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The Private Sector Needs a Cybersecurity Transformation

Cybersecurity must get to the point where it's equated with actually stopping an attack by identifying the methods the bad guys use and taking those methods away.

Today's cyber-defense protocols often look something like an unarmed security guard at a parking garage. Someone reports their car stolen or vandalized, and all the guard can do is report that it's happened. Hopefully, the guard is backed by a security system with cameras, and if there's a good description of the perpetrator, the guard can keep a lookout. But there isn't much more the guard can do. He can't call for support every time someone suspicious looking walks in, nor can he actively engage with each and every car alarm.

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This is the reality for so many IT and security teams that are exhausted from responding to threats that have already happened and chasing down the pile of false positives clogging their queue. Most cybersecurity vendors boast about protection, but what they really mean is their appliance or software can detect something and feed a security information and event management system. All that does is put more pressure on IT to set the stage and defend against what's next, so long as it looks exactly like what came before. In today's increasingly digital world, that's just not good enough.

Indeed, this type of operation has, unfortunately, made massive and damaging vulnerabilities the norm. Companies have lost millions as a result, with the average breach costing nearly $4 million in 2019. Those costs also pile up over time as the trust of once-loyal consumers evaporates when troves of personal data are compromised. Yet many businesses simply aren't aware that the prevailing posture of "detect, respond, recover" is outdated and inefficient.

By next year, more than 12 billion smart devices will keep us connected to friends, family, and work — 3 billion more than a year ago. If businesses want to realize the enormous potential that digital transformation offers, another transformation is also in order: one that will bring about a new standard of defense to match the connectivity and sophistication of cyberattacks that are increasing by the day.

But first, we have to redefine longstanding principles about what cybersecurity is.

Focusing on the Past to Protect the Future
Fundamentally, the current approach to security is focused on the past — even if it's just a few milliseconds ago. Identifying a threat that already occurred and stopping the next one is not protection. And with the advances in technology available today, it should not be the accepted protocol for our industry.

When a time-consuming analysis results in the conclusion of "we can block this attack next time," you are nowhere close to secure. Simply put, this approach does nothing to account for the agile adversaries that we know exist.

Staying agile in this fight means looking forward, not back. For that to be a reality however, time plays a crucial role. Research from Ponemon Institute shows that security teams spend at least 25% of their time chasing false positives. I'd argue it's even higher. Defense cannot continue to be about uncovering the threats that have already happened while trying to block them again. Time has to be spent on truly preventing what's coming next.

Committing Time to the Wrong Pursuits
Another hallmark of mainstream defense is that the presence of so many false positives consumes the most precious commodity IT teams have: time. In one recent study, more than half of cybersecurity professionals surveyed had left a job — or know someone who had — due to burnout and overwork. The reason so much time is invested in low-yield activities points to the fact that the industry still largely views prevention through a hygiene lens.

While hygiene is important, there is very little prevention going on at the threat level. Well-meaning employees have been stretched so thin that they find post-event response acceptable and equate it to cybersecurity. Sometimes hygiene equates to patching, but often there is a good reason why you can't patch. That's not their fault; it's simply the limitations of the system they're working with.

As an industry, we must get to the point where cybersecurity is equated with actually stopping an attack by identifying the methods the bad guys use and taking those methods away. Are they hiding in a ZIP file? A nesting of ZIP files? Does the ZIP file contain an RTF? With OLEs and CFBs? Or was it obfuscated JavaScript in the Web session? Can you look inside there and find the shellcode that doesn't belong? Can you do that in flight — while the Internet session is building? Without slowing the session down? And if you can detect that hidden or heavily obfuscated code, what happens next? Do you just block? Generate an alert? How sure are you?

It is possible to stop attacks with extreme precision before they become a problem — whether it's through a man-in-the-middle that neutralizes an attack or another tool that enables active defense. This is about more than taking the techniques of your adversaries off the board. This approach will be essential for the future of our industry, so overworked IT teams can stop responding to attacks that have already happened and start experiencing protection at a whole new scale.

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