Report Analysis: A Data-Driven Approach to Cybersecurity

On Monday, I attended the rollout event for former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig’s most recent report: “Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America’s Cyber Dependencies.” The report provides eight recommendations to help the government better position itself in light of the abundance of cyberspace challenges. Danzig’s recommendations tackle a range of topics, from federal workforce challenges to the trade-offs between functionality and security. While the main recommendations were thought provoking, Danzig arguably placed the most important portion of his paper in the appendix, meaning it was overlooked during the discussion and likely by readers as well. Danzig notes in the appendix that “there is no reliable data upon which to make decisions.” This is an extraordinarily important point that conceptually applies to the majority of his eight recommendations, but is generally overshadowed by the emphasis on more practical considerations.

The global community is dealing with one of the greatest technological disruptions in history, but, as Danzig argues, policymakers and analysts lack data and metrics upon which to make informed decisions. Both the public and private sectors are operating completely blind when it comes to cyberspace. This enables self-interested organizations and individuals to make claims that cannot be falsified. Based on Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, cyberspace currently resides in the realm of conjecture as opposed to scientific research. While moving cyber into the realm of scientific research may seem like merely an academic exercise, the absence of falsifiability implies that the public and private sectors are spending an exorbitant amount of money in the cyber domain based on assumptions that may or may not be true. In fact, as Danzig notes, assessments “are unconstrained in reflecting their political, ideological and commercial agendas rather than logical inferences.”

While problematic, this phenomenon is not distinct from other periods of technological shock that similarly lacked the data standardization and construct validity required to assess the impact of the changes. For instance, during and in the aftermath of World War II, the first quantitative studies emerged that attempted to understand the great shock that had just occurred to the international system. Lewis Frye Richardson (Statistics of Deadly Quarrels) and Quincy Wright (A Study of War) pioneered quantitative research focused on understanding the causes and consequences of war. Their work paved the way for additional formal modeling and quantitative analysis that helped shape Cold War theories and policy approaches, blurring the line between complex, quantitative analytics and policymaking and grand strategy.

It took a shock to the international system to spark innovation in the realm of conflict and security studies. The creation and expansion of cyberspace is similarly a shock to the international system today, but we have yet to see this same level of innovation in the realm of cyberspace and the data prerequisites that make a cybersecurity framework possible. Where could this theoretical and technical innovation come from? Danzig’s sixth recommendation highlights the fact that cybersecurity is not just a technical problem, but a social and behavioral problem as well. In short, it requires insights from various disciplines to help make sound diagnoses and prescriptions for cybersecurity. Interestingly, the breakthrough in conflict studies did not come solely from within political science, but rather benefited from the multi-disciplinary research of its early pioneers. As the report discussion highlighted, it is very likely that the breakthrough in our comprehension of cybersecurity will not come solely from technologists, but from interdisciplinary practitioners who can help construct and evaluate the relevant data and its impact on the operating environment.

Until that happens, as Danzig notes, cybersecurity will remain fragmented, with decisions made in the dark. Absent an interdisciplinary, data-driven approach to crafting a coherent cybersecurity framework, the pendulum will continue to dramatically swing between fear mongering over a “cyber Pearl Harbor” at one extreme and a blissful ignorance of the reality of potential cyber threats at the other. Decision-makers rely on information that is, according to Danzig, “indeterminate, inconsistent, over-interpreted or all three.” He’s absolutely right, but this must change. Cybersecurity is long overdue for a data-driven framework – crafted by technologists and non-technologists alike – that can assist decision-makers as they grapple with the challenges of the dynamic cybersecurity environment.