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'Operation Aurora' Changing The Role Of The CISO

Targeted attacks out of China against Google and other U.S. firms have forced some chief information security officers to reach out to their counterparts in other organizations and share attack, forensics information

The Operation Aurora attacks that hit Google, Adobe, Intel, and other U.S. companies was not only a wake-up call for businesses in denial about persistent targeted attacks and cyberespionage, but they also have forced the chief information security officer (CISO) to step out of the corporate confines and reach out to peers at other organizations.

Some CISOs, such as members of the Bay Area CSO Council -- whose members arguably were one of the worst-hit by Aurora -- had already been confidentially sharing various types of attack information among one another long before Aurora. Gary Terrell, president of the council and CISO at Adobe, says the CISO's job has mostly been about governance, risk, compliance, and some operational aspects. "It was sometimes associated with incident response. Now it's becoming more [associated] with incident response and will be into the future," he says, who was speaking on behalf of the council.

Terrell says the CISO's role is moving toward engagement: "In the past, the CISO had more of a technical role. Now the CISO has to understand legal and privacy issues and how to engage outside the company to gather intelligence, like with the Bay Area CSO Council," he says. "The CISO has to understand emerging markets if with an international company" and any associated threats in specific regions, he says.

The Bay Area CSO Council serves as a vehicle for CISOs to safely and securely share their attack experiences. When an advanced persistent threat (APT) attack occurs, many members are on the phone with one another three times a week rather than for just their regular monthly teleconferences. "[This is] just to get information flowing faster. They are putting together artifacts, and they are shared across [the members]," Terrell says. "They are able to collect a huge number of artifacts that helps them take this back into their detection and defense mechanisms," including intrusion prevention system (IPS) signatures, for example, he says.

"If someone discovers an artifact, they share it. There's no holding back," he says. The council, which also holds regular in-person meetings, provides its members with a broader perspective on attacks than an individual company would have, he notes.

Aside from Adobe, the Bay Area CSO Council's members includes CSOs from eBay, Gap, eTrade, Symantec, SAIC, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, PayPal, Cisco-WebEx, Yahoo, and Intel. Members must abide by the council's confidentiality rules and are required to actively participate, says Jacques Francoeur, executive director of the Bay Area CSO Council and senior director of identity and information assurance for SAIC's commercial business services, speaking on behalf of the council.

But for the most part, the Bay Area CSO Council's members are ahead of the curve when it comes to this proactive sharing model. Meantime, many other CISOs still continue to operate as lone rangers even in the wake of Aurora. Security experts say all CISOs need a way to band together and share their attack data in a confidential and useful way.

"I know many CEOs are currently having emergency planning meetings with CIOs, CISOs, and business stakeholders on this very issue [of Operation Aurora]," says Chenxi Wang, principal analyst for security and risk management at Forrester Research. "CISOs in the U.S. actually don't share information as much as CISOs in other [geographical regions]. I am aware of a lot more formalized interaction going on in South America, APAC, and Europe.

"I think the CISOs in this country should have a more formalized framework to exchange information and leverage each other's experiences."

Meanwhile, CISOs should definitely be using Operation Aurora as a starting point for talking to their CIOs and CFOs about these types of threats and the importance of a detailed incident response plan, says Alan Shimel, chief executive officer of The CISO Group. "Things are going to happen," he says. "[The CISO] can't tell how to stop the next APT. It's all about risk management, and a good CISO will have an incident response plan in place, and will make sure everyone knows what to do" when an attack occurs, he says.

The CSO Council is building out its own online portal, donated by SAIC, that lets its members record forensics data and make correlations and connections about attacks and how to defend against them. "This is to record information and for putting people together quickly," the council's Terrell says. "This allows us to record threats, feeds, ans artifacts, and provides a forum for threaded will provide a file-sharing [feature] where you can share IDS signature files." Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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