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In praise of the Digital Catapult

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I admit to being a long-standing critic of past UK government research initiatives. Having sponsored and managed several partly-funded research projects I've been disappointed with the decreasing incentives to convert blue-sky research into actual products. (The funding reduces to zero as you progress ideas towards commercial ventures.)

Clearly I'm not alone in this view as increased funding now seems to be aimed at encouraging start-up initiatives. I fully support this change and I've been pleased and impressed to be associated with the new London Digital Catapult Centre. This is a venture that reflects the latest thinking on how government funding can encourage innovation. It's not an incubator, it's not a research centre, but it has great facilitation potential.

Strip away the gimmicks of the automated yellow minion and the machine that blows bubbles in response to tweets and you'll discover an interesting mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, investors and subject matter experts coming together to discuss emerging trends and business opportunities.

As I've often said, innovation in security will not come from industry (who are focused almost exclusively on compliance), or academia (who respond increasingly to industry demands), or vendors (who simply wish to promote new features). Real invention demands a serendipitous blend of users, vendors and investors, ideally enhanced by a left-field subject matter experts and the odd futurologist.

And that's what you'll find at a Digital Catapult workshop. New thinking needs a blend of contrasting experiences and perspectives. The Digital Catapult centres are equipped to deliver this. In a short two-day "pit stop" on identity and trust I discovered a surprising number of innovative product concepts, and was delighted to encounter kindred spirits open to my own inventions and ideas.

To be honest I've lost faith in traditional universities, vendor and research centres. Few new products are truly innovative and many lack the left-field and subject matter expertise needed to conceive killer products. If anything new and successful emerges in the security space in the next decade I'm sure it will have been identified and discussed at a Digital Catapult centre.   

What's new in Cyber security?

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I missed the opening of this year's Infosecurity Europe as I was speaking in Zurich. I did however catch the end, though there was little to fire my attention. The theme was dated, the slogans on stands (e.g. "security re-imagined") were unrealistic, and the talks were from original. The exhibition however was much bigger and even more crowded. As usual, the conference was essentially a huge networking event, as well as a chance to seek out what might be new in cyber security.

Just about everyone in security attends at least one day of Infosecurity. I bumped into dozens of old acquaintances and met lots of new people, ranging from IT researchers to behavioral psychologists. This conference seems to attract a more diverse set of people than other big security conferences.

Little innovation was on show though there is much happening behind the scenes. For me, the underpinning trend is the continuing growth in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in security products. Such technology is becoming mainstream. It has its advantages and shortcomings.

Things have certainly changed. Fifteen years ago when I was promoting the use of AI it was a dirty word in many academic circles. The Professor running Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge told me he binned anything he received on the subject. Yet today Cambridge is the home of the most hyped security product in this space: Darktrace, a learning system inspired by the human immune system.

Clearly someone has been paying attention to my long-promoted advice that security technologies needs to steal ideas from nature, especially the human immune system. Back in 1999 I sponsored a three year project to develop a fraud detection system based on the human immune system. The technology worked to an extent, but was a long way from being ready for business deployment.

There are huge challenges in developing AI systems. We don't fully understand the human immune system, and we can't keep up with the accelerating changes going on across a modern, global enterprise. I always imagined that perfecting such technology would be a long haul. Professor Stephanie Forrest at the University of New Mexico for example has been trying to develop intrusion detection systems based on this approach for two decades.

Perhaps we just needed Mike Lynch's magical Bayesian logic. Certainly something has accelerated the maturity of the technology which now appears to be ready for prime time.

But be warned. False positives might be acceptable in a research, intelligence or relatively small environment. In a large enterprise however they can be time consuming to process and deadly if you ignore them. We've all heard about the CISO who lost his job after not acting on an intrusion alert.   

As I've pointed out for the past fifteen years, the future of security will be probabilistic rather than deterministic. But it's a slow change. Don't expect instant results.    

Showing our true character?

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Last week GCHQ was censored over its sharing of internet surveillance data with the United States. There's no real surprise here. But what is interesting is to read it in the context of the New Statesman's feature last week about growing political interest in the "Anglosphere" - a global alliance of English speaking countries.  

I am reminded of Bill Hayden's observation from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy "I still believe the secret services are the only real expression of a nation's character". 

