Vulnerabilities / Threats

1/26/2018
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Former CIA CTO Talks Meltdown and Spectre Cost, Federal Threats

Gus Hunt, former technology leader for the CIA, explains the potential long-term cost of Meltdown and Spectre.

Federal agencies and organizations don't fully understand the cost implications of Meltdown and Spectre, says Gus Hunt, former CTO of the CIA and current managing director for Accenture Federal Services. Resolving the issues may take more time and money than anticipated.

Addressing these flaws should be top of mind for agencies and businesses, because the breadth of impact will drive the complexity of fixing the problem, Hunt continues. If patches affect performance as much as experts report, long-term effects will be significant. This is especially true for the government, which he calls the largest buyer of IT and IT services.

"From a budgetary perspective, if my performance impact is 30%, nobody has budgeted for the cost of additional hardware and capacity so [agencies] can provide services at a level people will expect," he explains.

The tech industry has been quick to produce solutions for Meltdown and Spectre, he says. This is especially true for cloud providers, which "were most adversely affected." However, it's still too early to gauge the true measurable impact of these flaws.

"What worries me most is this gives an open window for the emergence of building and delivering effective exploits," he points out. "Adversaries out there are working like mad to figure out how to take advantage of this."

On a broader level, Hunt speaks to the quickly evolving sophistication of today's attackers and the growing threat to federal organizations. Attackers "adopt and reuse things with remarkable speed," he says. The moment anything is released in the wild, their knowledge is elevated. He points to the consistent, and increasingly effective, use of ransomware as an example.

"The goal for the federal government space, fundamentally it's data and control," Hunt says of modern cybercriminals. "Those are the two big things attackers want."

The greatest threat to today's government is nation-state actors intent on gaining an advantage through stealing data and information, and hiding inside systems so they can eventually leverage their power and take control of systems. For attackers targeting federal victims, the promise of system control is far more appealing than citizens' data, he points out.

Nation-states and advanced criminals have become vertically specialized, Hunt says. If they want to spear-phish someone in the government, they'll spend a lot of time and money figuring out exactly who to target and how to collect information on them to launch a successful attack.

Shifting cybersecurity strategies

Hunt explains what he calls the Cyber Moonshot, a strategic concept comparing cybersecurity with the once seemingly-impossible goal of landing on the moon. The idea argues achieving security will take many of the same leadership and organizational steps: leadership, a specific call to action, and a sustained investment.

"If you really look at it, our approach to solving cybersecurity has really been a piecemeal, patchwork-quilt approach of slapping something in place," he explains. "We haven't really taken a strategic, coherent focus to drive it across the board."

Prior to landing on the moon, humans had the tech they needed but hadn't put it all together to solve the problem. Hunt says today's security industry is similar. "We get how things happen, we get what goes on, and we have a variety of solutions in place … but we haven't acted together to apply them in a way that changes the game," he says.

However, there is a key difference between the two: the moon landing was a finite goal. Cybersecurity threats, practices, and technology, on the other hand, are constantly evolving.

"Absolute security is absolutely impossible," Hunt admits. "There's always going to be a vulnerability someplace; Meltdown and Spectre are classic examples of that."

Related Content:

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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BrianN060
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BrianN060,
User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2018 | 3:06:13 PM
New (cyber)space race
Thank you Kelly - been waiting for something like this; and expect more to follow.  There have been many articles on the M/S issue; but most have been either to shift (or shirk), responsibility, or basically advertising their immunities, remedies or mitigation solutions.

I think Mr. Hunt is a little biased in his assessment of the nature of the threat (nation-state); but understandable given his experience.  Still, he doesn't let that blind him to other factors or concerns.

He's right to see the performance degradation has having a significant economic impact.  However, the degree of degradation foreseen might be skewed by the first round of mitigation strategy - which seem to all be to disable the performance boosting functionality.  Later patches might be true fixes: enabling the functionality, with safeguards to prevent exploitation.  Still later, the design and production of new chipsets could take the performance issue out of the equation - for those who upgrade!

That brings up another point: he likens the quest for cybersecurity to the Apollo program.  That objective was to "...put a man on the surface of the moon...".  All the patches and updates that have been applied so far, and all the upgraded hardware that will, do nothing to resolve the issue of those millions of devices that will not be patched or replaced - yet will still be "living" hosts for parasitic exploitation.  They aren't in major player datacenters, but they will remain active in the environment; and simply excluding them from playing with the rest, could cause more disruption than any performance impact we're likely to see. 

So, unlike putting a man on the moon; the challenge is more like putting every person in the world on a new planet. 
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