The Cargo Cult of Cybersecurity

I’ve been working in IT my whole life and since I’ve joined KuppingerCole ten years ago, cybersecurity has been my job. Needless to say, I like my job: even though we industry analysts are not directly involved in forensic investigations or cyberthreat mitigation, being up-to-date with the latest technological developments and sharing our expertise with both end users and security vendors is our daily life, which is always challenging and exciting at the same time.

However, occasionally I am having doubts about my career choice. Does everything I do even matter? Cybersecurity market is booming, predicted to reach nearly 250 billion USD within the next 5 years. However, do we notice any downward trend in the number of security breaches or financial losses due to cyberattacks? Not really…

Last time I was having these thoughts back in May after the notorious Wannacry incident: just as hundreds of top experts were discussing the most highbrowed cybersecurity problems at our European Identity and Cloud Conference, a primitive piece of malware exploiting a long-fixed problem in Windows operating system has disrupted hundreds of thousands computers around the world, affecting organizations from public hospitals to international telecom providers. How could this even have happened? All right, those poor underfunded and understaffed British hospitals at least have an (still questionable) excuse for not being able to maintain the most basic cybersecurity hygiene principles within their IT departments. But what excuse do large enterprises have for letting their users open phishing emails and not having proper backups of their servers?

“But users do not care about their security or privacy,” people say. This can’t be further from truth though! People care about not being killed very much, so they arm themselves with guns. People care about their finances, so they do not keep their money under mattresses. And people surely care about their privacy, so they buy curtains and lock their doors. However, many people still do not realize that having an antivirus on their mobile phone is just as important for their financial stability and sometimes even physical safety as having a gun on their night table. And even those who are already aware of that, are often sold security products like some kind of magical amulets that are supposed to solve their problems without any effort. But should users really be blamed for that?

With enterprises, the situation is often even worse. Apparently, a substantial percentage of security products purchased by companies never even gets deployed at all. And more often than not, even those that get deployed, will be actively sabotaged by users who see them as a nuisance hindering their business productivity. Add the “shadow IT” problem into the mix, and you’ll realize that many companies that spend millions on cybersecurity are not really getting any substantial return of their investments. This is a classical example of a cargo cult. Sometimes, after reading about another large-scale security breach I cannot completely suppress a mental image of a firewall made out of a cardboard box or a wooden backup appliance not connected to anything.

However, the exact reason for my today’s rant is somewhat different and, in my opinion, even more troubling. While reading the documentation for a security-related product of one reputable vendor, I’ve realized that it uses an external MySQL database to store its configuration. That got me thinking: a security product is sold with a promise to add a layer of protection around an existing business application with known vulnerabilities. However, this security product itself relies on another application with known vulnerabilities (MySQL isn’t exactly known for its security) to fulfill its basic functions. Is the resulting architecture even a tiny bit more secure? Not at all – due to added complexity it’s in fact even more open to malicious attacks.

Unfortunately, this approach towards secure software design is very common. The notorious Heartbleed vulnerability of the OpenSSL cryptographic library has affected millions of systems around the world back in 2014, and three years later at least 200.000 still have not been patched. Of course, software vendors have their reasons for not investing into security of their products: after all, just like any other business, they are struggling to bring their products to the market as quickly as possible, and often they have neither budgets nor enough qualified specialists to design a properly secured one.

Nowadays, this problem is especially evident in consumer IoT products, and this definitely needs a whole separate blog post to cover. However, security vendors not making their products sufficiently secure pose an even greater danger: as I mentioned earlier, for many individuals and organizations, a cybersecurity product is a modern equivalent of a safe. Or an armored car. Or an insulin pump. How can we trust a security product that in fact is about as reliable as a safe with plywood walls?

Well, if you’ve read my past blog posts, you probably know that I’m a strong proponent of government regulation of cybersecurity. I know that this idea isn’t exactly popular among software vendors, but is there really a viable alternative? After all, gunsmiths or medical equipment manufacturers have been under strict government control for ages, and even security guards and private investigators must obtain licenses first. Why not security vendors? For modern digital businesses, the reliability of cybersecurity products is at least as important as pick resistance of their door locks.

Unfortunately, this kind of government regulation isn’t probably going to happen anytime soon, so companies looking for security solutions are still stuck with the “Caveat Emptor” principle. Without enough own experience to judge whether a particular product is really capable of fulfilling its declared functionality, one, of course, should turn to an independent third party for a qualified advice. For example, to an analyst house like us :)

However, the next most useful thing to look for is probably certification according to government or industry standards. For example, when choosing an encryption solution, it’s wise to look for a FIPS 140-2 certification with level 2 or higher. There are appropriate security certifications for cloud service providers, financial institutions, industrial networks, etc.

In any case, do not take any vendor’s claims for granted. Ask for details regarding the architecture of their products, which security standards they implement or whether they rely on open source libraries or third-party products. The more pressure about secure design you put on vendors, the higher are the chances that in the future, they will see security by design as their unique selling proposition and not a waste of resources. And as always, when you don’t know where to start, just ask an expert!

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