Predictions for 2015

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The last two years have been an eye-opener for business, governments and citizens. They should now be aware of the vulnerability of information systems to penetration by spies, hackers and criminals. But do they care? Not that much it seems, as they clearly continue to trust service providers with their data.

Perhaps we might experience one or two wake-up calls this year. Certainly we can expect that everything to do with intellectual assets and cyber security will be bigger, faster and more volatile, as that is the underlying nature the Information Age. At the same time we can expect that little or nothing will get fixed or be any more secure, as that costs money and reduces business opportunity.       

So what in particular will be waiting in the wings for cyber security professionals in 2015? Here are my personal forecasts.  

The Internet of Things will be primary focus of this year's research, investment and hype. But there will be no killer applications or compelling business cases. It will remain largely a solution looking for a problem, held back by a lack of imagination, standards and security. The idea of publishing sensor data to citizens is a daft aspiration from a security point of view. But researchers and product developers do not listen to security experts.     

There will be no escape for security managers from the growing treacle of regulatory compliance. Amazingly, implementing an information security management system to ISO standards requires as many as fifty individual pieces of documentation. But the paper overhead will continue to increase with more competing standards and questionnaires surfacing each year. (I've had to develop a sophisticated 4D relational database to keep up.) Technology can help but current GRC solutions are immature, and some add to the swamp of data to be processed. This will be the year for CISOs to invest in more efficient enterprise solutions.

Prediction is the new, 4th dimension for security. The theme of this year's Infosecurity Europe is "Smart data to detect, contain and respond". But the theme is outdated: smart vendors such as Qualys have already added "predict" to the thirty-year old "prevent, detect, respond" paradigm. A decade of regulatory compliance treacle has relegated prediction to the back burner. It need to bounce back. Let's all aim to reverse this trend by pushing the focus firmly towards the future. It could be the single most important paradigm shift of the year 2015.      

Small data is the answer: We've seen increasing hype and emphasis about "big data" over the last few years. The hype is slightly misplaced. The data does not have to be big, but it needs to be intelligently selected and creatively combined. As Deming correctly pointed out (though he is a bad poster boy for the Information Age), running a business on visible figures alone is one of the seven deadly diseases of management. Today we have numerous sources of data, within and without the enterprise. Fusing this data will help shed visibility of risks and incidents. The data does not have to be big. Searching out, capturing and combining small data is the real key to predictive analytics.

The commoditisation of cyber security: t's sad to say but many companies have been foolishly paying outrageously high fees for security experts that are little more than standards readers or script-kiddies armed with open-source software tools. There is a place for the expert and there is a place for the army of trainees. Don't mix them up. Smart companies will outsource the latter to low cost off-shore service providers.

Cyber terrorism is a step closer

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Behind the escalating war of words between North Korea and the United States in the wake of the cyber attacks on Sony lies a dangerous, but inevitable trend: the beginnings of real cyber terrorism.

Although we have yet to witness a major cyber terrorist incident, the potential for one is real, both in terms of motivation and vulnerability. The inescapable fact is that critical national infrastructure is vulnerable to damaging attacks and offensive techniques continue to outstrip our ability to counter them.

Back in 1999 I forecast that the electronic Pearl Harbour would occur around 2006-08, and was branded a doomsayer. Unfortunately, there are still many authorities in denial about the risks. They are the elephants in the room: too damaging to contemplate and too expensive to fix. They will not be addressed until a massive incident occurs.      

Predictions for 2014

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It's the time of year when we reflect on our progress (or failures) over the last year and anticipate the challenges of the coming year. Last year I made half a dozen predictions for 2014. How well did I do?  Let's examine them.

Escape from monoculture

A year ago I forecast that new security technologies would provide a greater choice of defensive options, making things less predictable for attackers. It hasn't quite happened yet, but there are some emerging alternatives that look promising.

A new generation of attacks

I also drew attention to the inevitable fact that the next generation of APT attacks would be richer, more sophisticated and stealthier. That's certainly happened, so much so that we can't detect the latest attacks, as illustrated by the recent discovery of a sophisticated APT attack (Regin) dating back six years.

A backlash against security standards

I also predicted a growing backlash against security standards, which have increasingly effective. That's certainly been a major issue this year, commencing with the FIC 2014 January opening conference theme of "Is cyber security a failure?" Unfortunately there is no realistic alternative for regulators to the growing mass of bureaucratic standards.    

