Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day Essay: Reborn at Arlington

1500 US Army soldiers stood on the misty parade field at Fort Meyer waiting for the sun to rise. The leadership had scheduled another morale building yet mandated "fun run" wherein once a quarter, the entire unit comes together to do PT (Physical Training) in a show of Esprit de Corp and cohesion. Since we were all stationed at the Pentagon, many of us were fairly senior, a little broken down in the body department, and had seen our fair share of these types of events. There we were, at the twilight of our careers, huddled in small groups during the dawn of one more PT morning.

Of course, there was the usual grumbling between the older soldiers asking one another if we were motivated yet and if we had a cup of Esprit De Corps to spare. But there was a sprinkling of young soldiers among us too and their shiny new faces kept us old timers from getting too cynical and fussy.

As the sun poked up above the horizon, the Army's Command Sergeant Major called the gaggle to attention and the formation began to run. The Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) led the assemblage in rousing voice and extolled the virtues of Granny [1], My Girl [2] and the C-130 [3]. Below the roar of the singing, just in the background, you could hear the footsteps of the 1500 strong pounding the pavement in syncopated rhythm.

The formation crested the hill overlooking Arlington Cemetery and the vista of Washington DC opened up to us. The Army Colors, at the front of the formation, started their decent towards the cemetery just as the sun had risen to about the same height as the Washington Monument several miles distant. And still the singing and the pounding drove the formation as it snaked down the hill towards the gates of the National Cemetery.

The colors passed into the cemetery and, like a line of dominoes falling, the singing faded away. One platoon after the other fell silent in mute honor of our fallen comrades-in-arms laid to rest in Arlington. As the voices died down, the only sound you could hear was the constant beat, beat, beat of the run and the Army colors whipping in the slight breeze. Nobody spoke except for the occasional NCO keeping everybody in step with a solid, but not too loud, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, 1 -2 - 3 - 4. It was serene. It was sublime.

Midway through the run, the Sergeant Major called the formation to a halt and commanded us to right-face towards the middle of the cemetery. The rising sun burned off the last vestiges of mist from the manicured lawns. The breeze trickled through the formation’s silence and the Army Colors at the front. And then we all heard it; that mournful sound of a single bugler playing Taps. [4] He began the music low at first; almost whispering the sound through the horn. But slowly, his crescendo wrapped the listener into a cocoon of sadness, memory and a sense about lives that could have been. On that misty morning, many soldiers young and old could not stop the tears from falling onto their cheeks.

A chill went down my back as it occurred to me that we were not merely taking a morning jog anymore. We were actually passing in review. These fallen soldiers who performed the ultimate sacrifice for their country were watching us and sizing us up. I hoped that we could pass muster. I had this great desire to let them know that we had the guide-on now and it was in good hands. We would not let them down. I stood a little taller then and the burden of running was a little lighter.

As 1500 boarded the buses to head back to the Pentagon, I realized that this old soldier was less cynical today; less worn for wear. Although I may not have the shiny face of one of those new soldiers, I was reborn this morning. Together, both old and young, we will carry on.

Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day this year is on 25 May. This U.S. holiday originally began in 1856 as a way for local communities to honor the Union soldiers who died in the U.S. Civil War. After WWI, the meaning of the holiday shifted to include all who have died in American wars. In 1971, the U.S. Congress made the remembrance a national holiday. [5]

I wrote the above essay, “Reborn at Arlington,” back in 2000 when I was stationed at the Pentagon; before the madness of 9/11 kicked in and long before our country committed its military to over 15 years of war across four different operations [6]: 

The Iraq War
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom. 
  • From 19 Mar 2003 to 19 Aug 2010: 7 Years.
  • 4,425 U.S Soldiers and DOD Civilians Killed.
The Iraq War Stand Down
  • Operation New Dawn. 
  • From 1 Sep 2010 to 18 Dec 2011: 1 Year.
  • 66 U.S Soldiers and DOD Civilians Killed.
The Afghanistan War
  • Operation Enduring Freedom. 
  • From 7 October 2001 to 30 Dec 2014: 13 Years.
  • 2,355 U.S Soldiers and DOD Civilians Killed.
The Afghanistan War Stand Down
  • Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. 
  • From 30 Dec 2014 and projected until President Obama leaves the White House in 2017.
  • 1 U.S Soldier Killed.

I like to update the stats and re-post it every Memorial Day to remind myself of the staggering number of US Soldiers and Civilians that have died since the second Iraq War (Iraqi Freedom) began in 2003, that we still have soldiers and civilians in harms way in the Middle East, and that they will be there for years to come. As of today, the death toll is 6,845 [6]. 

As these courageous men and women come back home, I fear the country cannot fathom the sacrifices they, and their families, have made for us and the troubles they all yet face as they try to re-integrate back into society and back into a normal life. All of that would be worry enough. 

But even after Eric Shinseki resigned last March (2014) as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under a wave of scandals in which employees conspired to hide long wait times for veterans to receive their promised health care [7], the situation does not seem to be getting better fast enough and the scandals keep coming [8][9]. Still, even I have trouble maintaining my fury on a day-to-day basis against an inept VA for the years of abuse and fraud conducted by the employees who were supposed to have our soldier’s back. But Memorial Day gives one pause to remember again about just how the Department of Veteran’s Affairs has failed us and has been breaking our country’s sacred promise to these damaged souls. On days like this, it is tough to hold back the tears of shame and sorrow and rage. 

This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend. It is a weekend that allows us to honor our fallen soldiers. With the current state of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, I am pretty sure that if we as a nation ran in formation through Arlington Cemetery today, we would not pass muster. Our fallen soldiers would insist on taking the guide-on back because we are not taking care of our own. The situation is obviously not acceptable. Write to your senators and congressmen to express your disapproval. More importantly, give these brave soldiers and their loved ones a hand if you get the opportunity. The best way to honor our fallen soldiers is to take care of the survivors.


