[ISN] The man behind Cisco's security
isn at c4i.org
Wed Feb 15 03:14:29 EST 2006
By Joris Evers
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
February 14, 2006
Cisco Systems drew the ire of the hacking community last summer when
it decided to sue a security researcher.
The lawsuit was retaliation for disclosing research into the security
of software that runs Cisco routers and switches. The networking giant
was already a target for cyberattacks, but that move probably put even
more heat on its security team.
For example, shortly after Cisco sued, and settled, with the
researcher, its Web site security was breached. The company alerted
customers and advised them to change their passwords.
John Stewart is Cisco's chief security officer and heads up the
company's IT security team, among other security-related groups. With
his staff, Stewart secures a network used by about 40,000 people with
more than 60,000 PCs and countless other network connected devices,
including 50,000 voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, phones.
On the day before the annual RSA Conference security confab in San
Jose, Calif., Stewart talked to CNET News.com about his
Q: There is a big bull's-eye on Cisco as an organization. What do you
do to defend yourself against being attacked by hackers? Is there a
Stewart: I don't think there is a simple solution. Probably the best
way to describe it is that we never stop trying to think like our
attackers. The best way to think about a defense is to think about the
offense. The means by which we approach it go from everything from
technology to how we educate and train people toward being aware of
the risks and ideally to get security as a piece of every network
element and into every person's mind.
A lot of people tend to talk about security as the latest security
patch or the latest vulnerability that's out there. Do you see
security in that way?
Stewart: No, those are a great deal about a known class of threats and
usually there is a technology answer to your problem. We have a
tendency to think about whole classes of problems. Patching is an
availability problem just as much as it's a security problem. A virus
is just as much a user awareness issue as it is a technology threat.
In focusing on trying to handle classes of problems like that, we want
to take people issues first, define it and then get a technology
answer toward mitigating classes of problems.
What would you say are some of the key issues you face in terms of
security at Cisco and in defending the Cisco network?
Stewart: The types of threats that we all face now are motivated by
true financial gain. Often times what we had was an annoyance, or a
disruptive kind of threat, something that was not really trying to
damage or steal, but we have moved away from that now. This is about
mitigating theft and mitigating true damage. That's most different
then what we faced in the last few years.
If you can describe some of the attacks that you face, what types of
attacks are those and do you see many?
Stewart: We face distributed denial of service attacks against our Web
site, sometimes right towards the end of our quarter. That's a level
of business knowledge that an attacking team has. In an attempt to
disrupt electronic commerce, we will get an attack near the end of our
quarter. That's a different style then we've seen in the past. We
certainly face a lot of the more common ones, or the more frequently
talked about ones, be it spam, be it the viruses and worms, but we
have mitigated to a great degree the risks associated with those.
How do you measure if you have been successful in your job as a
security professional at Cisco?
Stewart: That nobody knows we're there and they are feeling safe.
Microsoft is releasing a new operating system later this year, Windows
Vista. Microsoft likes to tout all the security enhancements in Vista,
do you care about things like that? Do you look at that and think:
'This is going to help me in terms of my security exposure?'
Stewart: Not at an operating system by operating system level. Any new
technology is one that will have positives in its ability to protect
itself and it will have new threats. That's not a Microsoft problem,
it is every operating system developed.
When you're protecting your own network, what kind of products do you
like to use, what sort of technologies do you use?
Stewart: We use behavioral technology. The first and best defense we
use on computers at Cisco is the Cisco Security Agent. And by
behavioral, what it is really doing is saying an operating system is
running this way normally, but everything else is questionable. It
might be OK, but you have to pose a question to find out whether it
really is or isn't. Single handedly the most important technology we
have deployed for protecting our computers in the past couple of
years. We still use antivirus, we still use anti-spyware, those are
key elements. We use all three of Symantec, Trend and McAfee.
You mentioned you use Cisco products also to protect your own network.
What do you do if you have a problem with a Cisco product and does
that ever occur?
Stewart: It absolutely occurs. But being a part of engineering, as my
team is, and we're part of IT as well, we get to work with engineering
very closely. If there is ever a unique need on a product or there is
a whole product we have not even invented yet that would be best
suited to protect an enterprise, being so collaborative with my
engineering team means that we can see the problem from both sides.
They can use us as the practicing arm of what they are developing. I
am a customer and I'd like to say that I am in a class of good tough
Would you say that in terms of security at Cisco you are also
accountable for security and totally responsible?
Stewart: I think everybody at Cisco is accountable for security at
Cisco. What I am uniquely accountable for, as is my team, is education
and awareness and the use of technology to help best protect our
company. What I'd rather never say is that a security team is
responsible for security at a company, namely my security team is
responsible for security at Cisco. That means that 99 percent of the
company somehow isn't. That's the inverse of what I am looking for.
I'd rather be helpful to the business, towards it understanding that
we're all responsible.
Do your users seem to understand that as well, or do they say: 'John
is responsible for everything, I can go connect my laptop to a rogue
wireless access point, he's going to take care of it anyway. I can go
download spyware or Kazaa onto my PC, John is going to take care of
it, it is not really my deal?'
Stewart: With this many people, there will always be cases where a
person did not realize that they could not do something. From John
Chambers as our CEO on down, we all realize that security is part of
Is there any technology you won't use because of security reasons? I
know of companies that won't use wireless networking, let mobile
devices such as Palm Treo smart phones onto their networks, or let
somebody connect an iPod to their work computer because of possible
Stewart: We put security software on the Treos and allow them to be
deployed. Most people want the Treos not only for contact information,
they also want to use other application like e-mail. We say they are
allowed to use it with e-mail, if they install security software. It
is part of making security part of the generic process. We know that
you want to do something productive, here is how you do it safely.
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