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In Cybersecurity, Language Is a Source of Misunderstandings

To successfully fight threats across industries, we must all use the same terminology.

Have you ever traveled to a place where you didn't speak the local language and attempted to ask for help? Or have you attempted to say something in another dialect but it came out meaning something entirely different?

Language is the key to communication and a critical component in effective public-private information sharing in the cyber domain. Unfortunately — although some international organizations have attempted to document them — there are no common definitions for cyber terms globally across government, business, and academia. When you throw in industry buzzwords and marketing jargon around cybersecurity, it can become nearly impossible for organizations to speak quickly and efficiently with each other about security.

To fully engage in cross-industry dialogue within the context of cybersecurity, we must speak the same language. We can't outmaneuver threats without it.

Defining the Term "Cyber Attack"
There are at least 16 different definitions of the term "cyber attack" globally, all of which span a fairly large spectrum. Most of them, at least mention something about denying, disrupting, destroying, or degrading information systems. Using this premise, Sony, Ukrenergo, Dyn, and Saudi Aramco experienced cyber attacks. However, the events that took place at OPM, Target, and Banner Health were not—although they were reported as such. So, what do we call what happened? A host of other security-related terms might be applied, including data exfiltration, privacy breach, data breach, intrusion, cyber incident, and cyber compromise. In some cases, it may be a combination of several of these.

But even these terms have a variety of definitions. In the newly released Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, authored by 19 international law experts, an example of this is cited on page 418: "…the Experts noted general agreement that cyber operations that merely cause inconvenience or irritation to the civilian population do not rise to the level of attack, although they cautioned that the scope of the term 'inconvenience' is unsettled."

So why does this all matter? When there are multiple media that all label an event with terms of varying definition, we negatively affect our ability as security professionals to characterize and respond appropriately. As an industry, the lack of defined terms is helping the hackers win. Mismatched terminology can introduce unnecessary fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and affect the potential for government authorities to assist a breach victim, alter the public's perception of the situation, or cause adversaries to push forward to achieve their objectives.

The Quest for Standard Terminology
There is a fairly recent concept that warrants particular attention to ensure government, industry, and academia are speaking the same language, especially in light of the global movement toward a more proactive security posture: active defense.

Active defense is a term that captures a spectrum of proactive cybersecurity measures that fall between traditional passive defense and offense, according to the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. There is a plethora of detail on this concept in a recent GWU report, but at its essence, active defense identifies a list of 11 techniques that private entities can employ to interdict cyber exploitations and attacks in a "gray zone." This zone falls between passive defense, which typically features basic internal security controls, and offensive cyber, which features more proactive activities security organizations can undertake, such as "hacking back."

These gray-zone active defense techniques range from information-sharing to denial and deception to botnet takedowns and rescue missions for recovering assets (the latter requiring close government cooperation). At the heart of this concept is the ability for the public and private sectors to partner on the planning and execution of these techniques.

Advancing toward a more universal spoken and written language in cyber will take time. But there are positive developments taking place. Some helpful concepts are gaining adoption and helping security professionals define their activities for their colleagues, industry peers, partners, and customers. The concepts below fall within the low-risk spectrum of active defense and can be executed given a shared technical language (e.g., shared semantic models):

  • Active Response: According to SANS, active response is a mechanism that provides the intrusion-detection systems with the capability to respond to an attack when it has been detected.
  • Adaptive Response: Adaptive response describes enablement of end-to-end context and automated response across multivendor environments. Because most security technologies aren't designed to work with each other, using frameworks like adaptive response gives vendors to the ability to detect threats faster through analytics, and collaborate on a response. This defense strategy for multilayered, heterogeneous security architectures enables faster decision-making and more cohesive responses to threats.
  • Adaptive Security: Adaptive security is the ability to adapt and respond to a rapidly changing threat landscape by recognizing behavior rather than root files or code. The rise of technologies focusing on user and behavior analytics are a good example of adaptive security in action.

Though that's a short list, these terms represent a step in the right direction for the industry. But we have a long way to go. Without a common language in cybersecurity, we can't achieve intelligent information-sharing both within a single organization or between the complex web of vendors and solutions in today's market. Lack of defined key terms is blocking the industry from effectively implementing anything beyond passive defensive mechanisms. 

We must continue to strive toward establishing a common global cybersecurity language that spans government, industry, and academia: this is our center of gravity. Until we make progress, this is a deficiency that will remain a vulnerability that our common adversaries exploit to outpace and outmaneuver us. 

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