Blame Susan Swart for the WikiLeaks fiasco

Recent days have seen much commotion about the WikiLeaks affair, in which about 250,000 confidential State Department cables have been leaked and publicly released.  Most of the coverage has focused on the content of the cables or on WikiLeads, the organization that turned the cables over to the media.  A few commentators have questioned the adequacy of information security at the State Department.  No one, as far as I am aware, has put the blame where I believe it belongs, on Susan Swart, Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of State.  This is surprising, because the State Department profile of Swart does not mince words about her responsibilities.

Susan H. Swart, a member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, was appointed as the Chief Information Officer for the Department of State in February 2008. As CIO, she is responsible for the Department’s information resources and technology initiatives and provides core information, knowledge management, and technology (IT) services to the Department of State and its 260 overseas missions. She is directly responsible for the Information Resource Management (IRM) Bureau’s budget of $310 million, and oversees State’s total IT/ knowledge management budget of approximately one billion dollars. [italics mine]

Swart was appointed in February 2008, which, given that the leaked cables are said to extend through February of 2010, is at least one year before the leak.  She cannot fob off responsibility on her predecessors.

So why hasn’t the media put the blame where it belongs?  The answer, I suspect, is a common misconception that computer systems are inherently vulnerable and, consequently, these kinds of breaches are inevitable.  According to this line of thinking, the only recourse would be to close off access to information, hindering the functioning of the department.  Swart cannot be held responsible for flaws inherent in the technology; ergo, we must look elsewhere for the guilty party.  Although this logic is rarely stated explicitly, traces can be found in media coverage of the leaks.  For example:

In a memo circulated Monday by its Office of Management and Budget, the White House said it was ordering a review of safeguards that could shut down some users’ access to classified information.

That would further limit diplomatic communications that have been restricted in response to earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks. The Defense Department has already limited the number of computer systems that can handle classified material and made it harder to save material to removable media, such as flash drives, on classified computers.

Bryan Whitman, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday that it was inevitable that steps like that would “compromise … efforts to give diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to greater amounts of data.” (“U.S. can’t let WikiLeaks limit candor, diplomats say”)

And from no less an authority than the former CIO for the Director of National Intelligence:

Dale Meyerrose, former chief information officer for the U.S. intelligence community, said Monday that it will never be possible to completely stop such breaches.

“This is a personnel security issue, more than it is a technical issue,” said Meyerrose, now a vice president at Harris Corp. “How can you prevent a pilot from flying the airplane into the ground? You can’t. Anybody you give access to can become a disgruntled employee or an ideologue that goes bad.” (“U.S. looks for way to prosecute over leaks”)

To be blunt, this is nonsense.  That anyone, employee or otherwise, can easily gain access to and abscond with over 250,000 confidential documents, apprehended only when turned in by a confidant, is evidence of an extremely serious technical issue.  Anyone holding such views should not be in a position with responsibility for information resources.

The alternative view, which I believe to be correct for reasons that I’ll describe below, is that systems can be engineered for security in ways that maintain usability and access, while rendering breaches like this one effectively impossible.  If so, then Swart, by failing to ensure that the systems were so engineered, is responsible for the failure and should be held accountable.

There is a simple reason why we can be confident that the engineering problem is soluble.  No individual can possibly need to access the full content of 250,000 cables in a short period of time, because, even scanning them at a rate of one document per two seconds, more than a week would be required to review them all (assuming grueling 16 hour days).  Furthermore, since the cables cover a wide variety of topics, it’s unlikely that many employees need access to large numbers of cables covering wide ranges of topics and dates.  To solve the problem, then, we just need to engineer a system that makes it relatively easy to access in ways that conform to common use cases (e.g., small numbers of cables, cables close to a particular date, or cables related to a particular topic), and progressively more difficult to access larger numbers of cables.

So how would we engineer such a system for security?  Let’s consider three relatively simple design rules which could probably have prevented the WikiLeaks debacle.  Systems conforming to these design rules could, I’m reasonably certain, have been implemented by Swart within the year before the leaks occurred, especially since they could be implemented in ways that would be almost entirely transparent to end users.  With regard to all of these techniques, I acknowledge a profound intellectual debt to Jay Dvivedi, the brilliant maverick former CIO of Shinsei Bank.

First, don’t aggregate information.  If you put all your cables from around the world in a single giant repository, you’ve created a single point of failure, which inevitably becomes a giant vulnerability.  There is no need to store all these cables together.  Exactly how to separate the cables is an engineering problem that should be informed by knowledge about usage patterns, but it seems reasonable enough that systems might be divided by classification, geographic area (at the country, subcontinent, or continent level) or by age (less than one month, two to six months, seven to twelve months, etc.).  When information needs to be aggregated–e.g., a search on the entire collection of cables for a particular term or assembling cables for all dates for a particular country-the aggregation should take place temporarily in systems explicitly engineered for the purpose.

Second, create and manage differentiated access controls tuned to the sensitivity of the information being accessed.  This becomes easy when the first design rule is followed, because access controls can be developed separately for different classes of systems.  Access privileges should be granted for specific systems, each of which hold only subsets of the entire cable collection.  Many users may need direct access to only recent cables or cables for certain countries or geographic areas.

Carefully engineered access controls should be present on the systems that aggregate data across multiple systems as well.  The broader the aggregation and the larger the volume of data, the more approvals should be required.  In particular, extracting the entire database should be possible only using a specific, highly secure system designed to access all the subsidiary systems, and approval should be required at the highest level of the organization.

All this need not impede the work of intelligence analysts in the field: a search across all cables might return document excerpts and provide full text for several documents-perhaps only the least sensitive-without additional authorization.  Authorization from a supervisor or competent authority would be required to obtain full text of large numbers of documents, perhaps more than a hundred.

Third, track access to all confidential material and limit access for users that exhibit suspicious activity patterns.  That confidential material can be viewed without leaving behind any record of the activity is an inexcusable system design flaw.  It should be possible to see when any user accessed any confidential document.  To ensure the completeness and integrity of these access records, Jay recommends maintaining redundant records from three different perspectives:

  • Document perspective: who accessed the document, and through which gateway?  Here, I use the term gateway to refer to an access channel and its physical and logical location, e.g., a document viewing application running on a specific desktop computer in a particular room or building.
  • Gateway perspective: which documents were accessed through the gateway, and by whom?
  • User perspective: what documents has this user accessed, and through which gateways?

Following the first design rule, these records should be generated and stored by separate systems.  Other systems should continuously reconcile the records to detect errors or evidence of tampering.  It would be very difficult for a user to conceal unauthorized access, since at least three systems would have to be compromised.

Monitoring systems should use these records to look for suspicious activity, such as rapid successions of searches that hit broad swathes of the database or attempts to extract documents from one system after another.  In such cases, it should suffice to limit access until the behavior can be reviewed by a competent authority.  In addition to precluding breaches, the knowledge that all accesses are logged and analyzed will discourage improper use of the system.

The second and third design rules–granular access controls and monitoring user activity–are already commonly implemented by online services and financial firms.  The first design rule has not been widely adopted, but Jay has demonstrated its effectiveness at Shinsei Bank, and my understanding is that the rule resembles in principle to the service-oriented architectures employed at Amazon and Facebook.

All of which is to say that we should not let Swart off easy.  The State Department’s systems were clearly not designed for security, which is obviously inexcusable for an organization responsible for the nation’s diplomacy.

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