[1] "Army Cadence - My Old Granny, She's 91," 19 September 2008, Last Visited 22 May 2015,

[2] "C-130 Rollin' Down The Strip," 20 May 2007, Last Visited 22 May 2015,

[3] "U.S. Army Cadence My Girls A Pretty Girl," 14 July 2008, Last Visited 22 May 2015,

[4] “Montgomery clift trumpet,” From Here to Eternity, Posted 12 March 2007, Last Visited 22 May 2015,

[5] "10 historical facts about Memorial Day," by Allison Sylte, KSDK-TV, St. Louis, Mo. May 23, 2015, Last Visited 23 May 2015, 

[6] "Casualty Status (PDF) - United States Department of Defense," U.S. Department of Defense," Last Visited 23 May 2015,

[7] "Politics: Obama accepts resignation of VA Secretary Shinseki," By Greg Jaffe and Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Posy, 30 May 2014, Last Visited 23 May 2015,

[8] "House panel expands probe into how Veterans Affairs handled disability and pension claims," by HOPE YEN, ASSOCIATED PRESS 30 April 2015, Last Visited 23 May 2015,

[9] "Veterans Affairs Department Makes the Government’s ‘High Risk’ List," BY BRIANNA EHLEY, The Fiscal Times, 3 May 3 2015, Last Visited 23 May 2015,

[10] "Photographers' Blog: Section 60 stripped of mementos," by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters, 8 October 2013, Last Visited 23 May 2015,

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Should Lawmakers Vote to End the National Security Agency’s Bulk Collection of Phone Records?

Yes — absolutely.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act is set to expire on June 1. That provision gives the NSA permission to collect metadata from communications mediums like phone calls. Metadata, in this case, refers to the phone number making the call, the called number, the date and time of a call, and the call’s duration. It does not give the NSA permission to collect any content, such as the actual voices on each end of the call.

From an intelligence perspective, this kind of information is invaluable for finding the needle in the haystack. By drawing phone and email nodal analysis diagrams of suspects (link analysis), intelligence analysts can very quickly find key leaders of terrorist groups. The person using the phone involved in most of the calls, and connecting to the most people, is very likely a key leader in the organization.

So, I get why the NSA wants the capability. However, the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights says:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Section 215 of the Patriot Act — the bulk collection of metadata — gives the NSA the authority to seize information from U.S. citizens without a warrant and without probable cause. To quote Hamlet, "Ay, there’s the rub."

This debate fundamentally comes down to our country's decision on this one issue: do we care more about liberty or security? The Snowden revelations clearly demonstrate what the country is willing to do to preserve our security. I worry about what we give up as a nation as we pursue this path. How far do we go down that rabbit hole if we commit to it? In the entire world history of governments using spy agencies to collect information on enemies and “frenemies,” without fail, when the state turns its intelligence apparatus on its own citizens, things get ugly quickly. People die. 

I am not suggesting that the U.S. is anywhere close to that extreme position, but Section 215 is a first step across the threshold of this unprecedented rabbit hole. This is how it starts. 

I am not alone in my thinking either. On May 7, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States (a three-judge panel) held that the Patriot Act's Section 215 "… cannot be legitimately interpreted to allow the bulk collection of domestic calling records." [1] Although the Second Circuit Court stops short of calling Section 215 unconstitutional, it clearly believes that the current interpretation of that section — put forth by the NSA and approved by the FISA Court in secret — does not justify the bulk collection of U.S. citizens’ meta-phone-data. The Christen Science Monitor's Passcode Influences poll agrees too:

"72 percent of Passcode's Influencers – a group of more than 90 security and privacy experts from across government, the private sector, academia, and the privacy community – are calling for Congress to break the standoff and make reforms."[2]

Full Disclosure: I am one of the Passcode Influencers polled.

We tell ourselves: it’s just metadata — what's the harm? But over time, as we keep chipping away parts of the Fourth Amendment, pretty soon we might find ourselves in an Orwellian novel and wondering how we got here.

What's on the table is a chance to reform Section 215 into something we can all be more comfortable with. What that ends up being is anybody's guess. There are many options from both sides of the political aisle, and we have just now begun to discuss it. But, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced legislation on May 7 that would extend Section 215 through 2020, and he invoked a rule to let it go straight to the Senate floor without the usual committee vetting process. In other words, he proposes letting Section 2015 ride without any discussion. It is this kind of behavior that invokes a visceral reaction from lefty liberals like myself worried about liberty vs. security issues. It is one thing to extend the provision, but to extend it without any discussion? That’s Orwellian.

What can you do? First, engage. This is such a complicated issue, regardless of how you think we should resolve it, that there are not many people in the country who possess the wherewithal to understand all the nuances. The security community does. When you get the chance, have an open and honest conversation about the issue. Let’s start a full-throated debate and get the ideas on the table. Second, contact your congressman. The June 1 deadline to let the Patriot Act’s Section 215 expire is rapidly approaching. If you feel strongly one way or another about this issue, now is the time to let your voice be heard.

For myself, I think the smartest thing to do is to revoke the provision and start over. This way, we can jump-start that full-throated debate I was talking about regarding how far we want our intelligence agencies to go down the rabbit hole. The Section 215 deadline is a good impetus to start. US lawmakers should absolutely let Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire on June 1.


[1] "N.S.A. Collection of Bulk Call Data Is Ruled Illegal," by CHARLIE SAVAGE and JONATHAN WEISMAN, The New York Times,
7 MAY 2015, Last Updated 17 May 2015,

[2] "Influencers: Congress should end NSA bulk data collection," by SARA SORCHER, Passcode Influencer's Poll, Last Updated 17 May 2015,

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon (2014) by Kim Zetter

Executive Summary

Operation Olympic Games is the US military code name that refers to the first ever act of real cyber warfare. Many journalists have told bits and pieces of the story since the attacks became public in 2010, but none have come close to telling the complete story. In Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon, Kim Zetter changes that situation. She takes an extremely complicated subject in terms of technical detail, political fallout, and philosophical conundrums and makes it easy for the security practitioner to understand. It is a masterful bit of juggling and story telling. It is cyber-security-canon worthy, and you should have read it by now.


