Could you continue to operate under cyberattack?

I try to be cautious with my use of the term “cyber war.” It is used much too often to describe any type of unpleasant online activity, and its misuse confuses our thinking about the very real threats of military engagement in cyberspace. But there is at least one area in which the military model of operation can be a useful model in cybersecurity.

In an IT environment where compromise is becoming inevitable, the concept of mitigating damage while operating in a degraded environment is becoming increasingly applicable.

An army does its best to protect itself from attack, but military leaders understand that when battle comes they will suffer losses and will be fighting under less-than-optimal conditions, often in situations not of their choosing. An army that cannot continue to operate under those conditions will likely lose the battle.

IT security traditionally has focused on defense, originally copying the military concept of a secure perimeter and defense in depth with multiple lines of protection. This concept has become less practical with the blurring or elimination of a recognizable perimeter in the enterprise. Attention has shifted to the security of individual components or functions of the enterprise, such as data, communications and access. But the stance still is defensive, and response is almost an afterthought.

In the past couple of years, however, a new reality has become apparent: Compromise is inevitable. It has always been acknowledged that complete security is impossible, but people are now beginning to take the implications of this seriously. In fact, the National Institute of Standards and Technology recognized this in a revision of its guidelines for incident response.

“Preventative activities based on the results of risk assessments can lower the number of incidents, but not all incidents can be prevented,” the NIST authors write in the new release of Special Publication 800-61. “An incident response capability is therefore necessary for rapidly detecting incidents, minimizing loss and destruction, mitigating the weaknesses that were exploited, and restoring computing services.”

IT security traditionally has focused on defense, originally copying the military concept of a secure perimeter and defense in depth with multiple lines of protection. This concept has become less practical with the blurring or elimination of a recognizable perimeter in the enterprise. Attention has shifted to the security of individual components or functions of the enterprise, such as data, communications and access. But the stance still is defensive, and response is almost an afterthought.

In the past couple of years, however, a new reality has become apparent: Compromise is inevitable. It has always been acknowledged that complete security is impossible, but people are now beginning to take the implications of this seriously. In fact, the National Institute of Standards and Technology recognized this in a revision of its guidelines for incident response.

“Preventative activities based on the results of risk assessments can lower the number of incidents, but not all incidents can be prevented,” the NIST authors write in the new release of Special Publication 800-61. “An incident response capability is therefore necessary for rapidly detecting incidents, minimizing loss and destruction, mitigating the weaknesses that were exploited, and restoring computing services.”

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