The new year brings a chance to reset, restart, and set goals while reflecting on the past year’s accomplishments. With each coming year, new technological advancements are made, but we cannot forget our history or we are doomed to repeat it.
Reflecting on how our past and present often overlap in unexpected ways in two of his 2021 Forbes articles, Ntirety CEO Emil Sayegh references classic literature pieces, showing how their timeless themes provide a familiar perspective to modern-day cybersecurity issues. Explore these themes and perspectives from his articles Never Truly Quiet On The ‘Western Front’ and Who Will The Cybersecurity Bells Toll For? highlighted below..
Never Truly Quiet On The ‘Western Front’
First released in the late 1920s, the novel All Quiet on the Western Front was publicly burned, banned, derided, and censored for its “anti-war” and “unpatriotic” messages. Set in the final weeks of World War I, the story swings heavily on the contrast between false security and the realities of war. Today, we are talking about a different war that is dynamically morphing between a physical war and cyber war. A real cyber war has been raging on the front lines of computer networks for a while and we must remain vigilant to the fact that an eerie silence may be the biggest threat of all.
All Quiet on the Western Front was described as the most loved and hated novel about war; its messages threatened Nazi ideologies, sparking riots, mob attacks, and public demonstrations, yet it inspired an Academy Award-winning 1930 movie adaptation. Author Erich Maria Remarque may not have foreseen its full impact, but the story is laced with imagery describing starving soldiers, the brutally indiscriminate nature of (then) modern weapons, lost limbs, poison gas, and death—lots of death.
False Sense of Security: Peace Before Death
On the frontlines of computing, there is a false and persistent sense of security among CIOs, company boards, and most security professionals that reminded me of the end of this novel. Over the years, the phrase “all quiet on the Western Front” has been adopted in innumerable contexts to mean a lack of visible change or stagnation. It seems this is where many organizations are stuck today under this false sense of security.
The final moments of the novel are (spoiler) deceivingly peaceful, contrasting with the overarching setting of war and its effects. It is in these moments, in the last “situation reports” from the military frontlines, where a false state of calm and security that belied the coming death of the story’s protagonist. It seems like the most important lessons in life must be learned time and again.
That Silence You Hear is a Sign
Across the landscape of organizations, there is a definite cyber war raging, and I am not talking about Call of Duty. You don’t have to read news headlines for very long to see that there are casualties all around us. There is an enemy lurking and there are no rules to hold them back. Defensively natured as cybersecurity practices can be, there are offensive principles that are a necessary part of the posture. That begins with an understanding that there is always a calm before the storm; and in today’s climate, we cannot afford the reassuring sense that all is well at any given point in time.
Let us set the stage of this sea of “calm”:
- APT – In the age that followed the global pandemic, nothing in cybersecurity stopped that entire time. Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) continued and according to countless reports and breaches, they have accelerated.
- Mobile – Reports also show that mobile threats to the web and applications have gained more traction under new campaigns.
- Diversity – Hacker creativity is at an all-time high, with actors bringing in waves of zero-day threats into supply chain software attacks, phishing, and ransomware. Experienced groups and new players are combining forces and found new nearly undetectable ways to exchange information.
- Maximum Impact – Fueled and inspired by changing workforce composition as well as user behaviors, attacks today are designed to express maximum impact, driven by geo-political goals and financial gains.
All the while, threat visibility has proven itself to be riddled with blindspots as hacks and incident reports continue to show compromised detection, a gap in understanding, and shortcomings in proper security practices. To add to these factors, technology continues to change, accelerate, and evolve—on both sides, while a crisis of talent resources continues. We can also see that intrusion incidents lead to ad hoc approaches to security funding, adding ineffective layers to cybersecurity health especially when spending tails off when all seems well.
A Time to Act
When things seem calm, follow these general guidelines and remember that only the paranoid survive a cyber war like this one:
- Actively and proactively leverage multiple sources of Threat Intelligence and trusted resources to monitor the latest methods, tools, tactics, and keep a watchful eye on the roost on a daily or even hourly basis.
- Always verify and never trust. It is always a good time for zero-trust authentication and a zero trust posture throughout the organization. This protects systems outside and inside the “castle.”
- Detect, investigate, respond, and remediate issues on every endpoint, application, service, and server system. Commit to timely and near instant responses.
- Spin up more security awareness training to help minimize social engineering, phishing, and other user-focused attacks.
- If you can’t do these items on your own, and very likely you won’t, engage partners that specialize in a comprehensive security posture.
All is Not Quiet
North, south, east, west, up, down, or sideways—all is not quiet, or well, on the security front (and it never should be). Don’t hide the truth with skin-deep positive “situation reports” and always verify. Embark on a comprehensive security strategy that starts with the honest identification of your environment’s threats, then work to secure your environments comprehensively. After these two first basic steps, it is critical to also prepare for the eventuality of a breach with a fully vetted disaster recovery strategy. The final step is to continually assure and ensure that there are no gaps in your security posture through an assurance and compliance program that takes new threat vectors, and compliance requirements into account. Remember, there’s a massive storm out there even if you don’t see it or hear it. Silence is not golden, it’s a false sign of security. Let’s take lessons from All Quiet on the Western Front and avoid the horrors of an actual war.
