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Commonwealth Ombudsman singles out Home Affairs over stored communications and metadata handling

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(Image: APH)

The Commonwealth Ombudsman report [PDF] into how 20 agencies across federal and state levels government agencies across Australia handle stored communications and metadata over the period of the 2016-17 financial year has been released, with Home Affairs being the only agency that was handed recommendations.

Home Affairs was called upon to ensure it could “accurately account for the number of telecommunications data authorisations it issues in any given period” to comply with its record keeping obligations, and have a central system to store or monitor telecommunications data once it had been handed to investigators.

The recommendations were a result of the former Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) having 8 record keeping issues identified, as well as a statistical issue, and 42 instances of telecommunications data being accessed outside the parameters of authority. The Ombudsman explained that 41 of those instances were due to an automatic input from DIBP’s database which has since been resolved.

Also falling under the Home Affairs banner following its transferral into the Peter Dutton-helmed superministry is the Australian Federal Police, which disclosed that between October 13 to 26, 2015, all authorisations by ACT Police were not authorised, due to the AFP Commissioner failing to authorise any ACT officers for that period.

“In response to this disclosure, our Office suggested the AFP quarantine all telecommunications data obtained under the 116 authorisations made by the unauthorised ACT Policing officer between 13–26 October 2015 from further use and communication,” the report said.

“Following the inspection, the AFP accepted this suggestion; however it did not act to quarantine the affected data at that time, which resulted in additional use and communication of the data.”

Must read: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic)

In February 2018, the data was partially quarantined only after being prodded by the Ombudsman.

“In April 2018 the AFP advised the affected telecommunications data had not yet been fully quarantined and it was seeking legal advice regarding the use of the affected telecommunications data, the report said.

“Due to the scale of this non-compliance, we will continue to monitor this issue closely with the AFP.”

The Ombudsman also found one area of NSW Police that routinely used its power without written or electronic approvals.

“The area’s process at the time of our inspection was for access to telecommunications data to be verbally approved and a written record of the verbal approval to be made in a log,” the report said.

“We do not consider this practice is permitted by the Act and suggested to NSW Police that it review its policies and procedures to ensure all authorisations for telecommunications data are in written or electronic form and signed by the relevant authorised officer.”

Overall, the report said agencies were “generally exercising” their powers appropriately.

In the prior installment of the report released in 2017, which covered the 2015-16 financial year, Australian Customs was handed the only three recommendations contained within the report.

“In our view, Customs does not have sufficient processes in place to demonstrate that it is only dealing with lawfully accessed stored communications,” the report said.

The Ombudsman said when it conducted its inspection on February 18, 2016, there was no stored communications product that would allow it to determine if Customs was only dealing with lawfully accessed information, and no records were kept to determine whether telcos had stored information when relevant warrants were in force.

“In every instance, we were unable to determine who had received the stored communications from the carrier and, therefore, whether the communications had been properly received in accordance with s135 of the Act,” the report said.

“Furthermore, for the assessed destruction of stored communications, there were no records available to demonstrate who within Customs had authorised the destruction to occur or when the approval had been granted.

Also: Duelling ghosts battle over encryption laws in a dying Parliament

The Ombudsman said Customs was not equipped with the appropriate procedures to determine whether stored communications were properly received and destroyed.

It was also found that 11 of 14 historic preservation notices covered by the inspection were made by officers who were not authorised to apply for stored communications warrants, but Customs has subsequently adjusted its nominated officers after the Ombudsman visit.

The first two recommendations made by the Ombudsman called for Customs to have processes to demonstrate it was only dealing with lawfully accessed stored communications, and that the agency manage stored communications in accordance with the Telecommunications Act.

The third recommendation called for Customs to have a new record keeping system as the Ombudsman had found a litany of issues.

On the issue of whether the agency was cooperative and frank, the Ombudsman found it was “Non-compliant with the exception of staff from one branch, who were cooperative and attempted to provide our office with access to relevant information.”

Customs was not well prepared for its inspection, the Ombudsman added.

Echoing the sort of excuses it would use again in the future, Customs said the period covered was “a time of significant organisational disruption” as it shifted across to the DIBP, before it would be subsumed into Home Affairs.

On the issue of data retention, across three inspections of the DIBP between November 2015 and May 2016, the Ombudsman was told that while authorisation was at the senior executive level, authorisations were mostly made by those who were at the non-executive level.

Although no other agencies were given recommendations at the time, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Australian Federal Police, Crime and Corruption Commission Queensland, Independent Commission Against Corruption South Australia, Tasmania Police, Victoria Police, and Western Australia Police all had to undertake remedial action.

In November 2017, a Commonwealth Ombudsman report into how the Australian Federal Police managed to trip over the one caveat in Australia’s metadata retention system — needing a warrant to access the metadata of a journalist when attempting to identify a source — found AFP officers did not “fully appreciate their responsibilities” when using metadata powers.

The one recommendation from the report called on the AFP to make all staff that use metadata powers undergo training to have a “thorough understanding” of the laws and their responsibilities.

