The National Cybersecurity Protection System (NCPS), also known as EINSTEIN, is a firewall run by the Department of Homeland Security. It’s goal: to detect and prevent nation-state hacks against the U.S. Government functions.
However, according to a sanitized version of a secret federal audit, EINSTEIN does an ineffective job. The audit was described in a ‘for official use only’ Government Accountability Office Report, which was sanitized (public version) and released on Thursday 28 January 2016.
In November 2015 the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee suggested the then-confidential audit of EINSTEIN would prove the hacker surveillance system is not governmentwide.
The newly released audit strengthens their views and points out other misaligned objectives and technologies in the 6 billion U.S. Dollar EINSTEIN project (not acknowledged by DHA)
Gregory C. Wilshusen , GAO director of information security issues, and Nabajyoti Barkakati, director of the GAO Center for Technology and Engineering, said in the report:
“Until NCPS’ intended capabilities are more fully developed, DHS will be hampered in its abilities to provide effective cybersecurity-related support to federal agencies,”
The prevention feature of the system is only deployed at 5 of the 23 major nondefense agencies.
Therefore the U.S. Departments involved in the audit were the departments of Energy and Veterans Affairs, the General Services Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The audit report shows the following findings.
EINSTEIN does Not Cover Nation-State ‘Advanced Persistent Threats’
“The overall intent of the system was to protect against nation-state level threat actors,”
EINSTEIN did not protect against nation-state Ádvanced Persistent Threats'(APT) by foreign adversaries.
“EINSTEIN did not possess intrusion detection signatures that fully addressed all the advanced persistent threats we reviewed,”
In reaction to this DHS officials said EINSTEIN is only one technology of many that each department uses to protect its sensitive data. Every agency should keep its own IT and data safe, while DHS should provide the baseline protections and the big-picture perspective of security controls governmentwide.
EINSTEIN doesn’t Know Common Security Vulnerabilities
EINSTEIN works by sending out signatures of known attack patterns to 228 intrusion-detection sensors placed throughout the dot-gov network. These sensors analyze patterns in agency traffic flows to see if there is a match with any of the signatures.
“However, the signatures supporting NCPS’s intrusion detection capability only identify a portion of vulnerabilities associated with common software applications,”
5 client applications were reviewed – Adobe Acrobat, Flash, Internet Explorer, JAVA and Microsoft Office – and only 6 percent 0f all the security bugs tested were flagged (29/489 vulnerabilities).
According to the report a possible reason might be that EINSTEIN doesn’t sync with the standard national database of security flows maintained by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology).
DHS officials claim in the report this was not required for the first draft of EINSTEIN, but ‘acknowledges this deficiency’ and plan to address it in the future.
EINSTEIN has no Way to Spot Unknown Zero Days until ‘Announced’
The report states “Regarding zero day exploits,” DHS officials stated “there is no way to identify them until they are announced,”. Once they are disclosed (sometimes with the help of intelligence community partners), DHS can mold a signature to the attack pattern and feed it into EINSTEIN.
Information Sharing with EINSTEIN is Often A Waste
“DHS’s sharing of information with agencies has not always been effective, with disagreement among agencies about the number of notifications sent and received and their usefulness,”
Regarding the reviewed departments, it did not receive 24 percent of the notifications DHS said it had sent in fiscal 2014. The ones that did often served no purpose. Of the 56 alerts communicated successfully, 31 were timely and useful, while the rest were too slow, useless, false alarms or unrelated to intrusion detection.
Besides this, the DHS has created metrics related to EINSTEIN, “None provide insight into the value derived from the functions of the system,” the auditors said.
The findings of the audit report show EINSTEIN MUST be changed to be effective against hackers and foreign adversaries, its primary goal. Otherwise, 6 billion U.S. Dollars is spent on a system not up for its job, resulting in a danger for national security.
About the author
Software test engineer, Founder TestingSaaS, a social network about researching cloud applications with a focus on forensics, software testing and security.
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(Security Affairs – Cybersecurtiy, EINSTEIN)