Vulnerabilities lurk in the soft(ware) underbelly of combat networks

DOD must deal with vulnerabilities related to applications and cloud computing

Networks are at the heart of the military’s ability to operate quickly and flexibly at the tactical and strategic levels. The nation’s adversaries and rivals know that and constantly target Defense Department networks with a range of attacks.

In an age of cyber warfare, the steps to defend military networks are often the same as those needed to protect systems at other federal government agencies and commercial enterprises, said Patricia Titus, chief information security officer at Unisys. Titus, whose information security career began three decades ago in the Air Force and continued as CISO at the Transportation Security Administration before she moved to Unisys, said DOD and many government organizations have network-level security pinned down fairly well. The application level is where most breaches, data thefts and other vulnerabilities lurk, she said.

Although attackers occasionally exploit network vulnerabilities to gain access, the majority of threats to military and civilian networks arise through the exploitation of application-level weaknesses in software code. The federal government has become "really good at the perimeter security. I think the area that needs to be more focused in on is secure code and application development,” she said.

Network perimeter security has improved with better firewalls and encryption. But the trend toward cloud computing poses potential problems that might negate those advances. Titus said many organizations' perimeters are becoming cloudy with the increase of wireless devices and applications. “The perimeter is no longer clearly defined, where the data is going,” she said. New capabilities make it easier for data to leave the network without security personnel knowing.

As military and civilian DOD agencies increasingly embrace wireless devices, they face economic and operational pressure to put more capabilities into the cloud.

For example, the Defense Information Systems Agency provides cloud services behind DOD's firewall. Among civilian agencies, Titus said, federal adoption of cloud computing technologies is moving slowly but deliberately, citing the General Services Administration’s approval of Google’s precertified cloud service offering. “It’s a good plan. The question is: Once the data is in the cloud, how is the attestation or continuous monitoring component happening?” she said.

Despite concerns about security in the cloud, Titus said, government agencies can still move to cloud deployments and data service consolidation. However, she added, many agency officials are hesitant about moving anything beyond low assurance level data to the cloud. But that is a good start because it will allow more people to access government data and services, she said.

As agencies progress, they must remain vigilant about protecting access to sensitive data. Titus praised defense and civilian agencies’ cautious approach to cloud computing, especially their emphasis on data loss prevention technologies and encryption. But what can other users do with classified data in the cloud? For example, if a DOD agency or military service has coalition data to share with certain recipients, what can those recipients do with that information? she asked.

One solution is to strengthen data rights management. “Data rights management has been available on Microsoft for several years now," she said. "But it’s getting your users to actually use it and institutionalize it. If a military service or DOD agency applies data rights management, it is protecting its data when it is received by a coalition partner. This will allow allies to read the information, but it prevents them from copying, pasting or otherwise disseminating the information without permission."

“There’s always malicious stuff that you can use to circumvent data rights management,” she said. "But for the most part, you’ve got some assurances that the data is going to coalition partners and is not being used in a manner that we don’t want to be used or have not agreed to be used."

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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