WannaCry scared the world with its massive disruption. NotPetya reminded everyone why they can't forget about exploits after the first time they are used. Mirai irritated consumers for a full day with record-breaking distributed denial-of-service levels from its infected botnet. The good news is that headlines from all of these attacks caught the attention of executives who suddenly started asking if they were vulnerable to these attacks. The bad news? They started asking the wrong questions.
Security is not a one-and-done project; it is a constant battle against creative hackers evolving new and improved threats. But top executives and board members are still learning about security practices, so when they stop at their CISO's desk they only know to ask "Are we protected against WannaCry?"
The only job-preserving answer to that question is "Yes," but that omits so many other factors that leave the executive with a false sense of security. A smart CISO can take advantage of the executive's attention to explain how blocking specific malware variants is only a stopgap measure.
The reality is that malware changes so rapidly that blocking any single variant will provide only a day or two of relief before it comes back just different enough to slip through those defenses again. SentinelOne's Enterprise Risk Index released this April found that less than 50% of malware detected is included in malware repositories. This shows how quickly new threats come and go and the sheer volume of threats to monitor.
Instead, companies need to focus on the underlying vulnerabilities in their systems that leave them open to these kinds of attacks. That could involve finding a SQL injection vulnerability in their databases or reworking a poorly configured network that allows malware to jump from insecure Internet of Things devices to mission-critical systems.
Navigating Internal Team Dynamics
The job of the CISO is to understand these vulnerabilities and to have the knowledge required to close them. Despite the skills shortages that have made finding experienced cybersecurity professionals difficult, most companies have found very competent people to fill these roles. These vulnerabilities remain when CISOs meet roadblocks imposed by the limited resources they have available and by their inability to convince other teams of the necessity of these changes.
Many technology departments resist change. As recently as five years ago, many antivirus users failed to update signature lists on a weekly basis. When it comes to more effective changes such as software updates, IT teams can be even slower. That is not to say they do not sometimes have good reasons; the longer a legacy system is in use, the harder it is to be sure it is compatible with the latest software updates. CISOs may know that these updates are part of the framework that protect vital corporate systems, but without executive backing they don't have the power to force IT teams to keep a regular patching schedule.
The Shifting Malware Landscape
Today, hackers no longer need to invest time in targeted attacks because there are a vast number of unsecured, vulnerable systems that are accessible to them. Instead, they have adopted a "spray and pray" mentality. The end result is that every Internet-connected device —router, server, mobile phone, computer, coffee maker — is under constant threat from constantly evolving malware issued by hackers who don't really care who they infect, as long as it is profitable.
This constant bombardment across all possible attack vectors means that CISOs must be even more vigilant than ever in identifying and closing potential vulnerabilities, not just relying on standardized filters to catch malware as it tries to infect the network. It may seem like a hopeless predicament fighting a never-ending battle against an ever-growing list of unknowns. But the upside is that the executive attention these branded malware attacks have captured brings a new opportunity.
A savvy CISO will take advantage of that momentary attention to say, "Yes, we are protected against WannaCry… today. But we have some vulnerabilities in our systems that need immediate attention." Then, she can impart the expertise she is being paid to have, and convince the executive of the need for a real change in protecting the underlying vectors that leave companies exposed.
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