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Inside the Biggest U.S. Civilian Agency’s Pentesting Strategy

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) draws on Synack’s trusted security researchers and smart pentesting platform to stay nimble in the face of fast-moving cyberthreats. 

With 84,000 federal employees, the agency’s sheer size poses challenges when it comes to addressing the cyber talent gap or pentesting its most critical networks. It’s the largest U.S. civilian agency by spending.

“We have an enormous footprint on the internet,” said Matthew Shallbetter, director of security design and innovation at HHS, during a webinar Wednesday hosted by Synack. “Across the board, HHS is both vast and well-known – and so a good target for troublemakers and hackers.” 

He cited constant cyberthreats to the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – some of the most recognizable federal research centers and government services. All those resources fall under HHS’s purview.

So how does the agency hire for mission-critical cybersecurity roles, stay on top of shifting zero-trust requirements and satisfy the need for continuous security testing?

Shallbetter shared his insights with Synack’s Scott Ormiston, a federal solutions architect who’s no stranger to the challenges facing public sector organizations globally.

With an estimated 2.72 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs worldwide, government agencies are struggling more than ever to meet diverse infosec hiring needs.  

“Attackers are responding so much faster today than they were even five years ago,” Ormiston pointed out. “In the time that a vulnerability is released to the public, within minutes of that release, attackers are out scanning your systems. If you don’t have enough skilled personnel to run a continuous testing program and to continuously be looking at your assets, how do you address that challenge?”

Here are a few themes and highlights from the webinar:

Continuous pentesting is a must

It can take weeks to spin up a traditional pentest to find and fix urgent software bugs. Meanwhile, bad actors almost immediately start scanning to exploit those same vulnerabilities, whether they’re blockbuster flaws like Log4j or lesser-known CVEs.

Against that backdrop, traditional pentesting clearly falls short. But is continuous pentesting realistic?

“The short answer is yes, because your adversaries are doing it every day: They’re continuously testing your environment,” Ormiston said.

Shallbetter noted that HHS has its own set of pentesting teams that are centrally located and focus on high-value assets. But there isn’t enough in-house talent to keep up with regular testing, scanning and patching.

“If we could focus on what’s really, really important and test those [assets], we might have enough bodies,” he said. “But it’s really a challenge to try to patch vulnerabilities… The footprint never shrinks; it’s always expanding.” 

To augment his own agency’s workforce capabilities, Shallbetter pulls from Synack’s community of world-class researchers. The diverse members of the Synack Red Team (SRT) allow HHS security testing to keep up with rapid software development cycles and the unrelenting pace of digital transformation.

HHS led 196 assessments using Synack’s platform, adding up to over 45,000 hours of testing on its perimeter services as part of an established vulnerability disclosure process.

There’s no match for human insight

That adds up to a lot of actionable data.

“We really couldn’t have done the VDP the way we did… without using a centralized platform like Synack,” Shallbetter said. “The human insight was key.”

He pointed out that HHS has automated tools across the board to help developers weed out vulnerabilities and drive down risk.  

But over and over, SRT members would find more.

Shallbetter said his favorite examples are when a system owner engages the Synack Platform to validate that HHS has really fixed a vulnerability. “They ask for a retest and the researcher says, ‘Oh, I did X, Y, and Z, but I did it again…’ And the system owner says, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

Those exchanges also build trust between the SRT community and HHS developers who appreciate researchers’ ability to find the vulnerabilities that matter, cutting through the background noise of automation. An average of 30 SRT members contribute their expertise to each HHS assessment, according to Shallbetter.

“When you put a bunch of humans on a target, even if it’s been scanned and pentested by an automated tool, you will find new problems and new issues,” he said.

Zero trust is no longer just a buzzword

The White House early this year unveiled its highly anticipated zero trust strategy, M-22-09, which set federal agencies on a path to achieve a slate of zero-trust principles.

Those five security pillars include identity, devices, applications and workloads, networks and data.

“It’s great to have this architecture,” Ormiston said of M-22-09. “But this also means additional stress on a cyber workforce that’s under pressure.”

Zero trust is a “hot topic” at HHS, as Shallbetter noted.

“It doesn’t feel like a marketing term; people are really beginning to understand what it means and how to implement it in certain ways,” he said.

And pentesting has emerged as “a significant part” of meeting HHS’s zero trust goals. 

“I do think the scope and scale of technology now means the real vision for zero trust is possible,” he said. “For HHS, penetration testing has been an important part of speeding our deployment processes.”

Agencies have until the end of fiscal 2024 to reach the pillars of the zero trust paradigm described in the White House memo.

In the meantime, Synack will continue working as a trusted partner with HHS, delivering on-demand security expertise and a premier pentesting experience.

“I love being able to sort of toss the schedule over the fence and say, ‘hey, Synack, we need four more [assessments], what are we going to do?’—and have it happen,” Shallbetter said.

Access the recording of the webinar here. To learn more about why the public sector deserves a better way to pentest, click here or schedule a demo with Synack here.