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System security and fascination with homegrown solutions

Not long ago, there was the news flash that the India government is in the process of kick-starting a project to build “our own operating system”. According to V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and DRDO Director-General,

We do not have our own operating system. Today, various bodies, including banks and defence establishments, need security. Having our own operating system will help us prevent hacking of our systems.


With a home-grown system, the source code will be with us and it helps in securing our systems.

Dr. Saraswat seems to have expanded on the plan by going beyond the operating system. At Aero India expo he is reported to have added the network to the plan:

“Cyber security is a major challenge for us as all our operations are going to be on the network centric system, which is dependent on information and communication technologies,” scientific adviser to defence minister V.K. Saraswat told reporters.

Admitting that securing the network centric system would be a major problem, Saraswat said the country would have to build robust systems and platforms with proprietary software to make sure the networks were safe and almost invincible.

The mention of proprietary software is confusing since it is not clear whether Dr. Saraswat is referring to the non-open source software ecosystem that includes the likes of Microsoft and others or whether he means a “made in India” indigenous software. Give the earlier emphasis on home grown operating system, I would venture a guess that it is the latter.

The goal of coming up with a home grown operating system and network defense framework is noble and even commendable, but not for the reason expounded by the scientific adviser. Given the ease with which trojans and traps can be inserted into a software (and hardware), it would seem logical that an internally developed piece of code would be more trustworthy. In a world where few understand the intricate details of the implementation of cryptographic primitives in code, it is not just about whether the code is open source or not, not when allegations like that against the OpenBSD IPSec stack cannot be dismissed easily. Software building involves a lot of reuse and in the case of open source code, it also involves donated code. Granted that these codes are there for everyone to see and audit, there is a dearth of expertise to actually such a meticulous analysis, especially when we are taking in the realm of cleverly hidden side channel attacks.

Given all this, software developed in a relative clean room, like what Dr. Saraswat aims to have, should be more trust worthy. Except that, clean rooms can only be “clean” up to a point. At what point can one safely say that re-using an idea, component or, for that matter, a standard would not destroy the pristine nature of the development? The less one can reuse, the more one has to re-invent and re-develop, the costlier and error prone the whole process is going to be.

This may seem like a lost cause but that is only because one assumes that there is a single silver bullet. In system security, there is never a silver bullet. Instead what we see succeeding in a practical world is a risk assessment based analysis of the systems and the implementation of the simple but powerful concept of defense in depth.

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Army does 27001 audit, that should make it secure

except that it does not!

The recent Times of India article, on how Indian Army is increasing its network and system defences to “highest standard”, is interesting in that it does not say anything much at all, except the nugget of information that they perform “cyber audit process” “in accordance with established security standards such as ISO 27001”. Let us come back to the 27001 audit process later and examine the rest of the article first.

Any article that has utterances like “impenetrable” and “unhackable” automatically raises a red flag in my paranoid brain. Networks are “impenetratable” and password are “unhackable” until they are not. One would expect and associate such frivolous words from the marketing department of a software company (no disrespect to Oracle), not from the Indian Army.

The mention about Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) is confusing. Is this CERT the same as CERT-In? As far as I know CERT-In does not have a mandate over military and Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). Let not the wording “to respond to attacks” fool you into thinking that anything beyond log analysis, root cause analysis and associated steps are taken as a part of this response. Nothing in the literature and off the record conversations have shown any hints that the army is involved in anything more than passive defense when it comes to cyber security.

Now, to the juicy bit. The article states:

Another official said the army has its own cyber audit process conducted by cyber security personnel.

“The audit is conducted in accordance with established security standards such as ISO 27001. Audit of the network is a continuous and active process which helps identification and mitigation of vulnerabilities in a network to counter latest threats as also check the network for cyber security policy compliance,” he said.

Don’t get me wrong, it is heartening to see that the army is following audit processes to bolster its network and system defense and they should be commended for it. But the use of ISO 27001 just does not cut it for a military institution.

ISO 27001 is a set of audit requirements for information security management systems. There are about 10 areas requiring compliance audit, starting with institution-wide issues (Security Policy, Organization of Information Security) and eventually drilling into more operational areas (Access control, Acquisition/Development/Maintenance etc.). At the highest level, as per the audit requirements, an institution is required to establish an Information Security Management program that involves the setting up of an Information Security organization which crafts and drives InfoSec policies in the institution. 27001 then audits the subsequent sections against these policies.

As it pertains to the the claim that 27001 would make the army resilient to cyber attacks, three important points need to be kept in mid:

  1. First, and most obvious, is that the efficacy of the standards established by the ISM organization themselves are not evaluated.  So, while an entity may “pass” a 27001 audit, it speaks little, if any, of how strong or otherwise the organization’s information security practices are.
  2. 27001 is designed for corporations that desire international certification. It is not geared for the defense establishments. The US DoD, for example,  is audited by multiple agencies which more or less follow baseline standards set out by Defense Information Assurance Certification and Accreditation Process (DIACAP) and highlighted in DoD Audit Manual.  Standards for information security in US DoD have gradually evolved from the earlier Bell-Lapadula model and the dozen others to the hybrids that are now in place. Again, 27001 does not even come into picture.
  3. 27001 certifications are essentially policy reviews.  They do not get into network/hardware/software hardening. For example there are zero penetration tests performed as part of the 27001. A 27001 certification will not give reasonable assurance to Indian Army or MoD that its infrastructure is hardened and can deter reasonably sophisticated attacks.

So while it good to know that audits are being conducted and that the system “emphasises on the people and the process”, let us not kid ourselves that mismatched ISO processes like 27001 will make the system and the networks any more secure. What we do risk is becoming complacent based on the misplaced sense of security and assurance given by these audit processes.

(With substantial contribution from Rohan Joshi.)

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