Heading Off ‘Cybergeddon’

In April’s R&I cover story, Cyber: The New CAT, experts called catastrophic cyber attacks “inevitable” and the prevailing attitude in the C-Suite “denial.”

Jason Healey, director, Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, says that in order for organizations to weather the inevitable attacks, the key will be resiliency. “The organizations that fare best,” he said, “will be those that have the size, agility and resilience to bounce back as quickly as possible.” Healey is also author of Beyond Data Breaches: Global Interconnections of Cyber Risk, commissioned by Zurich Insurance Company Ltd. and published in April 2014.

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Developing resilience would include conducting exercises, developing response playbooks, increasing funding and grants for large-scale crisis management and developing redundant data storage in case one is compromised.

The tangle of Internet information that companies and countries depend on to function is now so complex, Healey said, that companies and governments can’t manage the risk from within their own four walls. Beyond Data Breaches notes that Internet failures could cascade directly to Internet-connected banks, water systems, cars, medical devices, hydroelectric dams, transformers and power stations.

Like superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy, cyber risks are inevitable and unstoppable, and like the financial crisis of 2008, they can’t be contained, because of organizations’ interconnection and interdependency. The worst-case scenario, stemming from the principle that everything is connected to the Internet and everything connected to the Internet can be hacked, is “Cybergeddon,” where attackers have an overwhelming, dominant and lasting advantage over defenders.

Even now, Healey said, attackers have the advantage. The Internet’s original weakness — that it was built for trust, not security — perpetuates defenders’ vulnerability. “Some ‘serious’ thinkers suggest we should start over” rather than try to retrofit an Internet so flawed by weak security as to threaten every user, he said, despite the impracticality of a do-over.

Second, Healey said, defenders have to be right every time, and attackers have to be right only once.

Third, technology evolves very quickly, and most people don’t understand it well enough to lock out intruders. “Every time we figure out what we’re supposed to be doing right, the technology has moved on and once again we don’t know how to properly secure our data,” Healey said.

Software is still poorly written and so insecure that “a couple of kids in a garage” can hack into corporate and government systems just for a naughty thrill. “Bad guys” with theft or sabotage on their minds can work their mischief behind a veil of anonymity. “The Internet almost encourages bad behavior because of the anonymity involved,” Healey said.

Companies, governments and risk managers should shift the drumbeat from resistance to resilience, and to expand cyber risk management from individual organizations to a resilient and responsive Internet system, Healey said. For systemic risk management, Beyond Data Breaches recommends:

  • Putting the private sector at the center, not the periphery, of cyber risk efforts, since they have the advantage in agility and subject matter expertise.
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  • Using monetary or in-kind grants to fund effective but underfunded non-government groups already involved in minimizing the frequency and intensity of attacks. Governments and others with system-wide concerns (such as internet service providers and software and hardware vendors) should advocate for this research.
  • Borrowing ideas from the finance sector. This could include examination of “too big to fail” issues of governance and recognition of global significantly important internet organizations.