Cybersecurity challenges drive adoption of zero trust

Executives at this Washington Technology Executive Perspectives roundtable described how the type of threats in today's cybersecurity landscape are well known, but the frequency of attacks and types of targets continue to grow.

The need to improve our cybersecurity posture is a no brainer but that doesn’t make it an easy proposition.

Executives at this Washington Technology Executive Perspectives roundtable described how the type of threats in today's cybersecurity landscape are well known, but the frequency of attacks and types of targets continue to grow.

But they also see optimism stemming from President Biden’s May 12 Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity and how it advances concepts such as zero trust.

During our discussion, the executives often referred back to the executive order as laying a foundation for progress. But they also made it clear that there is no endpoint; no moment when constant vigilance is no longer the standard of good cyber hygiene.

This virtual discussion is part of a series of roundtables that Washington Technology has been conducting this year with industry executives. We convene a group of top executives in the market to share their insights. The discussion is on the record, but we operate under Chatham House rules in that comments will not be attributed to the individuals nor their companies. See the sidebar to view who attended our cybersecurity discussion.

Our previous Executive Perspectives have resulted in articles on innovation and culture, digital transformation, and the future of the workforce.

To kick off the cybersecurity discussion, we started with a simple question: How has the state of cybersecurity changed in the last decade?

The simple answer from several executives was that the type of attacks haven’t changed significantly and while nation-state led attacks have increased, they also have been around for more than a decade.

“But we’ve seen an incredible increase in scale and the threats are touching a wider-swath of industry, government and individuals,” one executive said.

The attack on the elections is a prime example of the expansion of targets.

PARTICIPANTS

Allen Badeau

Chief Technology Officer, NCI Information Systems

Daniel Carroll

Field CTO for Cybersecurity, Dell Technologies

Ian Dickinson

Chief Operating Officer, Bryce Technologies

Sujey Edward

CTO, Octo Consulting

Garland Garris

Senior Cyber Security Lead, Accenture Federal

Larry Henry

Chief Technology Officer, GDIT

Jeff Mims

Chief Technologist, Leidos

Jason Starkey

Director, Technical Services, Darkblade Systems

Bobbie Stempfley

Vice President, Dell Technologies

Note: Washington Technology Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman led the roundtable discussion. The September virtual gathering was underwritten by Dell Technologies, but both the substance of the discussion and the published article are strictly editorial products. Neither Dell nor any of the participants had input beyond their September comments.

“We hadn’t seen that prior to 2016,” that executive said.

Executives have also noticed a change from the attackers in that they aren’t concerned if their attacks are exposed, particularly the nation-state actors. Today’s bad actors possess a brazenness that is new.

With the growth of targets there is wider recognition of the vulnerabilities we all face. For years cyberattacks have made the headlines in the news. A company or agency being breached is "so common now that it’s old news,” one executive said.

But then there was the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack last year.

“Gas prices went up because something happened,” that executive said. “People saw that it was affecting their day-to-day lives. That’s significant.”

There also have been attacks on hospitals, another direct impact that can’t be ignored, another exec said.

“People are being attacked now that were never attacked before,” one person said.

The wider attacks also are indicative of the wider dependence on data. The threat actors have recognized this and will drive ever growing range of targets for future attacks. “This is just the beginning,” one participant said.

Among the wider targets are individuals doing their 9-to-5 jobs as well as operational IT that is being pulled into enterprise IT.

“We’re seeing a broader spectrum of targets that haven’t been targeted before and there is a lack of knowledge because prior to today they weren’t seen as a target,” an executive said.

The plus-side is that the chief information officer or the chief information security officer don’t have to convince the business side of operations that cybersecurity is important. No longer are there concerns that enhanced security will slow down operations. “Now it is a true business problem,” one said.

The conversation with the executives turned to solutions and how the nature of IT has changed significantly with remote workers, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things. Remote workers and the proliferation of IoT devices and sensors has greatly expanded the attack surface hackers can use.

Gaining traction is the concept of zero trust as a way of protecting the enterprise.

“It isn’t new thinking,” one person said. “It’s the idea that you have to protect inside your systems and you only give people as much access as they need to do their job.”

Zero trust also relies on the idea that bad actors are always in your systems. The concept of a castle and moat type of protection is long gone.

“The zero trust model gets you into a place where you can control movement inside your assets,” another executive said.

One other participant used the analogy of building a naval vessel, where it has compartments that can be sealed off to keep the ship afloat. It’s the idea of segmentation. That approach forces a discussion of what organizations are going to segment and how information is going to flow back-and-forth across the enterprise.

Decisions also must be made on what the most valuable assets are -- those that can't get breached, or else the mission fails.

It starts with good IT governance and a system inventory because “if you don’t know what you’re defending then you can’t really defend it,” one person said.

While zero trust sounds restrictive and something that could make things harder, the group said it actually improves the user experience because it allows organizations to use multi-factor authentication along with a single sign on.

Multi-factor authentication helps mitigate password-based attacks that account for about 80 percent of the cyberattacks, roundtable participants estimated.

Wider use of zero trust will go a long way in securing enterprise IT, but the executives shared that hackers are always evolving and new technologies can be a double-edge sword.

Artificial intelligence is an example of a powerful tool for cyber defense but the bad actors of the world also use AI to improve their attacks.

“It seems the very tech that we’re building to protect ourselves is the same tech that’s being weaponized against us,” one executive said. “We’re seeing a lot of sophisticated use of AI and machine learning.”

The bad actor’s AI can often learn about the defensive AI based on how it defends an attack, another executive said.

“You need AI models that are constantly retraining and learning and constantly being ahead,” that executive added. “We are just at the beginning parts of that.”

It seems all of the roundtables include a discussion about people and this one was no different particularly when we started talking about AI.

“There’s a lack of talent around AI and that’s the ‘keep me up late at night’ type of thing for me,” an executive said.

Automation may be a possible solution.

“You get rid of the mundane through automation and you can focus on closing the skills gap,” a participant said. “You don’t want to overwhelm your security professionals with mundane tasks that don’t require their deep thinking.”

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