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  The NIST Manufacturing Extension Program for Kentucky

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Personal Cyber Defense Experts for Every Small Business

When I worked as newly-minted network defense analyst, protecting Department of Defense computer systems, I learned two things:  1) having a live human cyber defense expert in the loop is the very best way to defend the Internet and 2) nobody can afford to have a human in the loop.  Nobody can afford it, that is, except for the government and huge corporations.  The price for such a service is outrageous, on the order of $900,000 per year minimum for a modest collection of government systems, and the cheapest I’ve seen it offered commercially is around the $75,000 per year range.  For that money, you could hire your very own, in-house expert!  This kind of expert-level defense is, however, vital to the defense of our own small and medium business networks.  This kind of live network monitoring is even showing up as a requirement in the new NIST 800-171 standard for defending our civilian information systems, and will likely be required by everyone in one form or another in the near future.  The good news is that Kentucky is leading the way in making compliance with this requirement attainable by small and medium businesses.

“Human at PC GraphicAs a young soldier some years ago, I also learned that the Army’s hard-fought lessons are enshrined in a manual called FM 7-8 “Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad”, which is the basic manual of tactics.  In it, it is instructed that when placing obstacles in the path of the adversary that the leader must ensure “all obstacles are covered by observation”.  If not, the enemy will simply pick apart the obstacle and carry on his way.  This is what is happening to our computer networks right now, and why the news is filled with stories of hacks, data loss, and other failures to defend ourselves.  We dutifully place firewalls, antiviruses, policies, procedures, and other obstacles in the way of ‘enemy’ hackers, only to find that they pick through our defenses quietly, patiently, and ultimately successfully.  The subsequent damage can ruin a small company.  Critically, we must cover those obstacles with observation, and this is where the cyber defense analyst comes in.  I have seen time and again the effectiveness of simply having a trained analyst look through the computer networks even once a week, for a few hours, to identify signs of hackers picking apart the obstacles, trying to attack the company.  The reason humans are so good at this is simple:  software used to detect attacks now depend on algorithms (think ‘artificial intelligence’) that are extremely intelligent in a very narrow way.  Humans, on the other hand, are broadly intelligent.  That means they can use a collection of defensive software tools in creative ways that no single software algorithm could hope to.  That is to say, having firewalls and antivirus software is necessary, but they are all made many times more effective with a human in the loop.

“Observation GraphicWays to affect cost-control on such a highly effective and hitherto costly service are being developed right here in Kentucky.  First among these is to practice so-called ‘on-shoring’ of network security analysis work.  That means we keep the expert jobs in Kentucky where not only the cost of living (and therefore the cost of service) is reasonable, but where the analysts know the customers and their community.  Training these experts in a focused way is the second cost control method.  This entails treating network defense analysis like a trade, combining highly specialized instruction with on the job training.  Finally, all of this is pulled together by encouraging small and medium businesses to share expert analysts in a cooperative way.  This ‘cyber co-op’ model controls costs by allowing businesses to buy only a few hours of analysis a week, providing ‘observation’ and expert consultation while keeping costs down.  The result is defended networks and local jobs. 

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