Cyber Security Revisited: Why Compromise Breeds Compromise

The seeming inevitability of cyber insecurity makes it all too easy to externalize the situation, requiring someone - somewhere - to do something. But what about our own personal roles and responsibilities as security professionals and consumers? How much of this problem do we personally own? 

By any calculus plenty, we (as by our calculus, the collective “me,” “the” and “we”) have been too trusting of our experts, too staid in our approaches, and much, much too complacent in our demands for results. Here are the top five reasons why we believe that personal and professional apathy has compromised our digital lives.

1. Saying Isn’t Doing. Pithy marketing saying you do something-or-other isn’t quite the same as actually doing it. Casual observation of the “hack du jour” would seem to indicate that solution providers saying that they are anti-virus, or anti-spyware, or anti-whatever is having a similar effect on cyber security as anti-war sentiments have had on stopping wars.

2. No Scorecard, No Results. Many know that you can’t fix what you can’t measure, and yet cyber security remains an industry befuddled in its development of even a rudimentary set of outcome oriented metrics. Case in point is a pretty good piece of recent work by Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute that is in our view almost entirely negated by its lack of constructiveness.

Specifically, even after acknowledging the obvious pitfalls of measuring inputs vs. outputs (a seeming industry preoccupation) the report provides no directive thoughts, prescriptive recommendations or even a future work acknowledgement of the need for results oriented cyber security metrics. As such we would propose pragmatically starting with two simple, easy to understand, measure and compare (over time) metrics:

- What percentage of bad stuff can we keep off our systems?

- What number and percentage of actual attack vectors can we stop (with an emphasis on the top 25 or so)?

Not perfect for sure, but a pragmatic start (if you have a better idea, propose it and let’s get on with using it, but doing nothing isn’t acceptable). Unfortunately, the truthful answer to both questions would self-evidently be “not much.”

3. Absolute, Not Relative Results Matter. The digerati would have us believe that surveying industry leaders and then “benchmarking” their solution sets – even though they are known a priori not to work – is following some form of admiral best practices. Ditto for being “best of breed” among a mediocre, if not downright poor set of comparables.

Sure these measures satisfy compliance checklists and the “commercially reasonableness” test for legal liability – which we regrettably understand remain required objectives – but let’s at least stop kidding ourselves that either actually improves cyber security or is something that should be lauded. 


4. Hard Problems Require Hard Work. It’s human nature to choose the path of least resistance; the proverbial “easy way.” Unfortunately, deep, difficult, complex, multi-domain problems like cyber insecurity are not solvable by the often simple, superficial and superfluous solutions proposed to date.

Bluntly put, it’s time to stop treating symptoms with Band-Aids and start holistically focusing on root causes. And yes, we fully recognize that the cyber infrastructure was never designed to be secure, and as such, any effective solution must pragmatically be backwards compatible. Much easier recognized and said than done, but it really is time quit complaining and just get on with trying to solve the problem at hand.

5. Suspension of Belief. Markets often suffer from what has been described as the “suspension of disbelief” such as, by way of example, the Internet valuation bubble of 2000 and the recent subprime mortgage debacle. Unfortunately, cyber security is facing a much more troublesome challenge that we call “the suspension of belief.”

Simply put, very few people think that cyber security is a problem that can be “solved,” even to acceptable levels of risk. In this regard, count us unapologetically in the visible minority, for we are deeply committed, actively engaged and manically optimistic that a secure end state can be achieved.

True introspection is often unkind and never easy. Some may view the above assessment as harsh, but the pragmatic truth is that reality often is - or perhaps the pragmatic reality is that the truth often is. Either way, the bottom line is that we all need to expect more, nay in fact demand more - much more.

The bad guys aren’t just winning against the incumbent solutions and mindsets; they are running up the score.  Think about it - if Google and the U.S. government can’t protect stakeholder data, then who can? What can we realistically expect IT managers with materially less resources to do?

In short, it’s time for IT to stop cyber security’s equivalent of “insanity,” for as defined by Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

It’s time for IT to embrace the reality that to make progress in closing the cyber security gap, new thinking, new models and new approaches are needed. When it comes to cyber security, we clearly and unequivocally both need and deserve better.

David Lowenstein is the CEO and co-founder of Federated Networks, an IT security company. He has successfully led corporations in the business process outsourcing, education and environmental services industries. He is currently the Chairman of the Board of Princeton Review.

Risu Na is the CTO and co-founder of Federated Networks. He has led development teams to create e-learning systems and co-founded  iSoftech, a cloud-based knowledge management software manufacturer.

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