Sprinkled throughout the course of history are flashpoints that were as unexpected as they were far-reaching. Catastrophic events like the September 11 attacks come immediately to mind, but so too does the birth of the Internet and the rise of Google.
These unprecedented, unpredictable events were given a name in 2007 by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb – black swans. In his book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” Taleb explains how, in the aftermath of these events, we try to find bread crumbs that could have possibly predicted the event. It’s human nature.
That’s why people are always so eager to determine what the next black swan will be, so that they can help spare the world some surprise when one does finally strike. The latest prediction comes from Chairman Greg Medcraft of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), who said: “The next black swan event will come from cyberspace. It is important that we pay attention.”
Threats of a Different Color
At first, it would seem as though Medcraft’s prediction isn’t all that surprising. How could it be, six months after President Obama announced new cybersecurity initiatives and, in the process, called network security threats “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation”? If the leader of the free world has identified something as a serious threat, then it probably doesn’t check the box for “unexpected” in the “black swan criteria” list.
Of course, that doesn’t make the threat of network security attacks any less dire. A black swan event could theoretically claim more victims than the Target breach, would leak much more damaging information than the Adobe hack, and would be more infamous than Heartbleed.
Consider, for instance, the recently reported NASDAQ breach. If the hackers involved in that breach were after more than information on the exchange’s technology, it may have led to dire consequences for the financial markets.
Where Will the Next Black Swan Land?
What’s most concerning about black swan threats is that, because they’re unexpected, unprecedented and rare, they’re impossible to plan for. It doesn’t matter if you’re an enterprise or the U.S. government.
Where organizations can defend themselves is against white swan threats – those that are expected and more common. The individual elements of a cybersecurity plan, such as firewalls and VPNs with central management capabilities, have proven that they can effectively combat white swan threats. To prevent black swan threats, though, network security administrators have to adopt a big picture view.
It all ties back to a defense in-depth approach to network security. It takes redundancy to keep a network running, should an attack of any kind occur. What’s important is that the effects of an attack do not advance beyond the initial point-of-entry, not necessarily that every attack is thwarted and every threat vector is anticipated. After all, black swan events cannot be predicted.
Incidentally, Taleb also supports a defense in-depth approach to defend against black swan events. He doesn’t use the phrase “defense in-depth” specifically, but when he talks about the best defense being “robustness” – the ability to withstand shocks, even when they’re unexpected – he’s supporting the same principles as defense in-depth.
And why wouldn’t you trust the author who drew attention to black swans in the first place?
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