Australia’s data retention laws, passed by both major parties in March 2015, force telecommunications carriers to store customer call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data for two years, and make this information accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

Last week, the Australian Communications and Media Authority said nine telcos did not have such a system in place as of June 30, 2018.

The cost to telcos of developing, installing, and maintaining an interception capability on their networks has slowly decreased, from AU$22.6 million in 2015-16 down to AU$22 million in 2016-17, and then further down to AU$21.5 million in 2017-18.

Related Coverage

Nine telcos had no metadata interception plan by mid-2018: ACMA

The ACMA’s 2017-18 report also reported almost 2.3 million disclosures of customer information by carriers under legal obligations to assist government agencies and departments.

Home Affairs cannot be bothered listing all agencies with access to metadata

With a disclosure notice or court order, government agencies otherwise exempted are able to tap Australia’s metadata stores.

Local councils and taxi commission continued to seek telco metadata: Comms Alliance

The Communications Alliance has detailed a list of agencies that tried to access telco metadata following the introduction of Australia’s metadata retention regime.

Home Affairs reveals Australian authorities already using new encryption powers

The Department of Home Affairs has been told law enforcement and national security agencies are already using the Act as the department continues to ‘support’ its implementation.

Home Affairs attempts to allay concerns about Australian exporters for encryption-busting Bill

ASIO will immediately seek to use the legislation when it comes into force.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions

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Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications

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Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.

Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection

“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”

In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.

A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.

Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.

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When Is a DevSecOps Vendor Not a DevSecOps Vendor?

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DevOps’ general aim is to enable a more efficient process for producing software and technology solutions and bringing stakeholders together to speed up delivery. But we know from experience that this inherently creative, outcome-driven approach often forgets about one thing until too late in the process—security. Too often, security is brought into the timeline just before deployment, risking last minute headaches and major delays. The security team is pushed into being the Greek chorus of the process, “ruining everyone’s fun” by demanding changes and slowing things down.

But as we know, in the complex, multi-cloud and containerized environment we find ourselves in, security is becoming more important and challenging than ever. And the costs of security failure are not only measured in slower deployment, but in compliance breaches and reputational damage.

The term “DevSecOps” has been coined to characterize how security needs to be at the heart of the DevOps process. This is in part principle and part tools. As a principle, DevSecOps fits with the concept of “shifting left,” that is, ensuring that security is treated as early as possible in the development process. So far, so simple.

From a tooling perspective, however, things get more complicated, not least because the market has seen a number of platforms marketing themselves as DevSecOps. As we have been writing our Key Criteria report on the subject, we have learned that not all DevSecOps vendors are necessarily DevSecOps vendors. Specifically, we have learned to distinguish capabilities that directly enable the goals of DevSecOps from a process perspective, from those designed to support DevSecOps practices. We could define them as: “Those that do, and those that help.”

This is how to tell the two types of vendor apart and how to use them.

Vendors Enabling DevSecOps: “Tools That Do”

A number of tools work to facilitate the DevSecOps process -– let’s bite the bullet and call them DevSecOps tools. They help teams set out each stage of software development, bringing siloed teams together behind a unified vision that allows fast, high-quality development, with security considerations at its core. DevSecOps tools work across the development process, for example:

  • Create: Help to set and implement policy
  • Develop: Apply guidance to the process and aid its implementation
  • Test: Facilitate and guide security testing procedures
  • Deploy: Provide reports to assure confidence to deploy the application

The key element that sets these tool sets apart is the ability to automate and reduce friction within the development process. They will prompt action, stop a team from moving from one stage to another if the process has not adequately addressed security concerns, and guide the roadmap for the development from start to finish.

Supporting DevSecOps: “Tools That Help”

In this category we place those tools which aid the execution, and monitoring, of good DevSecOps principles. Security scanning and application/infrastructure hardening tools are a key element of these processes: Software composition analysis (SCA) forms a part of the development stage, static/dynamic application security testing (SAST/DAST) is integral to the test stage and runtime app protection (RASP) is a key to the Deploy stage.

Tools like this are a vital part of the security layer of security tooling, especially just before deployment – and they often come with APIs so they can be plugged into the CI/CD process. However, while these capabilities are very important to DevSecOps, they can be seen in more of a supporting role, rather than being DevSecOps tools per se.

DevSecOps-washing is not a good idea for the enterprise

While one might argue that security should never have been shifted right, DevSecOps exists to ensure that security best practices take place across the development lifecycle. A corollary exists to the idea of “tools that help,” namely that organizations implementing these tools are not “doing DevSecOps,” any more than vendors providing these tools are DevSecOps vendors.

The only way to “do” DevSecOps is to fully embrace security at a process management and governance level: This means assessing risk, defining policy, setting review gates, and disallowing progress for insecure deliverables. Organizations that embrace DevSecOps can get help from what we are calling DevSecOps tools, as well as from scanning and hardening tools that help support its goals.

At the end of the day, all security and governance boils down to risk: If you buy a scanning tool so you can check a box that says “DevSecOps,” you are potentially adding to your risk posture, rather than mitigating it. So, get your DevSecOps strategy fixed first, then consider how you can add automation, visibility, and control using “tools that do,” as well as benefit from “tools that help.”

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