Why national security depends on thorough pentesting training

Earlier this fall, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the cybersecurity of the Department of Defense’s weapon systems. The findings revealed chronic challenges in protecting weapon systems from advanced cyberthreats, largely due to their computerized nature, the department's late start in prioritizing their cybersecurity and relatively elementary knowledge concerning the development of more secure weapon systems. Even more concerning, the report noted that DOD weapon systems are more software dependent and networked than ever before, with automation and connectivity serving not only as fundamental enablers of modern military capabilities, but also as severe cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

In response to the GAO report, DOD expanded its “Hack the Pentagon” bug bounty program, which since its establishment in 2016 has challenged white-hat hackers to find vulnerabilities within the Pentagon’s public websites and predetermined department systems. The recently expanded program now allows hackers to identify security gaps within more sensitive systems at the Pentagon, including hardware and physical systems required for defense missions. DOD has also been issuing and revising related security policies to further protect its critical systems. Despite these attempts to improve security, the cybersecurity workforce shortages and difficulties sharing information about vulnerabilities are still impeding the department’s efforts.

The immeasurable value of in-house pentesting

To effectively secure its next generation of weapons systems in an ever-evolving cyber risk environment, DOD must prioritize penetration testing initiatives. Despite the negative press generated by the GAO report, DOD has actually made significant progress in pentesting in recent years. But to build on its momentum, the department must invest further in pentesting training. Bug bounty programs are a step in the right direction, but there’s no substitute for a formal, comprehensive and ongoing software assessment process that occurs before a systems goes live and continues as long as the software is in use.

Designed to simulate cyberattacks against systems and scan for exploitable vulnerabilities, pentesting not only enables a more proactive approach to cybersecurity, it also allows internal IT teams to expand their skill sets. This is precisely why DOD must double down on pentesting training: In an age where cybersecurity job shortages are estimated to hit 3.5 million by 2021, agencies must stop relying on contracting for increasingly hard-to-find outside talent. Rather than continuing to assume contractors will be available to hunt for time-sensitive vulnerabilities, DOD should look inward and invest in the pentesting training of its existing IT staff to build out the department’s own capabilities.

Hands-on, goal-oriented training programs are key

The truth is, it’s impossible to adopt an active approach to cybersecurity without an ample investment in pentesting. It’s simple: agencies need people to hunt for vulnerabilities, and if there isn’t sufficient pentesting talent available, the hunting can’t occur. To effectively defend itself from attacks going forward, DOD must look to hands-on, practical training programs to further develop its internal pentesting skill set. Such programs don’t necessarily need to focus on actual hacking, either. Reading tool outputs along with implementing, automating and writing reports can educate internal IT teams on the real work and sheer persistence required for pentesting rather than perpetuating the false notion that ethical hacking is just a game.

Equally important in any pentesting training program is taking a step back to clearly establish the larger goals of the agency's cybersecurity efforts. For instance, for some agencies the point of pentesting might be to identify vulnerabilities so that they can be remedied. For others, the goal may be to demonstrate worst-case scenarios in the event that the agency comes under targeted attack. How these questions are answered will define the level and amount of work required in pentesting training programs, so it’s imperative that they’re given careful consideration and communicated clearly to everyone involved.

DOD security requires an internal pentesting army

Considering it houses some of the most sensitive assets on the planet, DOD can’t sit back and wait for incoming security alerts. It also can’t afford to fall victim to the dire and unrelenting cybersecurity talent shortage we all find ourselves in. To build upon the positive steps it has taken so far and to prevent future national security crises, DOD must proactively and continually seek out potential threats by establishing an in-house army of pentesters whose sole responsibility is to search for vulnerabilities. In doing so, DOD will stand a far better chance of protecting its critical infrastructure and weapons systems and eliminating debilitating threats.

About the Author

Jim O'Gorman is president of Offensive Security.

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