Who Will The Cybersecurity Bells Toll For?
From Room 511 in a famed Cuban hotel, the iconic writer Ernest Hemingway authored some of his most acclaimed works. One of his most famous books was For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was completed in 1940. Inspired by his observations in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway weaved the tale of a loss of innocence, psychological and physical trauma, death, and human nature during times of war. The work was revolutionary and controversial as it deconstructed romanticized wartime concepts of bravery and contrasted them with the sheer impact of then-modern weapons. It even inspired the Metallica song “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” as a lyrical adaptation of a particular scene from the book. There are various interesting parallels from this story to the modern world we currently live in and more specifically the cybersecurity arena.
The bell toll is a symbol of death, which carries a dark theme throughout the novel. From beginning to end, most of its characters manage to consider their own potential deaths or inflicting death upon others. This heavy tone and the plot narrative between fascists and the forces of resistance provided the perfect setting for the Second World War, which was brewing at the time the book was released.
A Setting Reimagined
The knowledge of historical works allow us to better navigate our present and future. As the saying goes, “If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.” The lessons from Hemingway’s novel translate very well to our world today, and more specifically to the cyberwar that is raging now. The bells keep tolling for the daily victims of hackers, while we have unfortunately become apathetic due to the frequency of those attacks. In cyber warfare, we may not always be able to see the enemy with our own eyes, but the threats and actors are as real as they come. The bell could arrive for anyone, at any time, when we least expect it.
Joining the Resistance
The Spanish fascists from the story are a lot like the organized cybercriminal gangs of today. Sponsored, nefarious, and destructive in their ways, today’s misguided hackers seem to fancy themselves as guerilla forces, yet they are nothing but the makings of a Big Brother criminal network. The companies that try to defend themselves from this coordinated system of attacks fulfill the role of the “Resistance.” Organizations that are fighting back today must be resourceful and diligent in tactics. They should put themselves in a position to also refuse to acquiesce to the impact of a ransomware incident, just as we saw with the catastrophic attack against Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) organization. HSE joined the “resistance” and refused to pay the ransom, as they had a disaster recovery plan in place. In another extreme, we witnessed the twin sagas of the Colonial Pipeline along the JBS meat producer plant and how, faced with little choice, these two organizations cowardly paid massive ransoms in hopes of recovering data and operations.
A Wasteland of Attacks and the Endless Wave
The main story-derived lesson for organizations today comes straight out of the title. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your security budget is, you cannot successfully assume that the bell will only “toll” for someone else. Just ask FireEye, SolarWinds, Kaseya, or even Peloton. You can even ask the federal government itself regarding some of its disclosed and undisclosed hacks. Here is the simple reality: 30,000 websites and applications are hacked every day with an attempted attack happening every 39 seconds. This industry is filled with conversations and false narratives of the latest security product lineups, cyber capabilities and reports of how attacks were averted. The reality is that security standards are obsolete the moment they are released. The security landscape is evolving daily, and very few static standards are going to guard against zero-day, novel threats.
Not an Island
It can be safely stated and significantly inspired by Hemingway that “no man is an island,” and similarly that no company stands alone. It is not revolutionary to state that anyone can be a target, but at what point does targeting become real and inspire preparation, budgeting, and deploying best of breed safeguards? Far too often, we are called to address this question after the facts of a breach become clear. It is not too late for the community or for any company to mind the bells of attack.
Every organization holds the opportunity to mature security and privacy programs and be fully aware and best positioned for the modern challenge of cybersecurity by leveraging facts, expertise, monitoring, and knowledge about what is vulnerable about their digital presence and valuable. The realization is that when data drives actions and security is comprehensively implemented throughout a formless and endless perimeter, you can escape the trap of false security “standards.”
Beyond the Chaos
It all starts with an identification of gaps and threats and securing against those threats. Disaster recovery planning follows, since no matter the security measures, the enemy may still break through the defenses. The journey of cybersecurity cannot be complete without an assurance program that maps to the never ending quest to find ways to stay a step ahead of the enemies and ahead of our personal limiting concepts. An awakening must happen through the sharing of the phenomenal cybersecurity statistics that line the battlegrounds of today. From the frontlines of cybersecurity, there are so many close calls and so many seemingly minor events that can be the first of a chain of “perfect storm” events that lead to a major security incident. This happens thousands of times per day.
All the while, strewn among the spent tools of cyber warfare are targets that defy simple definitions. No business domain is immune, and it matters little whether an attack is launched against large or small organizations, profit or not for profit, public or private. No one is safe—plan accordingly.
Classic literature remains relevant because of its timeless themes that even after a decade or a century still stands and can be related to modern people. History may repeat itself, and we must continue to prepare for any possible scenario in the cyber field.
Schedule an assessment with us today to learn more about preventative security measures you can take to secure your cyber environment.