US government initiatives aimed at fostering the sharing of security intelligence throughout the federal space are helping to establish the community atmosphere and best practises necessary to help those agencies – and private enterprises – improve their network and applications defences, a National Security Agency leader told attendees of the Black Hat conference on yesterday.

Stepping to the stage to deliver a keynote presentation at the annual hacker confab in Las Vegas, Tony Stager, chief of the vulnerability analysis and operations group at the NSA, said that data-sharing efforts led by his agency and others in the federal space are maturing rapidly.

Having served a little less than 30 years as a security expert at the NSA, Stager said that federal agencies are finally succeeding in their efforts to build standards for issues such as secure configuration of Microsoft’s Windows operating systems, and that those guidelines are likewise being adopted by other security initiatives and moving into the public arena.

At the heart of the progress is the notion that government entities and private institutions cannot effectively tackle security problems on their own, a deduction that seems obvious, but one that has been hard to implement on a practical level, in particular among agencies such as the NSA and US Department of Defence, which closely guard all their IT policies.

“NSA has shifted the nature of its work over the last few years; the time has come when we are all living in this same chaotic network and need to come together to solve problems of this scale,” Sager said.

“In the old days, the idea was that we could simply design away the risk, but this is a much more complex world today,” he said. “We’ve gone from protecting [assets] to protecting not only data, but all the information around that and the infrastructure that supports it; it’s a much more dynamic problem, and there's no way of escaping that this is a shared problem.”

As part of its effort to help foster security data sharing, NSA has moved its focus from trying to build technologies aimed at solving major security issues to attempting to influence practises across the government space that can also be adopted by private-sector firms, he said.

A major element of the vision is pushing for standards that translate security intelligence into language that any organization can interpret, said Sager. He highlighted the Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) project – an effort aimed at creating a common language for identifying software vulnerabilities that is backed by the Department of Homeland Security and nonprofit Mitre – as one example of the types of standards that are delivering on the NSA’s goal.

“The time has come when folks in my business are thinking about how to transfer knowledge outwardly; we don’t solve these problems one organisation or one vulnerability at a time, so we’re thinking of ways to leverage knowledge in light of the available economies of scale,” Sager said. “We must be able to deliver expertise within the context of others’ problems. In that way, this has become a business of influence [for the NSA].”

In a nod to the challenges of the past, Sager said that organisations such as the NSA traditionally developed their own practices for handling issues such as secure configuration of Windows, and that nearly every other government agency would do the same.

As government bodies finally began sharing their security information and establishing more unilateral best practices, the agencies realised that they could even drive technology vendors such as Microsoft to begin shipping their products in the state that the organisations demanded – and that other organisations, such as private enterprises, could begin to adopt the same measures and benefit from the data as well.

Despite the progress that is being made, Sager said that the ongoing process of creating unilateral security frameworks such as the CWE and many other projects backed by Mitre – a quasi-governmental body – remains a challenge.

Organisations are sharing information, but the underlying processes that support the efforts still need further refinement, he said.

“We can’t just dump our inboxes on each other. It has to be about sharing all of our different outputs in the same language, and people still don’t understand that in a lot of cases,” said Sager. “But through a lot of these efforts, the understanding is growing, and people are getting onto the same page, which is crucial to improving security for everyone.”

Other observers agreed that the process of creating standard security language and practises across the government and private sectors are moving forward quickly.

Robert Martin, head of Mitre’s Common Vulnerability Exposures (CVE) compatibility effort and a contributor to the CWE initiative, said that momentum is building behind his organisation’s guidelines and helping many government and private entities to better understand and share their own practices.

“With all these different pieces that are coming together, we are standardising the basic concepts of security themselves as well as methods for reviewing and improving computing and networking systems,” said Martin. “I see a future where a tapestry of tools, procedures, and processes are built over time that recognise and address the common problems that exist among all these constituencies.”

Martin said that Mitre's efforts to add new security policy frameworks will continue to improve as they mature and even more parties begin to contribute their intelligence to the initiatives.

Black Hat attendees seemed encouraged by the progress being made, at least in terms of getting all the necessary parties to come together and share their tools and processes.

This level of collaboration is what has been sorely lacking in the security community in the past, observed Ray Kaplan, an independent security consultant.

“At last there’s a metaview of all these shared problems. Up until recently, it seemed that this process was a confusing morass where everyone had different tools and procedures,” Kaplan said. “The complimentary nature of what is going on with NSA and other agencies, and with Mitre and private involvement, should help create the common infrastructure needed to address these issues.”