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Microsoft Secure

For several years now, policymakers and practitioners from governments, CERTs, and the security industry have been speaking about the importance of public-private partnerships as an essential part of combating cyber threats. It is impossible to attend a security conference without a keynote presenter talking about it. In fact, these conferences increasingly include sessions or entire tracks dedicated to the topic. During the three conferences I’ve attended since June—two US Department of Defense symposia, and NATO’s annual Information Symposium in Belgium, the message has been consistent: public-private information-sharing is crucial to combat cyber adversaries and protect users and systems.

Unfortunately, we stink at it. Information-sharing is the Charlie Brown football of cyber: we keep running toward it only to fall flat on our backs as attackers continually pursue us. Just wait ‘til next year. It’s become easier to talk about the need to improve information-sharing than to actually make it work, and it’s now the technology industry’s convenient crutch. Why? Because no one owns it, so no one is accountable. I suspect we each have our own definition of what information-sharing means, and of what success looks like. Without a sharp vision, can we really expect it to happen?

So, what can be done?

First, some good news: the security industry wants to do this–to partner with governments and CERTs. So, when we talk about it at conferences, or when a humble security advisor in Redmond blogs about it, it’s because we are committed to finding a solution. Microsoft recently hosted BlueHat, where hundreds of malware hunters, threat analysts, reverse engineers, and product developers from the industry put aside competitive priorities to exchange ideas and build partnerships. In my ten years with Microsoft, I’ve directly participated in and led information-sharing initiatives that we established for the very purpose of advancing information assurance and protecting cyberspace. In fact, in 2013, Microsoft created a single legal and programmatic framework to address this issue, the Government Security Program.

For the partnership to work, it is important to understand and anticipate the requirements and needs of government agencies. For example, we need to consider cyber threat information, YARA rules, attacker campaign details, IP address, host, network traffic, and the like.

What can governments and CERTs do to better partner with industry?

  • Be flexible, especially on the terms. Communicate. Prioritize. In my experience, the mean-time-to-signature for a government to negotiate an info-sharing agreement with Microsoft is between six months and THREE YEARS.
  • Prioritize information sharing. If this is already a priority, close the gap. I fear governments’ attorneys are not sufficiently aware of how important the agreements are to their constituents. The information-sharing agreements may well be non-traditional agreements, but if information-sharing is truly a priority, let’s standardize and expedite the agreements. Start by reading the 6 Nov Department of Homeland Security OIG report, “DHS Can Improve Cyber Threat Information-Sharing” document.
  • Develop and share with industry partners a plan to show how government agencies will consume and use our data. Let industry help government and CERTs improve our collective ROI. Before asking for data, let’s ensure it will be impactful.
  • Develop KPIs to measure whether an information-sharing initiative is making a difference, quantitative or qualitative. In industry, we could do a better job at this, as we generally assume that we’re providing information for the right reason. However, I frequently question whether our efforts make a real difference. Whether we look for mean-time-to-detection improvements or other metrics, this is an area for improvement.
  • Commit to feedback. Public-private information-sharing implies two-way communication. Understand that more companies are making feedback a criterion to justify continuing investment in these not-for-profit engagements. Feedback helps us justify up the chain the efficacy of efforts that we know are important. It also improves two-way trust and contributes to a virtuous cycle of more and closer information-sharing. At Microsoft, we require structured feedback as the price of entry for a few of our programs.
  • Balance interests in understanding today’s and tomorrow’s threats with an equal commitment to lock down what is currently owned. (My favorite) Information-sharing usually includes going after threat actors and understanding what’s coming next. That’s important, but in an ‘assume compromise’ environment, we need to continue to hammer on the basics:
    • Patch. If an integrator or on-site provider indicates patching and upgrading will break an application, and if that is used as an excuse not to patch, that is a problem. Authoritative third-parties such as US-CERT, SANS, and others recommend a 48- to 72-hour patch cycle. Review to learn more.
      • Review to learn more about tackling this issue even earlier in the IT development cycle, and how to have important conversations with contractors, subcontractors, and ISVs in the software and services supply chain.
    • Reduce administrative privilege. This is especially important for contractor or vendor accounts. Up to 90 percent of breaches come from credential compromise. This is largely caused by a lack of, or obsolete, administrative, physical and technical controls to sensitive assets. Basic information-sharing demands that we focus on this. Here is guidance regarding securing access.

Ultimately, we in the industry can better serve governments and CERTs by incentivizing migrations to newer platforms which offer more built-in security; and that are more securely developed. As we think about improving information-sharing, let’s be clear that this includes not only sharing technical details about threats and actors but also guidance on making governments fundamentally more secure on newer and more secure technologies.