Unpacking State Responses to Cyber Security Challenges

This post was written by: Jake Sparkes

Cyber Security is a growing concern for the majority of organisations. On Episode 15 of The Cyber Security Matters Podcast we were joined by Adam Gwinnett, the CTO & CISO of Nine23. With a legal background, he’s experienced in managing stakeholders in the heavily regulated state sector, with 10 years of experience at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the UK Ministry of Justice, and the Metropolitan Police. Adam joined us to talk about how cyber security impacts state systems, from the challenges facing the police to the government’s response to major incidents. 

What challenges are the police facing from the increase of cyber crime?

I think because of the global pandemic, when people were locked at home with their computers, cyber crimes and quantum growth crime grew dramatically. That raises some really interesting challenges generally, because cyber crime is often transnational. The person committing offences against you is very unlikely to live in your jurisdiction, so even if you do report it, investigation can be very frustrating. As a result, under-reporting is rife. One of the fundamental challenges you have from a law enforcement point of view is that you don’t actually know how much it’s occurring or how impactful it is, because people are quite embarrassed to admit when they’ve had issues with it. They’re often worried about being scrutinised, and worry that people will be critical of their responses to it or how they handled it. People end up suppressing certain information which otherwise could be very interesting and beneficial, not only to the investigation process, but actually to their peer group who might have suspiciously similar looking things in their environment. 

From the law enforcement point of view, I was keen to couple cyber security with the cybercrime division. One of the things that we focused on was ‘How can I take my investigation of a cyber incident, and turn that into a potential initial bundle for the investigating officer to take forward? How can I give the best evidence? How can I provide you with the best material?’ I didn’t have the mandate to do the investigation and proceed because I was civilian styled, but I could take the information from my logs in the digital forensics team and give them the best chance of bringing the offender to justice. I used to talk about it at conferences, where people would just say ‘That’s not our jurisdiction. We haven’t really thought about how we could give them a leg-up or considered how we could best enable them.’ How many SOC analysts can say they’ve actually put a cyber criminal in prison? Several lawyers could say that I contributed to making sure that that offender actually went to prison, and that’s the ultimate closure for me. 

How do cyber security decisions get made within big government departments? 

Some of it’s quite straightforward. Effectively, most decisions that impact the risk appetite, risk acceptance, or risk tolerance will go to a named individual on their board of advisors. They will then review it, look at the balanced risk case like ‘Why are we doing this? What are we hoping to gain through it? What are the potential mitigations we can put in place? Are they proportionate? What is the net impact on our risk position? Does that take us outside of tolerance?’ That makes it quite straightforward. It’s an interesting one, because those people are fundamentally dependent on the advice they’re given. The people asking them to make decisions, accept the risk or present the view will seldom be impacted when the risk emerges. They’re incredibly challenging positions for people in the regulated and public sectors. 

What are the challenges facing cyber security leaders in the sector?

One of the things that can be really challenging is that it can be really hard for those people to understand the net effect of the things they’ve agreed to. So I’ve spoken to CROs from other organisations that said, ‘I’ve had like 40 risk acceptances presented to me this year.’ It’ll happen every couple of weeks where I’m asked “Can we accept this risk?” I don’t know if I can reliably tell them what the net impact on our overall risk is, or the cumulative effect of all of those things that we’ve agreed to.’ In large, complex enterprises, can you understand all the systems, processes and risks that are undertaken? Because the people who own those systems, processes and fundamental aspects of the business will be separate from the people doing the risk acceptance. They don’t always have the mandate to go in and correct all of the issues. They won’t normally have a budget or available resources to do it. If they don’t, it just becomes one of 100 other competing priorities that organisation has to deal with.

In the event of a major security incident, what does the internal decision making process within a big government department look like?

It’s very dynamic. You’ll normally find war rooms and incident response teams almost immediately. Most large organisations have very mature, robust and practised responses, because it’s never quiet. Even when I worked at the Met, I was talking to people from banks, insurance companies and financial services who were a big target, and they had a 10th of the attempted attacks that I did in a week. Our response and investigation processes are incredibly well drilled, because somebody’s always trying something. One of the biggest challenges is that your teams end up being in high alert and response mode all of the time. That level of anxiety, stress and mental overload is not useful for people. It leads to poor decision making. What you will find is that a lot of organisations start putting things like shift rotations in place to tackle those issues. If your response mechanisms are really effective and really well tested, you can rely on them slightly too much. Actually preventing issues is dramatically less problematic than being able to respond to and deal with them effectively, but if you’re always able to jump out in front of it and catch the issue, people will get relaxed about the fact that that’s what will happen. 

To learn more about the threats facing cyber security teams, tune into The Cyber Security Matters Podcast here

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