Kim Zetter has been at WIRED magazine since 2003 and has become one of the cyber security community’s go-to journalists to explain what is really happening within the space. When I heard that she was writing a book about the Stuxnet attacks, I was thrilled. I knew if anybody could take on this complicated subject, Zetter could. One of the annoying truisms of keeping up with cyber security events in the news is that journalists rarely go back and attempt to tell a complete story. When cyber security events occur —like the Target breach, the Sony breach, and the Home Depot breach to name three — news organization print the big headlines initially and then trickle out new information over the next days and weeks as it becomes available. For cyber security professionals trying to keep up to date on industry news, we rarely get the opportunity to see the big picture in one lump sum. We are not going to get that kind of story in a news article. You need a book to cover the detail, and there have been some good ones in the past. Mark Bowden’s Worm — about the Conficker worm and the cabal that tried to stop it — is one good example.[1] Another is The Cuckoo’s Egg, which is about the first publicly documented cyber espionage attack in the late 1980s.[2] Zetter’s book Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon is the latest in the line, and it is really good.[3]

The Story

Operation Olympic Games is the US military code name that refers to the first ever act of real cyber warfare. Many journalists have told bits and pieces of the story since the attacks became public in 2010, but none have come close to telling the complete story. In June 2012, David E. Sanger published an article in The New York Times proclaiming for the first time that the United States, in conjunction with Israel, was indeed behind the infamous Stuxnet malware attacks that targeted the Iranian nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz.[4] Sanger followed that article, along with others, with his book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and the Surprising Use of American Power.[5] In his articles and this book, he gave details about the cyber operation called Operation Olympic Games, which I consider to be the first act of cyber warfare in the world. Because the story was so new and so complicated, many of the technical details surrounding the attacks did not fully emerge until well after Sanger published his book. I have tried to keep up with the story myself over the years and even presented versions of it at DEF CON[6] and RSA,[7] but I do not have the journalistic chops to tell the complete story, and this is where Zetter’s book shines. Whereas Sanger’s book focused on the US foreign policy implications of offensive cyber warfare using government insiders as the main source, Zetter’s book fills in the technical story behind the attacks by interviewing everybody in the public space who was involved in unraveling the Stuxnet mystery. Zetter writes clearly and succinctly about the timing of key researchers discovering new facts, describes how the researchers determined when the attackers first used key pieces of the attack code, and then feathered those technical events with what was happening in the political arena at the same time. It is a masterful bit of juggling and storytelling.

The Code

Because of Countdown to Zero, we now have a complete picture of how the attack code worked. Zetter goes into great detail about how the malware proliferated within the Iranian power plant at Natanz and after it escaped into the wild. She puts to bed the question of how may zero-day exploits the attackers used in the complete code set, what they were, and how effective they all were. She covers all of the versions of the malware from Stuxnet, to DuQu, to Flame, and to Wiper. She even covers some of the tools of the trade that the researchers used to decipher the code base.


In Countdown to Zero, Zetter explains the significance of the critical and mostly unsecured supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) environments deployed in the United States today. These systems automatically control the flow of all power, water, and gas systems used within the United States and throughout most of the world. According to Zetter, 

“There are 2,800 power plants in the United States and 300,000 sites producing oil and natural gas. Another 170,000Bottom of Form facilities form the public water system in the United States, which includes reservoirs, dams, wells, treatment facilities, pumping stations, and pipelines. But 85 percent of these and other critical infrastructure facilities are in the hands of the private sector, which means that aside from a few government-regulated industries—such as the nuclear power industry—the government can do little to force companies to secure their systems.”[3]

In my experience, the SCADA industry has always been at least 10 to 15 years behind the rest of the commercial sector in adopting modern defensive techniques, and Zetter provides a possible explanation for this delay:

“Why spend money on security, they argued, when none of their competitors were doing it and no one was attacking them?”[3]

The significance of that statement becomes obvious when you realize that the same kinds of programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, that the United States exploited to attack Iran are deployed in droves to support the world’s own SCADA environments. The point is that if the United States can leverage the security weaknesses of these systems, then it is only a matter of time before other nation-states do the same thing and the rest of the world is no better defended against them than the Iranians were.

The Philosophical Conundrum

In a broader context, Countdown to Zero highlights some philosophical conundrums that the cyber security community is only now starting to wrestle with. We have known about these issues for years, but Zetter’s telling of the story makes us reconsider them. Operation Olympic Games proved to the world that cyber warfare is no longer just a theoretical construct. It is a living and breathing option in the utility belt for nation-states to use to exercise political power. With Operation Olympic Games, the United States proved to the world that it is possible to cause physical destruction of another nation-state’s critical infrastructure using nothing but a cyber weapon alone. With that comes a lot of baggage. 

The first is the intelligence dilemma. At what point do network defenders stop watching adversaries misbehave within their networks before they act to stop them? By acting, we tip our hand that we know what they are doing and how they are doing it. This will most likely cause the adversary team to change its tactics. Intelligence organizations want to watch adversaries as long as possible. Network defenders only want to stop the pain. This is an example of classic information theory. I first learned about information theory when I read about the code breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. Because the allies had broken the Enigma cipher, the Bletchley Park code breakers collected German war plans before the German commanders in the field received them, but the Allies couldn’t act on all of the information because the Germans would suspect that the cipher had been broken. The Allies had to pick and choose what to act on. This is similar to what the Stuxnet researchers were wrestling with too. Many of them had discovered this amazing and dangerous new piece of malware. When do they tell the world about it?

