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What is Phenomlab?

I read an article By Glenn S. Gerstell (Mr. Gerstell is the general counsel of the National Security Agency) with a great deal of interest. That same article is detailed below

The National Security Operations Center occupies a large windowless room, bathed in blue light, on the third floor of the National Security Agency’s headquarters outside of Washington. For the past 46 years, around the clock without a single interruption, a team of senior military and intelligence officials has staffed this national security nerve center.

The center’s senior operations officer is surrounded by glowing high-definition monitors showing information about things like Pentagon computer networks, military and civilian air traffic in the Middle East and video feeds from drones in Afghanistan. The officer is authorized to notify the president any time of the day or night of a critical threat.

Just down a staircase outside the operations center is the Defense Special Missile and Aeronautics Center, which keeps track of missile and satellite launches by China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and other countries. If North Korea was ever to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile toward Los Angeles, those keeping watch might have half an hour or more between the time of detection to the time the missile would land at the target. At least in theory, that is enough time to alert the operations center two floors above and alert the military to shoot down the missile.

But these early-warning centers have no ability to issue a warning to the president that would stop a cyberattack that takes down a regional or national power grid or to intercept a hypersonic cruise missile launched from Russia or China. The cyberattack can be detected only upon occurrence, and the hypersonic missile, only seconds or at best minutes before attack. And even if we could detect a missile flying at low altitudes at 20 times the speed of sound, we have no way of stopping it.

Source New York Times

Something I've been saying all along is that technology alone cannot stop cyber attacks. Often referred to as a "silver bullet", or "blinky lights", this provides the misconception that by purchasing that new, shiny device, you're completely secure. Sorry folks, but this just isn't true. In fact, cyber crime, and it's associated plethora of hourly attacks is evolving at an alarming rate - in fact, much faster than you'd like to believe. You'd think that for all the huge technological advances we have made in this world, the almost daily plethora of corporate security breaches, high profile data loss, and individuals being scammed every day would have dropped down to nothing more than a trickle - even to the point where they became virtually non-existent. We are making huge progress with landings on Mars, autonomous space vehicles, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and essentially reaching new heights on a daily basis thanks to some of the most creative minds in this technological sphere. But somehow, we have lost our way, stumbled and fallen - mostly on our own sword. But why ?

Just like the Y2k Gold Rush in the late 90’s, information security has become the next big thing with companies ranging from a few employees as startups to enterprise organisations touting their services and platforms to be the best in class, and the next “must have” tool in the blue team’s already bulging arsenal of tools. Tools that on their own in fact have little effect unless they are combined with something else as equally as expensive to run. We've spent so much time focusing on efforts ranging from what SEIM solution we need to what will be labelled as the ultimate silver bullet capable of eliminating the threat of attack once and for all that in my opinion, we have lost sight of the original goal.

With regulatory requirements and best practice pushing us towards products and services that either require additional staff to manage, or are incredibly expensive to deploy and ultimately run. Supposedly, in an effort to simplify the management, analysis, and processing of millions of logs per hour we've created even more platforms to ingest this data in order to make sense of it.

In reality, all we have created is a shark infested pool where larger companies consume up and coming tech startups for breakfast to ensure that they do not pose a threat to their business model / gravy train, therefore enabling them to dominate the space even further with their newly enhanced reach.

How did we get to this ?

What happened to thought process and working together in order to combat the threat that increases on an hourly basis ? We seem to be so focused on making sure that we aren't the next organisation to be breached that we have lost the art of communication and the full benefit of sharing information so that it assists others in their journey. We've become so obsessed with the daily onslaught of platforms that we no longer seem to have the time to even think, let alone take stock and regroup - not as an individual, but as a community.

There are a number of ”communities” that offer “free” forums and products under the open source banner, but sadly, these seem to be turning into paid-for products at a rate of knots. I understand people need to live and make money, but if awareness was raised to the point where users wouldn't click links in phishing emails, fall for the fake emergency wire transfer request from the CEO, or be suddenly tempted by the latest offer in terms of cheap technology then we might - just might - be able to make the world a better place. In order to make this work, we first need to remove the stigma that has become so ingrained by the media and set in stone like King Arthur's Excalibur. Let's first start with the hacker / criminal parallel. They aren't the same thing folks.

Nope. Not at all. Hackers are those people who find ingenious ways of getting into networks and infrastructure that you never even knew existed, trick you into parting with sensitive information (then inform you as to where you went wrong), and most importantly, educate you so that you and your network are far more secure against real attacks and real criminals. These people exist to increase your awareness, and by definition, security footprint - not use it against you in order to steal. Hackers do like to wear hoodies as they are comfortable, but you won't find one using gloves, wearing a balaclava or sunglasses, and in some cases, they actually prefer desktops rather than laptops.

The image being portrayed here is one perpetuated by the media, and it has certainly been effective - but not in a positive way. The word "hacker" is now synonymous with criminals, where it really shouldn't be. One defines security, whereas the other sets out to break it. If we locked up all the hackers on this planet, we'd only have the blue team remaining. It's the job of the red team (hackers) to see how strong your defences are. Hackers exist to educate, not infiltrate (at least, not without asking for permission first :))

I personally have lost count of how many times I've sat in meetings where a sales pitch around a security platform is touted as a one stop shop or a Swiss army knife that can protect your entire network from a breach. Admittedly, there's some great technology on the market that performs a variety of functions to protect your estate, but they all fail to take into consideration the weakest link in any chain - users. Irrespective of bleeding edge “combat platforms” (as I like to refer to them), criminals are becoming very adept in their approach, leveraging techniques such as social engineering. It should come as no surprise for you to learn that this type of attack can literally walk past your shiny new defence system as it relies on the one vulnerability you cannot predict - the human. Hence the term “hacking humans”.

I'm of the firm opinion that if you want to outsmart a criminal, you have to think like one. Whilst newfangled platforms are created to assist in the fight against cyber crime, they are complex to configure, suffer from alerting bloat (far too many emails so you end up missing the one where your network is actually being compromised), or are simply overwhelming and difficult to understand. Here's the thing. You don't need (although they do help) expensive bleeding edge platforms with flashing lights to tell you where weak points lie within your network, but you do need to understand how a criminal can and will exploit these. A vulnerability cannot be leveraged if it no longer exists, or even better, never even existed to begin with. And so, on with the mission, and the real reason as to why I created Phenomlab. I've been working in information technology for 28 years, and have a very strong technical background in network design and information security.

What I want to do with Phenomlab is make it a communication, information, and awareness sharing platform. I created the original concept of what I thought this new community should look like in my head, but its taken a while to finally develop, get people interested, and on board. To my mind, those from inside and outside of the information security arena will pool together, share knowledge, raise awareness, and probably the most important, harness this new found force and drive change forward.

The breaches we are witnessing on a daily basis are not going to simply stop. They will increase dramatically in their frequency, and will get worse with each incident. Let's stop the “hackers are criminals” myth, start using our own unique talents in this field, and make a community that

  • is able to bring effective change
  • treats everyone as equals

This community could easily be the catalyst we all desperately need - both in perception, and inception. Why not wield the stick for a change instead of being beaten with it, and work as part of a global team instead ?