Thursday, October 14, 2021

Cybersecurity Is Not A Pair Of Sneakers

"Just do it" does not work for cybersecurity.
I've seen many comparisons with very complex things we've managed to accomplish. Man on the Moon, robots on Mars, etc. "We've manged to do all those things, how come there are still breaches happening?". Why can't we take a "just do it" approach for cybersecurity?
Well, for many reasons. 
First, resources available. The cost of the Apollo program was around $257 BILLION (inflation adjusted). That was all spent on a very specific, point in time objective, to put a man on the Moon. Some might say we've been spending close to that every year on security, but that's for the entire global cybersecurity market. Project Apollo built only 15 flight-capable Saturn V rockers.  

The Saturn V Rocket

The world spends hundreds of billions in cybersecurity every year, but that money is to cover all organizations out there. There's an estimate of 300 million business worldwide. Of course, the majority are SMB, but that means the annual average expense in cybersecurity is less than a thousand dollars. There is a lot of money on this business, but it is spread thin and unevenly.
Second, it is a moving target. All the technology and ingenuity embarked on the Curiosity rover is impressive, a feat of engineering. It came with a $2.5B price tag, and it has been performing remarkably well. But how successful would Curiosity be if we just decided to drop it in Venus? Or Jupiter?
The Curiosity Mars Rover

Venus atmosphere is extremely hot and dense. The surface level pressure is almost a hundred times Earth's atmosphere or almost 20.000 times Mars atmosphere. To make things worse, there are cloud of highly corrosive sulfuric acid. As advanced as the Mars rover is, it wouldn't survive in Venus.
In cybersecurity we are often judged by how well our Mars rovers perform in Venus like environments. The conditions where the technology operates change dramatically. Look at all the technology changes we've been experiencing in the last 20 years. We are talking about a period when Amazon, Google and Facebook surged from startups to corporate behemoths, smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous and the web moved from 1 to 2.0 and then to the cloud. The field where cybersecurity plays now is different than what it was in 2015, 2010 or 2001. Have we managed to "solve the security problem"? We would do extremely well playing in that 2001, maybe even the 2010 scenario but the goalposts have moved from there and are still moving ahead.
And last, the major issue we face, the "sentient adversary". What does that mean? It means we are not solving a fixed problem. From a problem domain perspective, we are not dealing with engineering, it is game theory. We have a non-zero-sum game to deal with. Our "problem" has smart people on the other side, with motivations and constantly developing new strategies to win. Together with the changing playing field from point #2, it makes a considerable challenge. The problem today is not the same as yesterday, and it will be different tomorrow as well. The adversaries think "outside the box", putting cybersecurity in a domain where it can't be solved even by existing AI bleeding-edge technology. The adversary puts cybersecurity in the same realm as crime and terrorism. We can't just "solve it".
"Just Do It" may work as a sneakers slogan, but for cybersecurity, the approach must be different.  In this space what we need is the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act*. Not as catchy, but it gives a chance to survive to fight another day.
* For cybersecurity I like to use "Adapt" instead of "Act", but the spirit is the same.

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