The next conundrum involves the national government and vulnerability discovery. Zetter discusses the six zero-day exploits used by Operation Olympic Games in the attacks against Iran. That means that the US government knew about at least six high-impact vulnerabilities within common software that the entire nation depends upon and did nothing to warn the nation about them. If another attacker decided to leverage those vulnerabilities against the United States’ critical infrastructure in the same way that the United States leveraged them against Iran, the results could have been devastating. The nation’s ethical position here is murky at best and criminal at worst. Added to that is the well-known practice of the private sector selling zero-day exploits to the government. Should the government even be in the business of buying weapons-grade software from private parties? Zetter offers no solutions here, but she definitely gives us something to think about.


Zetter fills in a lot of holes in the Stuxnet story. In a way, it is a shame that it has taken five years to get to a point that the security community feels like it understands what actually happened. On the other hand, without Zetter putting the pieces together for us, we might never have gotten there. I have said for years that the Stuxnet story marked the beginning of a new era for the cyber security community. In the coming years, when it becomes common practice for nations-states to lob cyber attacks across borders with the intent to destroy another nation’s critical infrastructure, we will remember fondly how simple defending the Internet was before Stuxnet. Zetter’s book helps us understand that change. She takes a complicated subject and makes it easy to understand. Her book Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon is cyber-security-canon worthy, and you should have read it by now.


[1] “The Cybersecurity Canon: Worm,” by Rick Howard, Unit 42, 4 February 2014, last visited 25 January 2015,

[2] “The Cybersecurity Canon: The Cuckoo’s Egg,” by Rick Howard, Unit 42, 24 December 2013, last visited 25 January 2015,

[3] “Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon,” by Kim Zetter, Published by Crown, 11 November 2014, last visited 25 January 2015,

[4] “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” by David E. Sanger, The New York Times, 1 June 2012, last visited 25 January 2015,

[5] “The Cybersecurity Canon: Confront and Conceal,” by Rick Howard, Unit 42, 7 January 2014, last visited 25 January 2015,

[6] “Defcon-19-an-insiders-look-at-international-cyber-security-threats-and-trends,” by Rick Howard, DEF CON 19, 6 August 2011, last visited 25 January 2015,

[7] “Operation Olympic Games Is the Tom Clancy Spy Story that Changed Everything,” by Richard Howard, RSA Conference 2014, 28 February 2014, last visited 25 January 2015,

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Review: Winning as a CISO (2005) by Rich Baich

Executive Summary

The latest candidate for the cyber security canon is Rich Baich’s Winning as a CISO. The roles of the chief information officer (CIO), the chief security officer (CSO), and the chief information security officer (CISO) in the modern enterprise have been constantly changing since we invented the need for such roles in the 1980s and 1990s. By the mid-2000s, the industry had settled on tucking the security function for an organization under the IT function of an organization. In other words, the CISO works for the CIO. But Baich is an innovative thinker. He has looked at how the CISO role has evolved over the years and makes a pretty good case for where it needs to go next. By asking questions about the appropriate supervisor for a CISO, a CISO’s needed skill set, and ways to approach the CISO job function, Baich breaks new ground on how the industry should views these topics. Our industry will be slow to adopt these new ideas, but with the rash of highly publicized and impactful data breaches to the retail sector in 2014, perhaps the industry is ready to start making a change. Reviewing Baich’s book is a good place to start. It is cyber-security-canon worthy, and you should have read it by now.


The roles of the CIO, the CSO, and the CISO in the modern enterprise have been constantly changing since we invented the need for such roles in the 1980s and 1990s. I picked up Winning as a CISO because my boss handed it to me after he met the author, Rich Baich, at a security event. He said that Baich was a smart guy and had some interesting ideas about the modern CISO’s role in today’s environments. In this book, Baich explains some innovative thinking about what today’s CISOs should be responsible for, how they should fit into the organization, and how they might accomplish their tasks once they are established. In order to understand where Baich is coming from, it is useful to review the history of the CIO, CSO, and CISO roles in modern business.

CIO, CSO, and CISO History

The idea of the C-suite did not really materialize until the 1920s when Alfred Sloan, the hugely successful chief executive officer (CEO) of General Motors, decided to distribute profit and loss (P&L) responsibility across his division managers in response to shareholder and regulator demand for more accountability.[1] 

Because of General Motors’ success with this new P&L model, business leaders across the world adopted it for their own organizations. That model lasted some 60 years until the 1980s when CEOs realized that in order to drive organizational change, they needed executives with technical and functional specialties.[1] CEOs began creating new C-level executive positions like chief marketing officers (CMOs), chief financial officers (CFOs), and, yes, CIOs. The idea of a C-level executive dedicated to security did not really emerge until the late 1990s, 10 years after the CIO position had become firmly established in modern business.

Steve Katz became the first CISO in 1995 when Citigroup created the role to respond to a highly publicized Russian malware incident.[2][3] Since then, the security industry specifically and business leadership in general have been thinking and rethinking the need and the responsibilities for such a person. 

The first practitioners came out of the technical ranks. Vendor solutions to mitigate the cyber threat ran on networks and workstations. In order to manage those solutions, it was helpful to have people who understood that world, but this was a new thing for the techies; trying to translate technical risk to a business leader did not always go very well. Security techies have always been, and still are, passionate about their responsibilities. The early trailblazers tended to say “no” to any new project because of the potential security risk. The business leaders did not want to deal with these people who wanted to make organizational decisions with no thought about the bottom line. It became convenient to tuck these kinds of people underneath the CIO organization. CISOs began working for the CIO because, from the C-suite perspective, all of that technical stuff belonged in one basket, and the security people did not know how to talk to the business people.

As business leaders began applying resources to mitigate cyber risk, other areas of security risk started to emerge: physical security, compliance, fraud prevention, business continuity, safety, ethics, privacy, brand protection, etc. The idea of the CSO role began to gain popularity with business leaders because they needed someone to look at the entire business, not just cyber security risk to the business, but general security risk to the business. CSO Magazine launched in 2002 to cater to that crowd.[4]. 

By the mid-2000s, the industry had settled on tucking the security function for an organization under the IT function for an organization. In other words, the CISO works for the CIO. This is not bad per se, and this arrangement works in many organizations. The IT folks generally handle the daily automation functions while the security teams have more of an oversight role in terms of security architecture, policy, risk assessment, and security operations. 

