Rooting Out Hackers Before They Have a Chance to Strike
By 2006, the United States was losing two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of the entrenched interests in the country—political, military, economic, journalistic—were whistling past the proverbial graveyard and pretending that everything was fine.
Ten years later, the cybersecurity industry looks very similar. Last year alone, despite more than $75 billion spent on enterprise security products and services, more than three-quarters of the Fortune 500 were breached by cyber adversaries, and the average time from a breach to its detection was nearly 146 days (down from 205 days in 2014, but still too long). For defenders, this is the very definition of strategic failure.
We need to make a change. Rather than relying on imperfect prevention techniques, or waiting for a breach to happen and then reacting to it, defenders need to “turn the map around” and hunt proactively for the attackers in order to root out adversaries before they have a chance to do real damage. This is the next frontier of cybersecurity.
This failure is costing all of us. A 2015 cyber crime study found that hacks cost the average American firm $15.4 million a year, double the global average. Another report found that cyber attacks are costing businesses around the world anywhere from $400 to $500 billion every year. And that’s translating into job losses as well. A 2013 study estimated that malicious cyber activities are resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs in America each year.
More broadly, the steady drumbeat of successful attacks threatens, at its worst, to undermine popular confidence in online commerce and communication.
And yet, very little of substance has changed. The industry remains locked in a talent imbalance where creative people flock to become hackers at least partly because defense too often seems like a check-the-box compliance exercise; it has always been more fun to be a pirate than it is to join the Coast Guard. Additionally, law and government policy evolve much more slowly than do the technology and social norms that characterize these fast-moving issues. Finally, although companies and government agencies have increased their security spending looking for solutions to combat advanced threats, there is still too much focus on the same old perimeter defenses to keep adversaries out, and on the legacy technique of looking for and blocking known threats when they inevitably bypass the porous perimeter.
The industry is at a crossroads, but it keeps moving in the wrong direction and the vast majority of cybersecurity spending is still going to prevention and perimeter security. Prevention is necessary, but it’s not sufficient and it certainly doesn’t justify 90 cents of every security dollar.
Perimeters are gone, burned to the ground by the proliferation of mobile devices and the spreading business imperative to move to cloud services. Within the perimeter, searching for known malware is like driving your car while looking at the rear-view mirror—it has no predictive quality and will never see the new bad thing for the first time. These are passive defenses against active adversaries, and they aren’t working.
We need to flip the script on traditional cybersecurity. US Air Force strategist Colonel John Boyd imprinted his mantra on a whole generation of military thinkers: “People, ideas, hardware—in that order!” Applying Boyd’s dictum to cybersecurity suggests several potential changes in our approach to attracting and maximizing talent, in how we articulate the ideas undergirding government policy, and in how we use our technology.
We need to focus on building diverse teams of people. Diversity is the wellspring of innovation. And I mean diversity in every sense—gender, background, perspective, skill set. The average infantryman in Iraq in 2003 was surrounded by other infantrymen who looked like him, had been trained like him, and probably thought like him. By 2008, that same infantryman was surrounded by a much deeper talent bench that included women (who can do things, especially in Muslim societies, that men cannot do), intelligence analysts, and other government organizations.
In cybersecurity, this will require a shift in the way we portray the industry. Instead of the traditional “hacker with a hoodie,” companies must actively support diversity. Defeating the next-generation of threats is more likely if we have social scientists, data scientists, political scientists, and graphic designers working together with military and intelligence veterans, software engineers, researchers, and white hat hackers.
With respect to ideas, we need to turn the tables on traditional defensive thinking. I led Marine combat units during the earliest days of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and we never went out on a mission without literally turning the map around and thinking through everything from the point of view of our enemy. It was essential to staying alive. The same needs to happen now. We need to bring an offensive mindset to enterprise defense. What Lawrence of Arabia famously said about fighting insurgents applies equally well to prevailing over digital adversaries: it’s messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife—but it can be done.
And finally, technology. One of the hallmarks of successful hunting is stealth. Attackers work hard to be stealthy—it’s in their DNA. An invisible attacker is a successful attacker. We need to bring these same stealth concepts to defense. If a defensive tactic is seen, then it can be bypassed. But what does stealth really mean as a defender? During a breach, if an attacker sees the defenses, he can simply turn them off. If the attacker sees you, the battle is much more difficult. Some security companies have even been naïve enough to say publicly that when an attacker saw them on the network, the attacker ran away. If you believe that, then you’ve never read Sun Tzu, and you’ve certainly never been part of a good offense. Adversaries will avoid surfaces and flow to gaps, like water flowing downhill.
An invisible attacker is a successful attacker. We need to bring these same stealth concepts to defense. Some worry that such an aggressive approach to defense and security may break laws. It does not. To be clear, proactive hunting is not “hacking back” or illegally “shooting back” at cyber adversaries beyond the infrastructure you own. Hunting is essential, while hacking back is illegal.
Even more important than its illegality, hacking back is usually just stupid, the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight. Even if you’re a big bank spending a quarter-billion dollars on security, do you really want to take on the Chinese PLA or the Russian FSB?
Instead, going on the offense and hunting for adversaries entails surveying your assets stealthily and continuously. Think of it this way: If an intruder broke into your home, you wouldn’t let him hang around in the shadows until he’s ready to break into your safe and steal all your valuables. You’d go around your home looking for him and stop him before he’s had a chance to do any damage. This is common sense in the real world, but we’re too often not applying this simple principle to our actions in the digital world. And what’s worse, unlike your home where there may or may not be a single intruder, in the cyber world, there are thousands of intruders and the odds are better than 3 in 4 that they’re already in your system.
But how do we know this kind of offensive cybersecurity actually works? Because cyber offense is structurally dominant: A dollar of offense beats a dollar of defense nearly every time. The defender has to be right constantly, but the attacker only has to be right once. Proactive hunting levels the playing field and allows defenders to share in some of the structural advantages of offense. The government has already figured this out. Across the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and other forward-leaning agencies, this proactive hunting is already happening, and it’s becoming more widespread. Enterprises need to embrace the same mindset.
In the end, I am an optimist. Despite all the challenges I’ve laid out here, I believe fundamentally that the forces of order will prevail. Society is too dependent on a trusted internet for commerce, for communication, for education, for entertainment to allow it to fall below a basic threshold of trust. The arrayed forces of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, data scientists, policymakers, academics, intelligence officials and others will carry the day, even if—as with fighting insurgents—it is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.
This piece originally appeared in Quartz