Security experts have learned many lessons from 2016 about how cyber warfare not only impacts elections but also has the potential to disrupt everything from energy and education to government services and military operations. Whether it is nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, guerrilla groups, or rogue actors, the danger grows as our dependency on digital tools continues to rise.
There are a host of reasons for nation-states and international organizations to engage in cyber warfare with the goal of causing physical or economic harm. They may want to gain a competitive advantage by stealing strategic business plans; cause catastrophic damage with a tactical strike on a local utility; access data from state and local governments to disrupt crucial industries such as the military, aviation, and education; or lock up hospital information systems to hurt patient care.
Addressing these dangers is imperative for the public and private sectors, as evidenced by recent high-profile attacks, presumably by Russia, that impacted multiple government agencies and corporations. When cybersecurity firm FireEye discovered aggressors had made off with the company's red-team tools designed to find vulnerabilities, it immediately set off an investigation. The company uncovered a critical vulnerability in SolarWinds' Orion software. Because this software is used by many public agencies, it became frighteningly clear that a vast breach of US government networks had also occurred. This attack against corporations' and government networks is now known as Sunburst.
Build Strong Ties to Fortify Against Dangerous Attacks
All of these examples point to the increasing sophistication and frequency of cyber threats directed at the government and corporate sectors. To stand a chance against these attacks, it is clear that a more robust collaboration is required between these two groups.
- Government agencies are not typically transparent due to concerns about national security, but intelligence exchanges help all stakeholders open conversations regarding threats and attacks to broaden the collective knowledge. For instance, while the SolarWinds damage is likely widespread, it could have gone much further if FireEye had not discovered and immediately shared it with government agencies and law enforcement.
- The corporate world could learn from the government when it comes to cyber-awareness and security training conducted for federal employees. Additionally, government standards like the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and NIST Special Publication 800 Series can help nongovernmental organizations further enhance security.
- On the flip side, the government can take a lesson from the private sector on how to react and adapt more quickly. A recent survey of government cybersecurity professionals found that 65% of respondents thought the pace of cybersecurity change was too slow compared with enterprise organizations, and 81% believed that collaboration with the private sector could hasten security processes.
- Both sectors should explore how privacy-enhancing techniques could be used to develop more productive partnerships. Technologies such as cryptographic algorithms and data-masking techniques are increasingly used in banks to detect financial crimes through information sharing and analysis but without disclosing sensitive data.
Minimize Risk by Prioritizing Key Security Functions
Building strong public-private relationships is an important step in addressing cyber warfare. But without the right security framework in place, agencies and businesses will continue to operate at risk. Here are some key priorities:
- Follow a DevSecOps approach when developing applications by having security in mind from the start and building security auditing and compliance into standard continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) processes.
- Use best practices for application security found in the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) and its top 10 list of the most impactful web application security risks, including tips for logging and monitoring solutions to reduce response time.
- Improve network security against man-in-the-middle attacks, wardriving, and other network attacks by educating employees on the risks of public Wi-Fi, requiring a virtual private network (VPN) for sensitive resources, and strengthening network authentication.
- Identify and remedy code-injection vulnerabilities by regularly scanning code during development using tools like Burp Suite, OWASP ZAP, and other code-analysis tools in your build pipeline.
- Secure vulnerable VPNs with aggressive patching and authentication. This is especially important for government agencies that are accustomed to fully closed networks but with remote work are subjected to the same security issues as commercial businesses.
- Hire the best teams for the job. Cybersecurity is a multidiscipline practice, and building a solid framework requires advanced- to expert-level knowledge in each area, including application development and networking.
Plan for the Worst
Organizations can follow every protocol yet a breach can still occur, making developing a crisis response plan just as urgent as cybersecurity. In 2016, the average time that organizations needed to identify a breach was 191 days, and it took an average of 70 days to contain the breach. A crisis response plan requires logging and monitoring solutions that can respond to a breach more quickly. A response team should include forensic analysts, legal professionals, and potentially the public relations department to build a plan for consistently responding to incidents.
Global cyber warfare is a grim reality, and attacks will continue to escalate and get more sophisticated. There is no way to combat them completely, but building partnerships, identifying the right tools and technologies, employing teams that are up to the challenge, and creating a solid crisis plan will put the private and public sector in a better position, helping safeguard people, institutions, and businesses around the world.