War games are an important aspect of maintaining military readiness. In the Cold War-era, NATO and SEATO were seemingly always engaged in war games with a twofold purpose: preparation for potential real-world incidents and as a show-of-force to the West’s rivals in the USSR, Eastern Bloc, and Communist Asia.
Global threats have evolved since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and war gaming has shifted focus to address new threats such as a belligerent North Korea and an increasingly unstable Middle East. But the underlying message behind war games remains the same: we’re ready, we’re able, and there will be dire consequences if you choose to tangle with us. The modern enterprise should take a page from this approach to apply cyberwar games to their network and data security strategies.
Similar to the hacker’s playbook concept, cyberwar gaming is an exercise that—properly done—will help an organization better understand its readiness for cyberwarfare. Unlike conceptual table-top scenarios, true enterprise war games involve actual attacks (typically conducted by red and blue teams) and require a real response. Properly executed, the lessons derived from enterprise war-gaming can be applied to the organization’s defense strategy and then tested again in a regular cycle in order to identify weaknesses, challenge security assumptions, identify and anticipate potential threats, and develop security incident response “muscle memory.”
But before an organization can begin, we must establish some parameters. First, cyberwar gaming is not pen testing, but a broad and sophisticated breach scenario that uses a real “playbook” and is performed in a production environment.
This approach was laid out in 2012 by McKinsey & Company in a paper on the enterprise’s use of cyberwar games entitled, Playing War Games to Prepare for a Cyberattack. According to McKinsey, the key to successful cyberwar gaming is to structure the scenario around an actual attack in which there is a specific means of attack and specific goal of the attack. Key players may know that an attack is coming, but they should not know the how or the why.
Designing a cyberwar game around an organization’s likely business scenario can simulate the experience of a real cyberattack. The attacker—Red Team—must have a specific goal in mind and must “think like a hacker,” innovating and deviously plotting the unexpected. After all, they only need to be right once to succeed.
In contrast, the defending Blue Team must be able to detect an attack in real-time, alert on an issue when it occurs, and recover in the event of a failure. The goal is to ensure that all divisions learn how to work together to better inform defense.
Limiting an organization’s readiness to hypothetical scenarios is far too risky in today’s threat environment. Lack of cyberwar game preparation will only magnify the possible damage once an attack does occur. As the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously stated, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” It is therefore vital that an organization become adept at responding to a fast evolving attack scenario, including those with multiple vectors and different outcomes.
Moltke understood that no matter how well-prepared an organization is for the initial attack, the number of variable outcomes and responses resulting from that first contact are so vast that they cannot be accounted for. There’s simply no way to train for actual battlefield conditions. What can be accounted for is the ability of those involved to respond. The ability to react, pivot, and improvise under the pressure of an actual attack cannot be learned under the narrow scope of table-top scenarios. Such skills can only be tested and inured in the crucible of actual combat, as it were. Conversely, the lack of true readiness can only be understood and addressed when exposed under the same circumstances.
Cyberwar gaming fits well within the popular People, Process and Technology (PPT) approach to security by effectively training security and incident response teams under actual attack conditions, refining processes based on experience before a hostile event occurs, and validating the application of the technologies the organization has in place—while also identifying the need for additional tools and resources.
The data breach stakes continue to rise. Specialized attacks on industry sectors such as law and healthcare, the growing prevalence of ransomware and other forms of malware, the number of known vulnerabilities, ever more sophisticated methodologies and the complexity of today’s networks mean that, even with all of the tools and knowledge available to today’s CISO, hackers are a greater threat than ever before—especially for the unprepared. As cyberwar games gain popularity, the goal will be to automate many aspects of these breach scenarios in order to more efficiently scale the team and process.