Checkmate: How to Win the Cybersecurity Game

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a battle raging today. On one side are cyberattackers, on the other are those who want to defend our privacy and personal accounts — as well as our businesses, economy and national security. Some call it a war without bullets or bombs. That’s not exactly right; I think it’s more fitting to say that cybersecurity is a game.

You might be thinking, “A game? Like cat and mouse? This isn’t ‘Tom and Jerry’ or ‘Itchy and Scratchy.’ You’re understating the problem.”

Hear me out.

In the early days of the web and the personal computer, hacking was a game for a small group of skilled hobbyists who recognized before the rest of us how insecure our digital world really was. The early hackers tested the bounds of what they could do — and what they could get away with.

But while some treated hacking as a game, others began to realize the potential for criminal behavior. And that potential was no laughing matter.

Download the Free e-Book: Staying Ahead in the Cyber Security Game

Why Cybersecurity Is More Like a Game of Chess Than a War

Nearly 20 years ago, viruses such as the Melissa virus and Love Bug worm were causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage, hijacking email servers, corrupting corporate and government documents, and forcing systems to shut down. Today, cybercrime is a global plague that will cost the world economy $6 trillion annually by 2021, according to Cybersecurity Ventures.

As cybercriminals, nation-state attackers and hacktivist groups have become more sophisticated, the security industry has grown up to defend our national security as well as the vital interests of businesses and consumers. Gradually, the battle between attackers and defenders has become something akin to an arms race: New types of attacks lead to new defenses to block them. Security innovations become outdated as soon as attackers find ways around them. Meanwhile, cyberattackers continue rely on social engineering tricks that are hard to defend against.

Yet for the chief information security officer (CISO), or whoever is in charge of information security in your organization, cybersecurity is a game of chess. There are many pieces to move, and your strategy needs to keep tabs on all of them. You must adjust to your adversaries’ moves, move aggressively against attackers and protect your king at all costs. The cybersecurity game continues, but even as the stakes are rising, the rules are changing. It’s now more complicated than ever.

And just as the cost of cybercrime is growing, businesses are faced with further issues: They spend enormous sums of money on cybersecurity products — I’ve seen clients with as many as 85 different security products from 45 different vendors. All of these have to be installed, configured, learned, managed, patched and upgraded. What a nightmare! Especially given the shortage of skilled workers to help manage them.

So, what can you do to stay ahead in this always-evolving cybersecurity game? Simply throwing resources at the problem won’t fix it. Tacking on the latest software-as-a-service (SaaS) product with no support won’t solve it, either. Educating employees in security best practices is essential, but it’s still not enough. In fact, nothing you do in isolation will solve the problem — or allow you to “win” the game.

How to Stay Ahead in the Cybersecurity Game

A few years ago, IBM Security worked with a business partner, Sogeti, to create a resource to help organizations navigate these challenges. Called “Staying Ahead in the Cyber Security Game,” this practical guide aims to provide CISOs and other security professionals and IT executives with an insightful view of key considerations for refining their cybersecurity strategies.

Of course, a lot has changed since the e-book was published in 2014 — including the increasing importance of application and cloud security, the emergence of new regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), advances in cybercrime like crypto-ransomware, and the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) in analyzing threats and giving security operations centers (SOCs) an edge.

Yet there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed, and there’s still plenty of solid, strategic advice in this book — I think it captures roughly 90 percent of the biggest cybersecurity challenges businesses faced a few years ago and continue to struggle with today. The book clearly identifies these challenges and offers tangible steps for dealing with them. Some of the topics covered include:

  • Alignment between security and IT operations in creating a plan for incident response;
  • Security by design in the software development process;
  • Shadow IT and how businesses accommodate cloud-based applications to enable workers;
  • Making security work for users so they don’t need to work around it;
  • Thinking like an attacker and finding your own weaknesses before the bad guys do;
  • How to recover from a breach — because it’s a matter of when, not if; and
  • Learning how to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

I’ve seen the move from theory and speculation to reality on a number of these topics. I have found it fascinating to take clients to our X-Force Command Cyber Range and work with them to help prepare. Response and preparation have become key steps to manage cybersecurity incidents, but paper-based exercises no longer cut it; we’re in an era where practice and simulation are necessary.

I often reflect on something seemingly simple, like learning how to swim. It’s hard to learn to swim by simply reading a book or watching a video; you need to get in the water, immerse yourself, and practice and train.

Available in e-book form, “Staying Ahead in the Cyber Security Game” is free of charge and ready to download. You can read it in whole or in parts, jumping around depending on the nature of your organization’s specific challenges.

Martin Borrett

IBM Distinguished Engineer and CTO IBM Security Europe

Martin Borrett is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and CTO IBM Security Europe. He advises clients at the most senior...