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Terry Gold of D6 Research has been giving “cyber in physical security” presentations at a variety of conferences, including ISC West and the Cyber:Secured Forum. We caught up with him for some insights about the intersection of cybersecurity and physical security.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background, specifically in the context of its relevance to cyber security in physical access.

Gold: I started out in information security and then got involved in physical security along the way. I started really focusing on physical from a cyber standpoint about 10 years ago. I got into ethical hacking about 8 years ago, and then worked on putting it all together. There wasn’t a roadmap, so I had to build a methodology which I now share with other hackers, end users and law enforcement.

I spend all my time either in the lab building success models, methods, and testing them out in some of the largest customers or agencies in the world for validation and improvement. Also, a chunk of my time is spent re-engineering security assessment and controls for end users or validating vendors on their behalf from a unique viewpoint that’s not (yet) typical in the industry.

Q: How well prepared is physical security overall against cyber threats?

Gold: Not well at all. While security is imperfect anywhere, much of the practices and designs have critical defects and overlook either best practice or fundamental application security principles. I’d say that the industry is very wide open for exploitation that doesn’t take much sophistication to execute. Breach disclosure laws are focused on mandatory reporting for personally identifiable information (PII)

Q: What things stand out to you along your journey regarding the changes that you are seeing on this topic?

Gold: Culture. Over the years, the industry (and most end users) have been dismissive of my findings. Industry culture hasn’t been aligned to embrace the topic and make requisite improvements that are needed to achieve “good security.” However, I’m finally starting to see that change – quickly and at scale. It doesn’t mean that we’re close to “good,” but rather reached the inflection point of change – and I’m rather pleased about it.    

IT security threat
Breach disclosure laws has resulted in IT getting a lot of media attention in comparison to hacks made against physical security  

Q: D6 does a lot of research in this area. What is the analysis behind the recent push for cyber security in physical security?

Gold: First, it must be recognized that the threat isn’t new, but rather that the industry is only now coming to the table on it. Industry sentiment has been that breaches in physical security don’t happen or that there’s little impact. It must be recognised that the threat isn’t new, but rather that the industry is only now coming to the table on itBoth are false. Mainly, IT gets all the media attention with breaches for two reasons; 1) breach disclosure laws are focused on mandatory reporting for personally identifiable information (PII), and 2) there is really poor detection (mostly non-existent) against hacks in physical security, so they go unrecognized. 

On the other side, as physical security systems increasingly resemble an IT architecture, so does their risk profile. As it expands to mobile, cloud, IOT and intelligence - InfoSec and auditors are taking a look and are alarmed at what they’re seeing. Before you know it, the scrutiny is cutting pretty deep, pressure for alignment becomes intense, and vendors feel the pinch on the sales cycles. It’s not a comfortable position for anyone. 

Q: What will be the projected impact? Are practitioners seeing the whole picture?

Gold: No, and this area is probably the most important takeaway of this interview. The industry is where InfoSec was about 15 years ago in their journey, except we have an additional headwind to deal with – culture change. This industry tends to rely more on trusted relationships than validating the recommendations are being provided. There are too many prevailing misconceptions, that unless remediated, investments won’t be as effective as expected.  

Q: What do you believe are the top misconceptions?

Gold: Well, this is a longer topic, but here’s a sampling that cuts across different areas.  

  • Regarding hackers: A misconception is that they’re generally not interested. Hackers are increasingly very interested. When I teach a workshop at a hacker conference, it’s usually the quickest to fill up and go to wait list (within a couple hours).
  • Regarding attacks: A misconception is that attacks are executed directly against the target system. Example, their goal is to get into VMS and attack it directly. The reality is that they’re more commonly dynamic where physical is part of a larger attack and its role is an easier gateway to another system (or vice versa, with many hops). 
  • Regarding protective measures. The most prevalent mistake that the industry is currently making is too much focus and reliance on air-gapping networks or locking ports. This is only a slice of the attack surface and there are various ways to get around it. There’s a heavy price to pay for those that that rely too much on this strategy since its often accompanied by few mechanisms to deal with actors once they do get in (and they definitely will).
  • Regarding the value of exploiting physical security. Too often perceived as low value. In our white paper we review many of the things that hackers can do, what they gain, and how it can impact the overall organization. It’s far broader and deeper than most.

Q: What are the top things that need to change in the industry?

Gold: First, culture. This can be answered by adopting the same principles as InfoSec. From an execution standpoint, the industry needs to change how they perform risk assessments. At D6, we’ve developed a stepwise methodology from ground up and it’s a huge differenceIndustry practices, including certifications, are significantly outdated and don’t reflect a methodology that accurately considers cybersecurity, actors, methods, and proactive remedy. At D6, we’ve developed a stepwise methodology from ground up and it’s a huge difference. End users that don’t re-engineer their practice, will be very limited for meaningful cybersecurity improvement. 

changes in risk assessments
One of the changes needed in the industry includes how risk assessments are performed 

Q: Generally, what advice do you give to clients on steps to move their cyber security to the next level? 

Gold: Don’t operate like a silo anymore. Transition from industry “common practices” to best practices that can be validated. Rely less on previous relationships and more toward domain competence. Collaborate with the CISO to a principled, goal-oriented and metrics-based approach. Embed an InfoSec person on the physical team. Present priorities and risks jointly to the board within an overall risk portfolio. Invite scrutiny from auditors. Get a red team performed once a year. Until you do the last step, you don’t really know where you stand (but don’t do it until the other things are done). Last, set the bar higher with vendors to support these improvements or their products will just end up being weak link. 

Q: What type of challenges do you see and any advice on how end user and integrators can overcome them? Lessons learned?

Gold: There are too many specific domains across cybersecurity – it’s not just a network security resourceFeedback I get from integrators is that they’re struggling to figure out how to deliver expertise to their clients in their area. They’re somewhat overwhelmed with the complexity, becoming an expert or how expensive it is to hire and maintain those skilled resources. My best advice is not to do either. There are too many specific domains across cybersecurity – it’s not just a network security resource. Not even the large integrators have the right bench, and unfortunately, they’re just further down a doomed path than smaller integrators. Form a partnership with boutique cybersecurity firms that have multiple specialists. Negotiate rates, margins, scope, and call on them when needed. It won’t come out of your bottom line, the results will be better, and the risk will be extremely low. You’ll learn along the way too. 

Q: Anything notable that your research is uncovering in this area that might not be on people’s radar yet?

Gold: Yes, quite a bit. Our Annual Industry Assessment Report goes through every segment. We’re making pretty bold statements about the future and impact, but we’re confident. One thing that stands out is how intelligence (and the swath of subsets) will impose stringent demands on physical security due to attribute and data collection (for analysis) which will absolutely require privacy compliance, integrity, and controls. It will even shape organizations that might not care about cybersecurity but are prioritizing function.

Q: Where can readers learn more about your perspectives on this topic?

Gold: Blogs on the website. Our annual report. Val Thomas of Securicon and D6 have collaborated on a three-part cybersecurity in physical white paper series. It goes into all of this in detail, as well as remedy.

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