Since then, the industry has been in flux. Not every company is organized the same way. While the CIO role has made its way to the senior executive suite in some companies (Intel Corp. and McAfee to name two), that is by no means the norm. The CSO role is likewise lagging. Both tend to be lodged at the second tier of executives in many companies. And while it is not universal, the CISO tends to work for the CIO.

The Story

All of this history is essential background to the key messages in Baich’s book Winning as a CISO. He published it in 2005 and was quite rightly taking a look at where the CISO role was heading next. He organized the book as a fictional story about an established company in which the CEO had decided to hire his first CISO. His executive leadership team – the CIO, the general counsel, and the chief operating officer (COO) – had to decide what the new CISO’s responsibilities were and where this individual would fit in the organizational structure. Once the CEO made those decisions, the newly hired CISO had to decide how to execute this new role.

The Tech

The book is a quick read, with only 115 pages including the end credits, but it is a primer on what a CISO should do for any organization. In essence, any organization could use Baich’s book as a basic job description for a new CISO hire.

What Are a CISO’s Responsibilities?

When the story’s CEO brought his executive staff together to discuss the new position, he had them develop a list of responsibilities for the new hire. Here is the list:

  • Security Architecture
  • Incident Response
  • Security Awareness
  • Identity Management
  • Security Policy Development and Compliance
  • Due Diligence for Acquisitions and Mergers
  • Risk Management[5]
I think this is a pretty good list of high-level responsibilities. Anything that comes up later that we might want the CISO to do can be easily shoehorned into one of these broad categories. Once the staff agreed to the responsibilities, the next step was to determine which senior executive should own them. In other words, which senior executive should the CISO work for? 

To Whom Does the CISO Report?

All of the senior staff members had their perspectives. The CIO said, “The CISO should report to the IT Department because the focus of information security is related to technology. Information security solves technology related risks.”[5] The general counsel said, “The CISO should report through the legal structure. [The] focus can be placed on compliance.”[5] The COO said, “The CISO will have to collaborate with all departments, and everyone, including the sales team will benefit, but the team member who will need to utilize the resulting information the most will be the COO. A clear understanding of the operational risk factors will enable the successful CISO to present to the COO with a rubric of important options.”[5]

The CEO weighed each of these perspectives and had a few of his own. He said that he did not want the new CISO to have to wrestle with any artificial organizational conflicts because he chose to put the position under one senior executive as opposed to another.[5] He said that putting the CISO under the CIO had a number of problems, but the most important one was that it created a conflict of interest. “Reporting to the CIO would be like putting your boss on report.”[5] The CISO’s job is to make things more secure, and sometimes that job may be in direct conflict with the CIO’s job of making things more efficient. With the CISO under the CIO, the organization automatically weights efficiency needs over security needs, and that obviates the reason to hire the CISO in the first place.[5]

An opposing view comes from Forbes reporter Howard Baldwin. He complained in March 2014 that he did not like recent changes he was seeing within organizations that had broken out the security function to be a peer to the CIO. He says that these CIOs are highly paid executives who can handle competing priorities.[6] In other words, the CIO can handle making decisions between security and efficiency. That is what we pay a person in this position to do.

But that is not the point. In an interview by Jack Rosenberger, Eric Cole -- founder and chief scientist at Secure Anchor Consulting -- speculated on one of the reasons that may have contributed to the Target breach in 2014.[7] Cole said, “It is almost a guarantee that Target had an amazing security team, and they were screaming and yelling about all of the security issues, but there was no advocate who was listening to them and fighting for their cause with the executives.”[8] Cole is pointing out that of all the priorities the Target CIO had to juggle, security lost out. As Brian Krebs reported in the Guardian, “Virtually all aspects of retail operations are connected to the Internet these days: when the security breaks down, the technology breaks down – and if the technology breaks down, the business grinds to a halt.”[9] Before the breach, the pressure to keep the IT infrastructure up and running must have been immense for both the now-resigned CIO and the now-fired CEO. Krebs suggests that in hindsight, because of the breach’s devastating impact to the business, the Target CISO should not have worked for the CIO. It should have been the other way around.[9]

In Baich’s story, the CEO had reservations about putting the CISO under other staff organizations too. He said that putting the CISO under the general counsel “would potentially position the Information Security department as an arm of the audit department.”[5] According to Baich, auditing support is something the new CISO should help with, but based on the responsibilities the executive staff developed, the CISO’s role is much bigger.[5]

The CEO ultimately put the CISO under the COO. To him, it made sense that the CISO position be perfectly positioned to support the entire organization and not one specific staff element. I think this makes sense. If loss associated with security is something that will potentially materially affect the business, it makes total sense to raise the platform of the person in charge of it to have a view of the entire organization and the power to affect change. If that is the case, then what skill sets are needed for the person who takes on that responsibility?

What Skill Sets Does a CISO Need?

Once he decided whom the CISO should work for, the CEO turned again to his senior staff to determine what skill sets would be essential for success. Without fanfare, Baich lists these five attributes:

  • Must have an MBA
  • Prior budget or P&L experience
  • A proven ability to lead an effective information security organization
  • Experience and skill as a change agent
  • Ability to serve as an information security expert for the executive team[5]

The last three skills are fairly standard for many senior job positions in any organization. The first two are where Baich is providing some innovative thinking. Requiring an MBA and P&L experience for a CISO, as a mandatory requirement, is not the common thinking in the industry, but it is spot on for where the industry needs to go. As I said earlier, most CISOs have come up through the technical ranks and have little if any business experience. This is probably the main reason that security teams and business teams have a hard time communicating with each other. By requiring a CISO to have business experience first, Baich flips the typical experience equation on its head. Instead of training highly technical employees to be proficient in business concerns at the mid- to latter parts of their careers, he is suggesting that we take traditional business people and train them to be proficient in managing security operations. 

