The SolarWinds hack was all but inevitable – why national cyber defense is a ‘wicked’ problem and what can be done about it
· There are no easy solutions to shoring up U.S. national cyber defenses.
· Software supply chains are vulnerable to hackers.
· Many U.S. companies outsource software development because of a talent shortage, and some of that outsourcing goes to companies in Eastern Europe that are vulnerable to Russian operatives.
· U.S. national cyber defense is split between the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, which leaves gaps in authority.
The SolarWinds hack was more than just one of the most devastating cyber attacks in history. It was a major breach of national security that revealed gaps in U.S. cyber defenses.
These gaps include inadequate security by a major software producer, fragmented authority for government support to the private sector, and a national shortfall in software and cybersecurity skills. None of these gaps is easily bridged, but the scope and impact of the SolarWinds attack show how critical they are to U.S. national security.
Supply chains, sloppy security and a talent shortage
The vulnerability of the software supply chain – the collections of software components and software development services companies use to build software products – is a well-known problem in the security field. In response to a 2017 executive order, a report by a Department of Defense-led interagency task force identified “a surprising level of foreign dependence,” workforce challenges and critical capabilities such as printed circuit board manufacturing that companies are moving offshore in pursuit of competitive pricing. All these factors came into play in the SolarWinds attack.
SolarWinds also failed to practice basic cybersecurity hygiene, according to a cybersecurity researcher.
Vinoth Kumar reported that the password for the software company’s development server was allegedly “solarwinds123,” an egregious violation of fundamental standards of cybersecurity. SolarWinds’ sloppy password management is ironic in light of the Password Management Solution of the Year award the company received in 2019 for its Passportal product.
In a blog post, the company admitted that “the attackers were able to circumvent threat detection techniques employed by both SolarWinds, other private companies, and the federal government.”
The larger question is why SolarWinds, an American company, had to turn to foreign providers for software development. A Department of Defense report about supply chains characterizes the lack of software engineers as a crisis, partly because the education pipeline is not providing enough software engineers to meet demand in the commercial and defense sectors.
Though I’d argue SolarWinds has much to answer for, it should not have had to defend itself against a state-orchestrated cyber attack on its own. The 2018 National Cyber Strategy describes how supply chain security should work. The government determines the security of federal contractors like SolarWinds by reviewing their risk management strategies, ensuring that they are informed of threats and vulnerabilities, and responding to incidents on their systems.
Neither agency appears to have sounded a warning or attempted to mitigate the attack on SolarWinds. The government’s response came only after the attack. The Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency issued alerts and guidance, and a Cyber Unified Coordination Group was formed to facilitate coordination among federal agencies.
These tactical actions, while useful, were only a partial solution to the larger, strategic problem. The fragmentation of the authorities for national cyber defense evident in the SolarWinds hack is a strategic weakness that complicates cybersecurity for the government and private sector and invites more attacks on the software supply chain.
A wicked problem
National cyber defense is an example of a “wicked problem,” a policy problem that has no clear solution or measure of success. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission identified many inadequacies of U.S. national cyber defenses. In its 2020 report, the commission noted that “There is still not a clear unity of effort or theory of victory driving the federal government’s approach to protecting and securing cyberspace.”
Many of the factors that make developing a centralized national cyber defense challenging lie outside of the government’s direct control. For example, economic forces push technology companies to get their products to market quickly, which can lead them to take shortcuts that undermine security. Legislation along the lines of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act passed in 1999 could help deal with the need for speed in software development. The law placed security requirements on financial institutions. But software development companies are likely to push back against additional regulation and oversight.
The Biden administration appears to be taking the challenge seriously. The president has appointed a national cybersecurity director to coordinate related government efforts. It remains to be seen whether and how the administration will address the problem of fragmented authorities and clarify how the government will protect companies that supply critical digital infrastructure. It’s unreasonable to expect any U.S. company to be able to fend for itself against a foreign nation’s cyberattack.
In the meantime, software developers can apply the secure software development approach advocated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Government and industry can prioritize the development of artificial intelligence that can identify malware in existing systems. All this takes time, however, and hackers move quickly.
Finally, companies need to aggressively assess their vulnerabilities, particularly by engaging in more “red teaming” activities: that is, having employees, contractors or both play the role of hackers and attack the company.
Recognizing that hackers in the service of foreign adversaries are dedicated, thorough and bar no holds is important for anticipating their next moves and reinforcing and improving U.S. national cyber defenses. Otherwise, SolarWinds is unlikely to be the last victim of a major attack on the U.S. software supply chain.
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