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. That was unfortunately a stark example of ill preparedness and even corporate cowardice.

A Wasteland of Attacks and the Endless Wave

The main story-derived lesson for organizations today however 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 actually 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. Through it all, there is a build-up of a concept of security standards that seemingly give organizations a false sense of security. 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.

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