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Management & Strategy

Gaining a Decisive Advantage in the Cyber Battle

One the most significant challenges facing cybersecurity professionals today is the need to simplify and consolidate their existing cybersecurity infrastructure. This is a trend that I saw time and time again over my 33-year career at the National Security Agency (NSA) and USCYBERCOM.

One the most significant challenges facing cybersecurity professionals today is the need to simplify and consolidate their existing cybersecurity infrastructure. This is a trend that I saw time and time again over my 33-year career at the National Security Agency (NSA) and USCYBERCOM. In my senior technical roles there, I was responsible for driving major initiatives in cybersecurity and information assurance that were tailored to this objective. The best example of this is the work I did for the NSA establishing a threat-based cybersecurity strategy known as NIPRNet SIPRNet Cyber Security Architecture Review (NSCSAR).

NSCSAR (now referred to as DODCAR) provided DOD policymakers a framework to objectively measure the expected value of cybersecurity investments. This is more important today than ever because poor cybersecurity investments translate directly to poor cybersecurity. To overcome the modern cyber threat, organizations need to be strategic with their investments and prioritize capabilities that will give them a proactive advantage.

Today’s cyber threats are more sophisticated and evolved than ever before. With the rise of the personal computer, technological progress has come at a blistering pace. Enterprises have been quick to adopt the latest technological breakthroughs to create business efficiencies and reach a larger audience. While this trend has granted us innumerable groundbreaking technologies over the past half century, that progress has been a double-edged sword for cybersecurity. Although innovations like cloud technology have raised our quality of life, they have also made it easier for adversaries to hide undetected in distributed networks. Not only do attackers have more opportunities for success, they can also easily adapt their tactics, techniques and procedures to evade cyber defenses, giving them a clear advantage in the cyber fight. Today this is evidenced by the alarming rate of high-profile data breaches and ransomware attacks, not to mention the advanced levels of cyber espionage that you don’t hear about it the news every day. 

As enterprises rush to cover vulnerabilities exposed by cyber attacks, they are forced into a reactive strategy. They will typically add additional security products to their security stacks with the intention of closing defense gaps as quickly as possible. The result is that over time security tools have been bolted on, little by little, to address specific challenges. However, only addressing specific challenges does not guarantee you a holistic security posture – just the opposite, in fact. The reality is that adding all these disparate products into the enterprise is only complicating security architectures without providing much additional value. Organizations with dozens and dozens of products from separate vendors are actually realizing a negative return on these investments as their increasingly bloated architecture fills with duplicative capabilities and siloed products.

This lack of integration becomes the kiss of death for many organizations. Too many tools in the security stack are under-utilized – a recent Fidelis survey found that only 7% of organizations are using their full stack to its full potential; there are not enough skilled cybersecurity professionals available to manage all of the capabilities and alerts that are generated; and most security stacks lack automation and integration among tools. All these factors contribute to offering up many blind spots across the enterprise infrastructure for attackers to exploit.

Adding to this challenge is the rapid growth of the exploitable attack surface, driven by the explosion of cloud, IoT, and other distributed devices. Many enterprises have failed to compensate for this fact with appropriate visibility and protection mechanisms, which has only accelerated the speed and damage of cyber-attacks. Digital transformation is providing companies a unique opportunity to rethink how technology, people and processes can be used to fundamentally change business performance. Integration of business systems, information technology, and operational technology will fundamentally transform the effectiveness and efficiency of business operations.

This digital transformation must be underpinned by a corresponding transformation in cybersecurity, moving from an unmanageable collection of point solutions aimed at detecting and responding to cyber incidents (i.e., “reactive” cybersecurity) to an integrated data-driven approach aimed at predicting and preventing cyber threats (i.e., “proactive” cybersecurity). 

Shifting cybersecurity from a reactive to a proactive posture requires: 

• An integrated approach that can operate across the full spectrum of prevention, detection, hunting, and response; 
• A deep understanding of the cyber terrain that is being defended; 
• Robust threat intelligence to alert defenders to the emerging and evolving threats most likely to impact their networks and systems; 
• Advanced analytics and machine learning technologies to, for example, stitch together seemingly unrelated events occurring across the enterprise to produce high confidence and actionable alerts; and 
• Automation and orchestration to improve the efficiency and speed with which security staff are able to maintain a secure environment, investigate anomalies, and respond to cyber incidents. 

As long as organizations continue to employ simplistic “set it and forget it” security approaches, they will be forced into playing reactive, catch-up defense against cyber attackers. By doing this, they have already surrendered any cyber advantage to their attackers.

The cyber fight cannot be won by deploying individual technologies focused on singular issues. Enterprise cybersecurity solutions must consider the comprehensive set of capabilities needed to continuously protect, detect, and respond to all threats in cyber-relevant time. Solutions must increase the discovery, identification, situational awareness, and rapid response capabilities to reduce cyber dwell time, providing the adversary the least amount of opportunity to achieve lateral movement and remove critical data from the enterprise. Only with this holistic approach to cybersecurity can organizations take the advantage back from cyber attackers.

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