Ransomware attacks on the JBS beef plant, and the Colonial Pipeline before it, have sparked a now familiar set of reactions. There are promises of retaliation against the groups responsible, the prospect of company executives being brought in front of Congress in the coming months, and even a proposed executive order on cybersecurity that could take months to fully implement.
But once again, amid this flurry of activity, we must ask or answer a fundamental question about the state of our cybersecurity defense: Why does this keep happening?
I have a theory on why. In software development, there is a concept called “technical debt.” It describes the costs companies pay when they choose to build software the easy (or fast) way instead of the right way, cobbling together temporary solutions to satisfy a short-term need. Over time, as teams struggle to maintain a patchwork of poorly architectured applications, tech debt accrues in the form of lost productivity or poor customer experience.
Our nation’s cybersecurity defenses are laboring under the burden of a similar debt. Only the scale is far greater, the stakes are higher and the interest is compounding. The true cost of this “cybersecurity debt” is difficult to quantify. Though we still do not know the exact cause of either attack, we do know beef prices will be significantly impacted and gas prices jumped 8 cents on news of the Colonial Pipeline attack, costing consumers and businesses billions. The damage done to public trust is incalculable.
How did we get here? The public and private sectors are spending more than $4 trillion a year in the digital arms race that is our modern economy. The goal of these investments is speed and innovation. But in pursuit of these ambitions, organizations of all sizes have assembled complex, uncoordinated systems — running thousands of applications across multiple private and public clouds, drawing on data from hundreds of locations and devices.
Complexity is the enemy of security. Some companies are forced to put together as many as 50 different security solutions from up to 10 different vendors to protect their sprawling technology estates — acting as a systems integrator of sorts. Every node in these fantastically complicated networks is like a door or window that might be inadvertently left open. Each represents a potential point of failure and an exponential increase in cybersecurity debt.
We have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to update the architectural foundations of our digital infrastructure and pay off our cybersecurity debt. To accomplish this, two critical steps must be taken.
First, we must embrace open standards across all critical digital infrastructure, especially the infrastructure used by private contractors to service the government. Until recently, it was thought that the only way to standardize security protocols across a complex digital estate was to rebuild it from the ground up in the cloud. But this is akin to replacing the foundations of a home while still living in it. You simply cannot lift-and-shift massive, mission-critical workloads from private data centers to the cloud.
There is another way: Open, hybrid cloud architectures can connect and standardize security across any kind of infrastructure, from private data centers to public clouds, to the edges of the network. This unifies the security workflow and increases the visibility of threats across the entire network (including the third- and fourth-party networks where data flows) and orchestrates the response. It essentially eliminates weak links without having to move data or applications — a design point that should be embraced across the public and private sectors.
The second step is to close the remaining loopholes in the data security supply chain. President Biden’s executive order requires federal agencies to encrypt data that is being stored or transmitted. We have an opportunity to take that a step further and also address data that is in use. As more organizations outsource the storage and processing of their data to cloud providers, expecting real-time data analytics in return, this represents an area of vulnerability.
Many believe this vulnerability is simply the price we pay for outsourcing digital infrastructure to another company. But this is not true. Cloud providers can, and do, protect their customers’ data with the same ferocity as they protect their own. They do not need access to the data they store on their servers. Ever.
To ensure this requires confidential computing, which encrypts data at rest, in transit and in process. Confidential computing makes it technically impossible for anyone without the encryption key to access the data, not even your cloud provider. At IBM, for example, our customers run workloads in the IBM Cloud with full privacy and control. They are the only ones that hold the key. We could not access their data even if compelled by a court order or ransom request. It is simply not an option.
Paying down the principal on any kind of debt can be daunting, as anyone with a mortgage or student loan can attest. But this is not a low-interest loan. As the JBS and Colonial Pipeline attacks clearly demonstrate, the cost of not addressing our cybersecurity debt spans far beyond monetary damages. Our food and fuel supplies are at risk, and entire economies can be disrupted.
I believe that with the right measures — strong public and private collaboration — we have an opportunity to construct a future that brings forward the combined power of security and technological advancement built on trust.