Improving strategic crisis response

On an optimistic note I forecast that enterprises would develop improving crisis management capabilities, correcting a long-standing weakness. I've certainly seen signs of this with the growth in deployment of SIEM technologies and security operations centres (SOCs).  

Cyber skills gap grows

I also noted the growing shortage of high-end cyber skills, fuelled by the need to seek out a special kind of person for key monitoring and analysis tasks. Interestingly, there are now several proactive initiatives to employ or help find security work for dyslexic and autistic graduates. This approach will grow.

No change at NSA    

I forecast no major changes in the operations at NSA, following Snowden. And I've yet to see any indication of this. Large scale intelligence gathering is necessary to combat terrorism, and that threat is growing.   

Learning points

The events of 2014 demonstrated a number of inescapable truths. Fast-changing subject areas tend to be held back by their legacy. The consequence is that they fail. Evolution will not deliver solutions. Nothing short of a revolution will succeed. New technologies, new skills and a new realism are needed to transform the effectiveness of cyber security. 

One day wonders

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Last week Dr Hugh Thompson of Blue Coat and RSA fame was in London. I was fortunate to find a slot with him to meet up and exchange ideas. I like Hugh because he's not like the regular, dull vendors or CSOs that churn out the accepted security mantra. And he understands the importance of the human and political factors in achieving effective security.

Hugh updated me on his latest Blue Coat research on "One day wonders" i.e. websites that exist for less than a day. It's an important landscape as a surprisingly high 71% of all web sites exist for 24 hours or less. More worrying is the disturbing fact that these sites attract hackers, villains and other bad people.

Of course most one-day wonders are legitimate and exist to deliver a better user experience. Many are organizations such as Google, Amazon and Yahoo with a substantial Internet presence. That's why they're popular. Unfortunately there's a darker side, as malware operators seek to generate large numbers of popular sub-domains built on a foundation more evil domains. Sites are selected to support mass attacks on targeted victims, attacks that are highly scalable, difficult to track and easy to implement.   

Hugh and I also had an imaginative debate on current trends, including the Internet of Things. We both agree that security cannot be contained within devices alone. Against a landscape of continuously fragmenting technology (into larger networks of smaller devices), rapidly changing platforms, and uncertain access policies, security must migrate into the network. The challenge of course is where, when and how this will materialise. And of course who will control it. 

Security and the Internet of Things

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Whether you like the term or not the so-called Internet of Things is generating a huge amount of interest, and a growing amount of security research, including great opportunities for forward-looking security practitioners. The label of course is simply a passing fashion. Just like EDI or Knowledge Management it's not likely  to survive for more than a year or two, though the problem and solution spaces it occupies will continue to blossom for decades.

So what is it exactly? And what sort of security does it require? These are good questions that have yet to be answered adequately. I can imagine a future world in which billions of devices interact safely and securely. But this world is far from possible with today's technology. In fact today's initiatives are no more than very small beginnings: a handful of private machine-to-machine networks, a few attempts to standardise on communications protocols, and one or two initiatives to develop a public catalogue for sensor data.

All of this falls well short of the world imagined by the brilliant Neil Gershenfeld fifteen years ago in his visionary book "When things start to think". Radical change is very easy to imagine, but it's extremely hard to bring it about. There remain many tough problems yet to be solved to realize the Internet of Things. Ones that spring to my mind for example are the following. 

  • Where is the bullet-proof data ontology to enable reliable translation of critical data between systems? (I've heard a few whispers about vocabularies under development. That's nowhere near enough.)  
  • How can we develop access policies for interaction between devices when we're not quite sure where, when, how, or by whom the data will be exploited? Security technology is worthless without a requirements specification. 
  • Who will control the security and where will it sit? Will it be in devices? I think not. Will it be in the network? I think so. But who takes control? 
  • Who will be liable for serious incidents arising from accidental or deliberate misuse or manipulation of sensor information? Against a business landscape of increasing product liability this is no trivial question.  

We are clearly at a very early stage in developing the vision for the Internet of Things. Perhaps, just like the World-Wide-Web, it will begin as an anarchistic Wild West of experimental but dangerous, read-only applications. And maybe it will begin to flourish for business applications when we finally develop a security breakthrough equivalent to the acceptance of the SSL protocol.

One thing that is certain is that we will not achieve much progress without early casualties. So let us hope that there are pioneers brave enough to accept or ignore the risks.

