The US agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is committed to innovating flight technologies, enabling humans to explore beyond the Earth’s orbit, managing International Space Station operations, and reaping the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society. It is also responsible for maintaining the security of all of its systems and data to prevent malicious activity and thwart any sabotage of important assets.
Despite efforts to safeguard its systems, in 2011 alone, NASA was the victim of 47 Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), 13 of which successfully compromised agency computers, according to USA Today magazine.
An APT attack refers to a person gaining unauthorized access to a network and staying there undetected for a prolonged time period, with the intention of stealing data, and such an attack typically targets organizations in sectors with high-value information. So it doesn’t come as a complete surprise that NASA was targeted, since it houses a variety of sensitive data such as proprietary scientific research and plans.
According to Paul K. Martin, NASA’s inspector general, as quoted in BBC News,
"The attackers had full functional control over these networks," meaning they would have been able to "modify, copy or delete sensitive files" or "upload hacking tools to steal user credentials and compromise other NASA systems.”
You may ask – so what has NASA been doing so far to protect its systems and data?
In 2011, NASA took some bold actions to mitigate security vulnerabilities discovered by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) and others as evidenced in a Statement by Linda Y. Cureton, NASA Chief Information Officer before the Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight U.S. House of Representatives. In particular, NASA took the following actions to address those findings, according to the Statement:
a. Scanned network and conducted 3rd party external assessments to detect vulnerabilities on Internet-connected devices; implemented Web application security program
b. Assessed vulnerabilities and security patch status for ~130,000 connected devices; identified and monitored mandatory critical security controls to continuously assess real-time vulnerabilities
c. Standardized incident response procedures; subscribed to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Shared Services for near real-time threat data to expedite its own response to new threats and vulnerabilities
d. Implemented near real-time risk management program; conducted agency-wide inventory of IT devices and security configurations to assess security posture of Internet-connected devices
The measures NASA has taken are essentially best practices in that they entail identifying vulnerabilities and closing security holes and implementing the right detective and preventive controls. These best practices can be augmented further with more proactive predictive controls, an emerging category that is sure to become a mainstay of best practices for security going forward.
One of the ways attackers may infiltrate the network and launch APTs is through Web applications. Incidents of web application attacks are reported on a nearly daily basis, primarily because developers often lack the time or skills to focus on security. Thus, it is recommended that proactive predictive controls be put in place to identity and mitigate Web application threats.
Traditional security solutions such as stateful firewalls and IDS/IPS solutions for selectively blocking or modifying traffic at the network level used alone are usually insufficient for addressing APTs since such threats piggyback on legitimate traffic which is allowed into the network by those security mechanisms. An application firewall that can detect a data breach and shut down a compromised endpoint is largely reactive since it relies on static analysis and typically operates out of band. A better approach would be to combine inbound traffic analysis with countermeasure based security that implements decoys, such as what is done by Mykonos Web Security, to detect Web application attacks in real time and selectively report, obfuscate, and block the malicious behavior before any damage is done/data is stolen.
Unlike current solutions such as Web security appliances and Web application firewalls, Mykonos provides device level tracking beyond IP address tracking that allows for attackers to be uniquely identified, monitored and blocked. The solution can be utilized as part of a layered security approach that includes network firewall, IPS, and application controls.
High value targets like NASA that handle and store highly sensitive data tied to application servers should put in place predictive network security countermeasures to gain better visibility and control over sensitive data and systems, thereby minimizing chances of compromise.
For further information, contact the Mykonos Sales team.
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