Why acknowledging the cyber war and embracing cyber resiliency must be priority one

I recently attended a conference in Sydney featuring many of Australia’s top corporate and governmental cybersecurity officers. One common message was repeated by almost all of the speakers and I think it represents the emergence of a different and very important tone in the increasingly difficult and protracted cyberwar we all face.

The message was this: the sheer scope, complexity and danger of APTs, zero days, and targeted attacks means that it’s now not only okay, but imperative, to acknowledge that no single technology or tactic will keep our assets safe and our infrastructure up and running.

The new message seems to be that we are too dependent on maintaining the health of our digital society to let organisational boundaries, pride or anything else get in the way of responding effectively to the many actors out there who want to steal our data and cripple our systems.

According to many speakers, we must move toward sharing information about threats, recognising that breaches will happen and that cyber resilience should be the goal. Cyber resilience means that CSOs and entire organisations remain agile and able to quickly adapt to the changing threat landscape. It means prizing tolerance of trial and error as they seek security.

95 per cent of all organisations have been breached and many don’t even know about it (Source: FireEye Advanced Threat Report). Reliance on yesterday’s defences is failing against next generation threats that include actors, from state to non-state, who use a wide array of attack vectors to attain specific goals – gone are the days in which attacks were malicious but generic, organisations are hunted now for specific ends by persistent and motivated forces. Against these threats, traditional signature-based approaches like anti-virus can lead to a false sense of security while threats go undetected and cyber intruders set up residence inside your systems, exfiltrating data and gathering vital network information.

A resilient approach fits with what we have increasingly been seeing on the cybersecurity front lines. For a host of reasons, including a lack of reporting requirements, companies in our part of the world rarely acknowledge breaches. Obviously there are many sound operational reasons why critical details need to be kept secret, but high-level sharing even among marketplace competitors is likely to happen more and more as organisations recognise that their systems aren’t impervious to the many threats out there and want to find better ways to remain safe. Already we are seeing large institutions in the US begin this process of admitting breaches and sharing information with each other to improve the robustness of their defences. A similar trend seems to be emerging here in the financial sector and, as one speaker noted, consumers are even helping to support this trend by being better informed and more accepting of the realities of security breaches.

This is one benefit of acknowledging the “cyberwar” quality of today’s terrain. The cyberwar analogy fits because when you are at war there is an “all hands on deck” approach which means that generals who don’t perform get fired and weapons that looked good in the drawing room, but don’t perform on the battlefield, get passed over in favour of the weapons that prove their effectiveness in reality –and even those weapons and the way in which they are used continue to be refined as actual experience shows what works best. In cyber wartime, this means that complacency is not an option, you partner in sometimes surprising ways and you do what leads to the best results. As one speaker emphasised, communications around attacks is the most important thing so that the latest threat intelligence can be shared and the best tools and tactics deployed.

Phil Vasic is Regional Director of FireEye for Australia and New Zealand.

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