A shadowy figure sits in a dark room, lit only by a laptop, tapping away at a command line. Disheveled clothes hang on him, a hood over the headphones covering his ears.
This person is about to cause one of the biggest data breaches of the year.
But he isn't a hacker — he's a system administrator, setting up a new database to ship customer data to a third party. The request to build this came in at the last minute, needed to be done yesterday, and the sysadmin — already managing an overstuffed data center — had to construct and deliver the system outside of the usual process. But he forgot a crucial configuration to secure the database from public connections, leaving it exposed to the Internet.
This scenario, as anyone who has worked in IT knows, is far more common than that of a breach caused by an elite hacker who cracks encryption and busts through firewalls — a nightmare that, comparatively, almost never happens. Overwhelmingly, your information is not being hacked. It’s being left out in the open where anyone can find it. The hacker narrative serves the fortunate purpose of placing the burden of data security on a vague, threatening attacker, instead of on the companies that acquire, maintain, and transfer the information every single day to make money.
The statistics are astounding. Gartner states that through 2020, 99% of all firewall breaches will be due to misconfigurations, not vulnerabilities. "Breach" is a word that gets used a lot in cybersecurity, but it may not accurately reflect the true nature of most data loss. Breach implies an active force working to overcome an obstacle or defense.
In reality, most "breaches" are caused by companies inadvertently posting sensitive information on Internet-exposed databases, websites, and servers. Likewise, "hacking" implies the same idea, and most people would probably agree that browsing somewhere on the Internet and reading publicly available data doesn't fit the accepted definition.
Protect the Vulnerable
This isn't meant to be pedantic but to illustrate that if we want to solve the problem of customer information being compromised, we need to shore up the most vulnerable parts first, and those are not zero-day exploits and advanced malware chains (though those do exist) but the day-to-day IT operations work that builds, configures, and changes systems.
Business risk, like business operations, has shifted away from the physical and into the digital. Companies exploit technology to the fullest so they can take advantage of the increased throughput, scale, and feedback to better compete in the market. But this same technology carries its own risks that can undermine the business as a whole if not addressed. More importantly, the consequences of this risk tend to fall on the customers, whose identities and information are being sold or otherwise misused.
Cyber-risk is business risk; breaches and outages are business problems. Customers establish trust with the business as a whole, the brand, not the IT department, and certainly not with third-party data handlers. When a breach occurs, no matter how it happened technically, the relationship between the company and the customer is damaged. Incidents that are large enough usually call for a sacrificial figure from among the C-suite, occasionally even the CEO, to satisfy the appearance that the company is taking the problem seriously. Then cybersecurity projects are launched, with plenty of public relations help, to ensure the right optics to control the reputational damage done to the company by the breach. But what is being done to really stop the problem?
The silver bullet of cybersecurity is a myth. There's no new fortification, no new defense, that's going to prevent the majority of problems that lead to breaches and outages, because attacks aren't the main problem. Only a new perspective on business technology, and a new relationship between business leaders and IT departments, can begin to close the cyber-risk gap.
This is what we call cyber resilience — a holistic way to account for the risks posed by the technology on which we all depend. Cyber resilience is about building hardened and tested procedures into every step of IT operations, creating maximum visibility into IT assets and their risks, and automating processes to minimize those risks as much as possible.
The burden for protecting customer information must fall to the companies that use it to do business. Otherwise, the risk incurred by the technology a business uses is passed wholesale to the customer, while the benefits of that technology are retained by the business — an arrangement most customers aren't willing to endure for long. Enacting a cyber resilience strategy is a win/win for customers and businesses, but it requires change, something harder to crack in the enterprise than any password or encryption.