What You Can Learn About IT Security From the Emerging World

An unfamiliar and challenging environment can be the ideal position to rethink effective strategies for success.

I was privileged to spend a month in Africa with IBM’s Corporate Service Corps program working on a project to help local organizations capitalize on their business potential. It was a valuable partnership for the local region and the IBM team. Even five years later, I continue to work lessons from the program into my professional career in IT security. The lessons span beyond the project work down to the daily life experience; the intersection between the two provided great insight into effective skills for addressing challenges.

For example, our dining needs depended on local restaurants, where it often took well over an hour to get a “simple” meal, and it was nearly impossible to get a drink refill while we waited. Initially, we tried to be more generous with our tipping, but that didn’t produce the desired results. Then, we stepped back and asked our local colleagues for guidance.

It turns out that we were making two assumptions that undermined our goal. First, we assumed the menu reflected the available options — it didn’t. The local custom is to show what the restaurant would like to serve, but that didn’t necessarily mean it had the necessary ingredients.

We also assumed that tips belonged to the server — they don’t. Once again foiled by our assumptions, we didn’t realize the tips went to the house and therefore had no influence on the server’s attention to us.

In adapting, we learned to ask what could be made on any given evening before we ordered and tipped appropriately without expecting it to influence our service.

The following are three principles from the Corporate Service Corps experience I apply every day as a security professional:

1. Break Down Challenges Into Fundamental Blocks

When you are dealing with the complex challenges from the multitude of advanced threats targeting enterprises today, it is essential to deconstruct the threat activity into well-defined fundamental units.

Do you understand the motivations of the bad actors targeting your enterprise? When looking at a potential or actual threat scenario, do you dissect each step of the attack sequence to understand the weaknesses exploited and the mitigation options? Or do you look at the anatomy of the entire attack picture?

2. Assumptions Are Dangerous

Arriving in a new geography with a minimal understanding of the culture, customs and business philosophies, I learned assumptions can be very counterproductive to progress, as demonstrated by our restaurant experience.

What are the assumptions your security program is making? Are you expecting the threat actors to always use traditional ingress and egress points? This is not likely with the complexity of today’s interconnected business ecosystems and the Internet of Things. Do you assume trust for your privileged users? Remember, these folks have the greatest permission to your most sensitive assets.

3. Have Several Plans for Your IT Security Program

I firmly believe that without a plan, you only succeed by luck. In the region of Africa I visited, many of the residents routinely carry three cell phones. The logic here is that at least one of the towers of the three primary mobile providers will have power at any given time. Electricity was the critical factor in determining mobile service availability, so the population established its own unique approach to high availability. Today’s threats are able to evade traditional defenses, and no single control or approach is going to sufficiently secure enterprise resources.

Is your program ready for the patient, skilled and motivated attacker? Have you exercised contingency plans in your cybersecurity preparations? Threat actors have a multiphased mentality that requires new and more coordinated thinking by the IT security organization.

Have you applied emerging world thinking into your IT security program? You might be surprised by the value and knowledge gained by looking at the challenges through a different lens.

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Ryan Fanzone

IBM Security Systems

Ryan is a member of the Security Tiger Team member within IBM Security Systems. He has 17 years experience with various security roles and business units within IBM and holds an MBA in Information Leveraged Management. His specialty is working in complex customer environments challenged with user, data, application, and infrastructure security controls. In 2009, Ryan completed an international assignment in Africa with IBM’s selective Corporate Service Corp, a leadership Program within IBM’s Global Citizen Portfolio, which provides high quality problem solving for communities and organizations in emerging markets.