The Pillars of Trust on the Internet

The Internet of today in many ways resembles the lawless Wild West of yore. There are the land-rushes as corporations and innovators seek new and fertile grounds, over yonder there are the gold-diggers panning for nuggets in the flow of big data, and crunching under foot are the husks of failed businesses and discarded technology.

For many years various star-wielding sheriffs have tried to establish a brand of law and order over the Internet, but for every step forward a menagerie of robbers and scoundrels have found new ways to pick-pocket and harass those trying to earn a legitimate crust. Does it really have to continue this way?

New technology

Over the years I’ve seen many technologies invented and embraced with the goal of thwarting the attackers and miscreants that inhabit the Internet.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling that with each new threat (or redefinition of a threat) that comes along someone volunteers another “solution” that’ll provide temporary relief; yet we continue to find ourselves in a never-ending swatting match with the tentacles of cyber crime.

With so many threats to be faced and a slew of jargon to wade through, it shouldn’t be surprising to readers that most organisations (and their customers) often appear baffled and bewildered when they become victims of cyber crime – whether that is directly or indirectly.

While the newspapers and media outlets may discuss the scale of stolen credit cards from the latest batch of mega-breaches and strive to provide common sense (and utterly ignored) advice on password sophistication and how to be mindful of what we’re clicking on, the dynamics of the attack are easily glossed over and subsequently lost to those that are in the best position to mitigate the threat.

Deception tactics

The vast majority of successful breaches begin with deception, and depend upon malware. The deception tactics usually take the form of social engineering – such as receiving an email pretending to be an invoice from a trusted supplier – with the primary objective being the installation of a malicious payload.

The dynamics of the trickery and the exploits used to install the malware are ingeniously varied but, all too often, it’s the capabilities of the malware that dictate the scope and persistence of the breach.

While there exist a plethora of technologies that can layered one atop another like some gargantuan wedding cake to combat each tactic, tool, or subversive technique the cyber criminal may seek to employ in their exploitation of a system, doing so successfully is as difficult as attempting to stack a dozen feral cats – and just as likely to leave you scratched and scarred.

In the past I’ve publicly talked about the paradigm change in the way organisations have begun to approach breaches… to accept that they will happen repeatedly and to prioritise on the rapid (and near instantaneous) detection and automated remediation of the compromised systems, rather than waste valuable cycles analysing yesterday’s malware or exploits, or churning over attribution possibilities.

But I think there’s a second paradigm change underway – one which doesn’t attempt to change the entire Internet, but instead focuses on mitigating the deception tactics used by the attackers at the root and creating a safe and trusted environment to conduct business within.

Building a safer Internet

I think the time has come to build (rather than give lip-service to) a safe corner of the Internet and expand from there. It’s the reason I’ve come and joined NCC Group. It is my hope and aspiration that the Domain Services division will provide that anchor point, that Rock of Gibraltar, that technical credibility and wherewithal necessary to regain trust in doing business over the Internet once again.

A core tenant to building a trusted and safe platform for business has to start with the core building blocks of the Internet. Domain Name System (DNS) and Domain registration lie at the very heart of the Internet and yet, from a security perspective, they’ve been largely neglected as a means to neutering the most common and vile social engineering vectors of attack.

Couple tight control of domain registration and DNS with perpetual threat monitoring and scanning, merge it with vigilant policing of secure configuration policies and best practices (not some long-in-the-tooth consensus-strained minimum standards of a decade ago), and you have the pillars necessary to elevate a corner of the Internet beyond the reach of the general lawlessness that’s plaguing business today. And that’s before we get really innovative.

It wasn’t guns or graves that tamed the West of yore, it was the juggernaut of technology that began with railway lines and the telegraph. The mechanisms for restoring business trust in the Internet are now in play. Exciting times lay ahead. 

Published date:  15 September 2014

Written by:  Gunter Ollmann

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