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What Flu Season Can Teach Us About Fighting Cyberattacks

Cybersecurity doesn't have to be an arms race towards complexity if we put people front and center of the solution.

Every winter there is an outbreak of flu. The virus evolves rapidly and mutates. Annually the flu causes three to five million cases of severe illness and the death toll can reach half a million people. Serious pandemics like the Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, and Spanish Flu each claimed more than a million lives. In 2009, the Swine Flu pandemic outbreak began in Veracruz, Mexico. Swine Flu infected an estimated 10 million to 200 million people. But the outbreak was controlled and the fatality rate of 18,500 (0.03%) was far less than experts feared at first.

Despite the dramatic toll that influenza takes, it has been well controlled by a few basic best practices. Good health and hygiene practices including frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding close contact with sick people to reduce the transmission of the flu virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hand washing is the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others. Vaccination has also helped reduce the risk of getting the flu by up to 90%.

While cybersecurity breaches don’t kill people, the costs can be very high. But unlike public health emergencies, breach responses tend to be isolated, uncoordinated, and unfortunately not very effective; our industry regularly overlooks effective, common-sense approaches and fundamental preventative security controls. For example, the U.S. Inspector General’s Office warned the Office of Personnel Management the year before its massive breach to implement elementary preventive measures. The OPM failed to heed those warnings and got hacked.

Promoting best security practices is a lot like promoting healthy hygiene. The more people we can recruit to adopt basic, effective security practices, the safer we will all be. There's no reason we can't combat malware as effectively as we respond to biological viruses.

We have to change our ways.

The estimated annual cost of influenza in the U.S. ranges up to $87 billion, according to the National Institutes of Health. Cybercriminals last year stole six times more from the global economy than the U.S. spent fighting the flu. McAfee estimates annual global losses to cybercrime approached half a billion dollars in 2014 (0.69% of U.S. GDP) with more than 200,000 jobs lost in the United States. In the battle against cybercrime, we continue to fall behind.

Our fundamental challenge is asymmetry. As every hacker knows, any system or company is only as secure as its weakest link. Organizations need to protect every device, server, application, system, credential, and user. But a hacker only needs to steal just one user ID and password to get in. The way to improve cybersecurity is to take this traditional weakness and turn it against the enemy by drafting users into the solution. Instead of being a point of vulnerability, users become our front line defense by focusing on the fundamentals of good security hygiene -- the digital equivalent of washing your hands or covering your mouth when you cough. If we all incorporated these four simple practices into our daily lives, we’d shut down most cyberattacks:

  • Update the devices and software you use frequently. Vendors constantly patch bugs in their products. If you don't have a policy to run the latest versions of software releases on your servers, laptops, and smartphones, you're leaving known vulnerabilities open to hackers.
  • The most popular password in the world remains 123456. Stop trying to memorize lengthy passwords. Use a password manager like LastPass that automates the generation of complex passwords.
  • Use two-factor authentication. A hacker may steal your passwords, but it’s nearly impossible to steal those and your smartphone or token at the same time.
  • Use common sense with your email. Never open email attachments or click on links from a sender you don’t know and trust

Share these suggestions with your work colleagues, friends, and family. Cybersecurity doesn't have to be an arms race towards complexity. Like fighting the spread of a deadly flu, it’s much better if we put people front and center as part of the solution.

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Editors' Choice
Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5