Last week, San Francisco played host to the inaugural Usenix Enigma Conference. The event featured talks on several hot-button security topics, including vulnerabilities in medical devices and vehicles, competitive hacking, and trustworthy computing. However, the conference organizers clearly saved the best — and most controversial — for last. Closing the event was Rob Joyce, chief of Tailored Access Operations for the NSA.

Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, essentially operates as the NSA’s hacking squad. The organization’s responsibility is to monitor and gather intelligence on computer systems used by foreign entities. Given the contentious reaction of NSA activities since the Snowden revelations, to hear from the Chief of this office at an industry event was a rare treat, especially given the topic of his presentation: disrupting nation state hackers.

Conference attendees took note, and many came to a similar conclusion: one might call the NSA nation state hackers. This turned Joyce’s presentation into a unique look at not only NSA operations, but how to combat tactics used by highly sophisticated bad actors.

“If you really want to protect your network you have to know your network, including all the devices and technology in it,” Joyce said. “In many cases we know networks better than the people who designed and run them.”

As the Register pointed out, Joyce outlined the six-point strategy used by the NSA to infiltrate a target: “reconnaissance, initial exploitation, establish persistence, install tools, move laterally, and then collect, exfiltrate, and exploit the data.”

Similar to criminal and nation state sponsored hackers, Joyce said, “we need that first crack and we’ll look and look to find it. There’s a reason it’s called an advanced persistent threat; we’ll poke and poke and wait and wait until we get in.”

When the talk turned to defense, Joyce outlined several best practices for companies and security professionals alike:

  • Watching out for favorite attack vectors: malicious email attachments, injection attacks from websites, and removable media
  • Making sure all systems are patched and updated
  • Locking systems down: whitelisting apps, strict permissions, and using reputation management

As for zero-days, the attacks that usually come up in any conversation involving “APT”, Joyce had this to say: “A lot of people think that nation states are running their operations on zero-days, but it’s not that common. For big corporate networks, persistence and focus will get you in without a zero day. There are so many more vectors that are easier, less risky, and more productive.”

You can, and should, watch the full presentation on YouTube:

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