Meetings with remarkable security men

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This week Doc Hugh Thompson of RSA fame was in London. We had an interesting and entertaining debate on current and future trends. Hugh is a consummate, multi-tasking professional: lecturer in Cyber Security at Columbia University; Chair of RSA Conference; and Chief Security Strategist at Blue Coat. He's also a larger-than-life character, with a keen interest in technology, human behaviour, and innovation.

Blue Coat products have a strong position in the market (80% of Fortune 500 they tell me) based on their easy-to-deploy security appliances which have the useful feature of providing visibility of encrypted SSL traffic. They have recently added additional features such as sandboxing and advanced analytics to combat APT threats, making them a good choice for an enterprise security gateway.

Not surprising we talked about encryption. Default encryption has been suggested as the best way to protect web users' privacy online, and it's on the increase as more and more organizations switch from http to https. Hugh tells me that around 25% of incoming business traffic is now encrypted. However, this trend presents a major problem for enterprises, as it also enables attackers to hide their communications. Security demands the ability to read traffic. Encryption creates as many problems as it solves. In my view it will not succeed. The future is more likely to be a hyper-connected world in which no information is secure.  

Information sharing is another hot issue we discussed. I take the view that it's simply not viable as legal, compliance, and political considerations discourage any release of sensitive information to third parties. Governments can't easily share secrets with international companies. And executive boards don't like security managers telling others about incidents. Countries with state-owned industries clearly have an advantage here, though such an infrastructure carries its own baggage.

Another topic was conference audiences. RSA Conference has seen a trend away from a technical security community towards a more business oriented security community. My view is that security managers are going native. They need to stand up to, rather succumb to business managers. I've also noticed that compliance and audit functions are now setting more of the security agenda. Large financial organizations now have almost ten times more people policing them than securing them. At this rate ISACA conferences will overtake RSA conferences in size. 

We both agreed that speed, imagination, and attention to the human factor are the keys to security in the future. CSOs need to escape the burden of compliance and be empowered to practice real security. Personally I don't believe this will happen until after an electronic Pearl Harbour incident.    

Unfortunately we ran out of time to discuss deeper issues. But we did agree to continue the discussion next time Hugh is in town. 

The future of mobile? Bright but cloudy

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Tuesday evening saw the London launch of IDATE's 2014 version of their DigiWorld Yearbook, an excellent guide to telecoms, Internet and media markets. It was a useful opportunity to catch up with emerging trends in the mobile world and the over-the-top services that are changing our lifestyles and challenging our security. So what did I learn?

IIDATE (not the Internet dating agency) is a European think tank represented by around 50 major players in the digital economy, largely vendors, regulators, and, refreshingly, a few French banks. Interestingly for security professionals, the UK branch is chaired by Steve Durbin who is also Managing Director of the Information Security Forum.  

The Yearbook reveals that global digital markets have shown "growth in slow motion" (3.3%) though European revenues remain in decline, perhaps reflecting a weak economic climate and inefficiencies in a fragmented supply side. Emerging markets are well up of course and not held back by legacy infrastructure.

Delving further into the numbers we can see an overall growth of 20% in Internet services, with the strongest growth in social media sites, mobile apps and video services. The Cloud is also a star, with high growth and revenues (up 30%) and accounting for a quarter of online revenue.

Clearly customers in mature markets are getting picky and vendors being squeezed despite a strong appetite for bandwidth and mobile services. What are the issues for Europe?  Three things according to Anne Bouverot, Director General of the GSM Association. Firstly spectrum: there isn't enough and it takes a decade to transform. Secondly taxation: it's far too high and runs counter to digital inclusion. And thirdly consolidation: it's needed to extend services and reduce costs.  

How does an investment bank view such a business environment? Very positively according to Jeffrey Krogh, a tech-savvy BNP Paribas director. Slow growth means companies need to cooperate and take out cost, which sets the scene for convergence. He believes we're just at the beginning of a wave of radical consolidation.

What about 5G? What is it and when is it coming? The answer is that we don't yet know but it has to be different and much more than 4G. The UK Ministry of Culture is planning to launch a consultation paper in July.        

So much uncertainty, as well as so many red herrings. What about those clever Google ideas about balloons and drones? Not so smart on closer inspection according to Anne Bouverot. Balloons get blown about in three dimensions which is not good for service delivery. And the site of a drone is likely to terrify citizens in many emerging countries. 

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