The best odds for beating cyber attacks

The head-in-the-sand, deer-in-the-headlights, non-approach to cybersecurity is giving way to the collaboration that will be needed to stay ahead of future threats.

By Jim Montague

As I'm writing this, what I suspect is a cellulitis  infection is making my left ankle hot, red and swollen. What's worse, it looks like it's getting ready to charge up my leg like Gen. Sherman through Georgia. No kidding. It's even getting a litte painful to walk.

Luckily, I've encountered a couple of these sneaky, tissue-based bacterial baddies before, and I know the swift application of a mainstream antibiotic should stop it in its tracks. Unless, it's not a simple staphylococcus and streptococcus infection, and is instead one of today's increasingly prevalent, drug-resistant microbes like methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA), which require broad-spectrum antibiotics—and sometimes laugh off even those drugs as they continue to evolve. I grudgingly admire their persistence, can-do attitude and innovative spirit.

Hopefully, I'm not toast, but I'm not worried because I know that jumping on this problem immediately, and religiously taking all seven to 10 days of my antibiotic gives me the best chance of a successful cure. So, I'm doing everything I can, and if some long-shot bacteria make things worse or much worse, then there wasn't anything else I could've done anyway.

Why the morbid and somewhat gross health lecture? Because it's probably the best cybersecurty metaphor ever, and there's been an extraheaping helping of hair-on-fire cyber threat/attack news in the past few weeks, which I thought warranted a clear-eyed response. 

Download: Béla Lipták on safety: Cybersecurity and nuclear power

First, news of the Triton malware attacking a Triconex safety system in the Middle East was reported on Dec. 14 by the FireEye and Dragos blogs. This incident was notable because it's reportedly the first time a safety instrumented system (SIS) has been attacked, even if it was because the safety controller was left in "program" mode, which allowed it to be reprogrammed.

The head-in-the-sand, deer-in-the-headlights, non-approach to cybersecurity is giving way to the collaboration that will be needed to stay ahead of future threats.

About the same time, the Meltdown and Spectre microprocessor vulnerabilities were reported by multiple sources. These aren't active viruses or exploits that intrude from outside, but they're reported to be flaws in most 486 microprocessors that may allow their previously untouchable kernel operating software to be hacked. Double yikes.

Of course, news of cyber probes, intrusions and attacks come in all the time. And, at least on the editorial side, they're always followed by a bunch of helpful experts and consultants willing to be interviewed about all the scary implications. If I were a more cynical person, I'd almost think the attacks were part of a larger marketing plan to sell cybersecurity software and services. Nah, that couldn't be true.

Anyway, the advice I've retained from practically all the sources I've included in more than a few years' worth of cybersecurity cover stories is the same as ever: turn on your passwords and other basic protections; evaluate your existing devices and networks; segment your networks with managed Ethernet switches used as firewalls; and continuously monitor and evaluate your network traffic with any of the many software-based tools available. Heck, many of these tools are way simpler to implement these days, will alert users if any suspicious traffic or behavior is found, and will likely soon be adding automatic mitigations, too. Cybersecurity is like most tasks, including healthcare—you do everything you can do, and try not to worry about what you can't do.

However, the really good news arrived when I was researching last month's "You can be a cybersecurity badass" cover story, because it was the first time that everyone wanted to be interviewed for it. Good news for me, but I think it really showed that the head-in-the-sand, deer-in-the-headlights, non-approach to cybersecurity is giving way to the collaboration that will be needed to stay ahead of future threats. One guy, Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin, but many others helped get my Cephalexin capsules into my mouth, including me.

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