“If performing vulnerability assessments, configuring firewalls, and performing network forensics makes you happy then becoming Chief Information Security Officer may not be the right career choice for you.”[5]

Just like a traditional business person might find himself or herself as a general manager, product manager, finance officer, or marketing officer, Baich is suggesting we add security officer to the list, and I agree with him.

How Do You Be a CISO?

In Baich’s story, the CEO placed the CISO under the COO in order to give the position a matrixed view of the business. In that kind of environment, how does a CISO succeed? In spite of all the listed responsibilities this CISO has for the organization, Baich says that the most important implied responsibility for the CISO is running his or her organization like a business. The CISO needs to become the general manager of the security program.

“Ultimately, the success of any business, new or old, depends on a leader’s ability to build a team, market and sell the product, and run the business, still meeting the established measurements necessary to effectively operate the business.”[5]

Although the CISO in this story will bring in no revenue, this individual has to demonstrate to the business leadership the value of the position in other ways. The CISO must become a world-class internal marketing person for every aspect of the security program. It is not enough to make the organization more secure. The CISO’s efforts to do so must demonstrably show how the security program is helping the organization grow. 


Baich is an innovative thinker. He has looked at how the CISO role has evolved over the years and makes a pretty good case for where it needs to go next. By asking questions about the appropriate supervisor for a CISO, a CISO’s needed skill set, and ways to approach the CISO job function, Baich breaks new ground on how to think about these topics. Baich published the book in 2005. Back then, there was not a lot of impetus to change the current situation, and I do not see the industry adopting these ideas any time soon. But with the rash of highly publicized and impactful data breaches to the retail sector in 2014, perhaps the industry is ready to make a change. It is obvious that the way we are doing it now is not working. Because of Baich’s innovative thinking about the next step in the evolution of the CISO role, Winning as a CISO is cyber-security-canon worthy, and you should have read it by now.


[1] “The C-suite: Time for version 3.0?” by Eamonn Kelly, Deloitte University Press, 31 March 31 2014, last visited 6 January 2014,

[2] “EVOLUTION OF THE CISO And the Confluence of IT Security & Audit,” by Thomas Borton, ISACA, 13 March 2014, last visited 30 May 2014,

[3] “Prominent Information Security Executives Steve Katz and Michael Barrett Join Fortscale's Advisory Board,” by Fortscale, PR Newswire: Market Watch, 8 January 2014, last visited 30 May 2014,

[4] “Decade of the CSO: Looking back at 10 years of change and progress - and forward to what lies ahead,” by Derek Slater, CSO Magazine, 1 October 2012, last visited 30 May 2014,

[5] “Winning as a CISO,” by Rich Baich, Published by Executive Alliance Publishing House, 2005, last visited 6 December 2014,

[6] “Point/Counterpoint: Who Should The CSO Report To?” by Howard Baldwin, Forbes, 25 March 2014, last visited 28 May 2014, 

[7] “Reporting From the Web’s Underbelly,” by Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times, 16 February 2014, last visited 28 May 2014,

[8] “The Complicated Relationship Between CIOs and CSOs,” by Jack Rosenberger, CIO: Insight, 11 March 2014, last visited 28 May 2014,

[9] “What Target and Co aren't telling you: your credit card data is still out there,” by Brian Krebs, The Guardian, 6 May 2014, last visited 28 May 2014,

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime - from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door (2014) by Brian Krebs

Executive Summary

In Spam Nation, Brian Krebs covers a key portion of our cyber security and cyber crime history: 2007–2013, that period when we started to learn about the Russian Business Network, bulletproof-hosting providers, fast-flux obfuscation, criminal best business practices, underground cyber crime forums, and strange-sounding botnet names like Conficker, Rustock, Storm, and Waledac. This period just happens to coincide with Krebs’s rise in popularity as one of the leading cyber security journalists in the industry. His relationship with two competitive pharmaceutical spammers—Pavel Vrublevsky and Dimitry Nechvolod—is a big bag of crazy and is the key storyline throughout the book. The competition between Vrublevsky and Nechvolod escalated into something that Krebs calls the Pharma Wars and Krebs gives us a bird’s-eye view into the details of that escalation that eventually destroyed both men and the industry they helped to create. Krebs’s weird symbiotic relationship with Vrublevsky is worth the read by itself. Spam Nation is definitely a cyber security canon candidate, and you should have read this by now.


I have been a fan of Brian Krebs for many years. His blog, Krebs on Security, has been a mainstay of my recurring reading list since he started it in 2010 and even before when he was writing for The Washington Post. Since he struck out on his own, he has carved out a new kind of journalism that many reporters are watching to see how they might duplicate it themselves as journalism transitions from dead-tree printing to new media. Krebs’s beat is cyber security, and he is the leading journalistic authority on the underbelly of cyber crime. Spam Nation is a retelling— with more detail and more color—of some of the stories he covered from 2007 until about 2013 on a very specific sub-element of the cyber crime industry called pharmaceutical spam. 

Many security practitioners will hear the phrase “pharmaceutical spam” and immediately start to nod off. Of all the problems they encounter on a daily basis, pharmaceutical spam is pretty low on the priority list. While that may be true, this subset of cyber crime is responsible for starting and maturing many of the trappings that we associate with cyber crime in general: botnet engines, fast-flux obfuscation, spamming, underground forums, cyber crime markets, good service as a distinguisher of criminal support services, and bulletproof-hosting providers.

The Story

The story really begins with Krebs’s weird symbiotic relationship with Vrublevsky (a.k.a. RedEye and Despduck). Vrublevsky was a Russian businessman and cofounder and former CEO of ChronoPay, the infamous credit card processing company that initially got started in the rogue anti-virus industry. I think it is safe to say that in his heyday, Vrublevsky was a bit of an extrovert. He followed Krebs’s blog religiously and would instigate long conversations with Krebs on stories that were fantastical, true, and everything in between. Vrublevsky would feed Krebs half-truths about what was going on in the industry and left it to Krebs to sort it out. Vrublevsky’s downfall was his deteriorating relationship with his former partner, Dimitry Nechvolod (a.k.a. Gugle). 

