Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Feds’ Top Hacker Speaks

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One man is known for attacking the computer networks at various government agencies in the United States.

His photo, along with a warning to not give him admittance to the building, is posted all around the Beltway. He may not necessarily be the most popular guy in town but 24 government agencies, like the IRS and the Department of Agriculture, are more secure because of him.

Keith A. Rhodes, chief technologist with the U.S. General Accounting Office, makes it his business to attack the networks so he can find any holes and seal them up before a malicious attack can take advantage of them.

Rhodes and his team run penetration tests 10 times a year, and they never fail to break in. Here he talks about what companies should be doing to protect themselves, what risks are looming ahead and what exciting security technology is coming down the road.

Q: How good are U.S. companies at protecting their computer networks and their information?
It’s uneven. Some firms are very, very good and they tend to be banks, the stock exchange and other financials. The day-to-day run-of-the-mill business is not all that good. That’s one of the myths that needs to be dispelled — that the government is the only one that doesn’t know how to do security. Because of the testing work the government does, they actually do it better than the private sector.

Q: What are companies doing right?
They are laying out firewalls. They are putting routers that filter packets and filter IP addresses. They are doing more employee awareness. They are installing better login authentication systems. They are doing secured conferencing more than the government is. But it’s still uneven. You go to some firms and you see all those things in place. You go to some other firms and see next to nothing in place.

Q: What isn’t working when it comes to corporate security?
The chief security officer is not in the boardroom. The CIO is not speaking for security. The CIO is speaking for the business function, and I accept that because he is a business director. What cache does the security officer have with executives in the company? If he doesn’t report to a top executive, the company isn’t taking security seriously. If the CIO and the CTO are in the top box and the CSO is just outside the box, they’ve got to rearrange their priorities. If the CSO isn’t in the boardroom, then the company goes forward at its own peril.

Q: What is the biggest corporate security threat today?
Industrial espionage — someone trying to steal your idea. This is an idea game. Somebody wants to steal your patents, or your first production line item, or how you’re going to bid on a contract. They want the normal stuff that any other business wants. Don’t try to nail it down to an individual country. Everybody in the global market is in business for themselves, and they’ll come after you one way or another. They’ll see you at a conference and they’ll come after you there. They’ll say they’re a grad student doing some research. People are going after your information like nobody’s business.

Q: What security risks are looming ahead that IT executives should be preparing for?
One of these days in the not so distant future, your PDA, your laptop and your phone will be one appliance. It will be video and it will be voice. It will be everything to you. When you have everything in one place, then it becomes very dangerous. If somebody does the digital equivalent of a smash and grab, you could lose everything — all your information. That’s what people need to worry about. If you keep your entire digital life and your corporate plan and everything else all in one place, when somebody gets it physically or virtually, then you’re done.

Q: What security technology is coming down the pike that you’re the most excited about?
There are some tools that are coming to secure this all-in-one laptop/desktop device. High levels of encryption are coming. We’ll be able to get the entire corporate network security structure in a handheld device. I’ve seen some prototypes and it’s really quite exciting. The chips are small and high-powered. You can put them into these smaller devices and it’s amazing to see the miniaturization of the technology. And some national labs are working on quantum cryptography — basing cryptology on sub-atomic particles. They’re using the vibrations of atoms to generate random numbers. It’s nano technology in terms of very, very small locks for your data. Molecular-size security devices.

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