A dismal industry: The unsustainable burden of cybersecurity

Cybersecurity spending is the fastest-growing segment in IT budgets, but it provides no productivity gains or protection against more advanced exploits.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

cybersecurity panel at Finn Partners in San Francisco.

Cybersecurity is finally a cool industry, claimed Brian Bertacini of BSI America, speaking on a panel of computer security experts in San Francisco this week.

Foremski's take

Cybersecurity is not cool; I see it as a dismal industry for several reasons. If your product works, nothing happens, and nothing was stolen, and there's nothing to report. 

But you haven't invented a new technology or innovated a new business process. You've just plugged known vulnerabilities, and there's nothing to prevent future unknown attack vectors. It must be a very unsatisfying situation -- especially since there are huge numbers of undiscovered vulnerabilities in every IT system. Durgesh Gupta, VP of Information Security at NASDAQ, said his team discovers 40,000 new vulnerabilities in their software every month. 

NASDAQ's 100 million attacks

Gupta said that NASDAQ detects more than 100 million attacks per month. Every three months, its senior executives go through a mock-attack and figure out what responses should be if this were real. And it regularly meets with Homeland Security experts, who offer advice, help, and warnings of attacks. 

But not every company can rely on government help. Sony had a massive breach that was blamed on North Korea, and it asked for US government help but received none. And the FBI won't open an investigation unless more than $500,000 of losses have been reported.

Ray Rothrock, chairman of RedSeal, said that total protection is impossible because attacks will be ever more sophisticated. He believes the best response is a fast response: Catch the attack and close it down as quickly as possible. And report it -- don't cover it up.

Multi-cloud attacks

Gary Sevounts CMO at Kount says the attack vectors are multiplying because of the use of cloud-based IT and multi-cloud based IT applications which add further complexity to the security problem.

David McNeely, chief strategy officer at Centrify, says that with the rise of cloud-based IT the use of multi-factor authentication is one way to seal vulnerabilities. But app developers need to take more responsibility because security has to be designed into the product and cannot be added effectively later.

A passwordless future

Andrew Shikiar, executive director at the FIDO Alliance, criticized the widespread use of passwords as a key weakness. The members of his industry association say that there are other far more secure ways to authenticate users.

Craig Lurey disagrees about passwords. He is the co-founder of Keeper Security, which focuses on password-based security. He says passwords won't go away because encryption relies on passwords. It's better to work with password-based security. For example, his company will warn clients if their passwords have been spotted on the "dark web" and are compromised.

Rothrock says that a lot of attacks are preventable by following basic security guidelines and educating staff. This is not being done because there is no accountability.

Board responsibilities

He says the way to improve security is to make the company boards accountable, and they will pressure the executives to take the right steps -- in a similar way that the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation made directors accountable for company financial reports.

However, a lot of companies had trouble finding board members following Sarbanes-Oxley. This could happen again if board members are made accountable for cybersecurity breaches, which seems like an impossible task given the media coverage of larger, more disturbing attacks.

Fear, uncertainty, and disaster is a traditional marketing tactic in the IT industry, and cybersecurity companies are happy to focus on the dire need for more spending on their wares and their services. 

The scare tactics have been effective, with significant rises in cybersecurity budgets of around 15% annually, says Rothrock. But this takes away money from other IT projects -- projects that could improve revenues.

It's an ever-larger black hole of money and human resources that cannot be invested in productivity.

The drain on productivity even affects computing performance. The Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in Intel microprocessors require fixes that drag down computing performance by 15% and more. 

Unsustainable trends

The industry has become a massive tax on all businesses. We are spending more money on cybersecurity, yet the criminals are getting away with more loot and doing more damage.

We are spending more while losing even more. It's an unsustainable trend. This is not cool.

It's a huge tax on all businesses. At least with other taxes, we get schools, roads, police, vital infrastructure, and military defenses that work.

But the cybersecurity tax gives nothing back and cannot defend against future attacks while demanding even more expenditure. It's a dismal industry in my humble opinion.

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