Vrublevsky and Nechvolod founded ChronoPay together in 2003, but by 2006, Nechvolod had left the company to pursue his own interests. He started two pharmacy spam operations called GlavMed and SpamIT. Because of the competition between these two men, the situation escalated out of control to something that Krebs calls the Pharma Wars, which ultimately scuttled the entire pharmaceutical spam industry, not just Vrublevsky and Nechvolod’s operations, but everybody else’s too. 

Krebs’s main sources of information for this book came from leaked customer and operational databases from these two men. Although Vrublevsky and Nechvolod never admitted it, they both stole the other’s data and leaked it to Krebs. Krebs had many conversations with both Vrublevsky and Nechvolod about their side of the story, and Krebs even traveled to Moscow to interview Vrublevsky personally. From these conversations and other research done by Krebs, we get an inside view of how cyber crime operates in the real world. 

Krebs set himself seven research questions:

  • Who is buying the stuff advertised in spam and why?
  • Are the drugs real or fake?
  • Who profits?
  • Why does the legitimate pharmaceutical industry seem powerless to stop it?
  • Why is it easy to pay for the drugs with credit cards?
  • Do customers have their credit card accounts hacked after buying?
  • What can consumers, policy makers, and law enforcement do [about this cybercrime]?
For the most part, he answers all these questions. I will not spill the answers here, but I will tell you that I was surprised by every single one. I thought I knew this stuff, but Krebs provides the insight and research to make you re-evaluate what you think you know about illegal pharmaceutical spam operations.

Spam Nation is about the Brian Krebs’s story too. Traditional journalists reading this book are going to hate the fact the he plays a key role in most everything that he talks about in this book. His original reporting on bulletproof-hosting providers operating in the US and elsewhere—the Russian Business Network (RBN), Atrivo, and McColo—became that catalyst that eventually got them shut down. This got him noticed by Vrublevsky and started that weird relationship that ultimately led to Krebs receiving the databases from Vrublevsky and Nechvolod. It also led him to leave The Washington Post and to start his Krebs on Security blog.

In the background, Krebs introduces us to the key players involved in the development and operations of some of the most infamous botnets that have hit the Internet community in recent history:

  • Conficker worm (author: Severa; infected 9-15 million computers)
  • Cutwail botnet (authors: Dimitry Nechvolod (Gugle) and Igor Vishnevsky; 125,000 infected computers; spewed 16 billion spam messages a day)
  • Grum botnet (author: GeRA; spewed 18 billion e-mails a day)
  • Festi botnet (operators: Artimovich brothers; delivered one-third of the total amount of worldwide spam)
  • Rustock botnet (author: COSMA; infected 150,000 PCs; spewed 30 billion spam messages a day)
  • Storm botnet (author: Severa).
  • Waledac botnet (author: Severa; spewed 1.5 billion junk e-mails a day)
From my reading, Krebs’s unintentional hero of his story is Microsoft. While Vrublevsky and Nechvolod were tearing each other apart and Krebs was trying to sift through what was true and what was not, Microsoft and other commercial, academic, and government organizations were quietly dismantling the infrastructure that these and other illicit operations depended on:

  • June 2009: 15,000 illicit websites go dark at 3FN after the Federal Trade Commission convinced a northern California judge that 3FN was a black-hat service provider. NASA did the forensics work.
  • November 2009: FireEye takes down the Mega-D botnet.
  • January 2010: Neustar takes control of the Lethic spam botnet.
  • March 2010: Microsoft takes down the Waledac botnet.
  • October 2010: Armenian authorities take down the Bredolab botnet.
  • March 2011: Microsoft takes down the Rustock botnet.
  • July 2011: Microsoft offers a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the Rustock botmaster.
  • July 2012: FireEye and Spamhaus take down the Grum botnet.
  • July 2013: Microsoft and the FBI take down 1,400 botnets using the Citadel malware to control infected PCs.
  • December 2013: Microsoft and the FBI take down the ZeroAccess botnet.
  • June 2014: The FBI takes down of the Gameover Zeus botnet.
One takedown masterstroke came out of academia. George Mason University, the International Computer Science Institute, the University of California, San Diego, and Microsoft determined that 95 percent of all spam credit card processing was handled by three financial firms: one in Azerbaijan, one in Denmark, and one in Nevis (West Indies). They also pointed out that these financial firms were in violation of Visa’s own Global Brand Protection Program contract that required fines of $25,000 for transactions supporting the sale of Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. Once Visa started levying fines, the financial firms stopped processing the transactions. The beauty of this takedown was that this was not a legal maneuver through the courts and law enforcement. It merely encouraged Visa to follow its own policy.

Cyber Crime Business Operations

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of Spam Nation is the insight on how these criminal organizations operate. For example, Krebs highlights why pharmaceutical operations have great customer support: they want to avoid the penalty fees associated with a transaction when a buyer of illicit pills charges them with fraud. These are called chargebacks, and pharmaceutical customer support operations avoid them like the plague. These support operations require teams of software developers and technical support staff to be available 24/7.

Pharmaceutical operations have mature anti-fraud measures—equivalent to any legitimate bank’s anti-fraud measures—because they need to keep law enforcement and security researchers out of their business.

Most spammers do not make a lot of money. The top five do, but not everybody else. Krebs points out that it takes a multibillion dollar security industry to defend against a collection of criminals who are making a living wage.

In terms of botnet management, operators rent out top-earning botnets to other operators who do not have the skill to build a botnet themselves. Renters purchase installs and seed a prearranged number of bots with an additional malicious program that sends spam for the affiliate. They pay the rent by diverting a portion of their commissions on each pill sale from spam. Sometimes, that commission is as high as 50 percent. That is why the small-timers do not make any money.

