Cybersecurity and cyber-resilience – Equally important but different

The  October Mirai-based IoT attack demonstrated an important and often neglected consequence of technology’s expansion into every aspect of our daily lives, as well as into the systems that underpin our economies and societies. We have never been as exposed to cyberattacks and because technology’s pervasiveness in our lives the possible consequences of attacks, such as the one that occurred last month, are going to be more widespread and troublesome than in the past.

The particulars of the attack, from its scale to the use of everyday devices such as webcams, are interesting and worrying in themselves (see here and here for excellent pieces) but they also raise a key question. Security professionals have long accepted that no interconnected system will ever be 100% secure, and that there will soon come a time when even the fundamental underpinnings of the Internet itself could be put at genuine risk of failure due to cyberattacks. If this is the case, should the resources we put into preventing successful cyberattacks be matched by our preparations for handling the a successful attack’s consequences? In other words, shouldn’t cyber-resilience be treated on a par with cybersecurity?

From a policy-making perspective, one challenge in answering this question is that there is no global definition of cyber-resilience, and therefore only limited agreement on how to achieve it. Even if we can sidestep this theoretical hurdle and consider how we could design our systems (social, commercial, political) so that they would be able to continue to operate at some level in the face of “black-swan” violations of those systems’ fundamental assumptions, we are not much closer to a solution. Suggesting we plan for even a brief period where, for example, there is simply no electricity may seem like planning for the sun not rising one morning. The reality is, however, that cyberattacks are not zero sum games where a breach means unavoidable system failure. With complex technologies there will be as many ways of working around an attack, as there are ways of carrying it out. Investing in cyber-resilience will make this practicable.

How could that be achieved? I believe it will be critical that we focus on readiness, responsiveness and being able to reinvent our systems and processes over the course of a cyberattack. Readiness is a long-term function, underpinned by assessing and managing risks, and developing capabilities for response and recovery in the event of disruptions. Responsiveness is the detection, identification and alleviation of a cyberattack as it happens, keeping systems functioning in the process of doing so. Reinvention will lead off from the response, and should seek to adapt to what might be either a period of extended stress or a short, sharp shock, finding new ways to protect systems and deliver services that have been disrupted.

The structures and processes necessary for this kind of cyber-resilience are distinct from those that go into cybersecurity, although there are some shared technical skills and processes. For any organization realistically comparing its cybersecurity needs with its cyber-resilience needs, however, the differences between the two are clear. Specifically, resilience requires there to be a focus on culture, as much as there is on technology. Organizational leadership needs to set forward-looking, outcome-oriented goals with clear accountability, and to foster planning at all levels. Creativity in managerial, operational, and technological approaches is also essential, encouraging teams facing the consequences of a cyberattack to take risks, fail fast, learn faster, and maintain a can-do attitude in the face of adversity. Investment in research, education, and identification of best practices needs to underpin this cultural aspect in the long-term.

In conclusion, cybersecurity and cyber-resilience should be recognized as two distinct, but complementary disciplines. These disciplines grow more crucial with the rapid evolution and increasing ubiquity of technology in our modern society. For now, cybersecurity gets more headlines than resilience amongst political and business leaders, but one without the other will never be enough to secure our societies and economies or sufficient to withstand the chronic stresses and acute shocks.


About the Author
Paul Nicholas

Senior Director, Trustworthy Computing

Paul Nicholas leads Microsoft’s Global Security Strategy and Diplomacy Team, which focuses on driving strategic change, both within Microsoft and externally, to advance infrastructure security and resiliency. His team addresses global challenges related to risk management, incident response, emergency communications, Read more »