Five Questions With Tom Rich

Tom Rich is head of the agency’s Information Security Directorate

  1. How would you describe your job in three sentences or less?

5 questions_9with boxMy job is to work with others to protect NRC’s information and information systems. This includes providing security training, performing security assessments, testing the vulnerability of our IT systems to phishing and penetration attacks, responding to security incidents and keeping up with situational awareness to see where we may need to strengthen our defenses.

  1. What is the single most important thing you do at work?

Communication with NRC managers and employees regarding threats to our IT systems and data. We do security briefings, security awareness events for staff, and daily meetings with the Chief Information Officer.

  1. What is the single biggest challenge you face?

tomrichThe dynamic pace of technology changes and the need for cyber defenders to keep up. With the “Internet of Things” becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, the devices we now use in virtually everything we do present security and privacy concerns and introduce a much larger avenue of attack. These devices want to communicate, in some cases sensitive data, through multiple channels with each other and cloud services. The challenge is that these devices do not have adequate security controls built into their design.

  1. What would you consider one of your biggest successes on the job?

We established a cyber security dashboard that measures the NRC’s improvements in security practices. This is an internal mechanism to let NRC stakeholders see what they are doing well and where improvements are needed. Since implementation, we have seen significant improvement in cybersecurity across the agency.

  1. What one thing about the NRC do you wish more people knew?

That we have Resident Inspectors at each of the nuclear plants. I think a lot of the public believe we regulate and inspect from a distance. I do not believe many know we have feet on the ground at the nuclear plants.

Five Questions With is an occasional series where we pose the same five questions to NRC staff.

ncsam-web_edited-1For more information on National Cyber Security Awareness Month, go here.

REFRESH: Protecting the NRC’s Cyber Frontier

By David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

The email was flagged urgent and screamed in capital letters: YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION REQUIRED! The message said a software update was needed to avoid major system disruption, and to click a link and enter a network password.

cybersecThe NRC employee who received the email thought the message looked suspicious. Instead of clicking on the link, she forwarded the message as an attachment to the NRC’s Computer Security Incident Response Team.

Within minutes, a CSIRT member was analyzing the email on a computer unconnected to the NRC network. He quickly determined the message was bogus, a “phishing” attempt to gain unauthorized access to the system. He instructed the employee to delete the message and block the sender to avoid receiving any further attempted intrusions from that Internet address.

Had the employee provided her username and password, she could have exposed the NRC’s computer network and its sensitive information to compromise and possible disruption. Personal information about NRC employees would have been at risk, as well as sensitive pre-decisional information about agency policies and licensees.

While Safeguards and classified information about the security and status of nuclear plants is maintained on separate higher security systems, the information we process on the NRC corporate network must also be protected.

CSIRT, part of the NRC’s Computer Security Office, is a small group of experts, all highly trained in cyber defense. Their mission is to detect and thwart attacks on the NRC’s computer networks and prevent “spills” of sensitive information. Such attacks can come through phishing attempts, such as the fictional incident described above, malware implanted in website advertisements or viruses and malware on portable data devices.

The team routinely works with other federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT) to stay up to date on the latest vulnerabilities. They even practice “white hat” hacking to test the NRC’s systems.

As a response team, CSIRT investigates suspicious emails that have already passed through the NRC’s extensive SPAM filters and Internet firewall, robust cyber security defenses mounted by the Office of Information Systems.

ncsam-web_edited-1About 10 million emails are directed to NRC.gov addresses each month, and nearly 90 percent of them are blocked by the agency’s network security technologies as spam or for carrying viruses or suspicious attachments, says Mike Lidell, IT Specialist in the OIS Security Operations and Systems Engineering Branch. The OIS team administers the NRC’s firewalls, intrusion detection systems and spam filters.

While the percentage of blocked emails seems high, Lidell says it’s pretty much “par for the course” for any large organization or government agency. Emails that get through the initial line of defense are scanned again by the internal servers and a third time by the end-user’s individual computer. Internet data returned from the Web is scanned by NRC servers and individual workstations as well to guard against “drive-by downloads” of malicious software.

As Lidell points out, the “defense in depth” is necessary because the attacks are always evolving and changing. Thorne Graham, CSIRT’s team leader, praises a fourth line of defense against email attacks on the agency’s network: The NRC’s 4,000 employees. All NRC employees take annual online computer security training.

“Our best defense is the individual employee,” Graham says. “Security is everyone’s business.”

REFRESH is an occasional series where we republish previous posts. This originally ran in November 2014.