Learning from Near Misses

[Update: Steve Bellovin has a blog post]

One of the major pillars of science is the collection of data to disprove arguments. That data gathering can include experiments, observations, and, in engineering, investigations into failures. One of the issues that makes security hard is that we have little data about large scale systems. (I believe that this is more important than our clever adversaries.) The work I want to share with you today has two main antecedents.

First, in the nearly ten years since Andrew Stewart and I wrote The New School of Information Security, and called for more learning from breaches, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in how people talk about breaches. Unfortunately, we’re still not learning as much as we could. There are structural reasons for that, primarily fear of lawsuits.

Second, last year marked 25 years of calls for an “NTSB for infosec.” Steve Bellovin and I wrote a short note asking why that was. We’ve spent the last year asking what else we might do. We’ve learned a lot about other Aviation Safety Programs, and think there are other models that may be better fits for our needs and constraints in the security realm.

Much that investigation has been a collaboration with Blake Reid, Jonathan Bair, and Andrew Manley of the University of Colorado Law School, and together we have a new draft paper on SSRN, “Voluntary Reporting of Cybersecurity Incidents.”

A good deal of my own motivation in this work is to engineer a way to learn more. The focus of this work, on incidents rather than breaches, and on voluntary reporting and incentives, reflects lessons learned as we try to find ways to measure real world security. The writing and abstract reflect the goal of influencing those outside security to help us learn better:

The proliferation of connected devices and technology provides consumers immeasurable amounts of convenience, but also creates great vulnerability. In recent years, we have seen explosive growth in the number of damaging cyber-attacks. 2017 alone has seen the Wanna Cry, Petya, Not Petya, Bad Rabbit, and of course the historic Equifax breach, among many others. Currently, there is no mechanism in place to facilitate understanding of these threats, or their commonalities. While information regarding the causes of major breaches may become public after the fact, what is lacking is an aggregated data set, which could be analyzed for research purposes. This research could then provide clues as to trends in both attacks and avoidable mistakes made on the part of operators, among other valuable data.

One possible regime for gathering such information would be to require disclosure of events, as well as investigations into these events. Mandatory reporting and investigations would result better data collection. This regime would also cause firms to internalize, at least to some extent, the externalities of security. However, mandatory reporting faces challenges that would make this regime difficult to implement, and possibly more costly than beneficial. An alternative is a voluntary reporting scheme, modeled on the Aviation Safety Reporting System housed within NASA, and possibly combined with an incentive scheme. Under it, organizations that were the victims of hacks or “near misses” would report the incident, providing important details, to some neutral party. This database could then be used both by researchers and by industry as a whole. People could learn what does work, what does not work, and where the weak spots are.

Please, take a look at the paper. I’m eager to hear your feedback.

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