Working alone won’t solve our cyber security problems: NICTA’s Dr Jodi Steel

One of the biggest challenges we face in cyber security is that it’s so vast, says Dr Jodi Steel, director of NICTA’s Security and Environment Business team, speaking at the CSO Perspectives Roadshow in Canberra.

No one has a complete picture of what is happening, but having that picture is very important to solving our problems.

There are no silver bullets. Our adversaries are well organised and well skilled, says Steel. “You can buy malware kits online – and they have 24 hour phone support. You can buy hacking services, botnets by the hour. Yet the organisations that are under attack tend to be disinclined to share information because of embarrassment, reputation or share price – or on the solution side, because of competitive advantage," says Steel.

“The problem is that that doesn’t help us to solve problems and get ahead of the attacks. Take, for example, the coordinated attacks this year on ATMs in Europe that netted the criminals $45 million. It is said that there was a similar attack a few months earlier that netted only $5 million. Perhaps if information about that was shared more easily, that could have been averted.”

She says the bottom line is that we’re not yet improving our security fast enough to get ahead of the complexities and the adversaries we face, so we need to do things differently.

One solution she proposes is putting more minds on the job – bringing together different skills, different perspectives and experiences to building an ecosystem in Australia where we bring government industry and researchers together to come up with solutions.

“By doing that we have the possibility of coming up with solutions for our own problems. And if they’re good solutions we can export them to growing security market worldwide. So although we have challenges and problems we also have opportunities.”

So how is it being done?

In Australia, we have our share of unique challenges, including awareness and preparedness, neither are really what they should be, says Steel. Sharing sensitive and classified information is also a challenge. Steel points out that the problem with not sharing is that it also impacts on our awareness. “And if we’re trying to create solutions, without sharing information we can’t really understand the problem.

“We also have challenges of scale in Australia, and with smaller companies engaging in research.”

She also lists skill shortage, professionalism and research recognition as challenges – there’s no code to for the research to record against, which makes it hard to track and hard to motivate people into the area. And export changes such as the defence trade controls act, which create a lot of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, she says that building an ecosystem has begun. The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) has become the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) reflecting the national significance of the problem. She also points to the establishment of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, which brings together the capability of CERT, ASIO, Defence, AFP and the Crime Commission, and locates them in the new ASIO facility, improving its outreach to industry much better. It will help protect our national infrastructure, she says.

The government has also appointed the Defence, Science and technology Organisation (DSTO) as the single point of coordinate for science and technology development for cyber security. There are also moves to establish a Cyber CRC – another partnership between government, industry and research.

“We need to get behind these efforts and support them to make sure we maintain this momentum and intention,” says Steel.

“It will take time and effort and cultural change for these to mature, and organisations are not accustomed to sharing information. In the meantime, we can’t sit on our hands.”