An executive from Singapore's Cyber Security Agency examines the role of security in a nation increasingly dependent on technology.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

October 1, 2020

6 Min Read

Is cybersecurity a public good or private good? Is it an engineering challenge or policy problem? Should consumers be responsible for their own security? Is security a business cost or benefit?

As Singapore pursues its journey to become a "Smart Nation," it's asking these tough questions and many others as officials wrestle with the role of cybersecurity in a country increasingly dependent on technology, explained Gaurav Keerthi, deputy chief executive of development at Singapore's Cyber Security Agency, in his keynote talk at this week's virtual Black Hat Asia. 

Keerthi, who previously served as a pilot and chief innovation officer for Singapore's Air Force, is now responsible for redesigning how the nation defends itself from cyber threats. It's a tall order, especially in a country intent on digitizing several aspects of modern society – "from lamp posts to traffic lights," as Keerthi put it – in an effort to improve the lives of its citizens.

"When you digitize everything at that scale, cybersecurity professionals step back and think, 'Attack vectors. I see attack vectors everywhere,' and it's true," he said. The Singapore Cyber Security Agency aims to protect cyberspace and national security while powering a digital economy and protecting its digital way of life.

Protecting a nation is vastly different than protecting a corporate network. In his keynote, Keerthi explained the challenges and dilemmas involved with securing Singapore and the technologies its citizens depend on, using nontraditional examples to illustrate the many ways cybersecurity will continue to play an essential role in everyday life. 

An Engineering Problem or Policy Issue?
Governments have generally taken a policy-centric approach: If there's a problem with Internet security, laws and regulations are put in place. Industry has an engineering-centric approach, addressing security problems with new technologies, partly because it can't set policies.

The answer, as with many questions, is somewhere in between. "Governments need to take a more engineer approach to the problem to complement policies," Keerthi said.

Consider speeding: Speed limit signs are a policy solution, but engineering improvements like speed bumps, cameras, and tools to detect average speed on a long road can slow down speedy cars.

"It's not extremes. It's somewhere in the middle," he added. Singapore sometimes places engineers to write policies and nontechnical people to write capability development. "Our end goal is to make sure that we have taken this problem and approached it from all directions," he said. 

Should Consumers Be Responsible for Their Security?
The security industry largely holds users responsible for their own defense and, unlike in other sectors, it has no problem telling users they're the weakest link. Keerthi called this unhealthy.

"It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where our wider industry doesn't take full accountability and responsibility and ownership for this problem," he said. While infosec pros are often separate from software developers, he warned against making this distinction a public one.

Keerthi pulled lessons from the automotive industry. When someone buys a car, they learn its cost and whether it has a good engine, wheels, and brakes to prevent an accident. They don't need to know the nuts and bolts that make those things work. Over time, the automotive industry has learned from accidents and installed more safety measures to protect drivers. By the time a new car appears on the lot, all the designers have already agreed on how it should work.

Security, in contrast, is complex, even to the practitioners who work in the industry. "Cybersecurity needs to be usable in order to be effective," Keerthi said. "It needs to be inclusive. Every person is part of our ecosystem … not just the technically savvy ones."

At the government level, Singapore has adopted DevSecOps as its way of launching products and is trying to simplify security as a national level so developers can easily use best practices.

A Benefit or Cost: A Corporate Perspective
While the past few years have successfully brought cybersecurity to the board level, there are still discussions weighing cost and benefit, and security and usability, Keerthi explained.

"Sometimes there's a race to the bottom where they try and spend the minimum amount on cybersecurity just to meet compliance requirements," he said. "The discussions are driven by the mental model that cybersecurity is a cost, and it's a cost they have to bear to do business."

Customers don't reward good security behavior, but they heavily punch bad behavior. Can businesses make security a selling point as people grow conscious of security and safety?

Right now, security benefits of individual products are largely invisible to users. If someone wants to buy a router, there is no way of knowing whether one router is more secure than another. But similar to how nutritional information appears on food products, Keerthi believes there's an opportunity to convey a product's level of security to people who may want to buy a product.

He said Singapore will be introducing the "cybersecurity labeling scheme" on network-connected devices, with a security rating range of one to four stars. "We want to educate consumers, and we want to encourage and incentivize manufacturers to build better, safer, more secure products so the whole ecosystem moves up," Keerthi said.

Cybersecurity: A Public Good or Private Good?
It's an important question. If cybersecurity is purely a private good, the responsibility falls on the private sector. If it's considered a public good, it becomes the government's job. The true answer, he said, falls somewhere in between. People rely on technologies built by private companies, but there are aspects that indicate the government may need to play a role. 

Keerthi used public sanitation as an example. Up until the 1800s, countries treated drinking water the way we currently treat cybersecurity. Governments would warn people not to drink unclean water, but it was their responsibility to boil the water to avoid disease. When people continued to drink dirty water and contract disease, they were considered the weak link.

"It became a public health problem because these diseases were contagious," he explained. "Rather than just affecting a private user, one person's lack of water hygiene spread to become many people's health problem." As a result, governments changed their mental model and built plumbing and sewage networks because they realized clean drinking water was a public good.

Cyber hygiene has expanded from a private issue into a public crisis. It's not a perfect analogy, he said, but it gives a sense of the answers we could have for the digital world. While it's unclear how much governments should be responsible for, he believes it should be much more.

"We need to be worried about our essential services," Keerthi said. "One user's lack of cyber hygiene actually now translates to contagion, which can affect other users."

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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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