Operators launder their money in a process called factoring. They map their client transactions into accounts on behalf of previously established shell companies. They tell the banks that the shell companies are the true customers. Then the operators pay the clients out of their own pockets.

Russian law allows FSB agents (Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB), while remaining in the service, to be assigned to work at enterprises and organizations at the consent of their directors. Twenty percent of FSB officers are engaged in this protection business called “Krusha" in Russian, which means “roof” and pharmaceutical spam operations use them as much as possible.

Partnerships, called partnerkas, between spammers and dodgy advertisers that act as an intermediary for potential sponsors are essential. In this way, sponsors keep their distance from the illicit aspects of the spam business and can unplug from one partnerka in favor of another whenever they want. Some refer to this as organized crime (think The Godfather), but it is more like a loosely affiliated network of independent operators.

With all of these best business practices, you can see why the operators do not see themselves as criminals. They are just businesspeople trying to run a business.

The Tech

Cyber crime runs on technology. In the pharmaceutical spam business, some tech is unique, and other tech is shared with other kinds of cyber crime operations. Unique to pharmaceutical spam is a technique called black search engine optimization (Black SEO). Pharmaceutical spammers hack legitimate websites and insert hidden pages (IFrames) with loads of pharmaceutical websites links. The more links that the common search engines like Google and Bing index, the higher the pharmaceutical sites get in the priority list when normal users search for pills online.

Also unique to the pharmaceutical spam business is a good spam ecosystem. It must have the ability to keep track of how many e-mails the system delivered and how many recipients clicked the link. It must scrub e-mail addresses that are no longer active or are obvious decoys and harvest new e-mail addresses for future operations.

Not unique to pharmaceutical spam are the forums. Forums are the glue that allows the loosely affiliated network of independent operators to communicate with each other. Forums are a place that allows newbies an opportunity to establish a reputation and lowers the barriers to entry for a life of cyber crime. There are forums for every language, but most are in English. Members enforce a strict code of ethics so that members who are caught cheating other members are quickly banned. Social networking rankings give members a way to evaluate potential partners. A single negative post may cost an individual thousands of dollars. Because of that, most amicably resolve issues. Sometimes newbies get labeled as a “deer,” members who unintentionally break one of the forum’s rules. More-serious infractions might find a member in the blacklist subforum defending himself or herself from fraud allegations.

New forums start all the time, but some have been in existence for more than a decade, indicating process maturity for self-policing, networking, and rapid information sharing. New forums allow open registration, but mature forums set up various hurdles for membership that are designed to screen out law enforcement and hangers-on. Most have sub-rooms for specialization such as the following:

  • Spam
  • Cyber banking fraud
  • Bank account cash-out schemes
  • Malicious software development
  • ID theft
  • Credit card fraud
  • Confidence scams
  • Black SEO
Forums have many members (tens of thousands in some), but they exist to make money for the administrators. Admins offer additional services to improve the user experience. They offer escrow services—a small percentage of the transaction cost held until both sides agree that the other held up its end of the bargain—and stickies—ads that stay at the top of their sub-forums that range in price from $100 to $1,000 per month.


In Spam Nation, Brian Krebs covers a key portion of our cyber security and cyber crime history: 2007– 2013, that period when we started to learn about the Russian Business Network, bulletproof-hosting providers, fast-flux obfuscation, criminal best business practices, underground cyber crime forums, and strange-sounding botnet names like Conficker, Cutwail, Grum, Festi, Rustock, Storm, and Waledac. This period just happens to coincide with Krebs’s rise in popularity as one of the leading cyber security journalists in the industry. His story, and the story of two competitive pharmaceutical spammers who eventually destroyed the lucrative moneymaking scheme for all players, is a fascinating read. It is definitely a cyber security canon candidate, and you should have read this by now.


“Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime - from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door,” by Brian Krebs, published by Brilliance Audio, 18 November 2014, last visited 13 November 2014,


“Blue Security folds under spammer's wrath,” by Robert Lemos, Security Focus, 17 May 2006, last visited 13 November 2014,

“Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain,” by Kirill Levchenko, Andreas Pitsillidis, Neha Chachra, Brandon Enright, Mark Felegyhazi, Chris Grier, Tristan Halvorson, Chris Kanich, Christian Kreibich, He Liu, Damon McCoy, Nicholas Weaver, Vern Paxson, Geoffrey M. Voelker, and Stefan Savage, last visited 13 November 2014,

“Experts Warn of New Windows Shortcut Flaw,” by Brian Krebs, Krebs on Security, 10 July 2010, last visited 13 November 2014

“Krebs on Security: In-depth security news and investigation,” by Brian Krebs, last visited 14 November 2014,

“PharmaLeaks: Understanding the Business of Online Pharmaceutical Affiliate Programs,” by Damon McCoy, Andreas Pitsillidis, Grant Jordan, Nicholas Weaver, Christian Kreibich, Brian Krebs, Geoffrey M. Voelker, Stefan Savage, and Kirill Levchenko, Usenix, August 2012, last visited 13 November 2014,

“Russian Business Network Study,” by David Bizeul, 11 November 2007, last visited 12 November 2014,

“Shadowy Russian Firm Seen as Conduit for Cybercrime,” by Brian Krebs, The Washington Post, 13 October 2007, last visited 12 November 2014, 

“The Partnerka – What Is It, and Why Should You Care?” by Dmitry Samosseiko, Sophos, Virus Bulletin, September 2009, last visited 13 November 2014,

“The Sleazy Life and Nasty Death of Russia’s Spam King,” by Brett Forrest, Wired Magazine, August 2006, last visited 13 November 2014,

“The Underground Economy of Spam: A Botmaster’s Perspective of Coordinating Large-Scale Spam Campaigns,” by Brett Stone-Gross, Thorsten Holz, Gianluca Stringhini, and Giovanni Vigna, last visited 13 November 2014,

“Top Spam Botnets Exposed,” by Joe Stewart, SecureWorks, 8 April 2008, last visited 13 November 2014,