia!

Awake Yet? The list of cyber security “wake up calls” grows, as predicted...

There are several certainties in computer security. One is that when adversaries have intent they will always find a way to get what they want. Another certainty is that leadership in government and industry is quick to forget the lessons learned in cyber security, especially those dealing with adversary action. This situation is known as Cyber Threat Amnesia.  I believe there are cures for Cyber Threat Amnesia, and I think those cures might come with education, training and awareness, but that is just a theory, one that I hope is tested one day.

Till then, resolve yourself to this observable fact: Our history indicates cyber security events frequently cause action and remediation and those can get widespread attention. But soon after the attempt to remediate, organizations collectively forget about the threat.

Here is an updated list of major events. This is not all major events, just those widely reported to be “wake up calls” for the nation.

  • 1970 and 1971 – The Defense Science Board publishes what will be known as the “Ware Report” highlighting the potential dangers to department information in the coming age of connected computing. This report was widely seen as a “wake up call” for computer security and caused changes at institutions like the National Security Agency to enhance the departments security posture.
  • Nov 1988 – The Morris Worm was released and propagated throughout internetworked systems including those of the federal government. This “wake up call” resulted in establishment of computer response organizations throughout DoD and also resulted in increased funding for computer security research being provided to academic organizations and institutions. The CERT/CC at Carnegie Mellon University was funded.
  • 1995 – The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP) was widely regarded as a “wake up call” for the entire federal government and since it was extensively coordinated with industry and academia was also seen as a way forward in cybersecurity for the entire nation.
  • 1997 – Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre was quoted as saying “Solar Sunrise was a wake up call for DoD.” This activity resulted in increased funding to cyber defense organizations and the creation of a new joint activity called DoD’s “Joint Task Force Computer Network Defense” or JTF-CND (Gourley was first Director of Intelligence (J2) there).
  • 1998 Assistant Secretary of Defense Art Money was quoted as saying “Moonlight Maze was a wake up call for DoD.”  This activity resulted in enhanced counterintelligence resources and more information sharing across the DoD law enforcement and counterintelligence.
  • 2009 Director of National Intelligence Admiral Blair testified that “Buckshot Yankee was a wake up call” for the government. This activity resulted in more awareness and more funding for cyber security throughout the federal government.
  • 2010 Deputy Secretary of Defense Lynn writes that “Google’s Aurora attacks were a wake up call for us all.”  This wake up call resulted in stronger, deeper coordination across the federal space and underscored need for a DoD strategy.
  • 2011 Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bob Butler says “Wikileaks was a wake up call for DoD.”   This wake up call resulted in significant activities and planning across the federal space aimed at enhancing security of information from disclosure.
  • 2012 Sep, In one of the most destructive attacks against computers noted against any company to date, Saudi state-owned ole company ARAMCO had data destroyed on over 3/4 of their companies computers. The NY Times reports this as a “wake up call” and attributes intelligence officials with that assessment.
  • 2012 Oct, South Carolina Gov Nikki Haley announced a massive hack into state websites. The Gov offered the excuse that these attacks are increasingly common. Reporters suggested this be her “wake up call”.
  • 2012 Oct, Secretary of Defense Pannetta issues what he said is a “clarion call” for American’s to “wake up” to the growing cyber threat.
  • 2012 Nov, Former Director of National Intelligence provides “wake up call” warning of a potential 9/11 type attack via cyber.
  • 2012 Sep, Department of Energy issues a report on internal cybersecurity practices. This report by their internal inspector general was reportedly seen as a “wake up call” for the agency’s cyber security group.
  • 2013 Jan, New York Times acknowledges hacks into its papers by Chinese sources. This was widely reported as a “wake up call” for security experts in media.
  • 2013 Jan, Twitter was hit by a major hack in what security experts called a “wake up call” for the ecommerce and social media community.
  • 2013 Jan, Attacks on US banks called a “wake up call” for the industry by cyber security professionals.
  • 2013 Feb, Anonymous attacks against Federal Reserve investigated by FBI. Compromise, called a “wake up call” compromised data from the Fed’s Emergency Communications System.
  • 2013 Feb, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee expressed confidence that the hackers recently targeting newspapers and other companies would soon “wake up” Washington on cybersecurity.
  • 2013 Feb, Mandiant releases a report exposing one of China’s Cyber Espionage Groups. This report, widely considered one of the best articulations of the threat, resulted in significant positive awareness on the seriousness of the threat and was widely called a wake up call. We believe this is one of the best pieces of cybersecurity research ever produced by an independent company, and we know it is making positive, virtuous change. We hope this goes a long way to really being the wake up call we all need.

Of course the reason to publish this list is not to make fun of people for using the term “wake up call.”  The reason to publish the list is to get your brain deeper into the game. Maybe there is something you can do to prevent Cyber Threat Amnesia.  Maybe you can suggest action to current community or government or business leaders? Or maybe you can find ways to educate policy makers or Congress or the American public? Or maybe you have other ideas for stopping this madness of forgetting about the threat.

More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.

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