Stress-Testing Our Security Assumptions in a World of New & Novel Risks

Categorizing and stress-testing fundamental assumptions is a necessary exercise for any leader interested in ensuring long-term security and resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

Maurice Uenuma, Vice President & General Manager, Americas, Blancco

July 2, 2024

4 Min Read
Knob reading STRESS LEVEL; settings marked are LOW, MEDIUM, and HIGH
Source: le Moal Olivier via Alamy Stock Photo


First of two parts. (Read Part 2: "Deconstructing Security Assumptions to Ensure Future Resilience.")

The most devastating security failures often are the ones that we can't imagine — until they happen.

Prior to 9/11, national security and law enforcement planners assumed airline hijackers would land the planes in search of a negotiated settlement — until they didn't. Before Stuxnet, control systems engineers assumed air-gapped systems could operate unmolested — until a virus was planted. Prior to the SolarWinds breach discovery in 2020, IT managers assumed that verified updates to a trusted network management platform were legitimate and safe — until the platform itself became the vector of a devastating supply chain attack. 

The extent of injury from these incidents is often a function of the extent to which new and novel risks were unforeseen, or assumed not to be risks in the first place. In other words, the more basic the assumption, the more devastating the compromise.

The imperative of security is to be right not only now, but also in the future, to anticipate and mitigate risks that will arise at some later time and place through effective planning and preparation. And the assumptions we make about that future environment serve as the foundation for that work. Assumptions are necessary for any security plan to be cohesive. But they come with a shelf life. 

Our assumptions today are unlikely to hold in the future. We know that increasing interdependencies will make security challenges inherently cross-domain and interdisciplinary. We know that the pace of change, driven by the rate of technological development, will make the endless cycles of discover and patch, identify and neutralize, and sense and respond even harder to sustain than they are today. We know that who and what provides security is changing as well.

The current approach to security goes something like this: First, we review recent incidents, while gathering information on the threats we know about. Next, we develop a consensus (based on incident data and expert insights) on how to neutralize those threats and mitigate associated risks. Finally, we develop programs and tools to implement these mitigations at scale. The better and faster we do this, the more secure we are.

Embracing a Future-Resilience Approach

Recognizing the changing landscape, we have attempted to accelerate this process through broader data collection and sharing, deeper insight from more powerful analytics, earlier detection of threat actors and their actions, and faster response to attacks underway. 

But we are falling further behind. By the time we understand a threat actor, their intentions, and their attack methods, or detect their movements, it's too late. The fundamental challenge is to prepare for a future with an unknowable risk profile. 

To become more resilient in a world of "unseen until it's too late" threats we must strengthen our plans by stress-testing our assumptions. The future of security will be about resilience in the face of emerging risks that cannot be specifically identified today. Monitoring trends and anticipating threats is not enough. We must also question the very assumptions that undergird our sense of security today. 

A new, future-resilient approach will need to include a deliberate process of challenging existing assumptions, while they remain valid, to model a future in which those very assumptions are compromised. Then, based on this new future "reality," we can develop ways to survive. In other words, we shift our approach from assessing the current environment, making assumptions about the future, identifying threats, then mitigating those risks, to explicitly identifying our assumptions, "making up" threats to compromise those assumptions, and building resilience to survive that future.

In practice, this involves stress-testing the assumptions we make about the world in which we operate and the environments in which we strive to achieve security. These assumptions can be broad or narrow, across multiple dimensions. A rigorous approach will need to consider these four categories:

  • Referent: What do we assume about who (or what) is being protected, and why? What does it look like for that person/entity to be secure?

  • Affect: What do we assume about defenders' ability to protect themselves? About what attackers can do to hurt us? How much influence on the security environment or ecosystem is believed to be possible?

  • Interdependence: What (or who) are we counting on to be available to us, without thinking to question its availability or intentions? What are the system effects we are not sufficiently anticipating?

  • Governance: Where do we believe government should and will have an impact? What do we assume about the role of the state? Does the world of the future continue to operate within the framework of sovereign nation-states and international norms (such as they are)?

This process of categorizing and stress-testing fundamental assumptions is a necessary exercise for any leader who is interested in ensuring long-term security and resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

In the next installment of this two-part piece, I'll examine some of the basic assumptions in the most common security frameworks, and the technologies we assume to be central to cybersecurity. I also will highlight a few key beliefs we apparently hold and ask the uncomfortable questions we need to ask in order to build future resilience.

About the Author(s)

Maurice Uenuma

Vice President & General Manager, Americas, Blancco

Maurice Uenuma is Vice President & General Manager, Americas, at Blancco Technology Group, collaborating with an interdisciplinary team to deliver the world's leading data erasure and device diagnostics solution to address the privacy, security, and sustainability needs of government agencies, enterprises, and device processors. Previously, Maurice was Vice President, Federal & Enterprise with Tripwire. Prior to joining Tripwire, he was Vice President at the Center for Internet Security (CIS) and served as Workforce Management co-chair of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Working Group at NIST. Earlier, Maurice held leadership roles at Perot Systems and Dell, and served for nine years as an infantry and special operations officer in the United States Marine Corps. Maurice holds a Master's degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University, graduated from the US Naval Academy, and is a GIAC-certified Global Industrial Cyber Security Professional (GICSP).

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