The President's Executive Order 13636, “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity,” describes the government’s approach to information sharing: “It is the policy of the United States Government to increase the volume, timeliness, and quality of cyber threat information shared with U.S. private sector entities so that these entities may better protect and defend themselves against cyber threats.”
Consider for a moment whether our strategy is flawed. Will we continue to spend exorbitant resources only to find that no matter how improved our cybersecurity becomes, it will remain inadequate to safeguard our critical infrastructure and vital business interests? Would there be a greater return on investment if our information sharing focused less on enabling private sector victims to better duck and cover, and focused more on enabling the government to get the bad guys?
Vulnerability Mitigation Works, Up to a Point
Regardless of how vigorously the industry applies risk management principles and how diligently the government shares information, there is no chance the private sector can consistently withstand intrusion attempts from foreign military units and intelligence services or even, for that matter, from transnational organized crime. Even federal agencies routinely fall victim to major cybersecurity incidents (they suffered from more than 8,000 malicious code installations/executions in 2012 alone), and they are better resourced than most of corporate America.
Perhaps then we have been over-spending on efforts to eliminate data and network vulnerabilities when, instead, we should be focusing on more quickly detecting intrusions and mitigating harm while in parallel – and this is the significant part – identifying, locating and penalizing bad actors so as to deter the majority of attacks. Doing so would align our cybersecurity efforts with the security strategies we successfully use every day in the physical world. Throughout the physical security spectrum, whether describing the safety of nations, businesses or individuals, safety is most often achieved because potential aggressors are deterred out of fear they will be brought to justice, and actual aggressors most often are brought to justice. Our physical safety is not primarily reliant upon missile defense shields, fortresses and body armor.
In the physical world, vulnerability mitigation efforts certainly have their place. We take reasonable precautions to lock our doors and windows, which would be of varying strength and expense. Still, we do not spend an endless amount of resources seeking to cut off every possible point of entry against those who might dig holes underground or parachute onto the roof. Instead, to counter determined adversaries, we ultimately concede they can gain unlawful entry. So, we shift our focus.
We might hire armed security officers. More often, we get security systems that have alarms for instant detection and video cameras to assist in attribution. None of these make the facility any stronger or less penetrable. Rather, in the physical world, security officers, alarms and cameras essentially declare to the bad guy, “It’s no longer about us; now it’s about you.” When a monitoring company is alerted that a door was broken into at 3:00 in the morning, it calls the police to respond. It doesn’t call the locksmith. And, as a result, most would-be intruders are deterred from acting in the first place. It is surprising then that, in the world of cyber, when the intrusion detection system goes off our response has been to blame the IT security staff for allowing the intrusion, and to demand that they somehow prevent it from happening again.
The Laws of Diminishing and Negative Economic Returns
Our trance-like focus on vulnerability mitigation has led to the problem of diminishing and perhaps even negative economic returns. For the former, imagine trying to protect a building by spending millions of dollars on a 20-foot brick wall. Meanwhile, an adversary can go to a hardware store and buy a cheap 30-foot ladder. The same outcomes are happening every day in cyber, where defenses are expensive and malware is cheap.
Far worse, though, is the concept of negative returns, in which well-intentioned efforts actually make the problem worse. Consider our brick wall again. What if, instead of a buying a ladder to scale the wall, the adversary decided to blow it up? This is not dissimilar from our current defensive cyber strategy, which has had the unintended consequence of proliferating a greater quantity and quality of attack methods, thereby escalating the problem and placing our infrastructure and businesses at greater risk.
Lack of Time
As long as cyber threat actors can breach our networks with little or no fear of consequence, the problem will get worse. Just as in the physical world, victims can only do so much – regardless of how much we blame them, share information with them, regulate or sue them. Instead, greater government attention must be placed on the technologies, policies and partnerships needed to detect, identify, deter and punish cyber intruders. Business leaders and the government must engage in this dialogue and paradigm shift now. Time is not on our side.
About the Columnist: Steven Chabinsky recently testified before both the U.S. House and Senate on the need for greater cyber threat deterrence. He is General Counsel and Chief Risk Officer for CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity technology firm, and he previously served as Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Cyber Division. You can follow him on Twitter @StevenChabinsky.