IT Security: Are We Being Played?

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 7/22/2013 | 68 comments

Andrew Froehlich
If you believe one hacker, the government can easily get into any computer at any time. If that's the case, why aren't they? It might be that the government has us right where they want us and they don't want to let us know.

I was the youngest of three brothers who all loved to play sports. Because I was almost always the smallest, it was a challenge to compete at the same level as the older kids. I'd often get down on myself because I was the weak link. But every once in a while, I'd have a breakthrough game that kept me interested in the game and my hopes held high. Looking back years later, I'm convinced that my brothers and the other kids on my block conspired to let me score the winning basket or steal second base. And if a recent interview with a US government hacker is even remotely accurate, apparently the same is being done to IT security engineers.

InfoWorld recently published an interview with an anonymous employee of the US armed services. His current role within the government is to hack into targeted computers of other countries. For those of us paying attention to IT security, this person's occupation should come as no surprise. But what is surprising is the contractor's claim that the US government sits on a huge stockpile of next-generation hacking tools and zero-day exploits at their disposal. Tens of thousands of exploits for every operating system and application you can think of. One quote in the article that really caught my attention was this: "In the last few years, every publicly known and patched bug makes almost no impact on us. They aren't scratching the surface."

This claim gave me the same feeling I got when I realized that I really didn't score the game-winning run back in the day. Instead, others around me simply allowed me to have that impression so I wouldn't quit.

If it's true that the US government has access to zero-day exploits and tools to easily bypass our enterprise-class operating systems, firewalls, and intrusion prevention systems, then are we simply being played, pretending we're protecting our networks? And if the US has a limitless inventory of exploits and high-tech hacking tools, than we have to assume that other foreign governments have a similar cache. Same goes for cyber criminal organizations as well. In the end, what we're doing at an enterprise-class IT security level may only be protecting us from the absolute lowest levels of cyber security threats.

There are likely many of you thinking that the InfoWorld interview is nothing more than a fascinating piece of fiction -- and you could very well be right. After all, if it were so easy to hack into systems to steal sensitive data, the house of cards would quickly fall. But perhaps those in power realize this and severely regulate their tools to be used only when needed. That way, the rest of us IT security professionals would naively play along, keeping busy downloading worthless security patches and updating outdated virus signatures. The reason they want to keep up the charade is that if we ever found out just how insecure the Internet is, we would all take our ball and go home. Game over. It's probably a long shot, but one must consider the thought that we're all simply being played.

So what do you think? Are current methods of enterprise IT security actually worth the time and money, or are we simply being lulled into a false sense of protection by governments and crime organizations that are years ahead of us?

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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WaqasAltaf   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   9/21/2013 12:53:27 AM
Re: Probably Not
Marif, my experience of external audits tells me that they aren't much effective though they add added comfort to the person having interest in audited entity. If external auditors agree to a forensic investigation, we might see a better result as forensic audit is much detailed than a normal IT audit.
The_Phil   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/20/2013 12:15:05 AM
Re: Probably Not
Yupp. Because they're so expensive!
Marif   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/11/2013 7:36:40 AM
Re: Probably Not
@WaqasAltaf: Another way to control such misconducts is by external having audits on regular basis and more importantly these audits should be conducted by external auditors which are unbiased to any personal in the organization and the auditing company does not have any interest in the organization being audited. In this way even if more than one person are involved in bad things, they can be filtered out.
WaqasAltaf   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/11/2013 5:03:33 AM
Re: Probably Not
Marif, you are right @ organizations should keep such checks so that the information that is the property of the organization esp government and belongs to the citizens should not be compromised if a person in authority has low ethical values. It will be impossible to stop public frauds if a large number of people collude to commit a fraud including people in authority and the subordinates.
Marif   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/6/2013 1:03:52 PM
Re: Probably Not
@WaqasAltaf: that is the combination that will exist in every organization whether it is government or private. As susan said there will be both kind of people, ethical and evil. The only thing these organizations can do is to establish such processes and checks that the decision making should not be with single person even he is at the top tier of the organization. We can't do much if all the people involved are not good otherwise this will certainly reduce the cases of ethical hacking.
Pedro Gonzales   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/6/2013 11:53:37 AM
the best sci fi book theme, living a fake reality.
Wow. May be you are right, the government is selling us a an image that the security we get to protect our systems is enough, while, they hide their true intentions, unlimited hacking power. It sounds like a good sci fi book.  The worst issue, there isn't anything anybody can do, we are back in square one.
Susan Nunziata   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/5/2013 9:15:16 PM
Re: Probably Not
@WaqasAltaf: Indeed, in fact what is a government except an organization made up of its people. Some will be good and ethical and others will not be. 

WaqasAltaf   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/3/2013 12:12:00 AM
Re: Probably Not
"Neither thought is comforting, of course. As we have seen throughout history, not every government can be trusted to act in the best interests of its citizens. "

Susan, I 100% agree. Probably its the difference between trusting the governments and trusting the government officials. The latter cannot be trusted and they might leak your data to someone who should not have had access to it.
WaqasAltaf   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   8/3/2013 12:03:24 AM
Re: No one is wrong
Curt, the users might collaborate with the government to make hackers weak but when government is catching the users' data, not much can be done as government can't be made weaker because unfortunately government practically is above the law.
Damian Romano   IT Security: Are We Being Played?   7/29/2013 6:24:40 AM
Re: Probably Not
@sherly - You hit the nail on the head with that last statement. With the unbridled prevalence of the internet, it should be mandatorily put in the general education of our kids. Just as we have the fundamentals of history, science, and physical education. So should we have something about the history and science of computers as well. 
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