Security Incidents Are 'Tip of the Iceberg,' Says UK Security Official

Pete Cooper, deputy director of cyber defense for the UK Cabinet Office, emphasized the importance of security fundamentals, collaboration, and diversity in his Black Hat Europe keynote talk.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

December 9, 2020

5 Min Read

A resilient business is made up of several moving parts: a supply chain, manufacturers, services, engineers, and many other parts working together to ensure a company is secure. Collaboration among these groups can help identify risks and predict security incidents before they happen.

"We always think about the incidents because the incidents get the headlines," said Pete Cooper, deputy director of cyber defense for the UK Cabinet Office. "But it's the events, the near misses, the problems -- all of that stuff happening underneath the surface is all the activity that will actually help you predict where your incidents are going to happen."

This was a lesson Cooper learned as a flight safety officer in the Air Force and later applied to cybersecurity, he explained in his Black Hat Europe keynote. People would bring to him issues and risks so they surfaced to the top of the organizations and were addressed ahead of time. 

"The more we understand what's happening below the surface helps us better understand and predict where those incidents are going to happen so we can prevent them," he noted.

It wasn't the only parallel that Cooper, a former RAF fast-jet pilot, drew between flying fast jets in the Air Force and working in cybersecurity. He emphasized the importance of fundamentals and warned against the distraction of new technologies. The ability to manage risk, detect and protect against attacks, and minimize their impact are the basics that enable everything else. These fundamentals "have to become second nature," irrespective of what the adversary does, he said. 

There was always someone who could fly faster, with more advanced technology and better kit, Cooper continued. Still, there was no point at which technology determined success. The same principle applies when defending against increasingly advanced cybercriminals, he pointed out.

"We aren't going to 'technology' in and out of our challenges because winning and losing is not defined by technology -- it's defined by our thinking," Cooper said. "We need to actually get through our challenges by challenging our thinking, and that will allow us to defend against our adversaries."

If an attacker knows your tech better than you do, you're going to have a bad day, he added.

Businesses must know their strengths and weaknesses. Cooper explained another lesson he took from the aviation world: the importance of testing systems. When a new aircraft comes into service, it's first evaluated by objective test pilots who challenge assumptions, learn what works and doesn't work, and explore potential problems that pilots might face in the plane. 

The same applies to securing new systems and services. "Our users aren't cybertest pilots, and we need to make sure everything is secure out the box," he said.

And it's not enough to stop there; you must also build trust in the system. Defense in depth is critical, he continued, because people can get things wrong. Users will click links, a back-end team could configure a service incorrectly, and resilience must stretch across, people, process, and technology.

"You can only really gain confidence in your resilience if you train and exercise your people, your processes, and your technology," Cooper said. "And that will give you the confidence that no matter what's thrown at you, you can get yourself back into a secure state." 

Building Secure Culture: Reporting, Diversity, Collaboration
Cooper advised a "reporting culture" to create engagement among employees and a climate in which they can report errors and near misses. It can be hard for people to admit mistakes, and it's critical they understand the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. 

"If your organization and your team are raising these issues, then you need to have a flexible culture," he said. "Our adversaries evolve and, therefore, we have to as well. Security isn't a static task and we need that flexibility -- both the technical and organizational layers -- to respond to our challenges.

In addition to encouraging employees to report mistakes, Cooper suggested implementing a "learning culture" so they understand why and how something happened, as well as a "questioning culture" to empower people to speak up if they think something may not be right.

To collaborate you need to be able to communicate, he continued. Organizations can benefit from listening to diverse perspectives and broadening their horizons. 

"The real value of collaboration comes through seeing the world through those diverse perspectives because by doing that, you then start creating shared perspectives," Cooper said. "You start pushing out joint horizons so you can see further and develop a better joint understanding."

These shared perspectives can change the way a business sees risk and uses resources, he added, noting that "the best solutions are those joint solutions."

In building these teams, the security industry can create pathways for the next generation to enter, noted Cooper, who founded the UK's first cyber strategy competition for university students. If security wants to become more diverse, it's time for its practitioners to create more diverse routes for students to learn and enter the space.

"We've always got to be thinking about how we can help them get to where we are now," he said of the next generation. "There is no set pathway for cybersecurity."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Sheridan

Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Kelly Sheridan was formerly a Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focused on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial services. Sheridan earned her BA in English at Villanova University. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymsheridan.

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