'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 discussions...it will provide a file-sharing [feature] where you can share IDS signature files." It's not the only attack-sharing forum, however. U.S. defense contractors already have their own online exchange for swapping attack information -- the Defense Security Information Exchange, for example.

Meantime, while CISOs attend events such InfraGuard, the FBI-led association of local businesses, academic institutions, and state and local law enforcement agencies, CISOs are mainly there to network with security people rather than with their peers, CISO Group's Shimel says. Shimel says the CISO Breakfast Club, an organization with local chapters in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York, is attempting to provide a forum for CISO's to share attack information, he says.

"There's a huge need for CISOs to talk about Aurora, what's working and what's not, and to learn from their peers about what's going on...where they can talk in confidence. We don't have that [on a broad scale]."

But the CSO Council's Terrell says organizations like InfraGuard are often less about intelligence-sharing and typically include plenty of presentations by vendors. The Bay Area CSO Council prides itself in its no-vendor member status. "We're focused in intelligence-sharing," Terrell says.

The council's Franceour says CISOs traditionally have been hamstrung in getting to the bottom of targeted attacks. "CISOs...have been walking around trying to collect crumbs of what happened in the past. It's so frustrating because it seems so ineffective given the actual nature of the threat," he says. "This [Operation Aurora] event is stealing our source code, our competitiveness. This is so extremely important that, to me, we need to define a game-changer on our side because they changed the game on us."

Even so, no CISO wants to be the poster child for a breach of confidentiality or a leak about a targeted attack that doesn't require public disclosure. The recent firing of Pennsylvania CISO Robert Maley for speaking publicly at the RSA Conference earlier this month about a security incident on the state's online driving exam scheduling system, for example, was a stark reminder of what can go wrong when CISOs share their experiences, even in general terms.

"Everyone is afraid" of their businesses being compromised if they share attack information, says Mike Murray, co-founder of MAD Security and with InfoSecLeaders.com. "Even with a confidential forum, it's not going to protect me if someone leaks and my boss fires me. If there's an incident, [there's an] imperative not to say anything to anyone at all."

And the CISO no longer can be just the technical lead at the organization. "There's a real transformation occurring," says Lee Kushner, president of LJ Kushner and Associates and also with InfoSecLeaders.com. "I think a lot of people inherited that position in the late 1990s and early 2000s and are now moving to the end of their career slope. When organizations are replacing their CISOs, they are replacing them with people who have much broader business skills...they need to interact with business units and speak their language with a technical understanding, but not a tech-centric [approach]," he says.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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